Friday, July 27, 2018

Throwback edition: Cyber warfare comes of age.

For those who may have noticed David Sanger's article today in the New York Times, "Russian Hackers Appear to Shift Focus to U.S. Power Grid," the piece that I published on March 20, 2018 entitled "Cyber warfare comes of age" provides some historical context. Here it is.

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Consider this possibility: What if Russia's information operation targeting the 2016 presidential election was just a side show, a distraction that has drawn our attention away from more significant cyber operations. It is one thing to get people yelling at each other online, and to instigate marches and demonstrations in the streets. It is another thing altogether to derail trains loaded with lethal chemicals, contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

Last Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security published a Technical Alert authored by DHS and the FBI entitled "Russian Government Cyber Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical Infrastructure Sectors." It was a notification that Russian government "cyber actors" have compromised energy, nuclear, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing facilities in the United States. The story made the front page of the New York Times – below the fold, overshadowed by the latest happenings in the Mueller investigation – and got a few quips from late night comics, and then quickly receded from the news.

In all of our yelling back and forth about what Russia did or didn't do around the 2016 presidential election – and whether it constituted an act of war or just some kind of geopolitical mischief – we may have deluded ourselves into believing that this is what is meant by cyber warfare.

Of course, we know that it isn't the extent of it. We hear Ted Koppel's warnings of the cyber apocalypse to come. We worry about the attacks on credit reporting companies, and hackers stealing our identities and selling them on the dark web. And we know that all sorts of actors, from Russia, China and Iran, to 400-pound guys sitting on their beds in New Jersey, are in on the game. Yet, somehow, as much as we understand the threats are out there, we show little concern over the extent of the risks that cyber warfare could mean to us, as evidenced by how little heed was paid to the DHS alert.

According to DHS, Russian cyber efforts accelerated in 2015 – around the same time as its information operation with respect to the election began – and they have advanced their capabilities to wreck havoc in the United States from being a theoretical risk to literally having their finger on the trigger.

“We now have evidence," observed Eric Chien, a security technology director at the digital security firm Symantec, "they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage... All that’s missing is some political motivation.”

If this sounds like something out of an action movie, it should. Ten years ago, the plot of the 2007 film Live Free or Die Hard, centered around Thomas Gabriel – played by Timothy Olyphant – a disgruntled Department of Defense software engineer who went rogue after the Joint Chiefs of Staff ignored his warnings about the vulnerability of the country's cyber infrastructure. Gabriel decides to prove his point through a cyber attack blowing up a gas pipeline network and utility plant. Of course, the eternal Die Hard hero, Bruce Willis, playing NYPD cop John McClane, thwarts Gabriel's plans and saves the day, aided – notably – by Fredrick Kaludis, aka Warlock, a seriously overweight computer hacker living in his mother's basement, probably in New Jersey.

As it turns out, movies have played a significant role in our understanding of cyber warfare. In the opening pages of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, author Fred Kaplan tells the story of when President Ronald Reagan watched the movie War Games in June of 1983. War Games stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a high school teenager who unwittingly hacks into a Pentagon mainframe computer and sets the world on a course for thermonuclear war. Broderick and his girlfriend, played by Ally Sheedy, spend the balance of the film trying to undue the havoc he has wrought.

The next day, President Reagan asked his national security staff whether what happened in the movie was plausible: Could someone hack into our defense computers and launch a nuclear war? According to Kaplan, Reagan's question took Pentagon and National Security Agency officials by surprise. The whole cyber world was in its infancy, and, apparently, it had not occurred to the best and the brightest of the military and intelligence communities that while they were developing new forms of cyber warfare to unleash upon America's enemies, our enemies might be preparing the same capabilities to unleash against us. Yes, they concluded, to their chagrin, it was plausible. The episode changed the course of America's cyber warfare efforts.

A decade later, in 1992, the writers of War Games collaborated on the movie Sneakers. As Kaplan tells the story, that movie created a similar ah-hah moment for the incoming director of the National Security Agency, Rear Admiral Mike McConnell. Sneakers revolves around efforts by the NSA to recover a mysterious cryptographic device that, it turns out, can hack into any computer system – the Federal Reserve Bank, air traffic control, missile defense, whatever. In a climactic moment, Cosmo, the teenage hacker-turned criminal mastermind – played by Ben Kingsley – who created the device, describes the new cyber world to his erstwhile college hacker friend, Robert Redford: "The world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It is run by ones and zeros, little bits of data. It's all just electrons... There's a war out there, old friend, a world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets. It's about who controls the information: what we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It's all about the information." Admiral McConnell had been struggling to define the mission and purpose of the NSA he had been appointed to lead. When he saw the movie, he realized that Ben Kingsley had defined it for him.

In 2013, Vladimir Putin's top general, Valery Gerasimov, emphasized the elevated role of cyber warfare in the Russian strategic arsenal: "The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness." The Pentagon, in turn, showed its heightened concern earlier this year in a Nuclear Posture Review that proposes to expand its policy regarding appropriate first-use of nuclear weapons responses to include significant cyber attacks.

Cyber warfare capabilities as described by the DHS are part of a new strategic balance. In the 1980s, we won the Cold War and beat the Soviet Union into submission through a strategic arms race that only we could afford. Now, the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review – viewing a significant cyber attack on par with a nuclear one – suggests that Russia has successfully recreated a balance of power with the United States without having to match our spending on missiles and bombs. Recreating a balance of power has been central to Vladimir Putin's ambitions. The Russian president – who was re-elected this week to a new six-year term – will soon stand with Joseph Stalin and Catherine the Great among Russia's longest-serving and most consequential potentates. Putin has made no secret of his desire to push back on western encroachment toward Russia's borders since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to return to the great powers world of the 19th century, where the dominant states each had their respective – and respected – spheres of influence. Russia's strategic concern about being encircled by hostile forces may smack of paranoia, but it is useful to keep in mind that the Russian nation has been invaded by foreign powers at least once each century for the past half-millennium.

While the Pentagon's cyber warriors have offensive cyber capabilities equal to, if not greater than, Russia's, our cyber defenses are more problematic. As Mike McConnell has observed, while the lion's share of cybersecurity expertise rests with agencies of the federal government, more than 90% of the physical infrastructure of the Web is owned by private industry, making investments in adequate cyber defenses problematic. The DHA alert specifically focused on this vulnerability.

A balance of power in the cyber world is fundamentally different from a balance of power with respect to nuclear weapons. Unlike nuclear war, cyber warfare can be fought in many ways – as the 2016 election interference campaign suggests. Cyber attacks can be launched in an unlimited degree of gradations, from small air traffic control disruptions at a single airport to the destruction of the utility grid in a major city. These gradations, as well as the challenges of attribution inherent in cyber events, are particularly well-suited to Putin's purposes. The balance of power of the Soviet era was based around the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction, which meant that both sides had their finger on the button, but neither had an incentive to push it. In contrast, cyber warfare is already in active use, with myriad variations in its targets and scope. This suggests that it cannot be contained as the Pentagon imagines – other than, perhaps, with respect to catastrophic events – which begs the question: what are effective responses?“

Attribution is a critical issue, as it is essential to effective deterrence. The essence of deterrence is the certainty of consequences for proscribed behavior, but it all rests on "ascribing agency to an agent." As we have seen in events from the little green men that led Russia's incursions into Crimea and Ukraine, to the poisoning of former Russian spies Sergei Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko, Putin likes to push and prod, to test limits and gauge reactions, as he pursues his objectives, even as he denies responsibility and minimizes consequences. So, too, with respect to the election hacking, where attribution of responsibility to the Russian state has been difficult to prove, much less the determination of an appropriate response. Given these considerations, one can imagine that Vladimir Putin will have significant incentives to expand his use of cyber, and the leverage that flows from it, to achieve his strategic goals.

