November 2nd, 2020 | 28 mins 48 secs
democratic socialists of america, dsa, election 2020, fascism, joe biden, kamala harris, trump
[This episode was recorded live at Five and Dime at noon on August 14, 2020]
That’s it for the first season of A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac. Some odds and ends may float up afterwards, some updates or conversations, but further episodes will not add anything essential to what has been said here. The goal was to articulate a particular vision. If success were measured by a change in the attitudes of the bulk of the US left, then I failed, but by that measure failure may have been inevitable. Insofar as existence itself is a kind of victory, then the podcast is a success. Each episode is downloaded by around 150 people. That’s not much, but given that the material, a discussion of the liberal Marx, is dense and niche, and that my promotion skills are limited, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that these ideas are unpopular as such. It’s just that people who think this way don’t find representation in the left press, for reasons I’ve discussed at length in the episodes on Syria and the Ukraine. And for what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that despite the smallness of our reach, we still have a moral obligation to show whoever we can that there is another and a better way.
We are currently living a very dangerous moment. I do not mean the banal observation that we are now under great physical and political threat, although we are threatened in these ways. I mean that we are under a great moral risk. Our very humanity is at stake in these moments. I’ll come back to the present, but first I’m going to talk a little about people in the past in another part of the world whose experiences are not really so remote now. The problems of everyday people living under fascist domination could become our problems very soon, and I want to discuss them here.
As WW2 progressed the Nazis relied more and more on Jewish labor because German men were dying in disastrous colonial wars in Eastern Europe. This naturally extended to the mass extermination sites. Often Jews were forced to herd their confreres and coreligionists into gas chambers. This was the case at Belcek. These people followed Nazi orders under threat of death, and if they died in revolt for sure someone else would have done those tasks. I don’t think their situation is a moral one: they don’t really have a choice. When they got a good chance to attempt escape or revolt they did so. They had a range of options that was incredibly narrow, and these options were determined by actions far removed in time and space from them. People who lived under Nazi occupation had a little more agency. They could choose to risk their lives and the lives of their family to rescue Jewish people. In different situations different people found ways to be heroic or not (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA). There are few moral heroes in reality, and they are praiseworthy, but we can’t expect them to present a solution to our problems as they seem to in all the movies. There were people in this story who could easily have made a different choice.
In the Spring of 1933 Germany had its last free elections. There are many reasons why they were led to this impasse, and I’ve treated them somewhat in an episode of this podcast. Ultimately it boils down to a near universal loss of faith in democracy and in the context of the socialist tradition the crisis took the form of a split in the left about democracy. It’s in those final elections in Weimar Germany that the actions of a decade later were determined, narrowed and captured. Had the left rallied to the democratic Weimar republic, or simply been able to form a government with conservatives, those conservatives may not have felt they needed to lift Hitler into power. As I discuss in the episode on Germany, a dozen conservative governments around Europe blocked fascists from taking power, depending on if they could find support on the left for a democratic coalition. The Jewish staff of German death camps could only choose to work or die, but that circumstance was forced on them by the German electorate who could have done better. The Germans could have avoided the disaster: Ukrainians could not have. Trump supporting Americans will do no better. We are currently living a moment where we have the ability to avoid disaster. If Trump wins a second term our choices narrow down considerably. We’re not just risking our ability to live, but also risking our ability to avoid for our fellow Americans the shame of collaboration, which is much worse. Throughout this podcast I have shown that no one in power is an angel or a devil, and the same is true of us all.
To say the same thing in different words: before 2016 Republicans weren’t ready to separate masses of immigrant children from their parents, or to end Social Security, or destroy our democratic institutions on behalf of a third rate Russian gangster wannabe. Trump’s support has been steady at 40% according to 538. These people are being groomed to become genuine nazi storm troopers. They don’t seem concerned over the way our retirement homes have become slaughter houses of covid. They don’t seem to mind ending Social Security. If you are disappointed in your family and friends not wearing masks, then please consider what crimes they will be capable of in year 2 or 3 of a second Trump term. Government officials can be coopted, fired, turkey farmed as we saw in Michael Lewis’ work. We can expect local police departments to cooperate with or be replaced with federal agents and as the corruption spreads ultimately the federal government can be expected to allow gangs of brownshirts to operate with impunity. It’s no good organizing a breaklight clinic when federal agents and their white supremacist lackeys are kidnapping our leaders off the street without provocation, when they don’t need probable cause. As Hannah Arendt rightly pointed out, when Nazis lie they are providing justifications for what they intend to do. If it were true that BLM were fascistic Bolsheviks, as Bill Bar has testified in Congress, what would be justified? That is what Trump intends to do. Trump inc. have drafted legislation that would deny antifa of American citizenship. Antifa can be anyone they say it is. Without American citizenship they can torture us, imprison us indefinitely, take our lives, try us as enemy combatants. People who think America is one long continuous exercise of arbitrary power by white supremacists show a failure of imagination. Tulsa would be read by future generations as a prelude to a second Trump term.
I’m ending a period where I worked exclusively on this podcast so that I can work instead to help elect Joe Biden. I’m not under any illusions that Biden represents a solution to all our woes, but I also don’t think it’s the case that he is just the lesser evil. Joe Biden’s platform, if implemented, would be the most progressive advance in our country since the New Deal. Joe Biden’s long career, which I discuss at length in the final episode, is marked by his blunt honesty about his political positions and a commitment to finding a negotiated solution, however imperfect, to our nation’s problems. He’s a man with a keen understanding of what is politically possible, and he has never misrepresented his political beliefs to win or pander to voters. Many of those beliefs were certain to alienate some progressives. That’s why I’m sure that if it’s in his platform, he sincerely believes in it and thinks it is possible. This fills me with hope. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, a person who signed on to Sander’s M4A plan, confirms what I said there, that Biden intends to pass a strong redistributive New Deal for racial equality. That’s probably why Michael Moore has called Harris the most progressive VP candidate we have had in our lifetime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-7Z6Hep9zA). Moore is confused about why Biden would choose Harris because he doesn’t understand Biden. You can listen to my Guide to Biden episode and be a lot smarter than Michael Moore is being in this podcast. But even he is smart enough to know Harris is a progressive, and Biden’s choice is a sign that he’s tacking to the left, that he is listening with an open heart to his critics in the progressive movement. People didn’t notice Biden’s new leftward lean because they didn’t read his platform and are dominated by propaganda.
As of this writing, Joe Biden has a strong lead in the polls, eleven points is what NPR reported this morning. He has to do better than win, though: he has to win in the electoral college. If the vote count is close in a state with a Republican governor, counting could be ended before all the votes are counted and Trump could win a state where he lost the real vote. If Biden wins with a slight advantage in the electoral college Trump could contest the outcome in court, in a court system he has had an outsized role in shaping. In short, we have a chance though by no means a certainty of victory.
People say that Biden will just perpetuate the system that got us here. If you mean back to another election where we have a chance to win, then yes it is true Biden will bring us back here. Trump will not: he will end meaningful democracy in a second term. But Biden is not running on the promise of a return to a past condition. In this podcast I have cited the work of a multitude of sociologists, data scientists and socialist organizers from Hajnal, Acharya, McElwee, Bayard Rustin and Stacey Abrams and more to show that moderate popular progressive legislation like the Voting Rights Act has measurable effects fighting racist attitudes. There is consensus in the scholarly community that nothing else has the same impact, not political campaigns, not activism, nothing but moderate progressive legislation. As I highlighted in the episode on the German revolution, Lenin himself believed that supporting moderates against the far right was an essential task for revolutionaries, crucially because he identifies this process is the one where the working class learns its needs and abilities. There is no path to power for socialists that does not require shifting public opinion. That’s how we change the system, and again, Biden is the strongest hope we’ve had in our lifetime to achieve those goals.
If you spend any amount of time online in left spaces on social media you will find a table of doom with a list of political issues and one column is Trump and the other is Biden. Then the rest of the table is supposed to be their respective political positions. These are all false, superficial, half-true, dumb. First off, no one has a political position that can be summed up in one word. Don’t be lazy: this is serious. Read Biden’s platform before you give yourself the privilege of an opinion about Joe Biden. If there’s some aspect of Biden or his politics that you think I should have addressed but did not, understand I covered the points that were important. There is a lot I studied intensely and then left out, because it was not important or it was based on misinformation. I would encourage you to do more research than you make conclusions, and to understand that far left media is compromised, as I worked in this podcast to show, and that the options in front of us are progress or fascism. Full luxury space communism is not currently on the menu. If we choose progress, then better options open to us.
