Friday, January 20, 2017

The last days of the Grand Old Party.

The Tweet: Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President, while George H.W. Bush, the 41st President lay in a Houston hospital. Bush watched as Trump tore his son Jeb apart, and this inauguration has to break his heart, as both he and the Republican Party he loves are in their dying moments.

It was hard to watch the Inauguration of Donald Trump and not reflect on the health of George H. W. Bush. Ever the gentleman, the elder George Bush wrote a generous, even humorous letter to President-elect Trump, explaining why he and Barbara would be unable to attend the Inauguration. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, the 41st President told the man who would soon be the 45th, it will likely put me six feet under

Donald Trump's inaugural address was a stark contrast to Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural was an understatement. Lincoln's sweeping words, with malice toward none and charity toward all, gave way to a darker, insistent America First rhetoric with its threatening sense of malice toward many, foreign and domestic. Inauguration invitations featured an official portrait of Trump with a glowering visage, while tickets featured the new President behind the words A Hero Will Rise. For George Bush, a self-effacing, former WWII fighter pilot, a deeply charitable internationalist, to see the mantle of Lincoln--as President and leader of the Republican Party--pass to the self-aggrandizing, mean-spirited Donald Trump must break his heart

For all the abuse heaped upon George H. W. Bush, mostly by Republicans, Bush was a Republican to his core. He represented the Republican Party that stood for something. It was the party of free trade, open markets and growing the pie. It was the party of personal responsibility, limited government and liberty, at home and abroad. Americans unhappy with their plight were advised to take personal responsibility for lives, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job.  It was also--it is important to add--the party that supported the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts over a Democrat filibuster.

George H. W. Bush, scion of two powerful Republican families, was a loyal soldier and staunch defender of that Republican Party. But that Republican Party, the party that took seriously its lineage back to its founding by Abraham Lincoln, is withering before eyes. When Donald Trump toyed with Mitt Romney, like a cat playing with a mouse, it marked the symbolic triumph of Trumpism over the dying ambers of the political party to which George Bush dedicated his life.

In 1968, Richard Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, which set the Republican Party on the path that would lead a half a century later to the rise of Donald Trump. Beginning with the Nixon's Southern Strategy, the GOP lured the white working class from their historical Democratic roots with an appeal centered around a mix of racial, social and religious issues. Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan confederate Grover Norquist translated Phillips' theoretical work into what became the GOP electoral strategy of appealing to a small number of single-issue voter groups that endured for the ensuing thirty years.

Even as the GOP leadership cultivated its new white working class "base," the party continued to adhere to its long-standing core economic values of free trade and open markets. Nowhere in Norquist's coalition--pro-life, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-faith--were the economic issues of the white working class taken into account. Their votes were secured by appeals to social issues--and no small amount of racial code--even as decade after decade, from the 1980's onward, their economic circumstances deteriorated.

Kevin Phillips warned the GOP of the simmering rage within its base. In three books published during the decade following the Reagan Revolution, The Politics of Rich and Poor, Boiling Point, and Arrogant Capital, Phillips documented the growing alienation of the middle class and anger at Washington, DC as the GOP agenda benefitted the wealthiest Americans, while undermining the domestic manufacturing sector and economic upward mobility.

In the 2016 election, only Donald Trump seemed to understand the rage that Phillips had warned about two decades earlier. The lessons of Ross Perot's independent candidacy and Pat Buchanan's insurgency in the intervening years--which each challenged the GOP orthodoxy--were disregarded within the GOP, until this election cycle, when Donald Trump ran away with the GOP nomination by campaigning in opposition to nearly every core principle that the GOP had long stood for.

Trump largely adhered to the Norquist rules--the long-time New York liberal changed his stripes and endorsed the pro-life, anti-tax, and pro-gun GOP standards--but on the other issues that defined the GOP--the issues that mattered most to Republican elites over the years--he made an about face. He ran against free trade, immigration and free markets, and in favor of massive infrastructure spending and new taxes on the rich to an extent that would make a traditional Rust Belt Democrat proud. He threatened tariffs against companies with overseas operations. He decried unlimited campaign contributions and insider influence. And even as he demanded the repeal of Obamacare, he stated early on--as he reiterated recently--that the GOP replacement must provide insurance coverage for all Americans. And, of course, there is Russia, where Trump seems closer to a Fellow Traveler of the 1950s than to GOP Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain or Lindsay Graham.

