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What Is To Be Done After 10 Days of Trump?

Ten days after an inauguration Trump christened a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” in a definite nod to the antics of the worst Kremlin puppets everywhere that came before him, it is a good time to look back and reflect on the horrors of the first ten days and envision a path forward. Nominally and historically, such questions about the type of administration in the past emerge after 100 days, an arbitrary marker to be sure, but thinking people everywhere observing America’s homegrown terror in the form of a poorly dressed, wildly insecure, overly bronzed lunatic are settling into the reality that we might not have the luxury of so much time. World War III has already begun but most are still sleeping and do not see the danger, the mushroom clouds lingering on the horizon.

 

Let us begin by asking a question that is inspired by the demagogue Lenin, lifted from the title of a mediocre novel by Nikolai Chernychevsky as the first rumblings of dissatisfaction within Imperial Russia’s aristocracy stirred: what is to be done? In Chernychevsky’s novel, the protagonist Vera Pavlovna escapes an arranged marriage and the shackles of an old aristocratic order to usher in an agrarian utopian ideal of small cooperatives that serve a larger industrial order. The novel was as radical in its vision of a socialist future that bypasses capitalism as Ayn Rand’s harsh individualistic vision of a future of capitalism made by the strong will of individuals like Howard Roark was for its readers. Unlike the American variation which sees government and rules as the problem, Chernychevsky sought to rearrange the existing order to serve the broader visions of an emerging state in the form of the Soviet Union. Alas, neither Putin nor Trump have yet to inspire fictional accounts of their tenures but it will be more Brave New World than 1984 when it emerges. Certainly the Obama years were more soma and less big brother, but that seems set to change.

 

In essence, under Trump, these are the competing visions: a state that controls life (see: the global gag order on financing women’s reproductive healthcare NGOs that mentions abortion worldwide and Bannon’s comments that the press “keep its mouth shut” among the more prominent) and a state where regulations and checks on power are rolled back (see: “bloody Monday” firings at the Department of Justice, the previous removal of senior State Department officials, the freeze on federal hiring new federal regulations foremost). As a retired Georgian diplomat observed recently, this is how the Oligarchs seized power.

 

So what is to be done? Although inspired and reassuring to be certain, the hundreds of thousands gathered for the women’s march served to prove what we already know: Trump has very thin skin. And he is deeply obsessed with size. It’s nearly impossible not to see his obsession with the size of his crowds as a proxy for some other insecurity: the size of his brain or perhaps something below the belt. Similarly, the beautiful American people gathered at airports over the weekend distract from Trump’s efforts to impose his white supremacist political hack Bannon on the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from permanent status. Meanwhile, we have yet to hear from the Russian people statements like ones heard over the weekend at American airports to the effect of, “This is not the real America. We are the American people!”

 

As Russians are positively obsessed with what Americans think of them, the shame must be building over never having stood up to Putin, settling merely for bread and circuses over dignity and true freedom, and witnessing as the richs of their state was handed over to a cabal of oligarchs and ex-KGB men.  Afterall, the Russian people are no less worthy of these things than citizens from the seven countries whose nationals Trump barred from entering our borders in a brazen and highly amateurish move.  Already we have Alexei Navalny as a candidate for the Russian presidency in 2018 highlighting how corrupt Russian officials enrich themselves at the expense of their people to afford lavish lives in the West. Let us be clear: despite the vast crimes of the Russian mafia state from murder to thievery, the Russian people are not our enemies, they are victims of the same horrific cabal of criminals.  Russians watching America might find some long-suppressed courage and then the situation will really show the extent to which Putin has overplayed his hand.

 

So how do we hit Trump and Putin where it matters, with a shot of pure intellect to the brain? In essence we cannot short of a massive overhaul of the mass culture that gave life to such a cretin at the helm of the existing global power structure.  But we can hurt them, and hurt them badly.  Authoritarian regimes are ill-prepared when spontaneous cracks appear. We must create millions of cracks and never forget that the Soviet Union was brought down by an unlikely alliance of shipyard workers in Gdansk, absurdist playwright in Prague, Lutheran pastors in the former East Germany, students across the Eastern bloc; we simply haven’t a clue where the next generation of true leaders will emerge from. The alternative is total war to rearrange this structure, something no less than the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev warned of recently. As his empire unraveled, he did not hesitate to send tanks to the Baltics and the Caucasus, but the effort stalled and failed as people took to the streets. Now he warns in language that echoes Obama’s Prague Nuclear Zero speech, a retrospectively apparent act of folly, “the ultimate goal should be a world without nuclear weapons.”

