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From Russian Theater to American Reality Politics: Donald Trump, Vladislav Surkov, Alexander Herzen and You!

For Amanda TW

Imagine you are at the theater but the performance instead of the stage is everything that surrounds you in your everyday real life. Everything is the same but at the same time nothing is. In life, you attend a performance to escape, to succumb to character-driven plots performed by actors who take you for a few hours to another world. As if by magic, you are transported into their world. Now imagine, as suggested, the theater is your everyday life and the performance has lasted for a little over six months, with a nearly three month-long prologue, which itself was preceded by 15 months of commercials.

 

You might think this is Fellini or performance art or some combination of the two, but instead it is Trumpistan, the new American political reality show. There might be a reboot or an encore or a revival performance of America somewhere some day, perhaps even on this land we still call America; after all, the country is gone only in a metaphorical and psychic sense for now.

 

This theater came into fashion after months of mind numbing cable TV interviews with a rotating cast of colorful sycophants, one who promised “policies as exciting as the 1930s” (Bannon) and a protagonist who begged an adversary to do battle with his demons (Trump). This political reality theater was itself preceded by years of mind numbing reality television, a trashy family with the surname Kardashians, and an Islamic death cult called ISIS dominating the news until one day, a buffoon with what looks like a dead animal on his head came sauntering down a golden escalator.

 

Instead of being told, “These are the days of your lives,” instead one population of minorities, namely Mexicans were called rapists. White male voices and those who can pass in this world dominated by them control the media so this slid by, a source of outrage, which fed the eternal news cycle filling hours of otherwise dead air devoted to celebrities or ISIS. The rhetoric escalated and more groups were attacked.  Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, Jews, and women until only the white man was standing: the true emblem of Trumpistan. The others were cajoled into acts of theater around the main ring circus.

 

There was also the theatrics of those for and those opposed. Across the street from where the buffoon with what appeared to be a dead animal on his head came down the escalator, supporters gathered with flags and “ISIS hunting permits” on their vehicles to shout patriotic songs. Women marched with knit caps to echo parts of their unmentionable genitalia that networks still bleep out or find euphemisms to discuss while words like ass, bitch and cunt can fly unchecked. Why not? It helps drive ratings, clicks and likes, all fueled by indeterminate and never finite amounts of outrage.

 

If this all seems extraordinary to you, it is, and it still should be, although many are becoming numb. Now, what if you were to find out a barrage of similar theatrics ushered into power the adversary that the buffoon with what looks like a dead animal on his head once called upon to battle his own demons? Theatrics were the very path to the rise of Putin, the leader of Russia’s own so-called “managed democracy,” which is no such thing but rather a traditional dictatorship.

 

In America, it has long been conventional wisdom that in order for democracy to move forward, citizens and political leaders must be able to “let the air out of the system.” In Russia, this was transformed into an art and weaponized. Putin’s strength was he understood people wanted two things: bread and circuses. To help wield the circus he hired as a young ringmaster, Vladislav Surkov, an unusually creative man for such circumstances and tasks. In turn, the Kremlin funded every type of group, those for and against, in an effort to corrupt and control. Surkov’s true talent is an understanding that people love conspiracy theories but they hesitate in the face of genuine conspiracy.

 

If you tune in to far-right or far-left media in America now, you will see this understanding at work. To beat back the Russian interference, ever more elaborate conspiracies are spun to give voice to pre-existing sets of beliefs. Perhaps most difficult for many on the far-right to grasp is that the war on terror, with its rhetoric of fear and terrorism helped usher in this present moment of constant theater of the apocalyptic absurd. For many on the far-left who are critics of the war on terror and this rhetoric, they struggle with the notion that while our politicians, civilians, the press, business elite, and they themselves slept through the Russian role in 2016, the national security apparatus was very awake to the threat. Neither pre-condition is wholly wrong: Islamic extremism is a real threat, but perhaps not of the scale and grandeur the war on terror made it out to be.

 

Now to return to Russia, one of the key facets of the fall of the Soviet Union was how quickly that country went from communism to capitalism, with one party led by intelligence officials replacing the communist party as evidenced by the fact that Putin was a former KGB agent. His coterie of loyalists often shares similar pedigrees.

 

In the U.S. now, we have a similar problem insofar as the two main parties are in a state of nihilistic chaos. The main opposition to authoritarianism is the intelligence services and increasingly, ironically for those on the left, the military. Those we counted on outside the world of intelligence and national security failed, whether the press, which chose to live stream all aspects of the circus to the utmost indifference of how they were being used, to the political leaders whose judgment failed, to the population and the business community who were sleeping.

 

In Russia, one of the most influential thinkers and writers of the nineteenth century, Alexander Herzen, said it would take two generations to turn Russia into a normal country. Russia never had that opportunity. In the U.S. as the millennial generation lost so much during the war on terror, from blood to treasure and now sovereignty, one cannot help but wonder if it will take two generations to undo a great nation and make it the opposite of normal.

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.”