I have exhaustively discussed the socialist tradition, and I think shown that there are resources in that tradition for socialists to find a way out of the trap they are currently in. From Marx’s rejection of revolutionary conspiracies to the democratic movement the Bolsheviks rode to power and then betrayed in the Russian Revolution to the discussion of how German Communists aided Hitler’s rise to power by attacking the fledgling Weimar republic to Garcia Oliver’s appeal to Catalan anarchists to support the Spanish Republic against Franco to the failure of Indonesian communists under the influence of Maoism to fight for democracy instead of their abortive coup attempt, I have documented exhaustively how Socialists fail time and again when they abandon democratic values. And here is where the socialists of today are failing. Bernie Sanders lost the primary because he lost the vote, not because of some shadow conspiracy. We have to respect the democratic will of the people, and continue, as Lenin advised, to patiently explain. As I told my comrades on the steps of city hall last May Day, we can no longer put forward the idea that socialism means having a socialist in power. We cannot and should not want to force on the people projects that they reject in open and free elections.
There are resources in the socialist tradition to affirm democracy and human rights, but it is in no way guaranteed that socialists today will take advantage of them. I can’t say if the socialist movement will be able to reform, but so long as they continue to support candidates running on the Democratic ticket they will have to appeal to the democratically expressed will of the public. If they can stop labeling anyone in the center left an enemy, they may be able to grow. If their attitude continues to be dominated by partisanship they will be handicapped in the struggle, and they will be stuck in the contradiction between the authoritarian and democratic tendencies in the socialist movement. There is always the temptation for Socialists to try and force their will on a public that hasn’t yet agreed to all of their ideas. The vote abstention movement is an act of violence socialists are committing as punishment for people not choosing Bernie Sanders: it is an expression of authoritarianism.
Let’s call the Trump Presidency what it is: a lynching. The official line of the Democratic Socialists of America is to stand on the sidelines. When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race the DSA National Political Committee put out a statement reiterating their commitment to the struggle against poverty and racism, while rejecting the most important thing that we need to do now to fight those things: lift Joe Biden into the Presidency(https://www.dsausa.org/statements/beyond-bernie-a-statement-from-the-dsa-national-political-committee/). This is intentional bystanderism. This is standing on the sideline watching a lynching, arms folded. The national organization has encouraged its various locals to act busy doing a lot of other good things that won’t matter if Trump gets a second term. I’m glad if you endorse a winning progressive in a local election, but that’s not going to matter if Trump can claim our nation as his private property. You can’t mutual aid or grass roots organize against a Fascist who has consolidated ultimate executive power and tamed the judiciary.
Some will say “don’t vote shame me.” How very American to reject an attempt to hold people responsible for something they are doing. Look, you shouldn’t fat shame people because that’s maybe not something they can change. You shouldn’t kink shame people so long as everything is happening between consenting adults. If someone murders someone else in cold blood it makes no sense to say “don’t murder shame me.” Especially when we’re talking about a harm you intend to do to someone else, but haven’t yet. Trying to dissuade you is a good thing. If you are in a swing state and you are voting for Trump or for a third party you are causing harm, and you should be ashamed. Some will say “but I don’t live in a swing state.” Don’t stand on the side during a lynching and pretend there’s nothing you can do. And if you do, don’t try and fool people into believing you are the champion of the downtrodden. Stand up and stop this lynching. Donate to the Biden campaign. Phone bank with the Biden Campaign. Text “organize” to 43367 to get started. Read his damn platform and understand he doesn’t endorse policy he doesn’t believe in and doesn’t think is possible. Understand that the left press is dominated by disinformation and stop spreading it online. Step up and stop this lynching.
Given the continued domination of the US’ left’s media and thought by the dirtbag left, by Jacobin, by the Glen Greenwalds and Max Blumenthals, the useful idiots at Rolling Stone, by Ryan Grim, Katie Halper, Matt Taibbi, Nathan Robinson and so many others, there is no interest for me in helping to build any of the socialist’s parties as they exist. When these people put forward the argument that a Joe Biden presidency just perpetuates the system that made Trump possible they are claiming that liberal democracy always leads to fascism. Well, liberal democracy leads wherever we want to go because that’s what democracy means, and in each election we can always choose to give up on democracy or to make progress. Once we’ve lost democracy our options narrow. I’ve made the argument that every time socialists give up on democracy they lose. That’s the path they want for us: they want us to give up on democracy and let Trump win, because they claim Biden is no better. They think that the pendulum will swing back to give us socialism. Serious study of fascist movements in Germany (Sheridan-Allen), in Italy (Paxton), in Russia (Gessen, Snyder), in modern Turkey (Temelkuran) tell us that there is no pendulum swing, there is no rock bottom to fascism. Fascism ends when we stand up to it and support democracy, or once it has left the world in utter devestation. You cannot fight fascism by capitulating to fascism.
I stopped organizing for the DSA when I realized I was building an institution that would actively try and suppress the vote for Joe Biden, whom I expected would win the primary as far back as January of 2020. It was clear from the results of the 2018 midterm that the public wanted to elect moderate democrats. By focusing their criticisms on Biden, and these criticisms are largely unfair and easily debunked with a little effort, the Democratic Socialist’s of America and the far left more generally is objectively helping Donald Trump achieve a second term. I cannot be a part of that. I will not stand to be gaslit anymore, told that Syrian protesters are crisis actors paid by the CIA or that Russian propaganda didn’t suppress the vote for Clinton in 2016, that there were no Bernie Bros posting snake emojis and calling Elizabeth Warren a backstabber, or calling the Senator from California a Cop rather than a progressive prosecutor and champion for equality, which is what Kamala Harris is (https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2020/08/10/kamala-harris-progressive-pioneer-san-francisco-da-column/3334668001/). There have been far too many lies, half truths and assumptions made, far too much conspiracy thinking on the far left, far too much accepted as true because it feels that way and the group all agrees, and a complete rejection of open debate. Real cancel culture is never hearing a dissenting opinion. I’m proving that as I speak because for sure I’ll be canceled after this. I’m not worried because the people cancelling me are vastly outnumbered. One final word to socialists who think Biden is the devil: You can deny the truth. You can ignore it, but each time you do you incur a debt to reality, and reality always collects. With this podcast done, I will now spend my energies actively supporting the Biden campaign. I expect to find a great many friends awaiting me in the Democratic Party, and if the socialists ever get their house in order, they may find us ready to build with them. My name is Lelyn R. Masters, and that’s A Democratic Socialist’s Almanac.
July 28th, 2020 | 1 hr 10 mins
2016, activism, anarchism, bernie sanders, communism, democratic, hillary clinton, impeachment, lenin, leninism, masha gessen, paul manafort, poland, progressivism, putin, revolution, russia, russian revolution, socialism, socialist, solidarity, stalin, strategy, the russian revolution, timothy snyder, trotsky, trump, ukraine, victor serge, yanukovich
[Correction: I tried really hard to say "Ukraine" and not "The Ukraine" but I didn't get every instance. I'm very sorry. It's a hard habit to break. I mean no disrespect. ]
The fate of Ukraine is now intimately tied to American politics, and oddly American politics seems doomed now precisely because we have failed Ukraine in some important ways. Hopefully by the end of this podcast you’ll understand.