The brilliance of the Russian strategy – if indeed it was a strategy – of paring the attacks targeting our political institutions through social media, and those that now threaten our critical public and economic infrastructure, is that the degrading of our political infrastructure has undermined our capacity to respond to threats to our physical infrastructure. If we cannot manage civil discourse around the most mundane issues in our day-to-day politics, imagine what our discourse looms to be when we seek to ascribe blame because the lights have gone out and airports are shut down in the midst of a tit-for-tat cyber escalation.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Spies, sex and the demise of the Grand Old Party.

If polls are to be believed, Republicans are pretty happy with Donald Trump. With approval levels among Republicans nearing 90% , the President is more popular in his party than any president in the modern era, with the exception of George W. Bush in the days following 9/11. While Republicans in the Senate panicked in the face of Trump's Helsinki press conference with Vladimir Putin last week, polls suggest that their reaction was overwrought, as 70-80% of Republicans appear to have been just fine with the President's performance.

Old school Republicans – a dying breed – are wondering what happened to their party. They dream wistfully of the days when the GOP demanded moral rectitude in its leaders, and Ronald Reagan celebrated America as a shining City on a Hill, inspiring people around the world with his principled defense of democracy, liberty and freedom. Freedom is on the march, George W. Bush used to say, and the Republican Party was the tip of the American spear. Republicans cheered the spread of democracy across the world, as, in the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, autocrats and dictators from Asia to South America and ultimately Africa gave way to democracy's march.

But a virus infected the Republican Party during the Reagan years that is only now becoming evident; it was the virus of single issue voting. While Ronald Reagan was off giving high-minded speeches, his political Svengali Grover Norquist was building the Election Day turnout machine that continues to enable the Republican Party to dominate the levers of power at both the federal and state levels, despite much-touted disadvantages in demographics and party registration. Norquist's coalition of passionate, single issue voters – anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun, etc. – delivers for the GOP because, for decades now, the GOP has delivered for them.

Donald Trump grasped an essential truth of the Norquist coalition that many in the GOP never considered: It provided a path to power for a candidate indifferent to – or even hostile to – what many Republicans long viewed as core principles of the GOP. He understood that as long he delivers on tax cuts, judges and guns – and a few other issues for good measure – those Republican voters would forgive him everything from his philandering with porn stars and to turning his back on Ronald Reagan's lofty vision of America's role in the world.

Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity as well in the Republican Party's reliance on single issue voters. The Russian intelligence operation that was disclosed last week in the action filed by the Department of Justice against Russian agent Maria Butina sought to test the premise of whether those voting groups were actually committed to GOP principles beyond their own single issue. Specifically, Putin and his team sought to cultivate the National Rifle Association and conservative Christian organizations as allies of the Russian government, and use their influence to steer the GOP away from its long-standing anti-Russian hostility.

It turns out that Putin hit the nail on the head. Over the course of just a few years, seduced by Maria Butina's cunning advances, the leadership of the National Rifle Association and conservative Christian organizations in the nation's capital turned a blind eye to GOP objections to Russia's invasions and occupations of its neighboring countries, and its continuing efforts to instigate social discord and undermine European democracies, and bought into the vision of Vladimir Putin's Russia as their pro-faith, pro-gun comrades-in-arms.

As I read the material filed by the Department of Justice, I could imagine the satisfaction that Putin and the leaders of the Russian intelligence services must have felt as they gathered in his office and reviewed Butina's operation. Everyone in the room knew the operation itself was a long-shot, but by the time Barack Obama was in his second term – and Obama and Hillary Clinton had successfully orchestrated the Orange Revolution in Ukraine – the threat of western democracy had reached Russia's doorstep, and Putin's bag of tricks was running out.

Putin had almost gotten to George W. Bush, early in his presidency. Bush shocked the Republican establishment when he claimed that he gazed into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. John McCain burst that balloon when he ridiculed Bush in public, suggesting that if one gazes into Putin's eyes, all you will see is K.G.B. It was a good line – all great humor has an edge of truth – but it derailed Putin's efforts to win over the younger Bush and temper decades of Republican hostility.

The bad-cop, good-cop routine that Putin and his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, tried on Barack Obama seemed to make progress as well. Obama had the optimism inherent in being a community organizer, and he almost bonded with Medvedev, but like Bush's flirtation with Putin, Obama's 'reset' foundered in the face of Republican ridicule – and came to a screeching halt when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.

By 2013, Putin had come to realize that he had to tackle the elephant in the room, and Butina was part of that effort. Rather than just go the K Street lobbying route and throw a lot of dark money at the problem, this operation was a bit more subtle – and ambitious. Putin needed to change how the Republican Party viewed Russia. In doing so, it turns out, he was going to challenge what it means to be a Republican.

I imagine the group gathered around Putin couldn't help but chuckle as they walked through the progress of the operation as it advanced. A stunning redhead in her twenties, posing as a pro-gun Christian conservative, Butina quickly bedded Paul Erickson, a big time, fifty-something, GOP operative. According to the detailed information provided in the court documents, Butina's pitch was that she was linked to people who would be powerful in the post-Putin world, a story that Erickson pitched to others as he walked her around the corridors of power. In an email from Erickson to Butina, Erickson understood the balance she was striking between focusing on life after Putin, while never criticizing Putin directly.

Taking Down Reagan's GOP: A Pretty Girl With a Gun
It was the image of Butina cradling an ORSIS T-5000 tactical assault rifle that must have gotten the group giggling. The T-5000 was Moscow's latest entry into the world's arms bazaar, but there was no way that an average Russian could get their hands on one. Russia's gun laws are the stuff of Democrat dreams. Russia limits ownership to hunting rifles and shotguns; no handguns and no clips holding more than ten rounds. The implausibility of Butina's legend – that she was a country girl from Siberia who came up with the idea of starting gun clubs in Russia while chatting with friends in a cafe, and came to America because she thought it would be cool to partner those clubs with the NRA – never seemed to occur to Erickson, or to Wayne LaPierre at the National Rifle Association, for that matter. It never seemed to occur to either of them that the only way Butina could be so familiar with the T-5000 was if she was trained in the Russian military, or – perhaps – by Russian intelligence. Putin and his compatriots must have marveled at their gullibility, but they knew – as Butina had now proven – that in America, a pretty girl with a gun can accomplish just about anything.

And then there was Butina's outreach to conservative Christian groups. The Russian Orthodox Church – which Putin and Russian intelligence services have used for years as a foreign policy tool – played an important role in Maria Butina's operation. Her pitch was straightforward: Russia and America are the two most observant Christian nations, and should stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of a hostile secular world.

As with the NRA, the leaders of the Christian groups Butina cultivated apparently evidenced little concern about Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine and Georgia, or the growing threat Russia posed to America's European allies. Two years into Butina's operation, Patriarch Kirill, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church hosted American evangelical leader Franklin Graham in Moscow. Graham, the son of Billy Graham and now among Donald Trump's most avid supporters, embraced Kirill and his church, just as Butina's handlers had hoped. On his Facebook page after their meeting, Graham praised Kirill as an ally of American evangelicals in their common cause opposing same sex marriage and abortion, as well as their shared "need to reach a younger generation brought up in secular schools surrounded by a secular culture who know nothing of God and His love for them." By 2018, according to participants, a delegation of visiting Russians constituted the largest group of participants at the National Prayer Breakfast, and Butina had secured an invitation for Putin himself to attend.

