Maria Butina is just the tip of the Russia iceberg

There is no right to bear arms in Russia, and under this regime there never will be. According to court papers, Butina nevertheless convinced some naive members of the National Rifle Associationthat she was a genuine activist. In doing so, she gained access to their world.

.. They were both seeking to assist political movements they believed to be pro-Kremlin (the Communist Party of the 1930s; the pro-gun wing of the Republican Party of the 2010s). They were both backed by Kremlin money, diverted through cutouts (the Communist International, in the former instance; a couple of Russian oligarchs, allegedly, in the latter).

.. Butina, even if considering only her role as an open, pro-Kremlin activist, also has many counterparts, agents of influence who are openly agitating for Russian interests, now on the far-right edge of Western politics instead of the far-left.

  • Gianluca Savoini, the leader of the enigmatic Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, seems to perform a similar role in Italian politics, even showing up recently as a member of an official Italian government delegation to Moscow.
  • Bela Kovacs , a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, is on trial in Budapest on a charge of spying on European Union institutions on behalf of Russia.

.. they too are part of a long-term project, though it’s not a proletarian revolution. Instead, it’s a kleptocratic coup d’état: The modern Kremlin project seeks to undermine Western democracies, break up the E.U. and NATO, and put corrupt relationships rather than the rule of law at the center of international commerce.

.. it’s worth remembering why Golos and his network failed. In large part,

  • it was because the center-left — especially the anti-Soviet wing of the American trade union movement — rejected Soviet-style communism in the United States. It’s also because,
  • in the 1940s and 1950s, the American political establishment, Democratic and Republican, unified around the need to defeat Soviet-style communism in Europe. And it’s because,
  • even in the depths of the Depression, the majority of Americans were never beguiled by the appeal of authoritarianism.

.. A wing of the Republican Party is preparing to double down and support the Russian autocracy, which it believes, mistakenly, is “Christian.” 

.. To push back against them, as well as their equivalents from the rest of the autocratic world, we will need not only to catch the odd agent but also to

  • make our political funding systems more transparent, to
  • write new laws banning shell companies and money laundering, and to
  • end the manipulation of social media.

It took more than a generation for Americans to reject the temptations of communist authoritarianism; it will take more than a generation before we have defeated kleptocratic authoritarianism too — if we still can.

 

 

Ryan, Republicans and the Republic

The ships are leaving the sinking rat.

That’s the moral of Paul Ryan’s unexpected but not surprising announcement this week that he will give up the speakership

.. Many of these Republicans once believed that Donald Trump alone possessed the kind of political virility needed to vanquish Hillary Clinton and make America great again. Only belatedly have they figured out that the virility comes with a case of syphilis.

.. “The litmus test for being a Republican these days is not about any given set of ideals or principles; it’s about loyalty to the man, and I think that’s challenging.”

.. The world will little note nor long remember that in 2017 Republicans cut the top marginal rate to 37 percent from 39.6 percent and otherwise tried but failed to kill Obamacare

.. A conservative rejoinder to this critique is that the speaker had no choice; that Trump was the lemon with which he had to make lemonade. Nonsense. Congress and the White House are coequals, and Ryan and other Republicans who saw Trump for what he is never owed him obeisance. They owed the country an alternative political vision, untainted by Trumpism, which could emerge from the debacle of this presidency with clean hands. Ryan’s failure to deliver one will be remembered as the central fact of his once-bright career.

.. Is there an alternative?

Among Republicans, Ohio’s John Kasich, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain have sought in different ways to offer one, without immediate success but with integrity, honor and a sense of the long view.

.. “The center-right and center-left are still joined by a broad set of common values, including respect for free speech and dissent, a belief in the benefits of international trade and immigration, respect for law and procedural legitimacy, a suspicion of cults of personality, and an understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems.”

Trump’s Threat to Democracy

four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:

  1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
  2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
  3. He or she tolerates violence.
  4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.

.. “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”

.. democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in

  • Russia, the
  • Philippines,
  • Turkey,
  • Venezuela,
  • Ecuador,
  • Hungary,
  • Nicaragua,
  • Sri Lanka,
  • Ukraine,
  • Poland and
  • Peru.

.. Venezuela was a relatively prosperous democracy, for example, when the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez tapped the frustrations of ordinary citizens to be elected president in 1998.

.. the Venezuelan public overwhelmingly believed that “democracy is always the best form of government,” with only one-quarter saying that authoritarianism is sometimes preferable. Yet against their will, Venezuelans slid into autocracy.

“This is how democracies now die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

.. he has tried to undermine institutions and referees of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.
.. Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump (Newt Gingrich nudged it along in the 1990s), but Trump accelerated it.
.. It matters when Trump
  • denounces the “deep state Justice Department,”
  • calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and
  • urges “jail” for Huma Abedin,
  • denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and
  • promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters.
.. The answer, they said, is not for Trump opponents to demonize the other side or to adopt scorched-earth tactics, for this can result in “a death spiral in which rule-breaking becomes pandemic.” It’s also not terribly effective, as we’ve seen in Venezuela.
.. they suggested protesting vigorously — but above all, in defense of rights and institutions, not just against the ruler.
.. build coalitions, even if that means making painful compromises, so that protests are very broadly based.