Each week now, we are seeing Trump's policies--that is what a tweet is in this new era--confound his GOP compatriots. He is insisting that the GOP provide health insurance for all Americans, and at a lower cost. He is demanding that the Federal government negotiate drug prices. He is jawboning military contractors to reduce costs. And then, of course, there is Russia.

Many Republican Party leaders--notably Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and perhaps even Trump insiders Mike Pence and Reince Priebus--continue to hope against hope that if they wait Trump out, things will return to normal. But Trump has come to believe that he is leading a movement, not just a political campaign, and his objective is to throw out the traditions of the party and remake the GOP in his own image. Steve Bannon's role as his political strategist is, among other things, to orchestrate the takeover of the apparatus of the GOP on the ground, state by state.

Last week, Trump supporters ousted the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. Next week, Trump backers are taking the fight to Massachusetts, where the leadership of the Republican State Committee is up for grabs. “They didn’t want anything to do with Trump—they were embarrassed by Trump—they thought he was going to lose,” commented Trump's candidate for chairman of the state committee about Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker and the old school Bay State blue bloods.

As George Bush watched the humiliation of his son at the hands of Donald Trump, he had to know the end was near. For GOP traditionalists, the barbarians are not longer at the gates, they are occupying the White House. Many would argue that the old Republican Party sold its soul long ago--when it took the trade that Kevin Phillips suggested, swapping its moderate New England roots for the new, socially conservative southern and working class Democrats--and that George Bush similarly abandoned his principles when he embraced the coded racial politics of Lee Atwater.

Through it all, George Bush and the elites of the GOP refused to let go--as evidenced by the nomination of Mitt Romney just four years ago. With the swearing in of President Trump, the last battle for the soul of the GOP looms. McConnell and Paul Ryan, as the leaders of Congress, may yet resist Trump's efforts--though truly only Ryan has the breadth of support within the party, if not the stomach for the fight, to challenge the President--but Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have the mainstream party infrastructure firmly in their crosshairs, and their success in Ohio and Massachusetts suggests that the GOP of George Bush will soon be gone for good.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The end of the New World Order.

The Tweet: Once the ink is dry on the swearing in of the 45th President, it will only be a matter of time before Putin tests his new relationship. When he does, we may see the end of the New World Order of the first President Bush and the rise to the Trump Doctrine.

To hear Vladimir Putin rise to the defense of Donald Trump, as Putin lays the blame for the Russia dossier at the feet of Barack Obama, was remarkable. Why would Donald Trump need our prostitutes, the Russian leader actually said in his purported defense of his new BFF, when he runs all those beauty contests and obviously has plenty of women to choose from. Assuming Putin had nothing to do with the dossier, is there anything he could have said to better draw attention to it?

To hear Donald Trump embrace the words of the Russian President in righteous defense of his own credibility was even more remarkable, particularly as it came in the wake of his announcement that his first foreign trip will be to Moscow, and as he pronounced that he is in favor of removing sanctions levied against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Assuming that Trump is not actually in cahoots with Putin as the dossier suggests, is there anything he could have done to suggest more emphatically that he is?

Jejune is the word that sticks in my mind, courtesy of Woody Allen. Naive and immature. What a combination for our new Commander-in-Chief, and what a gift to Vladimir Putin. A man who the Russian spymaster has been able to engage and manipulate simply by appealing to his abject narcissism. Trump's infatuation with himself and his own instincts may yet change the trajectory of history. Imagine the incomprehension in the minds of world leaders who have observed the machinations of Vladimir Putin over the past two decades, as they watch the new American President tumble farther and farther into the abyss of his own making.

Trump has proven to be easily baited, and will predictably do the opposite of whatever those he views as his adversaries suggest he should do. Thus, the more the intelligence community, along with Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, point out Putin's transparent duplicity, the greater Trump's determination to continue down the path he has chosen, and the greater the risks that he will drag much of the post-Cold War western democratic order with him.

Is this an overreaction? Is it possible that Donald Trump knows what he is doing, and will succeed in remaking the relationship between the United States and Russia in ways that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama imagined, but failed to do. We will see. But I imagine that Putin will not wait for the ink to dry on the swearing in of the 45th President of the United States before he tests that new relationship.

Who knows how things will transpire, but we do know that President Trump will be tested.

