America, Russia…

It’s true that a well-ordered society would not be governed by (an unrepentent) former KGB agent. It’s just as true that a well-ordered society would not be governed by a bigoted, autocratic, dissolute liar.

Yet here we are, and there they are.

Russian Journalist Yevgenia Albats on Putin

Concern about Putin’s interference in our elections springs from one’s love for American democracy.

I’ve mentioned before the fine Frontline series on Putin, entitled Putin’s Revenge (Parts 1 and 2 are online). The series also includes the full interviews with those who appeared in the two-part program. In the interview above, Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats talks about Putin’s rise.

Here’s a description of the series:

FRONTLINE spent months reporting for the documentary Putin’s Revenge, speaking with the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, diplomats, journalists, scholars and political insiders from Russia and the United States. In all, 56 sources spoke to us on camera. Now, in an effort to make our journalism more transparent, we’re publishing the complete collection of these extended conversations. In “The Putin Files,” explore the interviews using interactive features that enable you to navigate by theme or person, select and share any excerpt on social media, and dig deeper into annotated content about this still unfolding history.

Frontline‘s website includes a bio of Albats:

Yevgenia Albats is an investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of The New Times, a Moscow-based independent political weekly. She is the author of four books, including The State Within a State: KGB and Its Hold on Russia — Past, Present and Future.

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on July 10, 2017. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

Sessions Stumbles, Again

In testimony before the U.S. Senate yesterday, Sen. Franken of Minnesota asked Attorney General Sessions about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Sessions’s shifting statements about his contacts with representatives of Putin’s government.

Sessions’s answers, in content and demeanor, are odd: he sounds hesitant, nervous, defensive, and almost beleaguered. Franken’s intelligent, but honestly one would expect someone serving as attorney general to be so, too. One may meet difficult questions, but difficult questions are not impossible ones; an experienced, competent attorney and former legislator should be able to reply calmly and knowledgeably.

Sessions, at about the eight-minute mark on the video, tries to refute the contention that he testified falsely – and by implication deliberately so – when he, Sessions formerly testified that he “did not have communications” with members of the Russian government. Sessions contends that his broad & general denial of “communications with the Russians” merely applied to a narrow & specific report of a U.S. intelligence intercepts.

That’s unpersuasive, to the point of ridiculousness. When a man is accused of petting a poodle, and then answers that he’s never had contact with dogs, he cannot persuasively contend that he’s answered only regarding poodles.

Astonishingly, Sessions then offers that “you can say what you want about the accuracy of it [his earlier testimony], but I think it was a good faith response…”

If Sessions’s general denial is a good faith response to a specific question, then vast amounts of false testimony would be made legitimate as good faith efforts.

Men accused of petting curly-haired dogs, who deny falsely that they’ve ever touched any canines, are not answering in good faith.

Their Friends Are America’s Enemies

It’s no surprise, truly, that white nationalists who returned to Charlottesville chanted three main slogans: ‘You will not replace us,’ ‘Russia is our friend,’ and ‘the South will rise again.’

Each is false, and little more than a dark hope: the South they want (of slavery, bigotry, and treason) will never rise again, they have already been replaced by a more diverse and competitive population, and Russia (under either the Soviets or Putin) has never been America’s friend.

Putin has returned Russia to dictatorship after the briefest thaw, a return to brutality at home and abroad. Consider only a small video of opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s struggle in Russia, and know that while you consider him, vast numbers more are denied basic rights. The man who makes Russia oppressive for his own people delights in having lifted Trump to power in America, that Trump might in his own way degrade our way of life as Putin in his way has degraded life for his own people.

The Erosion of Political Norms (Concluding Part 4 in a Series)

local scene More than one small town has struggled for years under the debilitating influence of political & economic conflicts of interest, misguided priorities, and dodgy or grandiose claims. These conditions where those that  That Which Paved the Way for Trumpism. Those locally who carried on this way made Trumpism more likely, the way a moderate illness might weaken one’s immunity and make a deadly illness more likely.