Grover Norquist never suggested that the pro-gun, pro-life, anti-tax and other single issue voters that he cultivated as cornerstones of the GOP coalition cared about what Ronald Reagan cared about; he only claimed that he could deliver their votes to the GOP as long as the GOP delivered on taxes, judges and guns. It was, and remains, the definition of transactional politics – and for the GOP – it was the virus that ended up consuming the host. As Donald Trump has confronted our traditional allies across the world in one setting after another, Senate Republican have derided his trampling of Ronald Reagan's vision of America and the post-World War II order; but, if polls are to be believed, there has been no outcry among Republicans voters.

As to Russia itself, Vladimir Putin must surely be pleased. In short order, Maria Butina bedded a senior GOP operative, gained access to the corridors of power of Russia's great adversary, and got the leadership of the NRA and National Prayer Breakfast to turn the GOP on its head. Since 2014, according to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans who view Russia as an ally has nearly doubled – from 22% to 40% – and, for the first time in decades, Republicans view Russia more favorably than do Democrats.

Last week, Donald Trump put a fine point on his attack on the global order one championed by the GOP. During an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, he questioned the rationale behind the NATO alliance, asking specifically whether Americans were really prepared to go to war for Montenegro, a NATO member country most Americans have never heard of. Trump already knew the answer: outside of the U.S. Senate, few in the GOP care about those issues anymore. For Vladimir Putin, this is wonderful news; by the time Donald Trump is done – with the help of Maria Butina and the Russian intelligence services – Ronald Reagan's vision of America as a shining City on a Hill – a beacon of democracy, liberty and freedom for people's across the globe – will have faded into the recesses of memory.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Watching Vladimir Putin's dreams come true.

When Vladimir Putin looked ahead after the 2012 election to who might succeed Barack Obama, he faced the unpalatable prospect of a President Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Putin knew Clinton well, of course. As Secretary of State she had aggressively supported the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement that had ousted the Putin-controlled government in 2011. Putin saw both Bush and Rubio as traditional anti-Putin, pro-democracy, Republican hawks. He knew he needed to change the American political landscape; and he has.

Putin's ensuing plan was not about Donald Trump; it was not even primarily focused on the 2016 presidential election. This is a point that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sought to emphasize at a press conference this week, where he laid out the range of Russian intelligence strategies targeting our political system. Rather, Putin's plan was – and continues to be – about Russian sovereignty over Ukraine and Crimea, and Putin's longstanding determination to break down the post-World War II international order and reassert Russia's authority over territory it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it is about the United States' long-standing opposition to his ambitions.

Buried among all the sturm und drang this week among Republicans, particularly in the U.S. Senate, about whether Donald Trump could be forced to utter the magic words "Russia meddled in our election," was the criminal complaint filed by the Department of Justice against Russian spy Maria Butina. Together with the indictment a week ago of twelve Russian intelligence officers by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the documents filed in Federal Court continue to flesh out the breadth of Russian intelligence operations targeting the United States. Those filings also illustrate the extent of electronic evidence – online activities, emails, texts, etc. – that is available to FBI counterintelligence investigators as they seek to track what has been going on.

In marked contrast to Trump's continuing efforts to deny or downplay accusations of Russian election meddling, Rod Rosenstein emphasized that while Putin's intelligence operations targeted the 2016 election, the scope was far broader.  "Focusing merely on a single election misses the point." Rosenstein argued this week. "These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.” An FBI affidavit filed in the Butina case fleshed out Rosenstein's warning: "Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions."

The cunning irony of the Putin's mix of strategies targeted against the U.S., as well as against several European countries, is that those strategies mirror the pro-democracy efforts that the U.S. and its allies have been pursuing in the states of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. The efforts of the U.S. and its allies to transform the autocratic norms and political culture of the former Soviet bloc focused on building institutions of civil society. Building the infrastructure of civil society was seen to be a critical step in developing the social trust necessary to allow those countries to successfully migrate toward liberal democracy. In contrast, a central objective of Putin's intelligence operations against the U.S. and western democracies has been to break down institutions of civil society and undermine trust across social groups, and in so doing sever the ties that bind democratic societies together.

As Rod Rosenstein laid them out this week, Putin's efforts are wide ranging, and several have proven to be highly effective. Russia's use of Facebook and other social media platforms to instigate social distrust, propagate conspiracy theories, and exacerbate sectarian, racial and other divisions, has been widely recognized. Another approach, described in Mueller's recent indictment, involved stealing internal Democratic Party electronic communications and using information found there to sow discord and exacerbate divisions between Clinton and Sanders supporters, and ultimately push Sanders supporters away from Clinton on Election Day. Both strategies met with some degree of success. As Russian cyber operatives anticipated, we eagerly take the bait on social media, where we have learned to turn on each other with a vengeance. And one factor in Clinton's electoral defeat in 2016 is the number of Sanders supporters in critical states who either voted for Trump or declined to vote at all.

Maria Butina: One Part The Americans, One Part Red Sparrow
The intelligence operation with Maria Butina at its center represents a third kind of strategy. Dating back to at least to 2013, the operation described in the criminal complaint filed this week reads like one part The Americans and one part Red Sparrow. Posing as a gun-lover, Butina's marching orders from Moscow Center were to cultivate relationships with key pro-Republican operatives and groups and promote pro-Russian views. The operational objective was to use those groups as inroads to the Republican Party, to soften the GOP party platform and attitudes toward Russia. As described in the court filing, Butina successfully seduced – both literally and figuratively – key Republican operatives, and gained access to and influence with leaders of the National Rifle Association, the former conservative – now Trumpian – activist group CPAC, as well as religious groups that sponsor the National Prayer Breakfast. Those pro-Republican advocacy groups, in turn, became assets of Russian intelligence in its efforts to push the national Republican Party toward a more pro-Russia stance. Shortly after Election Day, in what could have been a culminating moment for the operation, Butina apparently helped to kill the looming appointment of Mitt Romney – who was noted for his anti-Russian views – as Secretary of State.

As with the strategies described above, this approach appears to have been effective. The Republican Party platform committee did remove anti-Russia, pro-Ukraine language, and both the NRA and a number of prominent religious leaders became publicly engaged with Russia. Whatever the combination of factors might have been, Pew Research data suggests that over the past several years the percent of Republicans who view Russia as a threat to the United States declined significantly, from 58% to 38%. Of course, attitudes among Democrats have moved in the opposite direction.

It is too soon to know how enduring Putin's efforts will prove to be in destabilizing our democracy. Perhaps, in time, it could have the opposite effect; public blowback against Trumpism and the exposure of Putin's strategies could actually strengthen our democracy.

Whether or not Russia's intelligence operations turn out to have an enduring impact on our politics, it is increasingly clear that they did impact results in 2016. In his new memoir, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper makes the case that Russia's efforts did affect the results in 2016. “Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point. Less than eighty thousand votes in three key states swung the election. I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by this massive effort by the Russians.” 

Clapper's assessment flies in the face of the stock Republican talking points, which Paul Ryan reiterated this week. "Russia meddled," Ryan conceded, but then quickly added the standard Republican codicil that "it’s also clear that it did not have a material effect on our elections.” But as more information is being made public about the range of Russian operations affecting the 2016 election, Ryan's stock assertion is becoming less and less credible.

This does not mean that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia's efforts. Whether Russian intelligence operatives penetrated the Trump campaign, or whether Trump and others otherwise actively colluded with them, remains to be seen. However, based on the extensive electronic surveillance data presented in the court filings over the past two weeks, it is becoming increasingly evident that if the Trump campaign colluded with Russian intelligence, Robert Mueller will have access to that information.

Either way, as Trump rampaged across Europe this week – alienating our friends, undermining our alliances, and lending tacit support to Russia's occupation of Crimea – at each stop along the way, he seemed to do something that supported Putin's goals, as summed up in the FBI affidavit. Putin's plans may have predated Trump's arrival on the scene, but – knowingly or otherwise, blackmail or no blackmail – Donald Trump is proving to be the greatest gift that Vladimir Putin could have hoped for.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The joys of blackmail.