Estonia would be an attractive target. It has a large ethnic Russian population and the country's major population centers are an easy drive by tank from the Russian border. "Estonia is a suburb of St. Petersburg," Trump supporter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich pronounced last July, as he mirrored Trump's disdain for the NATO alliance and mocked our commitment to come to the defense of the Baltic nation should Russia choose to act.

Perhaps it will begin with riots that erupt in Estonia in response to a cyber attack on its utility grid, leaving the population without power. As the government struggles to contain civil unrest, violence erupts as protesters are shot in the street by armed gangs. Putin reacts swiftly, decrying the loss of life and growing chaos near its border, and sends in military 'peacekeepers' as a humanitarian effort to protect the population--including its minority ethnic Russian population--and successfully quells the violence. Donald Trump applauds Putin’s swift action to restore order and save lives.

By the time a meeting of NATO allies is convened to debate whether Article 5 should be invoked, the moment is passed. Putin agrees to meet with Donald Trump, following which Putin agrees to leave Estonia--noting of course that he never intended to occupy the country--while Trump announces that he has directed the CIA to cease activities in Ukraine.

Trump applauds the negotiated agreement, blaming prior administrations for having instigated events in Ukraine and Georgia for no reason other than to provoke Russia. Trump goes on to suggests that the great powers of the world should henceforth treat each other with respect and deference to their regional issues, which is quickly dubbed the Trump Doctrine, and wildly applauded by his base, while decried by the U.S. and European foreign policy establishment.

Having effectively proved NATO article five to be a dead letter and gotten American advisors out of Ukraine and Georgia, Putin and Trump meet again in Trump Tower, where together they announce the end of sanctions and a new Partnership for Prosperity.

Across Europe, right wing parties celebrate and stock markets collapse as the implications of the new world order begin to settle in. Back in fortress America, Donald Trump cheers the collapse of the old, rigged world--to the wild accolades of his base--while investors and corporations rush to return to the United States, the only safe haven in a new, far riskier, world.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Russia dossier.

The Tweet: Golden shower or no, Russian agent or not, Donald Trump is proving to be a gift beyond Vladimir Putin's wildest dream.

Is Donald Trump a witting or unwitting agent of Russian intelligence as I posited in this space six weeks ago? Former CIA head Michael Morrell raised the issue of Trump being an unwitting agent of the Russian FSB in a New York Times op-ed last August. Now, the question of a more direct relationship has been asserted by the now-infamous dossier on Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. The latter suggestion is a ludicrous notion on its face, and one that most Republicans and many Democrats must view as lying in the realm of conspiracy.

"Fake news!" was Donald Trump's response to questions about the dossier at his press conference last week. Yet the fact that the dossier was presented to Trump and FBI Director James Comey personally briefed him about it the Friday before the press conference made it news, regardless of how one assesses the content. Fake news is now the stock response of our President-elect to any news that paints him in a negative light, not simply blurring the line between the onslaught of real fake news stories that abounded during the presidential election and the serious institution of journalism, but wiping away the line altogether.

Donald Trump promised that he would disrupt our politics, and he has delivered. His press conference this week was a contentious, chaotic demonstration of what we can expect as a matter of routine going forward. Things will be combative and chaotic because our new president loves combat and chaos. Keeping people on edge is one of the ways he asserts control. He shows no respect for the institution of the press, both because, ironically, denigrating the press assures him more attention and more press, and because attacking the media plays well with his base. As Donald Trump has shown us, he cares about two things--media attention and the adulation of his base--and last week both were on display in spades.

The chaos of the press conference was a further reflection of the fundamental disregard that Trump has for the core institutions of our democracy. Over the past year and a half, he demonstrated repeatedly--in his attacks on Judge Curiel and the Central Park 5--his disdain for the judiciary. And he demonstrated time and time again his willingness to the undermine public confidence in our electoral system if it served his own interests. And then there is his disdain for the press. Not freedom of the press, but the institution of the press itself.

"You know," Trump went on, apparently oblivious to the irony of his words, "I’ve been hearing more and more about a thing called fake news and they’re talking about people that go and say all sorts of things." This from a man who built his public persona and political power base through the cultivation of fake news and conspiracy theory. Years before he became a national celebrity on The Apprentice, Donald Trump honed his craft of cultivating media attention as a fixture of the New York tabloids. He made his bones nationally as a fake news impresario as he single handedly made the Birther movement a force in our politics. He used a false story linking Ted Cruz's father to the assassination of JFK to dispose of his last Republican rival on the eve of the Indiana Primary. Yet there he stood last week, railing away at the assembled media.