Trumpism’s national champions contended – falsely – that America in 2016 faced an existential crisis. On the contrary, America’s existential crisis began not with Hillary Clinton’s campaign but with Donald Trump’s minority-vote victory. One might have had conventional, normal politics with Clinton; there was never a possibility of that with Trump.

Trumpism didn’t then face and existential threat – it created an existential threat.

On their own, many of these local problems would have lessened, slowly but inevitably; those who created these problems would have faded, slowly but inevitably. There’s little energy left in the dwindling ranks of those carrying on this way. I was right – then and now – when I once wrote in reply to a prominent social & political figure in town, predicting that ‘not one of those practices will endure to this city’s next generation.’

And yet, Trump’s national success will probably embolden more than one local man or woman to carry on a bit longer than he or she might otherwise have. Their political end will come, nonetheless.

What to do about all this?

First, Trump and his ilk himself will have to go, through whatever lawful means is available.

Second, America will have to assure both full adult access to the ballot, and the integrity of elections against foreign interference (both as foreign propaganda on domestic media and as hacking). One would prefer few laws to many, but even we’ve now many states legislating against easy ballot access. Better a single standard assuring access. We’ll need a policy of automatic voter registration. No one should be required to vote; no one should have to struggle to register to vote.

Third, and the most difficult of all, we’ll have to carry out a long period of a third reconstruction (the first being after the Civil War, the second being during the civil rights era) to assure that we do not again find ourselves in the situation that now plagues us: forces domestic and foreign united to undermine the American constitutional order.  That’s a long project, and I’d imagine – or at least hope – that the Rev. Dr. Barber, and so many other men & women, will guide us through that new, necessary reconstruction.

Previously: The Erosion of Political Norms, Parts 123.

The Premature Question

Over at the Daily Beast, Joy Reid asks What’s Going to Happen When the Trumpists Realize the America They Yearn for Is Gone?

It’s an interesting question, perhaps, but more importantly it’s a premature one. We’ve a long road ahead before Trumpism is finished, and you’ll excuse me if the time for pondering life after our present conflict is nowhere near. (Between now and then, the circumstances that planning will take into account will, no doubt, be changed, anyway.)

Concern over how that time will look matters far less than working for its arrival, however near or far that arrival may be.

For now, there’s no reason to relent or pause, no time to ponder the time after this time. We’ll have that occasion when success draws nearer.

Until then, we’ve an obligation to diligence, each day beginning again with the distance and detachment so useful for a long & demanding conflict.

Amy Siskind’s Weekly Authoritarianism List

Amy Siskind, president and co-founder of The New Agenda, keeps The Weekly Authoritarianism List. She does so because, as she rightly observes, “experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.” (The list has been nominated for permanent keeping with the Library of Congress.)

There are just desserts even now: Trump has a dim view of women, but when this dark time passes, I think we’ll look back, notably, with gratitude toward those women who held fast in the face of Trumpism. I believe that, among dedicated Americans, Jennifer Rubin, Sarah Kendzior, and Amy Siskind will easily merit our obligation. (Like many others, each day their work proves Trump’s biases false.)

I don’t offer this observation as pedestal praise; it simply seems right to acknowledge those at the forefront of opposition and resistance.

The Limits of Cultural Shelter

In difficult times, some will retreat to apolitical, cultural matters.

An apolitical approach is not one that I would take, but for others perhaps it seems the best that one can do. Indeed, in Whitewater, I’ve advocated that approach for those who would not take an overt stand on the principal political question of our time (where one stands on Trump). See An Oasis Strategy.

Two key points:

1. Although one should support a diverse society, with many cultural opportunities, that hardly means that all subcultures are equally beneficial to society. Subcultures that espouse racism & bigotry (e.g., white nationalists, neo-confederates), or reject basic principles of reasoning and economics (e.g., Russian-style propaganda & lies, anti-market economic fallacies) don’t deserve support.

