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.

 

 

How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.

Why Justin Trudeau Is Able to Stand Up to Donald Trump

I have the immediate urge to praise Canada, set in motion by Justin Trudeau’s recent rebuke of Donald Trump at the G-7 summit. There, Trudeau made it plain that he and his country were not about to be bullied by the American President, not on a question of unilateral tariffs, not about anything. Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates.

.. The question worth asking is what it is in the Canadian national character, if I may call it that, that makes Canadians so ready to take on bullies.

Canada has been doing this as long as there has been a Canada. The Mounties wear red coats, we were taught in school, to defy villains by their very presence.

.. Lester Pearson prompted Charles de Gaulle to cut short a visit to the country, in 1967, after he had insulted Canadian sovereignty.

.. When Pierre Trudeau learned that Richard Nixon, in 1971, had called him an “asshole,” he delivered an unforgettable Canadian retort: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

.. Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit.

.. Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand.

.. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like.

.. the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

.. The term seems to have originated, or at least become most closely associated, with the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.

.. in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

.. If you have experience working outside your immediate clan or cohort, you’re likelier to be able to practice democratic politics.

.. Jürgen Habermas captured in the phrase “the public sphere,” when he showed how essential civic life was to the Enlightenment: a government is only as strong as its cafés.

.. for all the South’s cultural self-proclamation, it was a paralyzed, frozen society, while the North was full of activity. “Our young men are members and managers of reading rooms, public libraries, gymnasiums, game clubs, boat clubs, ball clubs, and all sorts of clubs, Bible classes, debating societies, military companies; they are planting road-side trees, or damming streams for skating ponds, or rigging diving-boards, or getting up fireworks displays, or private theatricals; they are always doing something,”

.. it was the strength of Canada’s commonplace civilization, the knowledge that a huge and hugely variegated country would find bullying unacceptable, that gave Trudeau the nerve to speak

.. his defense of the idea that there is more to politics than the rituals of domination and submission, which are the sum total of Donald Trump’s understanding of society.

.. The bankruptcy of America’s social capital becomes more evident when we see it flourish elsewhere. It’s no accident that Trudeau, in addition to receiving the support of his own Parliament, has received that of what used to be called the free world. The American President, meanwhile, has found himself more at home with the brutal leaders of gangster governments.

Trump the European Nationalist Puts America Last

President Trump, in concert with several European leaders, including those of Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy, is intent on dehumanizing immigrants and refugees. The aim is to equate them with terrorists and criminals ready to “infest” — Trump’s word — American and European civilization, defined as a threatened white Judeo-Christian preserve.

It’s a consistent policy buttressed by insinuation and lies about the supposed threat, and designed to manipulate fear and nationalism as election-winning emotions in a time of rapid technological change, large migrant flows and uncertainty. Vermin infest, not humans.

Every utterance of Trump on immigration is meant to conflate immigration with danger. This is a direct repudiation of America’s distinguishing essence — its constant reinvention through immigrant churn.

The immigrant brings violence. The immigrant brings terror. The immigrant’s humanity is lesser or nonexistent. These are tropes about “the other” whose capacity to galvanize mobs, and wreak havoc, was proved in the first half of the 20th century. Trump does not hesitate to use them.

.. Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader, who has said that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.”

.. The Hungarian parliament has just passed legislation that would throw people in jail for providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants.

.. Matteo Salvini, the rightist Italian interior minister

.. Before taking office, he said Italy was packed with “drug dealers, rapists, burglars,” whom he wants to send home.

.. the destabilizing impact of globalization on Western democracies; stagnant middle-income wages; growing inequality; fear of an automated future

..  the ease of mob mobilization through fear-mongering and scapegoating on social media.

.. Trump is strong because of a global nationalist lurch; that his feral instincts make him dangerous; and that he may well win a second term, just as Orban has now won four terms.

To ridicule Trump will achieve little absent a compelling social and economic alternative that addresses anxiety. The Democratic Party, for now, is nowhere near that.

.. Trump likes to go for the jugular. He sees opportunity in a Europe that is split down the middle between nations like Hungary and Poland that make no attempt to sugarcoat their anti-immigrant nativism and states like Germany that have not forgotten that the pursuit of racially and religiously homogeneous societies lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century.

.. Orban is the most formidable politician in Europe today. It’s no coincidence that Trump called him last weekend. Their aims overlap.

..  Trump tweeted this week that “Crime in Germany is way up” and that allowing immigrants in “all over Europe” has “strongly and violently changed their culture.”

..  Trump (whose stats on German crime were wrong) backs Orban against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the continuing bid to make racism and xenophobia the new normal of Western societies.

.. the greatest danger is within. A two-term Trump presidency would likely corrode American institutions and values to the point at which they could scarcely be resurrected.