On January 9 2020 Jacobin published a piece by Christian Parenti entitled “Impeachment Without Class Politics: an Autopsy” reminding us that impeachment and Ukraine don’t matter (https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/impeachment-class-politics-emolument-constitution). Here’s the first line: “The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing.” Great. Then they repeat the line that impeachment should have targeted something else: emoluments. This is a particularly strong version of this argument, specifically because it is conceivable legally that an impeachment case could have been mounted around emoluments. First of all, this is still whataboutery, according to which if you didn’t do anything about ‘x’ then you shouldn’t do anything about ‘y’ either. Someone got away with murder so we can never again convict murderers. Secondly, to the public impeachment really was about the whole Trump problem, which is why Republicans kept talking about it not being right to try and undo an election this way. They were obviously wrong about that: this is exactly how the founding fathers expected we could undo an election. But the bigger problem I have about this is that it is wrapped up with the idea that Ukraine doesn’t matter. It may not poll high as a concern to middle America, but part of why that is the case is because outlets like Jacobin are working to convince us it’s unimportant. 13,000 Ukrainians have died as of today, in mid February as I write. That matters. None of these people is mentioned in the article entitled “autopsy.” Their deaths merit no record, no investigation. The article does actually mention Ukraine, briefly, twice, once to mention possible Biden corruption, which demonstrably false and a Trumpian talking point. The article mentions Ukraine a second time at the very end calling the issue “sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine - a country few Americans know or care about.” When Parenti asks us why class politics weren’t involved in the impeachment articles he is erasing Russian oppression of Ukrainians, because that’s where the class war is located in this issue. As in all wars, it is the working class that fights this one. He’s somehow ignored or never tried to know about the way Putin and Paul Manafort both got rich exploiting Ukrainian labor. Then he aligns himself with Trump’s anti-Ukraine and anti-America line. That’s the tell: it’s more important to him to be anti-American than it is to reflect on the harm done to Ukrainians and to the idea of international working class, or even just human, solidarity. It’s shameful and dangerous that one of the leading left publications is making the argument that lives of people overseas don’t matter. There’s really no way to build a sense of international solidarity, to inspire Americans with a feeling that immigrants deserve rights, when the US left is committed to discounting the lives of Ukrainians. Let’s do better than this: let’s talk about Ukraine.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, in the west it was expected that free markets would allow the spontaneous development of democratic institutions. Instead in Russia the new wealth would create a kleptocracy that would coalesce around first Yeltsin and then Putin. In Ukraine a set of klans would jostle for power, which was formally exchanged through rigged elections. The European Union became for many a beacon of hope that Ukraine could soon become a full democracy where money couldn’t buy power to flaunt the law, and where elections were not negotiated by a corrupt group of oligarchs. But the mafia state in Russia was a constant roadblock on the way to mass democracy, and from the beginning Trump was there dipping his ladle into the trough of human misery. In 1986 and again in 1996 Trump tried and failed to get a deal to build a luxury hotel in Moscow (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
We now know a lot about Trump’s business dealings in Russia, stretching back decades. We learned a lot from Glenn Simpson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on August 22 of 2017. Simpson investigated Trump for Fusion GPS, which is the company that produced the Steele Dossier. Trump is a failed businessman. His father earned money running brothels during the gold rush out west, and then buying up real estate in Brooklyn just before the bridge was built increasing the value of land there. Trump’s own enterprises, hotels and casinos kept losing money. He defaulted on many loans, and couldn’t get financing in western banks. So he starts looking for money to invest from Russia just as the market was being opened in the early 90s, and Russians were trying to find a way to get money out to western banks where it could be safe.
To understand the war in Ukraine today we have to talk about Putin’s rise to power in 1999. That is also where the story of Yanukovich’s rise in Ukrainian politics and later Trump’s rise in American politics begins. (Hensman 67,Gessen 21-42, Horvath p24). In 1999 Putin is still working as a leader in the FSB, and he starts having FSB agents set bombs in apartment buildings so that he can blame it on Chechen rebels to start a war with Chechnya. That’s how he makes himself a big hero and wins the election. It worked. Several hundred Russians were murdered, and over a thousand injured. Even though in one case where the local FSB had not been informed of the plot they actually responded to a report of the bomb and disarmed it, and then later had to change their story about it being a bomb to “oh, it was a training exercise and these were bags of sugar,” everyone in Russia at the time believed it was Chechnyans (Gessen The Man Without a Face, The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin [MWFURVP] pp23-29; Hensman, pp. 65-66). In 2002 an independent commission established by the Russian Duma (a parliament) found, partly based on the testimony of defected FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, that the FSB had been behind the bombings. Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by Russian agents using Polonium in quantities only manufacturable by state powers, with the poison being traced back to KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi who had tea with Litvinenko. Litvinenko was poisoned in London where he lived in exile. At the time Gordon Brown then refused to meet with Putin, though David Cameron later would in an attempt to reset relations with Russia. Note in passing that in part it was Jeremy Corbyn’s very pro-Russian reaction to news of a similar poisoning of Sergei Skripal that in part convinced Labor voters that he did not have their best interests in heart. His reaction to the murder of Litvinenko was the same. Corbyn either didn’t know or didn’t care that Litvinenko had been murdered to hide the FSB’s bombings of Russian citizens in 1999. Either way, what a horrible thing to contribute to the cover up of such a terrible crime. His reaction to Skripal’s murder is proof that he had not reflected on any of this, and he deserved to lose in 2019. The British working class deserved much better. Putin’s war in Chechnya in 2000 was the original “war on terror,” coming as it did a year before the attacks of 9/11. As a result of this manufactured crisis in March of 2000 Putin is elected President. This set the model for what is called “managed democracy,” where a state produces crises whenever there is an election in order to produce the desired outcome.
Putin had cut his teeth as an FSB agent in the 80s in Germany, and as he watched the Berlin wall torn down, and then later saw protest movements spread across Eastern Europe where former Soviet States were holding referendums where the majority voted to leave the USSR, something shifted into place for Putin. It’s from that time on that Putin saw the CIA in all such popular movements. His views are reflected in Russian propaganda through Russia Today and Sputnik and other sources. When pro-democracy protest movements erupted in Georgia in 2004, Putin and the Russian state media called it a CIA coup. Likewise with the Maidan protests that occured in 2013. Coup. Are there massive protests in Syria? It’s a coup. Srdja Popovic is the activist that led the student movement Otpor! who helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic only escaped conviction for war crimes by dying before the trial could be concluded. Peter Pomerantsev recently interviewed Mr. Popovic: “Srdja Popovic is halfway through explaining to me how to bring down a dictator when he gets a call. It’s a warning about a piece coming out tomorrow claiming he’s connected to the CIA and is behind revolutions in the Middle East. The piece first appeared in an Istanbul daily and then reappeared on a minor Serbian-language website full of pro-Russian conspiracies. From there it moved to a site owned by Christian Orthodox patriots, and it would soon be featured on the front page of one of Serbia’s largest tabloids, which Srdja assumes, is publishing it because conspiracy theories sell rather than because the paper has it in for him personally. After all, he makes for a good story. Recently Russian state TV camera crews turned up at his office among the monolithic Communist concrete cubes of New Belgrade, where it sits between a hairdressing salon and a pastry shop. They tried to force their way in. If they had hoped to find dozens of CIA operatives, they must have been disappointed. Srdja runs a permanent staff of four Serbs, who sit in a neat grey office which would look like an accountant’s, were it not for the multiple posters of the clenched fist that is Srdja’s logo.” (Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda [TNP], p.59). The obsession with the CIA, seeing its secret hand behind every event we can’t or won’t explain, is a kind of structural anti-semitism, in that it doesn’t, at least not always with Putin, name Jews as the originators of the international conspiracy, but it labels all such popular protests as being instigated by a shadowy cabal, sometimes that’s just vaguely refered to as “the West,” “elites,” or “America” or “George Soros,” and in Putin’s version it is more often “the homosexual Western conspiracy.” There’s never any proof but that’s not the point. The point is to make people sitting at home doubt just enough so they don’t want to join the protests. It effectively robs the protestors of their agency, treating human beings like manipulable political objects, just the way some dogmatic Marxist might. This should sound familiar after our episodes on Syria. We’ll find more examples of structural anti-semitism as we continue.
Here is a quick list of tropes that are typical of Russian propaganda, identified by experts in the field Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder and Peter Pomerantsev. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for full sources.
The US is to blame for any attacks against it. (Gessen, p 232)
American intervention is going to cause World War 3. (Gessen, p. 234)
Humanism, cosmopolitanism, human rights are always bankrupt concepts and their use is cynical manipulation. (Gessen, p. 234).
Russia is not imperialist. When it invades its neighbors this is always in self defence. (Gessen, p. 275)
Pro-democracy revolutions only lead to chaos and civil war. (Pomerantsev, p. 140).
Because some nations have violated the law, law itself is bankrupt, and so when Russia breaks the law it does so from innocence because it does not pretend to honor the law. (Snyder, p. 143).