 

In essence, we have the president we have because we have the mass culture we have and because Putin overplayed his hand by inserting his cyberespionage teams into our elections. As much as the Kremlin worked to inflict this monster on America and the world, Putin’s efforts only undercut his legitimacy. As sad as it is, Trump would likely have won on his own as Hillary was a deeply flawed candidate (as was Bernie and the rest of the cast of characters on the Republican side) and the indifference of the American public to a world beyond the self, a certain peace found in sleepwalking lives of material comfort, reveals that last year’s election appears to have been a contest between candidates with unusually similar flaws, where one outdid the other in terms of charisma and demagoguery. For now, the show goes on. But if the American empire collapses it will not be alone, it will take Russia with it.

 

After all, why did the Russian empire collapse? Three primary reasons: during the Cold War, the Americans adeptly used proxies against the Russians in theaters of conflict like Afghanistan and elsewhere, drove up defense spending and shone a light on real conditions within the Soviet Union. And what will cause the American empire to collapse? If you listen to defectors from Assad’s intelligence services and military commanders, they are responsible for the creation of ISIS by reactivating the Ba’ath apparatus removed from power in neighboring Iraq and reactivating violent jihadis within Syria’s borders who had fought the Americans there. As far as defense spending, 15 years in Afghanistan tells a fair part of the picture. Certainly last year’s Trump rallies which rivaled “The Jerry Springer Show” as far as a chance for America to wave its trash flag in an orgy of racist violence did a fine job of showcasing the pitfalls of the American system.

 

Neither Trump nor Putin are the masterminds they imagine themselves to be. In fact both are sitting now on tinderboxes of nations veering dangerously close towards collapse. It is clear Trump is no patriot, that he is the one most in need of “extreme vetting”.  Putin’s conundrum is manifest in the form of the arrests of several cyber espionage officials involved in his US operation and the death of Oleg Erovinkin, a key official who served as a go between Putin and Igor Sechin, the head of state controlled oil company Rosneft, under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately the coterie of so-called loyalists surrounding these two men will not hesitate to turn on them for their own self-preservation.

 

So what is to be done? Theresa May and Francois Hollande now hold the levers of real power as within their borders sits the real Kremlin’s riches, the fortunes of Oligarchs parked in London real estate and chateaus along the coast of the south of France. Seizing assets or freezing the riches of those whose support Putin requires to remain in power would force a response that would likely be retaliatory against Putin. His America operation has simply gone too far and not only threatened global security, but Oligarchs where it counts, in their own wallets, lives, reputations and riches. It is all much too big for Putin to control now.

 

At any moment, the two febrile egos of Trump and Putin could turn on each other anyways, certain to happen if one should feel outsmarted by the other. It’s possible to predict how that could go, but I’ll defer here to a Soviet radio presenter reporting on the Politburo, “No one can predict the future, but the past is changing before our very eyes.”

 

When scientists gathered in Chicago before Trump’s inauguration, excuse me, Great National Day of Patriotic Devotion, to reset the doomsday clock, they moved it thirty seconds closer to midnight. They also warned, “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

 

The doomsday clock is now set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at two and a half minutes to midnight. We simply do not have 100 days to evaluate the Trump administration less we play catch up with the coming apocalypse. May and Hollande must act before it’s too late and everything we love about what’s left of the ancien regime is destroyed, plummeting us all into an abyss that if we are lucky will only last 1,000 years. Wise citizens everywhere must pressure their governments to deny all aid to the criminal Russian mafia state, as advised a generation of defectors in the 1970s and 80s. If not now, when? Never?

Farewell, Obama!

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Jill and Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama and daughter Malia after Obama gave his farewell address to a crowd of thousands and the nation during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois on January 10, 2017.

For a full gallery of images from last night, please see my archive, “President Obama’s Farewell Address“.

BBC World Service: “World Have Your Say” on Russian Athletics Doping

Today I got to discuss how Russians cheat and lie, this time in sport with host Ben James and a panel including a Canadian and Kenyan Olympiad and colleagues in London and Germany on the BBC World Service’s “World Have Your Say” program.

…we hear the conversation surrounding the latest twist in allegations of doping in Russian sport. The New York Times says Russian officials have for the first time admitted to the existence of a doping operation which affected major competitions.