Germany, Donald Trump declared before the gathered NATO leaders and press of the world, is in Vladimir Putin's pocket... It was a classic Trump comment: Democrats colluded with Russian intelligence in 2016, Trump has charged repeatedly, to deflect those same charges against his campaign; he brought Bill Clinton's accusers to a Presidential Debate in the face of accusations of his own sexual assaults; and now, as he prepares to meet with Putin alone in Moscow, he reflexively insists that it is Angela Merkel who is doing Putin's bidding.

Trump's schoolyard "I know you are, but what am I?" tactic is central to his playbook, as Ted Cruz pointed out early on. "This man is a pathological liar," Cruz warned, "And he has a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook. His response is to accuse everybody else of lying... it's simply a mindless yell. Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing."

Everyone expected fireworks at the NATO meetings, but just when you think Trump had stretched the limits of hubris, he steps it up a notch. It is truly remarkable to watch in real time. The United States has become too limited a stage; he is now trolling the entire planet. There he was, deconstructing the world order with the cameras rolling, step by step, daring anyone to stand up to him. Sitting across the table from him as he attacked Germany, not one of the European leaders rose to the challenge. The best they could do was mumble platitudes about having fought a couple of wars together; muttering words about friendship and enduring alliances, sotto voce, as if not to prod the bear.

"Everything Trump is doing is on Putin's anti-America wish list," a Republican operative insisted to me the other day. "Putin is blackmailing him, there is no other way to explain it." He assumes that Putin is blackmailing Trump with the infamous "pee tape" described in Christopher Steele's dossier, or perhaps some other incriminating material. But there is another answer, a simpler answer, an Occam's Razor of sorts: Donald Trump is not serving anyone's interest but his own. Trump has demonstrated over and over that he respects strongmen. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping fit the bill, as does Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and even Kim Jong-un, about whom Trump spoke so admiringly after they spent time together. They are strong like Trump imagines he is strong.

European leaders, on the other hand, are weak, in Trump's estimation. No one cowers when they walk into the room; instead, they are the ones who cower. They cower before right wing, nationalist challenges that are shaking the Continent. They cower before the self-righteous press. And, as they demonstrated this week, they cower when Trump walks into the room.

Trump evinces a feral pleasure as he seeks out opportunities to taunt America's erstwhile allies. He delighted in mocking Canada's Justin Trudeau as a lightweight. He was all the more happy to twist the knife in the backs of Great Britain's Theresa May and Germany's Angela Merkel as their governments teeter, knowing that tormenting them about how 'immigration is destroying European culture' would play perfectly to his core supporters at home, and to his growing right wing following overseas. When Trump commented this week in the face of public protests that "they like me a lot" in Great Britain, the mainstream media back at home may have snickered, but he knew who he was talking about.

It may be that Vladimir Putin has something that he is holding over Trump, but Donald Trump does not have the look of a man who is  being dragged kicking and screaming to the task at hand. When Trump tears down the rule-based global order that America has nurtured over the past 70 years, it may be because it is one of Putin's core strategic ambitions, or simply because in Trump's mind, there is nothing fundamentally admirable about rules; he has chafed against them his whole life. Now that he has the power to break that order apart, Trump appears more than happy to do so. He lives for the attention, and relishes the anger he is provoking – no longer just among Democrats at home, but among the whole, global liberal democracy crowd.

If Putin actually has something on him, we will likely never know for sure; at least not until this historical moment is long past. In his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore revealed the inner workings of Stalin's rule, based on archives that for half a century had been buried deep within the Kremlin walls. Montefiore's is a gruesome story, detailing, among other things, the orders that Stalin gave to his lieutenants, specifying how many thousands of people each of them were responsible for killing each month. We all knew about the millions who died during Stalin's reign, but the documentary evidence was hidden away until long after he and his regime were dead and buried.

If Trump's undermining of the post-World War II order – with a speed and breadth that must surpass even Vladimir Putin's wildest dreams – is explained by the existence of Christopher Steele's tape, or some other evidence that Putin holds over Trump, we will likely never see it. Like the documentary proof of Stalin's crimes, that evidence is surely buried away, far beyond the prying eyes of the world, probably in a special vault in the Lubyanka Building in Dzerzhinsky Square that holds the deepest secrets of Russian intelligence

If we are waiting for Robert Mueller to confirm the truth of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and, in so doing, to resolve the chasm of public discord surrounding the whole Russia affair, we are likely to be disappointed. This week, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for cyber warfare operations targeting the 2016 election. The 29-page indictment reads like an intelligence briefing that Putin might have received over the course of the operation. Yet, for all its detail, the indictment begs the question that remains central to the Mueller investigation: What was the extent of Donald Trump's collusion with Russia, and what is the evidence upon which that conclusion is based. And this question increasingly begs consideration of a second one: When Mueller finally delivers his report, will his conclusion – whatever it might be – help to resolve the deep-seated animus that is now roiling the nation, or will it only exacerbate the situation in which we find ourselves.

Trump supporters and Trump haters may be equally unwilling at this point to accept any conclusion that Robert Mueller presents in his report that does not comport with the view of the world they have come to embrace. There is little doubt that Trump supporters will reject any conclusion that suggests active collusion by the President himself, absent the contemporaneous publication of the "pee tape" on YouTube, or comparable irrefutable documentary evidence. And even that evidence will likely be claimed across Trump World to be a fabrication of the Deep State, providing further evidence of treachery by the intelligence community. With respect to charges relating to obstruction of justice, those will be rejected out of hand, absent proof of the underlying crime of collusion.

On the other hand, should Mueller conclude that there was no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia – perhaps suggesting instead that Russia's actions were aligned with the interests of the Trump campaign, but that no significant coordination was evident – that will only prove to Trump haters the depth of Putin's cunning, and the limits of documentary evidence. Absence of evidence, many will no doubt observe, does not constitute evidence of absence, and those who believe that collusion took place will remain convinced that somewhere deep in the  Lubyanka Building lies a thumb drive... but it will be decades, at least, before that evidence sees the light of day.

As the months go by, more and more seems to ride on the Mueller investigation, but it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine that his report is going to solve anything; potentially leaving the sides arguing about the very real crime of obstruction of justice, with Congress unwilling or unable to act. The larger question that is emerging seems to be how and whether our democracy can return to some semblance of normalcy once the Mueller report is submitted. Fixing a nation whose polity has been torn apart – even before the report arrives – is going to be where the real test of our political institutions lies, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone in Congress is preparing to meet that challenge. Meanwhile, blackmail or no, Donald Trump is heading to his sit down with Vladimir Putin, having spent the better part of the past week trolling his way across Europe, basking in the attention, stopping in for tea with the Queen, playing a little golf, and having the time of his life.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, July 06, 2018

It turns out, Ralph Nader was wrong.

The Democratic Party is heading in the wrong direction. For months now, activists – as activists are wont to do – have seized the high ground and pushed the party further and further to the left. First Medicare for all and free college tuition – the defining issues of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign – became litmus test issues for aspiring party leaders. Then came the idea of a government guaranteed job for all. A few weeks ago, in the face of tragedy at the southern border, the cry went out for the elimination of ICE. Now, with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the prospect of his being replaced by a younger, more conservative jurist, packing the Supreme Court has emerged as a solution to what ails the party.

