Tag Archives: Putin

When What We Know Just Ain’t So

A recent research report from Journalists’ Resources examined whether regulations intended to protect the environment cost jobs. The belief that such regulatory activity has a negative effect on employment has been an article of faith among conservative Republicans, yet research on the issue fails to confirm that faith– there is little evidence that environmental regulations substantially impact overall employment figures.

I thought of that report, and a number of other areas where reality fails to confirm our firm expectations, when I read a post to an academic listserv in which I participate. The article of faith that Kim Lane Scheppele–an eminent comparative constitutionalist– called into question in that post is a critically important one: the belief that American democracy cannot be subverted.

Scheppele cited the work of a Columbia professor who had watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections–and who sees dangerous parallels to Trump and the U.S.

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook.

Scheppele had just come back from Chile, where she had lectured on the advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.

People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data: Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again).

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump. I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right: Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here. First people lose faith in the system. Then they vote to break it. And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

Scheppele is particularly concerned because in our interconnected world, these autocrats learn from each other.

I am admittedly among the number of Americans who have always had a false sense of security: it can’t happen here. But as we have seen, that article of faith–that particular element of our belief in American exceptionalism– has proved to be fragile in other countries that had seemingly stable democratic institutions.

Just last weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the “alt-right” (our homegrown Nazis) and its ideal of leadership.

As the founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an American group that aims to preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization and fight “anti-Christian degeneracy,” Matthew Heimbach knows whom he envisions as the ideal ruler: the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Mr. Heimbach said. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”

Despite our belief that America is somehow different, we are not exempt from the white nationalist fervor that is sweeping large sections of the globe. If we want to emerge from this very dangerous period of time with something resembling an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law, we will need a determined and informed resistance.

Can This Be True?

The Democratic National Committee’s server was hacked last week, and embarrassing (although not very surprising) emails publicly released. The obvious intent was to create division right before the Democratic Convention, and to feed suspicions about Hillary Clinton’s nomination.

Voters and pundits can draw their own conclusions about the contents of the emails. The more intriguing–and troubling–question involves the source of the mischief. A number of media outlets have noted that the FBI’s investigation is focused upon Russia and Vladimir Putin.

My first reaction to the suggestion that Putin might be interfering with America’s election was a very pronounced eye roll. (I’m not much for conspiracy theories. In a different context, that sounds like the sort of wild accusation Trump would come up with.)

And yet..the FBI says the hackers were Russian, and this article by Anne Applebaum in the Salt Lake Tribune does give one pause.

The secret plot to control America, launched from abroad, is an old theme in American pop culture. “The Manchurian Candidate,” a film made in 1962, imagined a Chinese scheme to engineer a coup d’etat. Aficionados of paranoid thrillers may also recall “Lucky Bastard,” a 1998 Charles McCarry novel, which featured a U.S. president controlled by a Soviet case officer who happens to be his wife.

But now it is 2016, truth is stranger than fiction, and we finally have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, with direct and indirect links to a foreign dictator, Vladimir Putin, whose policies he promotes. And yet it is not secret, it is not a plot, there is no conspiracy. No one has been hypnotized or recruited by foreign intelligence. Just as Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, openly accepts Russian money, the Trump campaign advertises its Russian links and pays no real political price.

Applebaum details Trump’s considerable business connections with Russia, and his efforts to attract Russian investment in his real estate projects. As she notes , Trump has also surrounded himself with “people whose deep links to the corrupt world of Russian business would normally disqualify them from U.S. politics.” She cites campaign operatives, among them Carter Page, a foreign policy aide who has long-standing connections to Russian companies and who supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who worked for several years in Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president ousted in 2014.

Although Applebaum doesn’t mention it, the LA Times reports that retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn,another close Trump advisor, flew to Moscow last year to attend a gala banquet celebrating Russia Today, the Kremlin’s propaganda channel, and was seated at the head table near Putin. Flynn is evidently a regular guest on Russia Today.

Russian state media is actively supporting Trump, and Applebaum says that whatever resources Putin is investing in Trump’s campaign, they are paying dividends.