Quartz: Russia’s meddling to get Donald Trump elected president is straight out of the old KGB playbook

Russia’s meddling to get Donald Trump elected president is straight out of the old KGB playbook
Quartz
December 19, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish Prime Minister's office at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey on December 3, 2012.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkish Prime Minister’s office at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey on December 3, 2012.

Mysterious arrests. Disappearances. A far away death in an unknown gulag concealed from family for a generation. These are realities for those of us whose families came to the US from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the last world war and subsequent Soviet occupation. These are also the reasons why every act against Donald Trump now is an act of patriotism on behalf of the American people.

During the 1970s and 1980s, KGB defectors warned Americans to beware Russian interference. Those warnings were mostly buried. Today, however, Trump’s rise should be examined in the context of these methods of Kremlin ideological subversion and psychological warfare.

The confluence of evidence suggests Donald Trump was supported, and his campaign efforts bolstered, by Russia this election season (as the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have concluded). Plucked from the KGB’s (now FSB’s) playbook for installing world leaders sympathetic to Moscow, we are now witnessing what Russian intelligence officers would refer to as “active measures.”

The first phase of this strategy is to bombard a nation with propaganda, usually of a racist, anti-Semitic nature. The point of this propaganda is to sow the seeds of discord among a population. The second phase is the instigation of incidents that can be used and broadcast widely for the purposes of demoralization. In phase three, Russia installs a friendly leader and leverages the economy according to Moscow’s will.

In the US, phase one was accomplished through the spread of propaganda, often but not always in the form of “fake news,” on social media and at Trump’s rallies. Mainstream media networks played a useful role here by allowing Trump’s rallies to be broadcast unfiltered and often unchallenged, further normalizing Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. We are now between the second phase, with its intent of demoralization. We must never allow the final stage.

History shows us what happens when Soviet ideology and power mix. In George F. Kennan’s seminal “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, the former US ambassador to Moscow outlines Stalin’s expansionist philosophy in the context of Marxist-Leninist thought. In the opening paragraphs, he clearly articulates the Soviet-era doctrine, some of which still holds sway in the Kremlin today.

Stalin believed a country built on free trade and open markets would eventually slip into a form of late-stage capitalism that in turn leads to anarchy, war, and ultimately class revolution. The answer? State control over everything from the economy to private life. Citizens in this system become subjects instead of active participants in society.

In other words, Russian influence over US policy would not simply represent a political shift—it would set the stage for a possible humanitarian disaster. Stalin’s interpretation of this Marxist fantasia evolved into gulags and the deaths of millions. Putin’s interpretation is a sort of Stalin-lite philosophy, in which central control of the economy is handed over to a coterie of loyal elites known as oligarchs. Arrests and assassinations are used to maintain law and order (a rallying cry for Trump during the campaign). Absolute control is still the goal.

In the former Soviet bloc, the memory of the Cold War still looms large. But the majority of Americans don’t understand the reality of things like purges, gulags, disappearances, and state terror. Americans need to wake up, right now, to a different era—an era in which the institutions they were taught would always protect them may be weakened, or even destroyed.

Trump has arguably already started this process in the US via his cabinet appointments. There are other warning signs as well. After watching Trump and his family interviewed in their gilded penthouse on 60 Minutes, it’s clear money is the primary language he speaks. This is also the language most familiar to the Kremlin, and to Putin, who after nearly two decades spent systematically plundering the Russian state of its resources may very well be the world’s richest man.

Indeed, Trump’s gilded penthouse bears a striking resemblance to the palace of the deposed former leader of Ukraine and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych fled his palace in 2014, he left behind a dizzying array of documents and lavish accouterment, including a personal zoo. Yanukovych’s greed came with a high cost; ultimately it was his country’s sovereignty, economy, and the welfare of the Ukrainian people.

And yet, too many Americans still remain blind to the dangers of Trump’s presidency. As KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov told American television audiences three decades ago, when it comes to Russia’s plan for world domination, the American “will refuse to believe it until he receives a kick in the fat bottom. When a military boot crushes him, then he will understand it.”

Back in the USA

Mysterious arrests. Disappearances. A far away death in an unknown gulag concealed from family for a generation. These are realities for those of us whose families came to this great country from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the last great world war as Soviet occupation squeezed the region. These are also the reasons why every act against Donald Trump now is an act of patriotism on behalf of our nation and the American people.

