Check it out in Issue 65 of Huck Magazine: The Coming of Age Issue.
Check it out in Issue 65 of Huck Magazine: The Coming of Age Issue.
We are just beginning to understand the massive efforts by foreign governments to influence our elections and plant the seeds of chaos into the United States. Our reliance on digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the speed at which misinformation can spread has left us vulnerable. So what can we do? Amanda Rivkin says we must be proactive and form an active resistance against these attacks. Amanda Rivkin is a photographer and writer focused on gender, security, political and military issues in Eastern Europe and the United States.
Currently she is at work on a long-term project documenting in portraits and oral histories the victims of Chicago municipal police torture under former Commander Jon Burge. For this work, she has received a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists and support from The Invisible Institute, a non- profit journalism outfit focusing on issues of policing in Chicago.
In February 2017, she founded Trumpistan Watch, a free weekday e-mail subscription and blog media monitoring Western and Russian media news sources concerning Trump and Russia, with a particular focus on geopolitical security, media and authoritarianism. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx
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.
I have launched TRUMPISTAN WATCH to help professionals and the public monitor media as it concerns Trump and Russia. The weekday e-mail digest comes in the form of an e-mail you can subscribe to by sending an e-mail to email@example.com with TRUMPISTAN WATCH in the subject line.
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?
For a full gallery of images from last night, please see my archive, “President Obama’s Farewell Address“.