White nationalism is a subculture, to be sure, but it’s a lumpen, inferior one. It deserves only obloquy.

A cultural oasis as a refuge from political strife will not be found with those who have, themselves, embraced the very subcultures that advocate the degradation of the constitutional order. 

2. Keeping in mind the maxim that ‘one war at a time is enough’, it’s still worth remembering that when Trumpism meets its political ruin – and it will – the subcultures that sustained it will thereafter meet their social ruin. This was true of the Klan and the Bund. So it will be true of those who, while professing a merely cultural position, in fact supported Trumpism’s political one.

That’s a battle for another time, but a time that will nevertheless will follow in due course.

For now, it seems both right and inevitable that our children and grandchildren will ask us where we stood on the matter of Trump.

There will be only one worthy answer: resolutely committed to the American constitutional order, and so necessarily & resolutely opposed to Trump.

Sessions Will Try to Stay (It’s the Safest Place for Him)

In the clip above, Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes clear that he doesn’t plan to resign. There’s been talk that after Trump’s criticism of Sessions in a New York Times interview, Sessions would feel compelled to walk.

Unforced resignation seems improbable; it’s neither want Sessions wants (as he makes clear in his remarks) nor what would serve his interests.

Two quick points:

1. I agree with Sarah Kendzior that Trump’s complaining about Sessions may be something like a ‘fake feud.’ From a more serious man, remarks about Sessions like those Trump offered to the Times would, of course, be seriously meant. For Trump, a frivolous man, it’s harder to make that contention. (Furthermore, as Kenzior rightly observes, earlier critical remarks from Trump haven’t displaced Steve Bannon, for example.)

2. Sessions – a dodgy character from the get go – should want to stay in office, and hold power for as long as possible: he’s better able to protect himself against a collusion or obstruction investigation while serving as attorney general than as just another bigoted private citizen with retrograde views.

Everyone close around Trump has the problem that members of organized crime face: when you’re out, you’re really out. In one way of looking at this, there’s really no out at all. (Michael Flynn is out, of course, but only if one understands out as a synonym for slowly putrefying.)

This works two ways.

Sessions is safer inside, both for his own self-interest and for the self-interest of others he might implicate if he should be cast aside. If he should someday be out, then the prospects for all concerned – both Sessions and the Trump Admin – would be grave indeed.

‘Very Brazen About It’

In the video above, Dr. Sarah Kendzior describes the brazen nature of autocracy: not merely does an autocrat flaunt norms, but he does so to remind others of his power, and to attempt to instill in normal, freedom-loving people a feeling of hopelessness in the face of power aberrantly exercised.

In response to these tactics, one should (1) remind repeatedly how contrary to a well-order society authoritarianism is, (2) prepare for a long campaign in opposition, and (3) apply maximum, collective pressure, at times of one’s own choosing, against an authoritarian’s greatest vulnerabilities.

A longer view is both steadying and rational: one manages reverses more easily, and applies one’s reasoning most effectively. (There is this requirement of a long view: a long memory.)

Video via Sarah Kendzior On The Impending Trump Autocracy: ‘They’re Very Brazen About It.’

Where Bannon fits in all this…

Yesterday, as a comment to a post entitled Sarah Kendzior: The Kremlin Spokesman’s Odd Referral, a reader kindly asked a key question: “Where do you feel Bannon fits into all of this?”

It’s a critical question, to be sure. Steve Bannon’s no small figure, so to speak: he plays a role as ideologue, but that’s not all. Bannon has been affiliated with Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that may have a role in microtargeting of illicitly-obtained information in support of Trump.

Here’s my reply to yesterday’s comment:

Good morning, and thanks for your comment.

It’s such a key question, isn’t it? Bannon plays a key role for Trump as an ideologue (fomenting and focusing white nationalist ire against blacks, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews), but has he had a different responsibility, also? Perhaps so – as someone who helped Russia target lies and hacked information to particular communities, to (1) bolster the worst of Trump’s base and (2) to confuse, dispirit, and suppress the vote among those true to America’s democratic ideals.