In 2003 Ukraine’s close neighbor Georgia had a revolution that overthrew Russian stooge Eduard Shevardnadze, and in 2004 the Adjara revolution restored Georgian independence from Russia. In 2008 Russia went to war in Georgia to try and restore Russian domination of them; we note this in passing to give an idea of how invested Russia is in keeping its privileged trade relations with its neighbors. This is important to Ukraine, because the Georgian example caused panic in Russia that Ukraine might want meaningful independence also. Also, we’re all good leftists here, so the plight of those oppressed by imperialism moves us. Right? The fate of a place like Georgia or Ukraine is still impacted by Russian internal politics today, and in late 2003 Russian liberals lost the Duma (Horvath p14). In May of 2004 Putin gives a speech blaming the Velvet revolutions on foreign NGOs and George Soros.
In 2004, as Putin’s man in Ukraine Yanukovich was losing an election to remain as Ukraine’s president, in Russia Putin won another election, going through a period where rhetorically he voiced approval of the EU and NATO. Putin won this election thanks to widespread fraud, which should surprise no one. What is interesting here is that, according to Masha Gessen, the fraud seemed to be committed by a grassroots network of supporters, and not to have been coordinated from above (Gessen, MWAFURVP, p184). She goes into some depth in The Future is History to try and explain the psychology of people who are willing to destroy democracy in exchange for kickbacks, talking about Homo Sovieticus.
Here is what they did. Over a million people were deleted from voting roles, which also happened in the US in 2016. Ballots arrived at hospitals pre-filled. People were paid to vote a certain way. The old soviet culture of corruption, of quid pro quo, led people to support Putin in this way in order to get kickbacks: in Stalin’s Russia this kind of corruption was a matter of life and death.
Masha Gessen’s great insight into Russian style fascism is that by increasing the pain people are going through, the regime is able to make them more desperate, more willing to believe the story that nothing could ever have been different, that they must attack their enemies, that they are great.
In the Summer of 2004 Russia began an aggressive intervention into the Ukrainian elections in an attempt to get Yanukovich elected over the EU friendly Viktor Yuschenko. When Putin calls some political movement a coup, or a conspiracy, it’s the ultimate pot calling the kettle black. Russia sets up a team of what they call “political technologists” in Kiev in 2004. During the months that followed they did extremely poorly manufactured polling designed to favor Yanukovich. They organized speeches by pro-Russian speakers and groups. They were trying to play down the idea that Yanukovich and Medvedev and the whole pro-Putin club were gangsters, kleptocrats. That was made harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a personal vendetta against Georgii Gongadze who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, and even harder when it came out that Yanukovich had a criminal record that included a rape conviction (Horvath, p24). As Yanukovitch’s campaign proposed making Russian the official language of Ukraine, Putin himself came into Ukraine to campaign for him, appearing in a softball interview and presiding over a military parade where he invoked the USSR’s role in fighting Hitler in Ukraine in 1943. Remember how Stalin’s role fighting Hitler in WW2 was used to retroactively whitewash the terrible famine Stalin imposed on Ukrainian peasants in 1932, as punishment for “discrediting socialism”? Well, Russian politicians get a lot of mileage out of what they think ‘Stalin beating Hitler’ can let them justify doing. The other aspects of Stalin’s USSR’s involvement in WW2 get erased from this story, the abandonment of Poland in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the role of the comintern in organizing protests against US entry into WW2 in 1939, the purges and mass murder of Poles after Stalin divided up Eastern Europe with Hitler, the way the vast majority of soviet officials collaborated heavily with Hitler and helped initiate the holocaust to scapegoat Jews for the crimes of the NKVD, all of that is forgotten. Instead, “Stalin beats Hitler” gets trotted out in 2004 to justify Russian neo-liberal domination of the Ukrainian economy, to prevent Ukrainian independence and anti-corruption measures, to sabotage Ukrainian entry into the EU, and much later in 2014 “Stalin beats Hitler” will be used to justify Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Many Ukrainians, having an intimate knowledge of that history of Russia’s forcing famine on Ukraine, many of whom still suffer from bad health effects from Chernobyl, have decided that the lesson of history is that they need to shake off Russian domination. When the voting started in 2004 tracksuit wearing thugs attacked voters at polling stations to stop them from voting (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/1477722/Revealed-the-full-story-of-the-Ukrainian-election-fraud.html). Jesus, just saying that out loud I hear how that sounds like something from a Russian gangster movie, but you don’t have to take my word for it, there is a video of the attacks online, and I’ve linked it in the transcript (https://censor.net.ua/en/video_news/461036/local_elections_in_ukraine_police_show_attack_on_polling_station_in_dnipropetrovsk_region_video). There was widespread fraud in this election. Ballots were destroyed. Busloads of Yanukovich supporters went from polling station to polling station, with the same people voting at each station. In some places voters were given pens with disappearing ink! Managed democracy.
Massive protests broke out in Kiev in 2004 against this clear attack on democracy and the rule of law. This is what has become known as the “Orange Revolution.” The protests, sit-ins and a general strike all worked in the end and a second vote was held. International observers agreed this second election was fair, and the winner by a couple percentage points was Victor Yuschenko. But, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, poison your enemies. So, that’s what Russia did: they poisoned Yuschenko resulting in his disfigurement. The poisoning was discovered. Yushchenko got skin grafts and served as president of Ukraine until 2010 when Paul Manafort helped get Yanukovich elected.
In 2008 Putin couldn’t run for a third term legally, so he had his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev become President while Putin became Prime Minister. By that point anyone could tell Putin was still in charge. Masha Gessen describes the system in place in 2008 to assure no candidates independent of the state party could get their names on the ballot: Here “Seryozha” sits in for the incredulous Russian public. “An independent candidate -- one who was not already a member of parliament - was required by new Putin era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country. This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists- preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Michail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out. But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake - and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures?” (Gessen, The Future is History, p289).
A word about managed democracy. The Russian fascists that Putin gets his ideas from, including Ilyin, Dugin and the Izvestia group, believe that the best nation is one without the law and order of a regular state power. The people’s will is embodied in the person of the leader. Law is defined as his will. If he wants to shoot someone in broad daylight in the middle of the street there is nothing anyone can do. Elections are only held as a ritual whereby the people perform their role legitimizing the power of that leader. Managed Democracy. Putin’s last two decades in power fit this description to a T. Yale Historian Timothy Snyder has noted that the lack of a clear succession principle makes modern Russia unstable, makes the future beyond Putin permanently unimaginable. To justify his holding power in the absence a government authority that could survive him, Putin must tell a story about Russia’s eternal enemies. In Putin’s narrative, those eternal enemies are western and homosexual. The Russian ruling clique has decided that homophobia is the way they are going to mobilize people against Russia’s enemies. They believe this information war will go on forever. As a big middle finger to him, we’re going to talk about recent historical events, things that happen and then stop happening, that exist outside of eternity. We’re going to talk about what is actually happening, about what Russia tries to hide from view by vilifying homosexuals and the United States.
We know Paul Manafort now as the corrupt manager of Trump’s Presidential campaign starting officially in March of 2016. We all know that Mr. Manafort is currently serving a prison sentence for federal financial crimes. The official line from the Trump team is that the two men met in an elevator in 2015, though its established fact that they were introduced probably decades before by Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. In 2004 Paul Manafort lived in Trump tower, and in 2006 Trump signed a one-year deal to start building a hotel in Moscow on the site of an old pencil factory, but again nothing was built (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
In 2010 Paul Manafort was hired to get the disgraced Yanukovich re-elected in Ukraine. Tellingly, part of how Manafort cleaned up Yanukovich in 2010 was convincing the latter to speak Ukrainian. He won reelection in part by promising to sign an association agreement with the European Union. After the election, Manafort continued to lobby for Yanukovich in Washington. Meanwhile Yanukovich stole billions of dollars from Ukraine. Protesters in 2014 found his financial records documenting this abuse in a palace that Yanukovich had built during this period with money stolen from the public. The palace had a 9 hole golf course, a helipad, a floating restaurant, a zoo (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/trumpinc/episodes/trump-inc-ukraine). In August 2016 we found out in the NYT that Manafort was paid 27million dollars from Yanukovich under the table. In Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World, Oliver Bullough describes the real cost of this corruption in sapping hundreds of thousands of dollars from a cancer research center, forcing parents of children with cancer to pay bribes for treatment. The Health Minister had overpaid 300 per cent for HIV and TB drugs in 2012. In 2014 efforts to reform the system were abandoned after the Health ministry in seven months couldn’t find a single supplier that wasn’t corrupt (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n04/vadim-nikitin/kleptocracy). That’s money the Ukrainian working class made being expropriated by an American politician with the result being poor people getting no health care, including children with cancer.