Make no mistake about it, the confluence of evidence suggests Donald Trump was not only supported, bolstered, and aligned with Russia during this election season (as the NSA has concluded) but that his business empire is as well. His son, Donald Jr., told a trade publication, eTurboNews in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets,” adding that, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

After watching Trump and his family interviewed in their gilded penthouse on “60 Minutes” we can safely conclude money and lavish palaces are the language he speaks. This is also the language most familiar to the Kremlin, and Putin, who after nearly two decades at the helm of the Russian government, may very well be the world’s richest man after systematically plundering the state of its resources by leveraging oligarchs against each other for his own personal gain.

Is this the future we want in America? Is it possible the Kremlin’s influence has reached the White House? The answer is clear: yes. Trump’s gilded penthouse bears such a striking resemblance to the palace Mezhyhirya of deposed former leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled his palace in 2014 for Russia leaving behind a dizzying array of documents and lavish accouterment, including a personal zoo that included ostriches. The cost was his country’s sovereignty, economy and the health and welfare of the Ukrainian people.

Ukraine is particularly instructional given the similarities between Yanukovych and Trump: their callous demeanor, lack of refinement, completely kitsch style. Before fleeing by helicopter, Yanukovych ordered his security services to fire live rounds on the crowds gathered in Maidan killing nearly 100 in cold blood after tens of thousands turned up to protest his reign for months. Is this the future we want in America?

Most remarkably is the parallel as far as lack of responsibility both men feel for their egregious mistakes of the past. Trump has never apologized for insulting a federal judge, our generals, the electoral process itself. He has only ever doubled down or reversed positions, denying previous culpability. Almost two years after Maidan, what did Yanukovych have to say for himself? “Yanukovych always supported the ostriches.” Another similarity: both men speak of themselves in the third person.

This is not a future we can allow for in this country. My generation does not have time to entertain the nostalgia of a 1950s postwar security we never knew because we grew up in a time of the war on terror in an era of the planet imperiled by climate change. After 15 years in Afghanistan, which the millennial generation bore the brunt of – a war that was never mentioned during the presidential debates – we also cannot further degrade our national security now by allowing a Kremlin puppet to take the seat of the presidency.

Let’s be clear: we are now receiving an assault on multiple fronts of what the Soviet KGB dubbed “active measures”. In George F. Kennan’s seminal “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, the former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow outlines Stalin’s expansionist philosophy in the context of Marxist-Leninist thought. In the opening paragraphs, he clearly articulates the Soviet era doctrine that still holds sway in the Kremlin today as Putin is a former KGB agent, that in country’s like ours built on free trade and open markets, economic crisis brings about late stage capitalism which leads to anarchy, war, and ultimately class revolution.

Well we know how Stalin’s interpretation of this Marxist fantasia evolved into gulags and the deaths of tens of millions, including my father’s uncle. Steve Bannon, Trump’s first appointment of Chief White House Strategist, has described himself in the past in an interview with The Daily Beast in 2013 as a Leninist seeking to bring down the system. “I want to bring everything crashing down,” he said at the time.

Soviet style occupation occurs in three steps as defined by KGB doctrine of “active measures”. Phase I is to bombard a nation with propaganda, usually of a racist, anti-Semitic character with the intention of sowing the seeds of discord among a population. Phase II is the instigation of incidents that can be used and broadcast widely for the purposes of demoralization of the population. In Phase III, Russia installs a friendly leader and leverages the economy according to Moscow’s will.

Phase I was accomplished through the spread of fake news on social media and among the throngs who flocked to Trump’s rallies by outlets such as Breitbart News (where Bannon was in charge until taking a leave to become CEO of the Trump campaign) and Fox News as well as a bevy of false news sites online. We have now entered phase II where incidents are instigated and played to maximum effect with the intention of demoralization. We must never allow phase III to occur.

We must fight for our future as Americans.

An Open Letter To the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations Regarding the Trump DC Hotel Hanukah party co-hosted with the Embassy of Azerbaijan

To the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations:

At a time when internment camps and mass deportations are being discussed in public and political life in our nation and the state is forcefully closing in on civil liberties and the executive threatens our free press and union leaders, the notion of co-hosting a Hanukah party with one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes at a hotel that bears Trump’s name is beyond inappropriate, it is a scandalous threat to the future of all American Jews in this nation. The Jewish community’s true leaders are not looking for a tribal advantage inside the incoming regime in this country but rather to protect at all times their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues from the brutality a state can unleash on its citizens.