For even if Trump never becomes president, his candidacy has already achieved two extremely important Russian foreign policy goals: to weaken the moral influence of the United States by undermining its reputation as a stable democracy, and to destroy its power by wrecking its relationships with its allies. Toward these ends, Trump has begun repeating arguments identical to those used on Russian state television. These range from doubts about the sovereignty of Ukraine — earlier this week, Trump’s campaign team helped alter the Republican party platform to remove support for Ukraine — to doubts about U.S. leadership of the democratic world. The United States has its own “mess” to worry about, Trump told the New York Times on Wednesday: It shouldn’t stand up for democracy abroad. In the same interview, he also cast doubt on the fundamental basis of transatlantic stability, NATO’s Article 5 guarantee: If Russia invades, he said, he’d have to think first before defending U.S. allies.

None of this, of course, is absolute proof that Putin and the Russians were behind the hack of the DNC. But it once again underlines the manifest dangers of Trump’s capture of the GOP–and the unthinkable consequences of a Trump Presidency.

From Russia, Without Love

There is a lesson for all of us in Russia’s dramatic repression of gays and gay advocacy, and it isn’t necessarily the lesson we think.

For readers who may have spent the last few weeks on an ice floe in Antartica, here’s the quick-and-dirty: Russia strongman Vladimir Putin suddenly (at least it seemed sudden from an American vantage point) announced what amounted to an official war on homosexuality. The Russian legislature unanimously rubber-stamped a measure imposing huge fines on people found to have engaged in “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which has increasingly been used to harass, fine and imprison anyone expressing pro-gay sentiments.

Although same-sex relationships are not criminal in Russia, anti-gay sentiment is very strong there, and support for Putin’s vendetta against the GLBT community is high.

Putin is engaging in a time-honored tactic employed by autocrats when things aren’t going so well. His personal prejudices or lack thereof are irrelevant. His goal is distraction, and his  tactic is to identify the most useful “shiny object”—a group sufficiently powerless and unpopular to guarantee that a high-profile campaign against its members will shift citizens’ focus away from what’s wrong with the country.

Eventually, history suggests that the group won’t just be used as a distraction; it will be made the scapegoat for all the things that are wrong with the country. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews; in other countries, it has been communists or Muslims or Shi’ites. An academic paper on scapegoating explains why it works:

A strong advantage in scapegoating is that the whole society or a whole social group is raised in status against the targeted minority or individual, and any societal behavior is at the same time legitimized (“Of course we are full of defects, but we do not act like them”).

In order to reap the political benefits of scapegoating, however, it is first necessary to dehumanize members of the targeted group. So gays are promiscuous pedophiles, Jews are scheming, rapacious businessmen, lazy black men lust for white women, Muslims are obsessed with jihad…. Whoever they may be, “they” aren’t people like us. History provides us with a long list of convenient and available stereotypes for almost any group you might want to target.

Scapegoating as a political tactic almost always arises in times of national stress—times  when things aren’t going well, and those in charge need someone to blame.

What is happening in Russia right now is a textbook example. The dissolution of the Soviet Union did not bring nirvana to the long-suffering people of Russia—far from it. Russians have struggled to form democratic governing institutions in a country that has never had them, a country without a culture of self-rule. Much the same upheaval—for many of the same reasons—is occurring in the Middle East, in the wake of the Arab Spring. For that matter, there is unrest in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa.

These are profoundly dangerous times for people who belong to marginalized groups. The temptation to “pull a Putin” will be very great in many of the countries experiencing upheaval. (And yes, if we don’t address America’s growing inequality, it can happen here.)

Gay people are at risk in Russia. We must bring political pressure to bear, and we must work to moderate and reverse Putin’s discriminatory policies. But the real lesson to be learned from this is that we are all in this together. In a dangerous world, we are all vulnerable.

When I was director of Indiana’s ACLU, I constantly reminded people that rights are indivisible. If everyone doesn’t have them, no one really does. A country that can pick on gay people today can pick on Muslims or Christians—or redheads—tomorrow.

As a friend of mine once put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”