As the United States was pursuing a reset of relations with Russia, events in Russia were propelling the country towards a war with Ukraine. The Russian economy in the early oughts did well because theirs was an economy based on the export of oil. After the financial crisis of 2008 the price of oil collapsed, and afterwards Russians were less tolerant of the tyranny they lived under. In 2011 Putin’s Russia faked a landslide victory in the lower house of the Rusian parliament. In response 80,000 people protested in Moscow through December. It’s worth quoting Snyder at length [TRU} I can’t help as I read this thinking about how the Czar claimed the Bolsheviks were German agents. “If the Kremlin’s first impulse was to associate democratic opposition with global sodomy, its second was to claim that protestors worked for a foreign power, one whose chief diplomat was female: ‘she gave the signal.’ On December 15, he claimed that the demonstrators were paid. Evidence was not provided and was not the point. If, as Ilyin maintained, voting was just an opening to foreign influence, then Putin’s job was to make up a story about foreign influence and use it to alter domestic politics...But President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe in 2009, and in 2010 Russia was allowing American forces in Afghanistan. No Russian leader feared a NATO invasion in 2011 or 2012, or even pretended to. In 2012, American leaders believed that they were pursuing a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia. When Mitt Romney referred to Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’ in March 2012, he was ridiculed. Almost no one in the American public media was paying attention to Moscow...The association between opposition and treason was axiomatic, the only question that of the appropriate punishment. In March, Russian television released a film, described as a ‘documentary,’ which claimed that Russian citizens who took to the streets were paid by devious foreigners. Precisely because Putin had made the Russian state vulnerable, he had to claim that it was his opponents who had done so. Since Putin believed that ‘it would be inadmissible to allow the destruction of the state to satisfy this thirst for change,’ he reserved for himself the right to define views that he did not like as a threat to Russia. From 2012, there was no sense in imagining a worse Russia in the past and a better Russia in the future, mediated by a reforming government in the present. The enmity of the United States and the European Union had to become the premise of Russian politics. Putin had reduced Russian statehood to his oligarchical clan and its moment. The only way to head off a vision of future collapse was to describe democracy as an immediate and permanent threat. Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo.” (Snyder TRU, p 56).
Putin won another rigged election in 2012. What seems to be significant about this election was that by this point the fraudulent nature of the election was taken for granted, an avowed and established part of the procedure. From Masha Gessen: “On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. ‘Can you believe this?’ the mothers asked one another. ‘They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.’ They meant the appearance of an election.” (p. 325).
In the US, not experiencing Occupy Wall Street, events in Russia barely pierced the foggy media bubble. I remember around this time joining protests in solidarity with the Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis and that’s it. I don’t remember once hearing a word of solidarity uttered for Russia. US politicians seemed even more clueless. Remember how in the West people thought that opening “free markets” would spontaneously generate democratic governments? Well, that was never true, but people believed it, so to the extent that anyone was paying serious attention to Russia, it was to protect the ability of people to invest money in Russia. But Russians were in the habit of taking whatever they wanted and killing people who got in the way. The result of all this was that to protect commerce, Congress passes the Magnitsky Act in the summer of 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/magnitsky-act-kremlin/535044/). The Magnitsky of the act was an accountant and lawyer who represented William Browder, who invested millions in Russia and was fleeced of his investments by the Russian government mafia. For exposing this corruption, Magnitsky was thrown in jail where he was found dead in 2009. The act freezes the bank accounts of several important Russian oligarchs. This disrupts their efforts to steal money from people investing in Russia, because without western banks as havens into which to launder the money, there’s no way for them to protect their stolen wealth. Now whenever someone tells you there’s no way to stop wealthy people from hiding their money overseas, just remember the Magnitsky Act. Unsurprisingly, Trump has worked to undermine the Magnitsky act, lifting sanctions against Russian oligarchs whenever possible (https://themoscowproject.org/collusion/trump-administration-lifts-sanctions-on-firms-tied-to-deripaska/). By now it should be clear that the Magnitsky Act is going to make it hard for Trump to launder money for Russian oligarchs. In 2013 Trump visits Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and tweets: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW is next.” (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
2013 was a big year for Ukraine. In 2013 Yanukovich reneges on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and protests erupt centered on the Maidan in Kiev. When police used violence to disperse the student protestors, masses of people joined the protests in december of 2013. These were protests on the same scale as Berlin 1848, Paris 1871, Cairo 2011, or Hama in 2012, and they had much the same goals of democracy and human rights. To get a real feeling for how and why the protests happened, you could do worse than to watch Winter On Fire, an excellent documentary about these events. Here’s how Timothy Snyder describes the protests: “Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line…. Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant… The politics of this nation [the one forged on the Maidan] were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolensko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.” In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of the Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: ‘On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves!”’ (Snyder [TRU] pp128-129). Recall that Marx defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as the domination of the state by civil society leading to the dissolution of class differences. We have seldom caught glimpses of that possibility, the possibility of people directly and democratically organizing their own lives, but in the Maidan we got a clear vision of it on the same level as the Paris Commune.
On the 20th of February, 2014 snipers massacred hundreds of protestors on the Maidan. A few days later Russia prepared its own population for war with Ukraine by broadcasting false reports of Ukrainian atrocities in the Crimea. They made up a story about Ukrainians crucifying a Russian boy (Snyder p.178). The shelled Ukrainian civilian areas, and broadcast news stories about how Ukraine was shelling its own towns (Snyder, p. 172). Russian forces invaded without Russian insignia, then pretended to be local separatist guerillas (Snyder, p. 165).. Russians were bussed in to pretend to be protesters storming county government buildings in order to stage the popular overthrow of local government (Snyder, p 144). When Malaysian flight MH17 was shot down on June 23, 2014, Russia claimed that the plane had fallen because of a Ukrainian missile aimed at the president of Russia, that Ukrainian Jewish air traffic controllers told the plane to fly at a low altitude, or that the CIA had prefilled the plane with corpses in order to slander Russia. None of these things was true, of course. As forensic evidence later showed, MH17 had been shot down by the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade. The plane was flying on an authorized route at a normal altitude (Snyder, pp. 174-175). No wonder Pomerantsev has said that the war existed to create the media phenomenon. Snyder explains that the point of this misinformation war is to destroy the possibility of public sympathy for the victims of Russia’s invasion, which Russian state media called Nazis. “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. Once the intellectuals moorings were loosed, it was easy for Russians (and Europeans, and Americans) to latch on to well-funded narratives provided by television, but it was impossible to work one’s way towards an understanding of people in their own setting: to grasp where they were coming from, what they thought they were doing, what sort of future they imagined for themselves. Ukrainians who began by defending a European future found themselves, once the propaganda and the violence began, fighting for a sense that there could be a past, a present, and a future. The Maidan began as Ukrainian citizens sought to find a solution for Ukrainian problems. It ended with Ukrainians trying to remind Europeans and Americans that moments of high emotion require sober thought. Distant observers jumped at the shadows of the story, only to tumble into a void darker than ignorance.” (Snyder, p. 151).
The Internet Research Agency, which later worked to sell England on Brexit, and later worked to sell the US on Trump, was working hard on social media to convince the world that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend the Russian minority there, all while Russian officials denied that any such invasion had happened. Russian propaganda, built on structural antisemitism, almost always involves an element of bashing of LGBTQ and invocation of an epic struggle against the US. Although Obama’s February 28th statement of concern about “military movements” in Ukraine was the first time during the crisis that Obama had said anything, and though he was still not doing anything, Russians invoked a war against the west and once again the nobility of “Stalin beats Hitler.” In the light of this history, Russia bombing Syria in 2015, the story of Lisa F., it’s campaigns for Brexit and Trump take on their proper significance: a fascist war waged partly in cyberspace by a Russia spinning out of control, throwing a tantrum because it has possibly losing its colonies.