Many of us are in this country because we fled persecution at two key historical moments. The first is around the Second World War as Hitler and Stalin closed in on the Pale regions of Eastern Europe, threatening Jewish life there. Half of my family belongs to this generation and we came to this country at a time of genuine American leadership on the world stage, when rather than shun refugees, we lead the world in drafting the United Nations Convention on Refugees. The second period was in the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union, which presented another threat to what remained of Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain. How ironic and utterly ahistorical that now at a time when a demagogue seeks to divide our own nation, the so-called leaders of the Jewish community see fit to curry favors with him as he speaks of menacing others who are not us. Well, I am sorry but they are us, as we are not simply Jewish people but American citizens who must stand up for and protect the rights of all our people, especially when they don’t look like us or pray like us. We cannot expect greater humanity and compassion than we ourselves are willing to show.

As for Azerbaijan’s role, I would like to speak to that as someone with experience working, reporting and living in that country first as a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee in 2010 and later as a Fulbright grant recipient in 2011-2012. Azerbaijan is an Orwellian universe of the sort the incoming administration seeks to bring here. My friends in civil society for the most part live in exile, for if they chose to live in Azerbaijan they sit now either in jail, with their passports confiscated or looking down in silence. When I lived in Azerbaijan, my colleague, investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was secretly recorded in an act of intimacy in her bedroom, the footage of which was later used to blackmail her and broadcast on the internet and later television. She spent time in jail for the absurd offense of inciting a man to suicide, who lived, naturally, and later recanted. She has since been freed thanks to the work of civil society internationally and organizations like PEN America.

Beyond my colleagues though, to court Azerbaijan and to do so under the moniker of a hotel that bears the name of the president elect is to embrace a disaster in the form of a civil liberties nightmare that will backfire so badly not just on your organizations, but on Jewish life in America. I photographed and interviewed personally people who had their land expropriated by the state one day when they were merely removed from their homes, arrested and returned to a pile of rubble. I spent nine months with the family of a writer, Rafiq Tagi, who was murdered after writing Islam and democracy are incompatible – an act the Azerbaijani government blamed him for while not investigating claiming publicly that he brought it on himself. But perhaps most damning is when I protested my colleague Khadija’s detention outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington. They reacted by calling the police, expecting we might be summarily hauled away and brutalized by the police as happens in Azerbaijan. When the DC police showed up at our modest protest, I watched as Embassy employees moved away from the window and closed the curtain as I shook the police officer’s hand and politely answered his inquiries concerning the reasons for our protest.

I understand Israel has very few friends in the world and I will not deny that Jewish life in Azerbaijan is more comfortable than elsewhere and that the Azerbaijani government has shown great willingness to cooperate with the Israeli government on defense and energy – two critical sectors for any national economy and security. However, the cost of this partnership need not be carried by American Jews who will bear the brunt of the symbolic appearance of this event in their daily lives as such events sow the seeds of doubt, conspiracy and ultimately terror. Jared Kushner’s paper The New York Observer is now on record accusing political opposition as being akin to political terrorism and has urged the FBI to go after its enemies. This sounds more like Azerbaijan than America to me and this is simply not what I want for the future of my own nation.

In conclusion, I ask that this event be cancelled even though I expect no such thing and that rather than come together around a holiday that celebrates victory over those who sought to place pigs in our temples, we work to keep the pigs out of other’s sacred spaces, that we join them in these spaces for prayer and reflection. To host such an event at a Trump-branded hotel with a country that is counted by Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and a host of other organizations as among the most restrictive in the world is not a gesture of humanity in the face of oppression rather the opposite. You call yourselves leaders but this is not the behavior of leadership. Lastly, Jared and Ivanka will not erase the swastikas which have only grown in number by the way, that task falls on us, American citizens.

Sincerely,

Amanda Rivkin, photographer + writer
National Geographic Young Explorer to Azerbaijan 2010
Fulbright grantee to Azerbaijan, 2011

UPDATES:
Jewish Women International, Women of Reform Judaism and Americans for Peace Now have informed me by email that they declined to attend the Hanukah party and in a Huffington Post article, Workmen’s Circle, has questioned the merit of the event and disavowed it and the National Council of Jewish Women and Union of Reform Judaism said they would not be attending the event for the same reasons. Thank you.