Robert Mueller testified before Congress today (7/24), the big takeaway being that his report didn’t exonerate Trump of, well, something.
From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence that proves Trump colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election in 2016. There is evidence Trump tried to obstruct Mueller’s inquiry, but his own subordinates disobeyed or ignored him, thereby protecting him from his own stupidity.
So, Trump didn’t collude with Russia and Mueller was able to complete his investigation, therefore Trump is essentially in the clear, especially on the damning charge of treason. Right?
Not so fast. I recently read Sebastian Junger’s fine book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016), and the following passage resonated:
“politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country–a charge so disruptive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”
Junger nails it. Accusing your political rivals of deliberately trying to harm America, which Trump routinely does when he denounces Democrats at his rallies, could be construed as a form of treason. Seeking to divide Americans on the basis of race, religion, and other qualities, which Trump also routinely does, is another behavior that could be construed as treasonous to American ideals and treacherous to our ability to come together and govern ourselves.
Trump’s treason (if you want to call it that) is in plain sight. It’s in the way he divides Americans and denounces his opponents as putting America (and Israel!) in danger. His treachery is blatant. The problem is that roughly 40% of Americans seem willing either to follow Trump or to look the other way as he rules through denunciation, disdain, and divisiveness.
Trump will use any tactic to protect his power and privilege. He is an unprincipled and rank opportunist who works for his own self-aggrandizement.
Perhaps that’s not the legal definition of treason, but it is the defining characteristic of a man who should be voted out of office in 2020.
It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars. With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch. Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.
It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is). Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History. Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor. But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.
Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy. Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system. So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.
Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful. A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin. An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia. I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely. But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.
In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:
[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.
Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.” Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Is this progress?
Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.” Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more. It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.
I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it. For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex. Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable. The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending. The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.
There are complicated forces at work here. Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved. But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA. War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong. (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)
I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:
On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.
My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue. We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.). In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence. Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.
Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles. For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus. Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about. Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.
For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic. Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?
That’s enough musing for one Monday morning. Readers, what say you?
I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation. Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true). But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA. Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines. Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.
When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.” James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.” Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything. The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger! Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge. U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.
Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion. How to justify such an immense sum? A large dollop of threat inflation might help…
With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats? Iran isn’t enough. The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China. Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.
Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump. As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria? The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy. Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.” The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.
Threat inflation is nothing new, of course. Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success. Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex. The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power. Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming. The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.
Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure. But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.
And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government. As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.
The Mueller Report has finally landed, not with a thud, but with a whisper. No collusion. No more indictments. Inconclusive evidence of obstruction of justice.
Readers of Bracing Views won’t be surprised. Back in February 2017, Mike Murry wrote an article for this site (Get Another Goat) in which he explained the inept methods and bizarre mentality of establishment Democrats in blaming Putin and the Russians rather than themselves for losing to a two-bit con man:
At any rate, it appears as if the defeated Democrats have chosen Russian President Putin as an attractive scapegoat simply due to (1) his “foreignness” and (2) the nature of transferred nationalism. This psychological transference, Orwell wrote, “has an important function. … It makes it possible for [the nationalist] to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he [or she] could ever be on behalf of [their] native country, or any unit of which [they] had real knowledge” …
it seems like a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span for the Democrats to scapegoat President Putin for their own stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity to their party’s traditional base.
Echoing Mike Murry, it has indeed been “a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span” to connect Trump’s victory in 2016 to an organized campaign of collusion with Russia. Mainstream networks like MSNBC and high-profile reporters like Rachel Maddow have spent the last 2+ years pushing the narrative of collusion and even treason when they could have been attacking Trump and his administration for its specific policies and decisions that hurt ordinary Americans. By pushing the collusion/treason narrative and coming up empty, they’ve only made Trump stronger as he prepares to run for reelection in 2020.
As I wrote here in July of 2018, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump to accuse him of being a “puppet” because he’s incapable of serving anyone but himself:
Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump is never going to side with his intelligence agencies on this issue. He thinks that, by doing so, he’d be admitting that maybe he didn’t win fair and square over “Crooked Hillary.” He refuses to countenance Russian meddling, not because he’s a Putin stooge, but rather because he’s an egomaniac. He’ll admit to nothing that diminishes, however slightly, his victory — and his ego.
Russia doesn’t matter to Trump. Indeed, America doesn’t matter to Trump. With Trump, it’s really all about him… Trump lives in his own reality, a narcissistic swirl of fabrications, falsehoods, and lies. He’s happiest when he’s commanding the scene, when people are kowtowing to him, when he can boast about himself and advertise his businesses…
In short, Trump is not treasonous. He simply has no concept of public service. He has no capacity to serve any cause other than himself.
Trump may be a blowhard, a bully, a braggart, a bigot, and a buffoon, but that doesn’t make him a “traitor” who “colluded” with Russia. By pushing a false narrative for 2+ years, establishment Democrats and the mainstream media have yet again colluded in their usual inept way to strengthen Trump while discrediting themselves.