The protest movement in Ukraine in the Spring of 2014 succeeded in forcing Yanukovich to resign and in calling for new elections. The new democratically elected government of Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union, though full EU membership is still an uncertain prospect. The European Union itself is an imperfect institution, and deserves a full discussion on its own. I hope it’s obvious from the discussion here and from the previous podcast that the European Union, whatever its role in the Greek debt crisis, is clearly a lifeline for Ukrainian democracy. If the choice is between the EU and being owned by a group of Russian Oligarchs, as is the case in Ukraine, choosing the Oligarchs is clearly the wrong call.
Probably you have noticed by now that talking about Ukraine inevitably forces us to talk about Trump. In February of 2014, as Ukrainian protestors are dying under sniper fire for wanting a better world, we find Trump on Fox news praising Putin and bragging about his relationship with the Russian oligarch. That very same month that the Izborsk Club put out a memorandum abandoning Yanukovich whom they presumed was to be deposed and declaring that Russia should invade Ukraine, which they did two months later. Trump is the first anti-American president, the first president who is the friend of foreign tyrants. The Izborsk Club is a Russian think tank founded by fascist novelist Alexander Prokhanov, friend of Putin’s. Another member of Izborsk is Tikhon Shevkunov who’s big idea is that Putin is the reincarnation of Volodymr of Rus who first signed the agreement with the Cossacks to back them in their fight for independence from Poland, an agreement that supposedly constitutes Russia’s right to dominate Ukraine. Trump is a big fan.
During Trump’s presidential campaign he attacked NATO and US sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine, all the while pursuing, you guessed it, a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow, something Trump lied about later. In June of 2016 Manafort and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyers to discuss dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. (https://www.axios.com/trump-tower-russia-timeline-ae943d5c-215e-4cbd-b13d-b9693a8b1f33.html).
Because the Mueller report never found a smoking gun on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, some may have lost sight of the indisputable facts that (1) Trump is a huge Putin stan with clear business interests in Russia, and (2) Russia used enormous military assets in 2016 to help Trump get elected. The resistance to admitting this evidence is one of the greatest threats to our beating Trump in 2020. To admit that Russians influenced our election is to recognize the weaknesses in our society, state, and movement, that led to our democracy being successfully attacked. Facing those weaknesses could strengthen our process and keep Trump from getting a second term. Let’s talk about the Russian hacking of the 2016 election briefly, so that we can better understand why Trump targeted military aid to Ukraine specifically in 2018.
Sarah Kendzior was writing about the connections between Trump and Putin back in 2015, and she describes the media reaction to her as gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you manipulate someone by telling them they are crazy. Abusers use it against their victims so that the latter will blame themselves for the abuse, or to deny that it is happening. Maybe the media wasn’t so much abusing Kendzior, but they were pretending she was crazy to be drawing out these parallels. You should listen to her podcast “gaslit nation.” (https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/andrea-chalupa/gaslit-nation) There’s a kind of American exceptionalism that says we couldn’t possibly have had an election meaningfully tampered with. I rely on the work of Kathlene Jamieson, who is a professor of communications and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been covering electoral messaging for several decades. Her book Cyberwar is essential to understanding the 2016 election: go out and read it. We have to discuss that book’s main point here just to understand how the Russian misinformation campaign worked in the US.
Two important things to note: (1) that the email scandals were orchestrated by Russia to provide the framing of the election that made it possible for Trump to win, and (2) the left amplified this propaganda to suppress the vote for Hillary Clinton. There were two email scandals that get conflated. People think that because Clinton used her private computer Russians got DNC emails, but that’s not what happened. No useful intelligence was gathered outside the US from Clinton using her private devices for official business, and she was cleared of all wrong doing in 2019, to very little media attention. That story gets mixed up with the Russian hack of the DNC server that we all found out about in June of 2016, though little attention was paid to it at the time. Again, Americans really did think it far fetched that such a thing could happen. In September 2016, Trump joked that it was probably some 400 lbs. guy sitting on their beds in New Jersey. The fact Trump was making a fat phobic joke didn’t stop the left from laughing along. Then campaign manager of the Clinton campaign Donna Brazile describes what she was told by CrowdStrike, the company who took over their data security after the breach: “The hackers… were sophisticated teams, codenamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike. The two bears, Crowdstrike said, came from competing Russian intelligence agencies that had teams working twenty-four hours a day to break into foreign computer systems...Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike said in the Post article: ‘This is a sophisticated foreign intelligence service with a lot of time, a lot of resources, and is interested in targeting the U.S. political system” (Brazile, p28). Russian military officers stole emails from the DNC, and then carefully misquoted them at key moments to frame the electoral race to benefit Trump by suppressing the potential democrat vote.
On October 7th, 2016 as early voting had started, the Obama administration put out a memorandum about the Russian operation and that Wikileaks was likely a tool alongside DCleaks and Guccifer 2.0 Russia was using to leak stolen material from DNC emails. Half an hour later the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about being a serial molester of women was released by The Washington Post. Half an hour after that wikileaks dumped a cache of emails stolen from once Clinton campaign manager John Podesta: and these emails formed the basis of the pizzagate conspiracy theory. Social media accounts connected to Russian IP addresses that day were digging up old stories of Hillary Clinton working as a defence attorney in a rape case. The story about the Russian misinformation was completely obscured from the media horizon by Russian misinformation. The framing of the race as between two equally flawed candidates dominated the media throughout the entire month when voting happened in 2016, with the media regularly conflating the hack of the DNC with Clinton’s use of her private computers. In the final debate between Clinton and Trump the mediators repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton about lying and duplicity. Raddatz asked Hillary Clinton: “This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu(ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html). The speech in question finds Clinton praising Lincoln, who is shown in a movie explaining a policy in true but different terms to two different constituencies. As Clinton tries to explain this, Trump quips: “now she’s blaming Lincoln.” The audience laughed at that.
The false equivalence of Clinton and Trump is driving many today to say that if Bernie Sanders isn’t the democratic candidate in the general election, they will not vote for the democrat. That and the idea that the primary was rigged. If you listen carefully to far left pundits you will notice that according to them the Democratic Party is too weak to win an election but strong enough to rig one, too incompetent to beat Trump, but clever enough to rig the primaries against Sanders. The main problem with this story is that Sanders lost not because the process was rigged, but because fewer people voted for him in the primary. The second problem is that the rules for that convention were set before Sanders entered the primary, and he knew that because he had not been officially a part of the Democratic Party up to then he would be at a disadvantage. When Vox covers this supposed rigging in May of 2016 they are constrained by the facts to say it didn’t happen (https://www.vox.com/2016/5/24/11745232/bernie-sanders-rigged), and then point out that if you count Democrats campaigning against Sanders as rigging a primary then yes it was rigged. Except that is the definition of a system that is not rigged, where everyone can campaign and the rules are agreed upon ahead of time. The left has a serious weakness here that we will get into next podcast as we discuss the 2020 election. Giving specific criticisms of the system is helpful to democracy. Saying the system is hopelessly rigged helped to suppress the vote in a very close election. 70,000 votes in three states go the other way and Trump doesn’t become president. We can and should criticize the Democratic Party, but not without reason. When we fall back on the wrong lessons of the 20th century that we have absolute enemies, in this case the Dems, we then cannot discern who our real enemies are: Donald Trump. In a context where 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US face ethnic cleansing at the hands of a fascist in the White House, we should put aside the purety of our politics and stand up for something greater: basic human solidarity. And all we have to do is admit the truth: the election isn’t rigged (yet) and if we don’t vote for the Democrat we risk losing the basic freedoms that allow us to fight back, free speech and the right to assemble.
I’ve heard the argument that if we get a President Biden that leaves the system that made Trump in place and then four years later we just get another Trump but worse. First off, if Biden wins the presidency that doesn’t mean that a Trump will win the next election: each election is its own contest. Second, we begin dismantling the fascist movement by denying it the White House. Our failure to see the importance of having a not fascist in the White House in 2016 made us complicit in Trump’s crimes.