Democrats need to step back consider two things as they blaze their path forward. First, the Blue Wave that so many are counting on to sweep the nation this November is not written in stone. The Democratic Party advantage on the "generic ballot" has been cut in half from its peak levels late last year. Indeed, one long-time Republican campaign strategist commented to me this week that GOP internal polling suggests that if the election were held today, they would keep control of the House by five or six seats. Second, the vision of children being taken from their parents and disappeared into a bureaucratic wasteland, and the prospect of Amy Coney Barrett being appointed to replace Kennedy – putting overturning both Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges within striking distance for the "religious liberty" crowd – should stand as stark reminders that in this historical moment winning is the singular imperative for Democrats, and it is highly debatable whether a surge to the left is a step in the right direction.

The emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the new paragon of the Democratic Party has contributed to the distorted perceptions of the political landscape that have gripped many Democrats. The 28 year-old Ocasio-Cortez is an impressive political newcomer, and her take-down of Congressman Joe Crowley was the most startling loss for a national party leader since House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by David Brat four years ago. Nonetheless, despite the excitement her success has engendered, Ocasio-Cortez' victory as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a deep blue district in the Bronx – in an off-year race that had 11.8% turnout – should offer minimal, if any, implications for Democratic Party strategy going forward.

Source: Gallup
Most of the American electorate does not identify as Democrats – much less democratic socialists. While slightly more Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans, that does not make Democrats the majority party; it simply makes them – at best – the plurality party. In contrast, far and away the largest political cohort in the country is the nearly half of Americans that identify as Independents. Faced with this electoral landscape, one might imagine that one party or the other would seek to temper their respective party's push to the edge of the political spectrum and focus instead on moving to the center, but that is not the world we seem to be in. The Republican Party's commitment to Trumpism is now complete, while leading Democrats appear to have decided to turn their backs on the political center and pander to the activist progressive wing of the party.

Two decades ago, Ralph Nader took the Democratic Party to task just as activists are today, when he famously derided the notion that there was any material difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. "The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush," Nader commented before the 2000 presidential election, "is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door... It's a Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum vote." Nader, of course, went on to throw his hat in the ring, and arguably threw the election to George W. Bush, as Nader's 97,421 votes in Florida overwhelmed Bush's 537 vote margin of victory.

One might have thought that seeing two wars launched and two conservative Supreme Court jurists appointed by Bush over the ensuing eight years would have taught Democrats a lesson, and tempered their urge to seek a savior on the left, but just sixteen years later Bernie Sanders took Democrats down the same path. Like Nader, Sanders was a political independent who embraced the Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum perspective on the national political parties. And, as with Nader, one can argue that the 20% of Sanders supporters who chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election because she failed the test of doctrinal purity, tipped the balance for Trump. The difference this time is that despite losing to Hillary in the primaries – and despite her winning the popular vote nationally – it was Sanders who emerged from the 2016 contest as the undisputed winner on the Democratic side. Today, the curmudgeonly grandfather figure is leading a movement of youthful zealots who imagine that by pursuing his progressive agenda they will redeem the Democratic Party, even as they ignore the very real risk that they will simply assure its continued minority status.

Lest Democrats are letting their anger delude them into thinking otherwise, that is the objective reality of what is at stake. Right now, Republicans hold not just the White House – and thus the privilege of making Supreme Court nominations and dictating ICE policies and practices – but the Senate, the House of Representatives, 33 of 50 governors, both legislative chambers in 32 of 50 states, and a tightening grip on the Supreme Court. To put it in even more stark terms, the GOP is just two states short of being able to call a Constitutional Convention and seek to enshrine its political priorities in the U.S. Constitution; and don't think for a minute that possibility is lost on Republican strategists. So much for the demographics is destiny notion that is supposed to portend the Democrats being the majority party for decades to come; if there is a political party in America that is slipping into irrelevance, it is not the Republicans.

It feels like we are watching a slow-motion train wreck. One week after another, Donald Trump hands Democrats issues around which they might build a broad-based political coalition. One week he is actively destroying the alliances that have been central to America's post-World War II leadership in the world, while the next week he is cozying up to dictators – petty and otherwise. His growing trade war has conflated Canada with China, and has had the unintended consequence of torching the agricultural sector. Trump's attacks on foreign automakers at a rally in Greenville, NC marked the highpoint in political irony, deafness or hubris – take your pick – as Greenville-Spartenberg is the home to BMW America, where the German automaker builds SUVs that it sells across the globe. When Trump vilified Harley-Davidson on Twitter a few weeks ago for responding rationally to his tariffs, he demonstrated to corporate America the risk of a president who is willing to use his bully pulpit and regulatory powers to settle political scores. And then, of course, there is his administration's treatment of asylum-seekers and their children, which has marked a fundamental assault on American notions of decency.

Just at the moment when one might imagine that a trans-partisan political response to Trumpism would be so easy to assemble – after all, a large subset of Americans must be yearning for a government that evinces a modicum of integrity, pursues reasonable and moderate public policies, provides desperately needed leadership against the rise of nationalism across the world, and does not assault their notions of integrity, fair play and decency one day after the next – the Democratic Party has chosen instead to turn its back on the political center and chart what could be a path to its own destruction. Nate Silver summed it up the other day, when he commented that "The notion that moderation wins elections more often than not isn’t going to persuade many people after 2016, even though it might happen to be true. The mostly young Democratic activists who are pushing to abolish ICE feel like the Democratic establishment totally misunderstands politics and are responsible for the Democrats’ electoral predicament." 

Progressive Democrats may be convinced that a majority of the country think the way they do; that if given the chance, a majority of Americans would vote for their agenda, despite the fact that just two years ago a majority of Democrats chose not to. Those who are inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' inspirational words should take note of the fact that her victory was hardly a robust endorsement of her democratic socialist platform: Her 57% winning percentage in an election that had 11.8% turnout means that only 6.7% of eligible voters in her district actually cast a ballot for her.

Nate Silver may be right that young progressives don't want to hear that moderation wins elections, but they – and aspiring party leaders pandering to them – should consider the alternatives. Given the Trump administration policies – and what the future could look like if Republicans gain rather than lose ground in the fall – even progressive Democrats might conclude that this time around, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, winning isn't everything, it is the only thing.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The swift passing of the American Century.

Over the span of history, the American Century – those years of American global leadership dating back roughly to D-Day – may turn out to be barely the blink of an eye. Thirty years ago, conservative scholar Francis Fukuyama declared that the rise of liberal democracy in the post-World War II era and the collapse of the Soviet Union marked "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and... the final form of human government." Would that it was true.

As Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former strategic advisor, travels across Europe, urging European nationalists forward in their attacks against the evils of immigration and globalization, it is apparent that the American Century may be coming to an end. It may be self-evident that the new generation of European nationalists are Trump's natural allies, nonetheless, it was jarring to see him lash out on Twitter this week against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the wake of America's turn to Trumpism, Merkel has assumed the tacit mantle of Leader of the Free World, yet it is a mantle that has increasingly undermined her political standing in Germany. Merkel's defense of a united Europe has placed her in the direct path of the storm of ethnocentrism and nationalism sweeping the continent and contributed to the decline of her Christian Democratic Party in the polls. Trump, whose resentment of Merkel is palpable, was only too happy to pile on.

Hiking in the Julian Alps and Soča River valley of Slovenia, and spending time in Budapest over the past few weeks, it was apparent that the wars and wounds of the past century continue to lie just below the surface, and it is evident that across much of Europe the political commitment to liberal democracy that America nurtured – and the advance of which Fukuyama and many others believed to be irreversible – is increasingly under siege. According to each person I talked to over the course of our trip, the old rivalries – nationalist, ethnic, religious – continue to lie just below the surface, even as economic prosperity has continued to grow. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as someone educated in America, for whom World War I, in particular, lies buried deep in the past. 

Slovenia is a small country with barely two million people, yet one hundred years ago, when the Soča River marked the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, almost one million people died in a series of battles – chronicled by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms – that spanned a period of two and one-half years. 

