A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.
The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.
- “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
- It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”
Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”
That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.
Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.
So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.
Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.
Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.
“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”
When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.
But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.
Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.
Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —
- enrich your cronies,
- terrify your foes,
- placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
- propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism
— no longer works so well in an era of
- Magnitsky sanctions,
- international ostracism,
- a persistently stagnant economy,
- middling oil prices,
- unpopular pension reforms, and
- dubious foreign adventures.
It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.
None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.
Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”Related‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s RussiaHe Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
Connor Betts, the alleged Dayton shooter, had left-wing political views, believed in socialism, supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and regularly inveighed on Twitter against various personages on the right (including, it turns out, me). This has some conservatives fuming that liberal media is conveniently ignoring the progressive ideology of one shooter while obsessing over the far-right ideology of another — Patrick Crusius, who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before police say he murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.
Sorry, but the comparison doesn’t wash. It’s idiotic.
The Dayton victims did not fit any political or ethnic profile: They were black and white, male and female, an immigrant from Eritrea and Betts’s own sister. Crusius’s victims, overwhelmingly Hispanic, did: They were the objects of his expressly stated political rage.
What happened in Ohio was a mass shooting in the mold of the Las Vegas massacre: victims at random, motives unknown. What happened in Texas was racist terrorism in the mold of Oslo, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Poway.
The former attack vaguely implicates the “dark psychic force” that Marianne Williamson spoke of in last week’s Democratic debates. The latter directly implicates the immigrant-bashing xenophobic right led by Donald Trump.This needs to be said not because it isn’t obvious, but because too many conservatives have tried to deny the obvious
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
. It’s not about ideology, they say: It’s a mental-health issue. But that’s precisely the kind of evasive reasoning many of those conservatives mockedin 2016, when the mental state and sexual orientation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was raised by some media voices to suggest that his attack had not really been an act of Islamist terrorism.
Alternatively, conservatives have cited the decline of civil society, the effects of the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the paucity of prayer and the ubiquity of violent video games — in sum, the breakdown of “the culture” — as explanations for mass shootings. This is the right-wing equivalent of the left’s idea that poverty and climate change are at the root of terrorism: causes so general that they explain everything, hence nothing. Why not also blame Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God?
Get real: The right’s attempt to downplay the specifically ideological context of the El Paso massacre is a transparently self-serving attempt to absolve the president of moral responsibility for his demagogic rhetoric. This, too, shouldn’t wash. The president is guilty, in a broad sense, of a form of incitement.
No, Trump did not specifically incite anyone to violence, as characters like Yasir Arafat once did. (“To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!”) He will not, as Palestinian leaders still do, offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists. His scripted condemnation on Monday of white supremacy was, at least, a condemnation.
But incitement takes many forms. In June 2018, Trump tweeted the following: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The tweet (noted by my colleague Frank Bruni in a recent column) is significant precisely because it is almost forgotten. It does not even rank in a top 10 list of Trumpian outrages. And yet it’s all there:
- The imputation of bad faith to his political opponents.
- The conspiracy theory about “potential voters.”
- The sneaking conflation of illegal immigrants with violent gang members.
And the language of infestation. In the early 1990s, Hutu propagandists in Rwanda spoke of the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The word served as a preamble to the 1994 genocide in which over half a million people died. In today’s America, the dissemination of the idea, via the bully pulpit of the presidency, that we are not merely being strained or challenged by illegal immigrants, but invaded and infested, predicated the slaughter in El Paso.
It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory. On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.
The main task for Democrats over the next 15 months won’t be to convince America that they need yet another health care re-invention, or that the economy is a mess, or that the system is rigged, or that the right response to Trump’s immigration demagoguery is an open border. It’s that the president is
- a disgrace to his office,
- an insult to our dignity,
- a threat to our Union, and
- a danger to our safety.