On November 7, 2016 Jacobin Magazine published an article by Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller. It’s a hit piece on Hillary Clinton that framed her evolution on issues such as LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, war and social welfare as her being two-faced (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/hillary-clinton-is-running-for-president). This was precisely the same framing Russia had planted with the emails it leaked to wikileaks, and considering we got Trump as a result, this behavior is completely reckless of the wellbeing of immigrants and poor people who would have clearly suffered less under Clinton. We are seeing all of these same rhetorical devices today, where Bernie Sanders is said to have evolved after his vocal support of and actually voting for the crime bill in 1994, but Warren, after having shifted so radically and decisively around bankruptcy law, is treated like a Republican Manchurian candidate. If the people who don’t think the way we do can’t be trusted to ever genuinely change, then we will never ever convincingly win other people over, and for them there’s no payoff for changing their mind. If you think that pointing out Sanders’ past errors is “unfair” or some kind of an “attack,” then you need to reflect on why you think your favorite person should be beyond criticism. I am not suggesting that we should give any politician a pass, but I am suggesting that in 2016 the left followed the rest of the media in unfairly putting Clinton, a career politician who was wrong in all the same ways society at large was wrong in the last few decades, on the same moral standing as a racist who had bragged about molesting women. That moral equivalence is only possible because the standard we held Clinton to is impossibly higher than the one we held Trump to, and that’s the definition of misogyny. Then we wrongly accused the Democratic Party of rigging the primary, just as we began doing during the primary whenever Sanders lost a state, but never when he won them. Each time we echo Trump’s talking points about a rigged election we are working to suppress the vote and hasten our own doom. This is a strategic disaster, one that may have been understandable in 2016 as a mistake of a still young and isolated socialist movement, but then to repeat that error in 2020 because we haven’t reflected on it would be nearly unforgivable considering the stakes.
In 2016 the vote for Clinton was suppressed in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Clinton lost by margins of 10 or 20 thousand votes (Jamieson, pp 112-114). All of these are states that Obama won in 2012. Nationwide Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump and barely 70,000 fewer votes than Obama had. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/29/2016-vs-2012-how-trumps-win-and-clintons-votes-stack-up-to-obama-and-romney/#5e1fcc291661) In other words, Trump didn’t so much win as Clinton lost the election, and she lost because the vote was suppressed by a media climate that was artificially hostile to her.
This is the point where almost any leftist will chime in with criticisms of Clinton. Whatever those criticisms are that you have in mind, those are not the reasons she lost. Clinton didn’t lose because of her “super predator” comments in 1994 when she wasn’t in any public office but Bernie Sanders voted for the crime bill. Clinton didn’t lose because she promoted workfare. She lost because leftists agreed with Trump supporters that she was two-faced, and if a politician is going to lie that is unforgivable unless that politician is a white man and then it is expected. One of the more ridiculous claims is the so-called Pied-Piper scandal. This is the one where Clinton supposedly helped Trump win the primary. There is absolutely no evidence that the Clinton campaign did anything more than recognize in a leaked (!) email that they should talk about Trump in the media, something that was impossible to avoid given the sensational and racist comments the media was full of from the Trump campaign, which built off of his career in reality TV. Despite all this Clinton won the popular vote. Despite that, people blame her for losing, which is rich coming from people who worked hard to depress the progressive vote in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But it’s a way for people to deflect blame away themselves and from Trump and put it on Clinton.
Given Trump’s clear pro-Russia politics, given that Russian interference in 2016 helped him win the election by exploiting Americans’ susceptibility to illiberal and misogynist politics, given that the Republican part of the Senate refused to impeach him for having clearly usurped the power of the purse from the congress, given Trump’s refusal to enforce the Magnitisky Act, ignorance of Ukrainian and Russian history seems like a real political liability. The history of Europe turned into a nightmare of cascading mass murder in the early 40s in a conflict that turned mainly around Ukraine. Instead of cheering the democratic movement of the Maidan, many on the US left responded with very dogmatic thinking that said the EU is bad and the enemy of my enemy, Putin, must be good. On July 25, 2019 in a phone call we have all seen in a so-called transcript, Trump tried to shake down the Ukrainian president to coerce the latter into working to effect the election of 2020. We ignored evidence of Russian hacking that came out in the summer of 2016 and lost that election to Trump. Maybe we should pay more attention to Russian disinformation this time, instead of taking the opportunity to own the libs as Doug Henwood has done in our favorite publication Jacobin magazine (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/12/impeachment-donald-trump-nancy-pelosi-democratic-party). If, as Doug Henwood is doing here, your reaction to impeachment is to think that Democrats are trying to distract us from how awful they are, then you’re part of why Trump is going to win in 2020. To focus our criticism on the Democrats in the context of a fascist abuse of executive power is to minimize the threat of Trump and to undermine the only party that can beat him. A better left strategy is to rally to the democratic struggle of the Ukrainians and urge Republicans to support our ally against Russian tyranny. If any of these terrible things Paul Manafort and Trump have helped along in Ukraine mattered to us, if oppressed colonized people or the working class or even just LGBTQ rights really mattered to us, we might have been able to break Republicans away from Trump on grounds of National Security. Republicans have repeatedly, explicitly, used as a defense against impeachment the proposition that people just don’t care about Ukraine. If we understood Ukraine, if we cared, we could have resisted Russian manipulation of our media context. The consequences go far beyond Ukraine and the United States.
In October of 2019 Trump withdrew US troops from Northeast Syria in a move that threatened Christian minorities and the Kurdish project in Rojava. Even Noam Chomsky was calling this withdrawal of US military forces a disaster. We should have been hammering on this contradiction hard to try and break conservatives away from Trump, and we should have had large protests to demand US troop presence be maintained. But we couldn’t. We have a left today that is constitutionally incapable of such a realistic and humaine politics of solidarity. Instead we have a left that sides with Putin against Clinton and amplifies weaponized Russian misinformation against Ukrainian democracy advocates.
Brazile, Donna. Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House. Hachette Books, 2017.
Bullough, Oliver. Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books, 2018.
Gessen, Masha. The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Riverhead Books, 2013.
Gessen, Masha. The future is history: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. Granta Books, 2017.
Horvath, Robert. Putin's Preventive Counter-Revolution: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism and the Spectre of Velvet Revolution. Routledge, 2013.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: how Russian hackers and trolls helped elect a president: what we don't, can't, and do know. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Pomerantsev, Peter. Nothing is true and everything is possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia. Public Affairs, 2014.
Pomerantsev, Peter. This is NOT propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. Hachette UK, 2019.
Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Music: Nysno by Sandra Marteleur, else Harry
May 1st, 2020 | 17 mins 24 secs
climatechange, conservatives, coronavirus, covid19, democrats, departmentofenergy, liberals, michaellewis, noaa, republicans, science, thefifthrisk, trump, usda
In honor of Mayday I want to dedicate this episode to the health care workers who are our frontline against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. I hope our efforts to slow the spread of the virus are so successful that people think we overreacted. As I write the majority of the US is shut down, people are confined to their homes, restaurants and bars and other service industries are closed down. Nearly 60,000 people have died and 26 million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the past month and a half. Conservative estimates, which emphasize the element of uncertainty, claim we should expect somewhere between 80,000 and several hundred thousand more deaths, and if we open our public areas up too soon it could make things much worse. None of that had happened yet when Michael Lewis first wrote The Fifth Risk, a book about the terrible risks we were taking on as Trump deconstructed our government. The May of 2018 disbanding of the White House Pandemic Response team is just one example (https://speier.house.gov/trump-administration-s-mishandling-of-the-coronavirus-response_2). It’s hard not to read Lewis today without noticing how prescient he was that a terrible catastrophe could be brewing that would overwhelm our intentionally weakened government. I am generally optimistic about humanity’s ability to improve our life conditions, but unless we get a clear picture of how the coronavirus pandemic happened, and how the Trump administration in particular is responsible for sabotaging our response to it, then we will also not be prepared for the next crises. So the story, as is so often the case, has good news and bad news. The bad news is that we messed this one up, and the good news is that this means we can do better next time. I hope you are all well. I hope this podcast helps you understand better what we are all going through, and I hope that understanding brings a measure of peace.
There are thousands of positions in our government that are appointments. Whenever we get a new President those positions have to turn over: the people who did that job have to be replaced with new appointees. Candidates for the presidency are required by law to prepare a transition team. Trump’s transition team was led by Chris Christy, but Christy was fired when Trump realized he would have to actually become the President, because at that point, when the job was getting serious, Jared Kushner could not stand Christy actually being so important when Christy had helped put Kushner’s dad in jail for corruption. The outgoing appointees under Obama spent months preparing to brief the new appointees. Those new appointees never got those briefings, often times arriving long after their predecessors were gone. Many positions were never filled. Michael Lewis, the guy who wrote Money Ball, went around to receive all these briefings to understand what was being lost, and the book that came out of that is The Fifth Risk.