The seeds of World War II were, of course, sowed in the treaties that followed World War I, as the borders of Europe were redrawn and war reparations were exacted. World War II began with Hitler's invasion of the Czechoslovakia in 1939, with the avowed purpose of reestablishing German sovereignty over lands that had been taken from it in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles two decades earlier. Each place we traveled had in the not too distant past been part of a different country or seen its borders redrawn: Slovenia was once part Italy, part Austro-Hungary; The Italian city of Trieste had for hundreds of years been part of Austria; and Hungary today – once the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – is just a shadow of its former self, having lost 70% of its land area in the wake of two world wars. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – a right wing populist on the leading edge of the nationalist wave sweeping Europe – is using that history to great political effect. As a Czech friend now living in Poland pointed out when we were in Budapest, Orbán no longer flies the European Union flag alongside the Hungarian flag above the Hungarian Parliament – as is customary in E.U. member countries – but flies the "Székely" flag instead. Székely Land is an area in central Romania that used to be part of Hungary and continues to be inhabited by an ethnic Hungarian minority. Székely Land is to Orbán what the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia was to Hitler: It is proof of the unfairness of the international order; an unfairness that Orbán uses effectively to stoke the ethnic resentments that lie at the heart of his nationalist politics.

For Americans, borders – with the possible exception of those separating Israel and Palestine – are generally presumed to be settled facts. Yet as one looks across the world – from Serbia to the South China Sea – that is less true than we imagine, as deference to international law is giving way to regional politics and power. Vladimir Putin – who makes no bones about his resentment over the loss of Russian territory in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union – is aggressively seeking to upend the post-World War II rule-based international order and re-legitimate Great Power politics. He justified Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea using the same argument that England and France used to entice Italy into World War I, that Hitler used to justify Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia that marked the beginning of World War II, and that is mirrored in Viktor Orbán's flying of the Székely flag: the legitimacy of retaking historical lands in order to reunite ethnic nationals with the Motherland. It is a view, incidentally, that Donald Trump appeared to endorse during the recent G-7 meeting in Canada. 

In Slovenia, the walls of the former summer palace of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito are festooned with post-World War II photos of Tito with fellow strongmen of that era. With the end of the Cold War, the era of the strongman steadily receded and democracy seemed to take hold. By the end of the 20th century, even the dictators of Africa and South America had largely disappeared, as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, along with the potentates of the Arab world, became the outliers. The leaders of Russia and China looked to find a modus vivendi with the west and seemed to recognize the inevitability of the global trend toward liberal democracy. 

No longer. Tito's photos of the world as it was just a few decades ago provide a reminder of how brief the tide of democracy has actually been. The influence of America and the post-war institutions that we helped to create is waning, as we watch the emergence of leaders in countries across the globe increasingly unrestrained in their hostility to democratic values. The images of Tito with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose mantle has now been assumed by General Sisi, beg the question of whether the Arab Spring, which at the time appeared to mark the apotheosis of that tide, may from the vantage point of history turn out to have been its high-water mark, before the beginning of a long retreat. 

For Donald Trump, the immigration crisis in Europe and rise of right wing movements is a validation of his own domestic stance. He may be President of the United States, but he ran for office in opposition to the American Century and all it stood for, as he transformed the resentments of his base voters into a conviction that the seventy years of American leadership in the post-World War II world has inured to their detriment. As right-wing movements posted wins in recent elections in Slovenia and Italy, televised images in our hotel room in Budapest of caged immigrants along the U.S.-Mexican border gave cover to those movements and conveyed a clear message to those in Europe seeking to hold the line against the rising nationalist tide: Don't look to the United States for leadership in your time of crisis. 

The most jarring aspect of Trump's tweet, however, was the notion that an American president might think nothing of egging on German resentments and chauvinism. Over the past 70 years, Germany has been nurtured by American leadership from its horrific past into a position of constructive leadership in the world, yet in Germany – as in the Balkans and Hungary – there is little doubt that those resentments and chauvinism that linger just below the surface can be stirred up again should the right demagogue happen along. And we can see it happening before our eyes: as Angel Merkel's party has declined to 36% in the polls, the nationalist right-wing party has risen to become the third largest party in the German Bundestag; this time with the American President urging them on.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The perfidy of Paul Gigot.

After endless pandering to Donald Trump, The Wall Street Journal editorial page seems to have had a moment of epiphany on Friday. Scanning the landscape of collapsing international negotiations, hollow threats, perplexed allies, and bemused and emboldened adversaries, editorial page editor Paul Gigot recognized the Trump record for what it is: "A pile of impulsive, ill-considered threats that are increasing business uncertainty, slowing the economy, and irritating friends the U.S. needs on Iran and Korea."

This is quite a turnaround for Gigot. As much as any serious opinion leader across the conservative landscape, Paul Gigot has been an enabler of the worst of Donald Trump. Forget sycophants like Fox's Sean Hannity or InfoWars' Alex Jones, or even Rush Limbaugh, who are avowedly in the entertainment business; the lesser-known Gigot has long been a serious, respected representative of the Fourth Estate, and among the most influential journalists on the right. As important as those other three might be in keeping the Trump base motivated and engaged, it is Gigot's migration away from the Journal's traditional hawkish, free-trade, small government conservatism in favor of Trump's America First populism that has lent the greatest credence to Trump and Trumpism among erstwhile mainstream Republicans. Gigot may not rip his shirt off and yell and scream like Alex Jones, and he does not have the mass following of Hannity or Rush, but his words have arguably been more consequential – and, as such, his actions more reprehensible – because he and his loyal readers should know better.

The unveiling of Spygate, Donald Trump's most recent conspiracy theory, provides a case in point. It was just over a week ago that Donald Trump lashed out at the FBI and Department of Justice, accusing "Deep State" conspirators of embedding spies in his presidential campaign. Those spies, Trump now suggests, instigated the acts of collusion with Russian operatives that are now being blamed on Trump and his campaign, and which are the subject of Robert Mueller's investigation. "If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal," Trump tweeted, inflaming his followers and starting new tremors across the nation's capital. "Bigger than Watergate!"

Trump loyalists were quick to grab the baton and run with it. House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes led the charge to force the disclosure of FBI treachery, stating “If they ran a spy ring or an informant ring and they were paying people within the Trump campaign–if any of that is true, that is an absolute red line.” And, as if on cue, Paul Gigot's team stepped in to lend credence to it all, as Kimberley Strassel – a fixture on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page and a member of Gigot's editorial board – put the Journal's imprimatur on the escalating wave of what-ifs in a piece entitled Was Trump's Campaign Set-up?

What-ifs, of course, are a common Trumpian trope:

What if President Barack Obama was born in Kenya? 

What if Susan Rice used her powers as National Security Advisor to conduct domestic surveillance for political purposes? 

What if there was a web of corruption between the FBI, the CIA, and the federal judges who participate in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process, to use FISA warrants for political purposes.

Then this week: What if the FBI, DOJ and CIA orchestrated a plot to plant evidence of Russian collusion on members of his campaign, to discredit him. That would be a huge deal! And he is right. It would be. If they did.

Trump has taken us down these ratholes for years. He gave life to the Birther movement, knowing instinctively that it could be used to build a political following. He continues to use his accusations against Barack Obama, Susan Rice, the FBI and the FISA courts to incite his supporters. And just as Strassel jumped in to lend credibility to Trump's newest conspiracy theory, Gigot and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have taken the bait and given credence to one self-serving Trump conspiracy theory after another, including the Susan Rice unmasking controversy and accusations of FISA court abuse.