Over at Brookings, Kate Brannen wrote on this, at the Just Security website, and her assessment seems persuasive to me. Connecting the Dots: Political Microtargeting and the Russia Investigation.

So much more to learn, of course, and sadly I think none of it good.

My best to you —


Here’s the overall issue concerning Cambridge Analytica, of which Bannon was vice president of the board, and of which the extreme Mercer family were principal owners:

This week, new reporting shined a light on one focus of the congressional investigation: determining how the Russians knew which voters to target with their disinformation campaign. A report from TIME’s Massimo Calabresi on Thursday provided new details: 

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica … and Breitbart News.

Cambridge Analytica is the data mining firm hired by the Trump campaign to help it collect and use social media information to identify and persuade voters to vote (or not vote), through an activity known as political microtargeting….

Kate Brannen asks the fundamental questions about Cambridge Analytica’s operation:

After sifting through these stories and publicly available information, here are a few open questions:

1. How sophisticated are Cambridge Analytica’s capabilities? Is the company really revolutionizing electoral politics, manipulating people through their social media data? Or are their services being exaggerated — by the company and by its critics?

2. Was Cambridge Analytica involved in voter disengagement efforts aimed at Democrats in key states? How successful were these efforts?

3. Were the Russians also carrying out voter disengagement efforts aimed at Democrats? Were they targeting the same voters, or same sort of voters, as Cambridge Analytica?

4. How precisely were the Russians able to target American voters? How were they able to identify these individuals? As Warner puts it: “How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?”

5. What, if any, were Russia’s capability gaps where they may have needed to seek outside help to conduct their disinformation campaign more effectively?

6. Did Russia extract voter rolls from state computer systems? Where exactly?

7. If Russia did have access to voter rolls, how did they use them for microtargeting?

8. If Russia had online voter rolls, what would it need from the Trump campaign or another third party to put these into effect?

9. What role did far right U.S. news organizations play? Did they knowingly take “any actions to assist Russia’s operatives”?

We’ve so much more yet to learn…

The Fellow Travelers

Jeremy Peters nicely describes the descent of far too many into mere fellow travelers for Putin, a dictator, imperialist, and murderer (Peters is far too mild about Putin, but he’s ably identified the self-hating Americans who support Russian’s dictator, and some of whom are perhaps even fifth columnists for Russia):

WASHINGTON — Years before the words “collusion” and “Russian hacking” became associated with President Vladimir V. Putin, some prominent Republicans found far more laudatory ways to talk about the Russian leader.

“Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and longtime friend and adviser to President Trump, gushed in 2014.

Mr. Putin was worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, K. T. McFarland said in 2013, before going on to serve a brief and ill-fated stint as Mr. Trump’s deputy national security adviser.

“A great leader,” “very reasoned,” and “extremely diplomatic,” was how Mr. Trump himself described Mr. Putin that same year.

Though such fondness for Mr. Putin fell outside the Republican Party’s mainstream at the time, it became a widely held sentiment inside the conservative movement by the time Mr. Trump started running for president in 2015. And it persists today, despite evidence of Russian intervention in the 2016 American election and Mr. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home.

Via Reverence for Putin on the Right Buys Trump Cover.

Sarah Kendzior: The Kremlin Spokesman’s Odd Referral

Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) noticed this odd remark from the Kremlin’s spokesman in 2016, at the time he made it. It was a prescient catch, indeed. (Can’t recommend her work enough – a powerful, clear-sighted assessment of authoritarianism, well-suited to #TrumpRussia, and international relations beyond.)

Chris Hayes: Does Trump Jr.’s Email Thread Reveal He Had a Phone Conversation Before His 6.9.16 Meeting?

Having a prior phone conversation with the person who arranged the meeting, of course, makes it even less likely that Trump fils was ignorant of the subject matter.