Let’s focus on the big three: DOE, USDA and NOAA. In all three cases the top role was filled by the proverbial fox in the henhouse. Rick Perry is now heading the Department of Energy. Rick Perry was the guy who when he was running for president said he would shut down a department he couldn’t remember the name of, and that department was the DOE. Joel Leftwich, a lobbyist for PepsiCo was in charge of the transition team for the USDA. Barry Meier, the guy trying to privatize all weather data, was put in charge of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). We note in passing that Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Alex Acosta, had to resign after the Epstein controversy, so the acting secretary, meaning not approved by the congress, is Patrick Pizzella who helped Jack Abramoff skirt federal labor laws in the Northern Mariana Islands in the 90s.
What Lewis is ultimately talking about in this book is risk. What are the risks that our federal government works to mitigate, and where are they now dropping the ball. A lot of these risks will be causing problems in the next few decades. Remember when Ta-Nehisi Coates urged us to start doing things for the benefit of our children and grandchildren if we wanted to stop dreaming we were white? Well, these departments getting neglected is peak whiteness, peak short term gain over long term benefit. Also, when we spoke about the Black Panther Party, and how Nixon hired Black people into the public sector to undermine support for the BPP? We should definitely read his attack on government institutions as a racist attack on this Black middle class of civil servants.
I’m just going to start listing things.
First off, the Department of Energy is in charge of a $30 billion budget to maintain and guard our nuclear arsenal.
Two billion of that is used “hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists” (p41)
The DOE inspects nuclear power plants to make sure they are run safely, but also to make sure no one is refining weapons-grade plutonium on the sly.
The DOE was in charge of implementing the inspections that went along with the Iran nuclear deal that Trump skuttled. Incidentally, Trump has doubled down on the trend of undermining and destroying our ambassador corps, the part of government that does diplomacy, which should be the topic of another book report on a book that Ronin Farrow put out called War on Peace. All of these things make war more likely.
The DOE provides low interest loans to the energy sector to get them to invest in and research new energy technologies. In 2005 these investments went to programs that produced the fracking boom and also the boom in solar PV technology. If there’s going to be a transition away from fossil fuels, then it will have to come from government investment because private companies are too short sighted, obviously.
The DOE has historically educated utility companies about the risks they face. It could possibly coordinate something to secure the grid nationwide, though it doesn’t now. There’s no one in private industry who could take on such a thing.
Rick Perry has never received a single briefing about what the DOE does.
The USDA does so many things that no one knows all of the things it does, not even people who work for it.
The USDA manages a free school lunch program and food stamps. If not for congress Trump would have successfully cut the food stamps budget by 25%. Brian Klippenstein was in charge of the transition in the USDA, and he immediately started a witch hunt to find out who was studying climate change. Brian Klippenstein up to that moment had run Protect the Harvest, which is a group that protects the supposed right to hunt animals and demonizes the humane society.
The USDA is the branch of government that brings legal action against people who abuse animals, and in the Spring of 2017 they shut down a national database that recorded incidents of animal abuse before public outcry forced them to to bring part of it back. So, now we have a President that is pro-animal cruelty.
The USDA saved us all in 2015 from bird flu by quickly creating a reliable test for it and then deploying it in industry. Food safety in the poultry industry is largely a trade off between speed of killing birds and safety in the time it takes to adequately inspect each bird. In 2017 the USDA increased the allowable line speed from 140 to 170 birds per minute.
The USDA manages a bank worth $220 billion dollars that provides loans to small farmers, funds fire stations in rural communities, helps small towns finance electricity, sewage and drinking water. The department that managed all that was called the office of Rural Development, and it was shut down at the same time that Trump was pulling the US out of the TPP, a move that along with the Tariff war has cost US agriculture billions hitting small farmers worst of all. The $220 billion dollar bank was moved under direct management of the secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the only group in North America that actually collects weather data. Everything you see on the weather channel they got from NOAA.
Accuweather’s CEO Barry Myers was the head of NOAA until this last February. His nomination was withdrawn because Democrats signaled they wouldn’t allow him to be nominated for obvious reasons. Barry Myers has, along with Rick Santorum, has led up to now unsuccessful legislative campaigns to privatize weather data. That is, the data that our tax dollars are used to generate about weather patterns, they want to make it illegal for the public to access that data because they want to package the data and sell it to us. So, if you wanted to get warnings about extreme weather events early, you would have to pay for them. In March 2015 Accuweather used data collected from NOAA and predicted a tornado in Moore Oklahoma 12 minutes before NOAA did. That means people who had subscribed to the Accuweather service got advance warning of a potentially deadly storm. That’s what Barry Meier wants to make the national norm: a two-tier weather alert system in the context of increasingly extreme weather due to climate change.
Speaking of climate change, what that issue is about is risk and food. Early on the most spectacular thing climate change is going to cause is the loss of coastal regions, the most populated regions, and resulting mass migration. What happens a little later on is food scarcity. What’s that got to do with weather data? Everything.
Since 2011 David Friedberg has been using publicly available weather data to sell insurance to farmers. The farmers get insured against adverse and unpredictable weather data, and David Friedberg helps them maximize their crop by using big data to tell them things like when to spread fertilizer. They can tell down to the week when to spread fertilizer, and if they they get it wrong and it rains right after you put down the fertilizer it can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Big data ensures our food security. Let’s hope they don’t privatize weather data. But that’s just one place where NOAA and USDA funded research will help us mitigate climate change, unless these departments are sabotaged by a bankrupt fascist 3rd rate Russian gangster wannabe.
After reading this book I had a great deal more respect for people who work for the fed. They are people who typically can make more money in the private sector, and they almost never get public praise for their successes. They almost never get noticed unless they have made a mistake or by chance found themselves at the center of a catastrophe. It’s really very problematic the way we speak of them. Even leftists tend ot criticize the federal government when they talk about it at all, and in fact there are many ways our lives are better because of our government. We should try and strengthen and expand it.
At the very end of The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis tells a story that seems to point to the way forward, and to my ear echoes points made by Jane McElevy in No Shortcuts, which is another book you should read. On May 16, 2017 a massive tornado hit Elk City, Oklahoma, the largest city in Beckham County population 25,000. Tornadoes are one of the most difficult weather events to predict. You can tell when a Winter Storm is going to happen, but you can only warn people about a tornado once you’ve seen one. That gives local authorities very little time, once in a blue moon maybe 15 minutes, to communicate to locals the threat. Communicating risk quickly is the best hope people living in tornado prone areas have. Most of the time, local authorities fail at this, with disastrous consequences. Even if you have a tornado warning, you can’t know how bad it is until the tornado hits something. And by then it’s too late. But in Elk City, there was a local fireman named Lonnie Risenhoover. In Elk City a new state of the art prediction model had given Lonnie 30 minutes. A liberal is more likely to trust the news, and so they take tornado warnings more seriously and have a better chance of evacuating to safety. But in Elk City almost everyone voted for Trump. Because local people knew Lonnie they had more trust in the warning and evacuated. That’s Michael Lewis’ final word of hope for winning Trump voters back: someone like Lonnie Risenhoover has to explain the risk to them.
Now, Trump is like a tornado in more ways than one. As we’ve pointed out, people support Trump because they don’t trust the media and all the people they know trust Trump. When progressives move to the hip part of town or refuse to socialize with conservatives or stop going to church, we make it worse. Another way a tornado is like Trump is that people don’t respond to either one as a threat if they don’t believe it will impact them. And finally, a tornado is like Trump because when people have lost about everything, they might find themselves hoping for something to come around and destroy all the rest. Lewis finishes his book with the story of Miss Finley, who used to pray a tornado would come and destroy her barn because that was where her husband had killed himself. And one day a tornado did take her barn. “And so, you might have good reason to pray for a tornado, whether it comes in the shape of swirling winds, or a politician. You imagine the thing doing the damage that you would like to see done, and no more. It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.” (Lewis, p. 217)
Bloom, Joshua, Waldo E. Martin Jr, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Univ of California Press, 2016.
Farrow, Ronan. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. WW Norton & Company, 2018.
Lewis, Michael. The fifth risk: undoing democracy. Penguin UK, 2018.