Trump's What ifs? roil the news cycle, keep his base voters enflamed, and distract attention from whatever else might be going on. It matters little that the accusations and outright lies come to nothing, because the accusations serve their purpose in the moment, and the legacy of distrust and suspicion that they engender endure. That, of course, is the point. Trump has already gotten what he wanted out of Spygate: Rod Rosenstein gave credence to the charges by agreeing to an investigation, which was followed up by the much-ballyhooed meeting in the White House where the purported Spygate evidence was disclosed. But, most important, according to recent polling, 61% of Republicans have embraced Strassel's hypothesis and believe that Trump was framed by the FBI and the Department of Justice. And Trump knows well that once planted, these beliefs can live on, despite whatever evidence might be presented to disprove them. After all, according to a Economist/YouGov poll this past December, a majority of Republicans continue to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, so it is an easy bet that by the time Robert Mueller publishes his report, a fair share of Republicans will be set in their belief – regardless of evidence Mueller's team might present – that Donald Trump was framed.

What is it that has kept Gigot and Strassel from realizing that Marco Rubio was right when he warned that Donald Trump was a con man, and that Ted Cruz was not exaggerating when he judged Trump to be a pathological liar and irredeemable narcissist – despite plentiful and unending evidence of both. Does Kim Strassel not understand that her validation of Trump's conspiracy theories gives license to millions of Republicans who should know better than to embrace his most outrageous and destructive lies?

It is hard to know what led to Gigot's change of heart this week, when he tacitly acknowledged the vacuousness of Trump's presidency. There is nothing new to Trump's impulsive, ill-considered threats; indeed those are what have defined him from the beginning. Was it Trump walking back his tariff threats against China, while continuing to threaten our allies? Or was it watching Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping stepping into the void created by America's disengagement from its position of world leadership, as evidenced most recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, each making the pilgrimage to Russia to kiss the ring, and discuss the path forward on Iran, as well as regional and energy security on the continent.

Or perhaps it was Gigot's realization, as Trump clamored to address Xi's demand that the U.S. ease restrictions that have crippled ZTE Corporation – the giant Chinese company that had been sanctioned for stealing intellectual property and selling restricted technology to our adversaries – that leaders across the globe have figured Trump out, and instead of Trump playing them, they are playing him. Or perhaps he just succumbed to the narcissism and venality of it all: Over the past two weeks, we learned about both the $500 million that China invested in Trump's new Indonesia project – announced just two weeks ago, but largely buried beneath all the rest of the news in TrumpWorld – and the $107,000 Trump pocketed last year leveraging his new reach as President to sell deodorant and bath robes.

When the dust settles, and it turns out that it was the FBI that was doing its job and it was Donald Trump who was violating the trust of the nation, Paul Gigot will have to look in the mirror and ask himself how he let himself get in so deep, and became an enabler of a man whose every action and tweet serves a single interest: his own. Gigot has been complicit – as the Wall Street Journal was last week in endorsing Trump's spygate gambit – in Trump's continuing destruction of institutions and comity that are essential to the nation's future. Perhaps Gigot's editorial on Friday suggests he has woken up. One can only hope; he has a lot to answer for.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Peace in our time.

Donald Trump set World Peace in his sights this week as he welcomed home three Americans who had been held captive in North Korea, and who were released into American custody during a meeting between North Korean President Kim Jong-un and Trump's new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The President thanked the Korean dictator – who he had spent much of the past year ridiculing on Twitter – praising him as an excellent and honorable man, and announced that the two would meet in Singapore in June where, as he tweeted out later, "We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!"

Should Donald Trump succeed in his summit with Kim, and win an agreement to destroy North Korea's nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile capabilities, it will be widely viewed as an achievement of titanic proportions. It was, after all, Trump's predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama, who suggested that dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat loomed as the greatest challenge that Trump would face as President. For center-left Americans, whose disdain for Trump knows few limits, and for Europeans who have just seen one more rebuke from the American President in the form of the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump's achievement – should it come to pass – would be a bittersweet moment. But none would be more torn between their relief at the resolution of the North Korean threat and their distaste for the man on whose watch it transpired than the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who would have no choice but to award the Peace Prize to Trump.

Lost in the drama of the North Korea prisoner release this week and the pending summit meeting between Trump and Kim is the enormity of the changes in global strategic relationships whirling below the surface. European leaders, who hoped that much of Donald Trump's isolationist America First campaign positioning would soften once he was in office have been disappointed. He said he would walk away from the Paris climate agreement, and he did. He promised to walk away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and he did. He promised to demand that NATO allies increase their defense spending, and he has. He promised to demand changes to global trade relationships, and he has. He promised to reject the Iran nuclear deal, and this week – to the consternation of our erstwhile European allies – he did. Importantly, much of Trump's isolationist positioning reflects a growing discomfort among the American electorate, including Bernie Sanders supporters on the left as well as among the Trump base. According to Pew Research, over the past half-century, Americans have become steadily less supportive of the country's global role and obligations, a sentiment reflected in Trump's MAGA rhetoric.

For nations with their own regional ambitions – notably China and Russia  – Trump's willingness to pull the United States back from its leadership role in the world has been a welcome change. Russia and China in particular have long chafed at American hectoring of their anti-democratic political systems, as well as its military encroachment on what each sees as their historical and rightful spheres of influence. Both countries were signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, but while each expressed official disappointment in Trump walking away from the deal, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping recognized that every action that Trump takes to distance America from the world ultimately inures to their benefit. For example, in the wake of Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Iran accord, China committed to continuing its imports of Iranian oil, and announced that it will pay for Iranian oil in yuan – the Chinese currency – rather than dollars. This provides a strategic benefit to China, as establishing the yuan as a global reserve currency alternative to the dollar is an important long-term goal of the country.

In the Middle East, where the United States has been the dominant power since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago, Vladimir Putin has pushed – with Donald Trump's support – to restore Russia's historic role as a force in the region. The success of Putin's efforts was evident this week as the simmering conflict between Israel and Iran burst into open military conflict. Prior to launching a counterattack against Iranian forces in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to consult with Putin, to make sure that Israeli actions would not run afoul of what the Russian potentate would understand to be appropriate defense of Israel's national interests.

Similarly, the growth of nationalist movements across Europe – aided in no small measure by Russian information operations – has enabled Putin to reassert Russian influence in countries that only a few years ago pleaded for membership in NATO to escape influence from Moscow. Nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not alone in gravitating toward Putin, both in recognition of Hungary's dependency on Russia for 80% of its energy supplies, as well as Putin's greater tolerance of Orban's authoritarian inclinations.

The North Korea situation should similarly be viewed against the backdrop of China's determined efforts over the past several years to push back against American power in East Asia, exemplified by China's military buildup in the South China Sea and Xi Jingping's "Asia for Asians" efforts to bring its Asian neighbors into a common strategic alliance against western, former colonial powers. It may well be that China is pushing North Korea to make a deal with the United States – as many people assume – out of fear of Trump's trade threats, as well as the prospect that Trump might actually attack North Korea. On the other hand, China may see the North Korea nuclear negotiations as an opportunity to pursue its own strategic objective of removing American forces from East Asia. It is notable that before this March, Xi Jingping and Kim Jong-un had never met face to face, but since the prospect of a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump became real – and Kim suggested the removal of American troops from the Korean peninsula as a quid pro quo for the dismantling of his nuclear program – Kim and Xi have met two times. Removing or reducing the footprint of American forces from South Korea, and, in so doing, rolling the U.S. military presence in the region back to its last Asian foothold in Japan, would be a major achievement for Xi, removing a major obstacle to China's growing political and military dominance in the region.