Ordinary Americans looking for a little more safety and equity in their lives are, of course, the biggest losers.
News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.” On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.” In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.
Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed. This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO. One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO. Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.
With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998. Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:
The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning. But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated. That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers. The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests. However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.
General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership. Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities. General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.
On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations. Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.” He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples? General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.
The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members. Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe. Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion. If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite. Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia. In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations. But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia. Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council. Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require. It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another. Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary. He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.
One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states. Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them. It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West. The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state. How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship? Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions? Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion? If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history? If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union? Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.
Again, this was written 20 years ago. But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.
In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose. They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia. These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.
Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO. In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box. After all, how long should NATO last? Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end? Or is NATO to exist forever?
Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S. But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.
Nick Turse has an excellent article at TomDispatch.com documenting how U.S. special ops forces are involved in many countries that share a border with Russia. A telling quotation from his article comes from General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Testifying before Congress, Thomas said
“We are working relentlessly with our [European] partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”
This looks like typical bureaucratese, but two words struck me as revealing: “relentlessly” and “potency.” Typically, one might say one is working “tirelessly,” or “cooperatively,” or just plain working. The idea one is working “relentlessly” serves to highlight the often frenetic nature of U.S. military deployments, the emphasis on ceaseless toil and constant action, especially of the kinetic variety. This is a leading feature of America’s can-do military, a strong preference for acting first, thinking later. And it doesn’t bode well as American special ops forces take up “mature and sustainable” positions in former Soviet satellite countries for the alleged reason of deterring Russian aggression.
The second word that struck me from the general’s testimony was “potency.” Americans certainly can’t be seen as impotent. But potency here is really a weasel word for offensive potential — the ability to strike “kinetically” at an enemy. For example, one could say the Soviets were building up potency in Cuba during the early 1960s, but the Kennedy administration didn’t exactly see nuclear missiles being based there in those terms. Is Kim Jong-un similarly building up regional “potency,” working “relentlessly” to deter U.S. aggression in his region of the world? American military and foreign policy experts would laugh at those words and sentiments coming from the mouth of rival leaders like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.
With ever bigger military budgets, and ever growing ambitions, the U.S. military is relentlessly building up potency, which is nevertheless always framed as defensive, even benign.
Something tells me the Russians don’t see it this way.
An astute Bracing Views reader described the Trump-Comey-Russia hearings as “the audio version of a glittering disco ball,” which captures the moment. Sure, there’s lots of flash there, but the real problems of the USA are being very much ignored. Put differently, it’s hard to hear any real news when the thump-thump-thump of Trump-Comey-Russia drowns out all other voices.
I’ve already said my piece (at TomDispatch.com) about some of the big problems that face our country, so indulge me for a moment as I consider the disco inferno of Trump-Comey.
My take: Trump wanted loyalty, Comey didn’t promise that, nor should he have. Trump, it seems, also felt upstaged by Comey (not only because the former FBI Director is taller than Trump and more vigorous). Comey, in short, was uncooperative, not one of Trump’s guys, so he fired him. As president, Trump has that power.
Was it a smart move? No. Does it look bad? Yes, especially the timing. Is it obstruction of justice? Apparently not, since the various Russia-Trump investigations are progressing. (To my knowledge, there are at least three of them ongoing.)
More than anything, Comey’s testimony makes Trump look like a dick (to use a technical term). But we already knew that. Trump’s been posing (it didn’t require acting) as a dick for years on TV, taking great relish in saying, “You’re fired!” to a range of has-been celebrities. Should we really be surprised that Trump is acting like a dick as president? Even his followers knew he was a dick; they just thought he was their dick.
Did Trump collude with Russia? Of course he did! He admitted it himself. Remember when Trump called for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton — to find her “thirty thousand” missing emails, ha ha! That may not be the legal definition of collusion, but if you heard that and refused to consider that Candidate Trump’s encouragement of hacking by a foreign power in an election for his benefit was wrongful, well, so be it. Those Americans who voted for Trump were apparently untroubled by it.
I’m not defending Trump. The man is a menace to the world, with his denial of global warming/climate change, his embrace of nuclear weapons, his cocksureness fed by his ignorance, the list goes on. But, based on the evidence that’s been presented so far, he’s done nothing that reaches an impeachable offense. Major league dick status, yes. Impeachment? Not yet. Or Nyet.
The biggest problem with Trump is not that he’s a Russian stooge. It’s that he’s not presidential. He doesn’t understand public service. It’s utterly foreign to him, not just because he has no experience of it but because it’s contrary to his egocentric personality.
Look at his priorities as president. (They are the same as they were when he was a real estate developer.) #1 for Trump is Trump. #2 for Trump is his immediate family, joined by a few trusted lackeys, toadies, and sycophants. #3 for Trump is his money, his position in society, and his reputation among his peers and fellow billionaires, those “masters of the universe,” to use Tom Wolfe’s phrase.
Make America great again? That’s never been Trump’s priority. Make Trump greater and greater? That’s more like it.
Trump is fulfilling his version of the American dream. Too bad it’s a nightmare for America.