"I will tell you, some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody. I could name them, but I won’t bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They’re very, very dishonest people, but I think it’s just something we’re going to have to live with." 

Yes, if nothing else became clear at his press conference this week, as Trump announced his plan to put his business interests in the hands of his sons, fake news and dishonest people are going to be part of our future.

Trump's ire--though it was not ire at all, but rather theatre--effectively sidetracked much discussion of the dossier on purported Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. That dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele for a private client, is a series of memos ostensibly written from June through December of last year.

The memos claim to report on discussions with sources in the Russian government as well as Trump associates. The memos describe Putin as motivated both by visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton as well as long-standing Russian hostility toward liberal democracies encroaching on Russia's borders and influencing its neighboring states. There is nothing inherently implausible about the descriptions in the memos of Russian efforts to influence our election, and the dossier is an interesting read if only on the perspective it suggests on Russian motivations at the highest levels.

The objective of the Russian information operation as described in the dossier was to achieve long-standing Russian objectives to undermine NATO and liberal western democracies through a combination of psychological, cyber and propaganda efforts that it had been unable to achieve through diplomatic initiatives or military intimidation. As stated in the dossier:

The Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP for at least 5 years. Source B asserted that the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN. Its aim was to sow discord and disunity both within the US itself, but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance which was viewed as inimical to Russia's interests. Source C, a senior Russian financial official said the TRUMP operating should be seen in terms of PUTIN's desire to return to Nineteenth Century 'Great Power' politics anchored upon countries' interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War Two.

The report is silent on what other Americans had been cultivated during the same period as Trump, and indeed there is no reason to imagine that the operation dating back years--if it existed--would have only chosen him. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, new American Presidents have imagined that they could build a new relationship with Russia, yet each failed to recognize the singular Russian obsession with encirclement by the west and its territorial integrity. The core Russian objectives described in the series of memos of sowing political discord within and between the western democracies and weakening NATO has been a long-standing Putin project, and is one that may well reach full flower with the election of Trump and the rising influence of right wing political parties in Europe that are less antagonistic toward Russia. One Russian source is cited by Steele as explaining why the Kremlin initiated such an aggressive effort on Trump's behalf:

Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo, including on Ukraine-related sanctions, which was seriously disadvantaging the country. TRUMP was viewed as divisive in disrupting the whole US political system: anti-Establishment; and a pragmatist with whom the could do business.

Notably, the dossier suggests that while Trump had been willing to share information with the Russians over the years, he declined to bite on their offers of financial inducements. This was the context of the aspects of the dossier that are most salacious and have accordingly received the most attention in the media here, but ultimately are the least convincing or interesting aspects of the dossier with respect to what they illustrate about Russian intentions.

The Kremlin's cultivation operation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far, for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these... However, there were other aspects to TRUMP's engagement with Russian authorities. One which had born fruit for them was to exploit TRUMP's personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable 'kompromat' (compromising material) on him.

Unfortunately, media focus on the few salacious paragraphs has overshadowed the light that the dossier claims to offer on Vladimir Putin's determination to destabilize and undermine public faith in democracy in this country. It may be that the entire document is itself an information operation concocted to stir up anti-Russian animosity by parties opposed to Donald Trump's apparent inclination to build an alliance with Putin, but the aspects of the dossier that reflect Russian motivations pursuing their own national interests ring true. Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, is not a 400 pound Macedonian teenager making up fake news in his bedroom; his British colleagues attest to his credibility. He describes the anger within the Trump camp that their collaboration with Russia might contribute to the overarching  Russian objective of undermining U.S. democratic institutions:

TRUMP's associate also admitted that there was a fair amount of anger and resentment within the Republican candidate's team at what was perceived by PUTIN as going beyond the objective of weakening CLINTON and bolstering TRUMP, by attempting to exploit the situation to undermine the US government and democratic system more generally. 

If undermining our democratic system is Putin's objective, Donald Trump is his man whether or not the dossier is fake. Under the guise of disruption and change, Trump has continued to demonstrate his disdain for the core institutions that support our democracy--the electoral system, the independent judiciary, and the media--and encouraged his supporters to share that disdain. Over the course of his campaign, and now as we approach his inauguration, Trump has managed to take a nation that was already deeply divided and deepen those fissures. Public faith in those institutions is critical to the strength of our democracy. Without that faith, we risk becoming closer to Russia that we might imagine to be possible, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin has in mind.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.