While a deal with North Korea that included the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea would have been dismissed out of hand by any of Donald Trump's predecessors, he has already indicated that he could be amenable to such a proposal. Bringing American troops home was a central theme of Trump's America First campaign rhetoric, and making good on his campaign promises continues to be the animating principle of his administration. Working out a peace deal with North Korea would be an accomplishment few could ignore. It would buttress his bona fides as a master negotiator in the eyes of his supporters, and – along with an economy that continues to gain momentum in the wake of last year's tax cuts – would make him a formidable candidate in 2020 – Robert Mueller notwithstanding. And then there would be the greatest incentive to making a deal happen: Trump would accomplish the task that Obama himself declared to be the most difficult to achieve, and grab a Nobel Prize in the process.

How titanic Trump's achieving could prove to be will depend on how history ultimately assesses the motivations of and objectives realized by the parties to any ultimate deal. While it is certainly possible that Kim Jong-un has simply been cowed by Donald Trump's threats and decided that this is the time to sue for peace, it may well be that China has stepped up pressure on North Korea to make a deal because China sees an unsurpassed opportunity to achieve its own objectives. What may be viewed in the moment to be a significant achievement for the U.S. President – should it come to pass – may, could come to be viewed differently the passage of time. Rather than an event that heralded peace in our time, it could instead come to be seen as a critical event in China's ascendency as a regional, if not global, power.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The problem isn't Facebook. It is us.

On Meet the Press this weekend, Virginia Senator and Intelligence Committee co-chairman Mark Warner weighed in on the controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, bemoaning "the broad weaponization of information." Weaponization was a notable choice of words. Substitute "effective utilization" for "broad weaponization," and Warner's words would have reflected common business school marketing wisdom rather than partisan political rhetoric.

Much is being made of Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data for the purpose of profiling the electorate for Steve Bannon and the Trump presidential campaign. "We broke Facebook," asserted former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, who claims to have created “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Once again the choice of words was incendiary; replace the words "warfare mindfuck" and with "profiling and persuasion," and Cambridge Analytica's services appear more benign.

"Behavioral micro-targeting" and "psychographic messaging" – the buzzwords preferred by Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix – are what Madison Avenue has long specialized in, dating back to when the Leo Burnett ad agency convinced Philip Morris that a cowboy on a horse was the best way to sell Marlboro cigarettes to young American men. Nor is there anything particularly new about applying marketing strategies to politics. That dates back at least to Richard Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 when – as chronicled in Joe McGinniss' The Selling of the President – the twenty-eight year-old Roger Ailes and J. Walter Thomson ad man H.R. Haldeman integrated corporate marketing techniques into candidate packaging and voter persuasion.

That was a half-century ago. In the intervening decades, micro-targeting and voter turnout strategies – the essence of any political campaign – have become increasingly sophisticated, as technology has enabled finer-grained voter identification and targeting. Clinton polling maestro Mark Penn's "NeuroPersonality Poll" and "microtrends" model, which segmented the electorate into archetypal groups based on personality profiling (remember the soccer mom?) and targeted distinct campaign messaging to each group, was one forerunner of Cambridge Analytica's "psychographic" modeling. In a similar vein, Karl Rove and Michael Dodd elected and re-elected Bush '43 using voter segmentation strategies and "wedge issues" to motivate turnout among each of the social conservative voter groups that Grover Norquist had cobbled together fifteen years earlier as the base of the post-Reagan GOP coalition.

While people continue to lash out at Mark Zuckerberg for allowing Facebook data to fall into Cambridge Analytica's hands – along with three Congressional committees and three dozen states attorneys general seeking to look into the matter – it is unclear what, if anything, either company did wrong. For all the company's bravado, Cambridge Analytica's "psychographic" profiling was just one more iteration of voter profiling efforts that have sought to integrate Myers-Briggs and similar personality tests into political campaign strategies. The real difference this time around was not the granularity of the data that landed in Cambridge Analytica's lap or the techniques that it used to manipulate that data, but Steve Bannon's recognition of the power of Facebook – and of social media in general – as a platform for galvanizing simmering anger across disparate communities into a cohesive political movement.

As Internet philosopher and critic Jaron Lanier has observed, the world of social media is built around emotional engagement, and negative emotional engagement has proven to be a more powerful force than positive emotional engagement. "I think a lot of people perceive a sort of arc of improving empathy and ethics in civilization." Lanier commented late last year. "Recently, it’s been reversed. The Arab Spring turned into this terrible wave of terrorist nihilism. When women got together to try and improve their lot in the gaming world, it turned into Gamergate, which turned into the alt-right. Black Lives Matter preceded this normalization of racism and white supremacy that was just unthinkable a year before. 

"All of these movements, that are so social media-centric, provide the fuel to the social media system. But to maximize the value of that fuel, it’s routed into negative purposes, so the people who are the most irritated by whatever is going on that’s positive are introduced to each other. The backlash is vastly more powerful than the initial attempt. My prediction is that #MeToo will create some kind of horrible social event through social media in about a year."

What made Steve Bannon different was not the use of psychological profiling and voter targeting – or the availability of Facebook data – but how he tailored his messaging to a social media eco-system. Barack Obama's data analytics and messaging began down that path. Obama's message of Hope and Change was well-suited for emotional engagement in the social media world and energizing younger voters. Steve Bannon took things one step further, explicitly optimizing emotional engagement online – as Lanier suggests – through negative messaging, including, notably, building on the negative emotional backlash to Obama himself.

None of Bannon's test phrases were particularly new. The "deep state" and "the NSA is watching you" and "build the Wall" were each themes of Alex Jones' right-wing conspiracy mongering InfoWars in 2012, while "drain the swamp" dates back almost twenty years to Pat Buchanan's 1999 acceptance speech as the Reform Party presidential candidate. What made Bannon different was that rather than starting with a candidate and then seeking to build messaging that might work – the traditional political campaign practice – his objective was to develop a basket of slogans which produced the greatest emotional resonance for the purpose of catalyzing a political movement, and then set about to find a candidate who could become the vessel to embody them. Donald Trump became Steve Bannon's guinea pig; and it worked.

The delinking of emotional resonance from actual performance with respect to specific issues also set Bannon's approach apart from older generations of GOP strategy. The strategies developed by Grover Norquist around the Reagan Revolution, Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, Karl Rove for Bush'43, and the organizers of the Tea Party, each embodied the traditional premise that candidates be held accountable for delivering on specific policy issues – e.g. cutting taxes, cutting spending, banning abortion, opposing gay marriage, etc. In contrast, Bannon's messaging was more aspirational – more blatantly Leninist, as he once noted – tied to bringing down the status quo and the establishment, untethered from accountability for any particular outcomes. To paraphrase Selena Zito's famous observation, Bannon's political messaging allows Donald Trump to be evaluated by his core supporters for what he says, not for what he does.

Public indignation and Mark Zuckerberg's mea culpas notwithstanding, Cambridge Analytica's access to Facebook data is not the critical issue people should be focused on. If people are upset about how Facebook data is being used, we have only ourselves to blame. Facebook did not give away any data that we did not give away first. Years ago, we made a deal: we would get free online services; in exchange, Internet service providers, social media platforms, apps, and the rest of the online world, would get our data – a few, if any, of us actually gave any heed to how they might use it. Perhaps Facebook violated its terms of service, allowing Cambridge Analytica access to data it should not have had, but that is not where the deeper problem lies. The real story – and it is one that cannot be litigated or regulated away – is how we behave on social media itself, where all of our worst instincts, our tribalism and hostilities, are amplified and played out to the extreme.

That is what Steve Bannon understood; it is what he has learned to exploit; and – as he is now taking his show on the road, and looking to do to Europe what he has done to America – it is not apparent that there is an easy way to deal with it. The problem is not data, but the larger issue of the culture of social media. To put it in Mark Warner's terms, it is not the information that has been weaponized; it is us.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay's political cartooning at Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.