15:33viewers and listeners you know onelesson I learned when I was the editorof The Jerusalem Post is that the moststereotyped people in the world and I bystereotype people I don’t mean Jews orPalestinians I mean this kind of Jew orthat kind of Palestinian they’re alwaysgoing to font they’re always going tosurprise you if you actually practicejournalism you willgo and meet settlers who are also likehippie stoners and you know you think ohthe settlers they’re all theseright-wing fanatics but there’s always aflip side you will meet Palestiniansincluding Palestinians affiliated withradical organizations that also havetheir surprises and journalism at itsbest always has to make large allowancesfor the capacity to be surprised by thepeople that you are otherwise most eagerto stereotype I think where we go wrongin big ways is when we fall prey tothose stereotypes I mean why was forinstance the the story about UVA therape hoax at UVA why was that so readilybelieved because so many prejudices thatwe had or at least segments of the mediahad about white entitled frat kids atUVA behaving in certain ways all of themseem to be confirmed by that by thatnarrative so people jumped on and saidwell this has got to be right becausethis is the classic the classic UVA fratboy and this is how you might expectthey would behave and of course thisturned out to be one of the big egg onyour faces story that not only neverminddamaged the journalists in question orRolling Stone magazine I think damagedthe profession as a whole and it also bythe way damaged victims of rape becausethey would always have to live under theburden well you never know because therewas that there was that UVA story and Ithink this is this is true not simply asjournalists but as human beings youalways have to look at someone and sayI’m expecting this I have to I have tothere has to be some large allowance inmy mind that they will not be the peoplewho will conform to the stereotype thatI had about them and I might add goingto the times destroyed a great manystereotypes I had harbored when I was atThe Wall Street Journal good about thekind of people are at the times good youknow and to add to what Brett’s saying Imean some of the most stereotyped someof the most stereotyped people inAmerica by journalists are Trump votersandsome of the stereotypes hold true butsome Donen I mean I remember him it’sone of the reasons why it’s important toget out there I remember going to anearly Trump rally in South Carolina justbefore its primary and spending a coupleof hours there interviewing the voterswho’d come and each of those peopletheir take on reality wasn’t the same asmine it wouldn’t have been the same asBrett Caesar but each of them had aspecific and thought out reason why theyfound Donald Trump attractive and noneof those reasons fit neatly into thestereotype of Trump voters and I think Imean I’ve always been under the underthe position if we want to under if wewant to get beyond Donald Trump we haveto understand in a real way and not asuperficial stereotypical way what madehim so appealing to so many votersbecause we’re not going to reach thosevoters with someone else unless weunderstand that well sorry Brett you mayremember that when you were on BillMaher a year ago you responded to thispoint exactly that there is a kind ofliberal blue state prejudice about aTrump voter and that in fact there’sother ways to see them and understandhim and there’s the very point thatFrank is making I’m gonna get back tothat Innes and later hopefully I want totalk about what you think that the causeof Trump how he became our presidentwe’ll get to that in a moment but I wantto first go back since we talked abouttwo of your columns I want to get to oneof yours that just came out today wasn’tactually a column it was a much moreextended essay and and wanted I think hevery frequently read and because this isthe Y M H a people in this room mightcare about this essay in particular andthis is really about progressiveliberalism and the politics that is notunfamiliar to Frank and its obsessionwith Israel the deemed Immunizationdeluded the legitimacy of Israel and howthat oftentimes this kind of woke nestsprogressiveness also slides intoanti-semitism and why is it that thosepeople who are who feel most strongly
And why should they be?One of the problems with elite universities is that they accustom students to a sense of prestige that’s both superficial and inhibits a certain kind of risk-taking and genuine nonconformity. Obviously that’s not universally true but it is hard to move off the beaten path when the one before you seems well-lit and glittering. It’s also a truism that failure is life’s great teacher, and whatever else the beneficiaries of the cheating may get, they are being deprived of something ultimately more valuable.
The larger question is whether this scandal exposes how rotten the entire enterprise of higher education has become. I personally think the four-year college model is crazy — it should be three years, as it is in England. And that’s just for starters. We need to reinvent the model root-to-branch. That’s one of the reasons I’m against making college available to all: You are merely funneling more students into a system of increasingly dubious value.
Gail: Kids who can’t afford to go to college and who would benefit from college should get government funding. But the loan system is a different question. It’s worrisome. I’ve always wondered if high school graduates should have to work a year or two — volunteer programs count — before they can commit to an expensive education.
Bret: Agree completely. Frankly every 18-year-old at any level of income would benefit from a year of service of some sort. I know I would have, and I’d love to see my children take a gap year or two before college.
Gail: Our current government loan program is terrible. It helps schools grow by building up unnecessary programs and of course encourages kids to take out huge debt they’ll be dragging around for half their lives. The for-profit schools are the most egregious offenders. Many of them rake in a ton of money by making promises they can’t deliver on — great high-paying jobs that never materialize. I’m not sure students should even be able to get federal loans for for-profit schools. What do you think?
Bret: I don’t share your profound skepticism regarding for-profit schools, but I think you’re right on this point. The federal government should not be indirectly subsidizing for-profit entities, period, especially when they have a questionable track record of achieving the results they promise. Then again, I’m skeptical of federal student loans in general, because I think they help drive up the cost of tuition, exacerbating the problem they’re intended to solve.
.. Gail: What we need is so simple — strong background checks on gun purchases, a ban on rapid-fire weapons that make it easy to mow down dozens of people. But I wonder sometimes if we could up the ante. Require that everybody who buys a gun has to be able to demonstrate both an understanding of gun safety and a minimal level of marksmanship. The one thing we don’t talk about is how inept many gun owners are. You need a decent amount of skill to be able to hit a target, particularly if you’re nervous or on the move. Unless, of course, your target is a mass of people at prayer.
.. Bret: None. And it is particularly disappointing to see a Republican like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a so-called constitutional conservative, vote with the president just weeks after he delivered a statement denouncing the national-emergency declaration. It means that Republicans have no higher principle than their own political self-preservation.
So now it will be up to the Supreme Court to act to defend the separation of powers. Don’t be surprised if Chief Justice John Roberts or another conservative justice delivers the majority opinion against the president, along with the court’s liberal wing. As we both know, the Trump presidency makes for strange bedfellows.