After Donald Trump’s stunning victory last November, major media outlets have enjoyed a surge in donations from concerned citizens hoping to restore a Fourth Estate that buckled and finally collapsed under the weight of the 2016 election. “Trump is the best thing to ever happen to the Times’ subscription strategy,” executive editor Dean Baquet told CNN in February. “Every time he tweets it drives subscriptions wildly.”It’s not a little dispiriting, then, that the New York Times has used its new appointment as a leader of the #Resistance to run some of the most reactionary opinion writing this side of the Weekly Standard. With its new subscription dollars, it’s hired a known climate denier and racist in Bret Stephens, published a conspiracy theorist in Louise Mensch, and started an ill-fated column asking people to say something nice about Donald Trump, to offer just a few examples.
By and large, these takes have been confined to the paper’s op-ed page. But Wednesday’s shooting in Alexandria, which left Republican whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana critically injured, has produced one exceptionally irresponsible piece of reporting. In a piece titled “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded,” journalist Yamiche Alcindor suggests that Sanders’ supporters, if not the Vermont senator himself, have somehow invited this kind of violence. (The shooter, James Hodgkinson, had volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in Iowa.)
But long before the shooting on Wednesday, some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters had earned a belligerent reputation for their criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and others who they believed disagreed with their ideas. Sanders fans, sometimes referred to derogatorily as “Bernie Bros” or “Bernie Bots,” at times harassed reporters covering Mr. Sanders and flooded social media with angry posts directed at the “corporate media,” a term often used by the senator.
The Times also quotes Harlan Hill, a Trump surrogate who has called Sanders’ attacks on the president a “passive justification” for the shooting, despite the fact that his preferred politician has casually urged “Second Amendment people” to take care of Hillary Clinton, encouraged audiences to beat up protesters at rallies, and so on. But in her piece, Alcindor devotes just a single sentence to the many instances Trump has encouraged acts of violence.
What Alcindor doesn’t note, interestingly, is that Hodgkinson alluded to Trump’s Russia problems in several posts on his now-deleted Facebook page, and called the president a “traitor.” There’s obviously considerable overlap between Sanders supporters and Democrats who are especially preoccupied with the Russia scandal, but Sanders himself has been critical of the focus many in the party have placed on the issue. If Hodgkinson’s heinous act is somehow representative of Democratic socialism, isn’t the same true of those who think (not without some merit) that Russia intervened on Trump’s behalf?
The ideological sibling to this argument is a curdled, right-wing definition of the “left” best expressed by the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who wrote that the “only thing resembling a genuine totalitarian movement in American politics is the progressive camp from which emerged the man who shot Steve Scalise.” (In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011, Williams used his column to shill for gun manufacturers and lament that liberals like Keith Olbermann would dare to blame Sarah Palin.)
The same criticisms that have been lobbed at so-called “Bernie Bros” for a year were launched at Barack Obama supporters in 2008, Clinton backers during the same race and again last year, and at Howard Dean devotees before both of them. On the other side, mainstream Republicans have long been dismissive of Ron Paul supporters for similar reasons. These fierce intra-party battles go back generations—Taftbros physically fought Eisenhowerbots at the 1952 Republican National Convention.
When actor Wendell Pierce attacked a Sanders supporter last year, there were no thinkpieces about the ferociousness of Clintonistas. Nor should there have been; Pierce is just one man. Ascribing his actions to Clinton or the nearly 17 million people who voted for her in the primary would be spectacularly wrongheaded. Human life is politics, and as such, people sometimes let their emotions get the best of them; that doesn’t mean the politics they got swept up in is at fault.
A mass shooting is something else altogether; any attempts to tether it to a political movement are as myopic as they are disingenuous. It’s imperative for the press to cast a critical eye on politicians, and Sanders is no exception. But linking him, Clinton, or any politician to the violent actions of their supporters does a disservice to readers hoping to understand Hodgkinson’s crimes.
The real takeaway, as Katie McDonough argued at Fusion on the day of the shooting, should be that people who commit domestic violence should not be able to buy guns. As has been the case in so many other mass shootings, Hodgkinson had a history of abusing women, including partners and his own daughter.
“We live in a country that lets domestic abusers keep their guns,” she wrote. “We are a country that never learns its lesson, and we are letting them kill.”
Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event
By Joanne Laurier
15 June 2017
Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.
Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.
Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.
British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”
Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.
Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”
Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”
Audience members in Flint
The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”
Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”
Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”
In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”
In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.
Tyee Tilghman (Horster)
Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”
This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.
All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.
Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands
When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.
Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.
“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”
And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.
Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.
The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.
Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.
Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”
Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”
The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.
Early on Monday a colleague of mine messaged me with a link to a Politico article detailing how Russian intelligence has allegedly gathered “kompromat” on about 2,300 well-known American media personalities and politicians, apparently in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to subvert American democracy.
My political writer friend added, “This is scary. What do you think will happen?”
“Nothing,” I wrote back. “Not as long as Trump insists this is nothing more than a scam by the Democrats because Hillary lost.”
We can’t repeat this enough: The United States and our democratic institutions were attacked by a hostile foreign power, yet President Donald Trump refuses to do a damn thing about it. Not only is he still infuriatingly chummy with the Russians, gifting them (without reciprocation) classified intelligence inside the Oval Office and reopening housing compounds that serve as bases for Russian spies. He won’t even acknowledge as legitimate the very basic nut of the story, that Russia hacked the 2015-16 election cycle. Never mind the question of possible collusion for now. The Russians attacked us and there’s copious evidence to prove it.
Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, the George W. Bush White House had refused to accept that the attack even occurred. The entire world would have thought Bush had lost his mind or that our entire nation was caught in the grip of mass delusion.
Either way, Trump is behaving as if a series of ongoing events that were palpably real weren’t so at all. Those of us who have followed Trump’s ridiculousness since the 1980s know that he’s perpetually full of crap. For example, you may recall his yarn: “Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks and I mean that in every sense of the word.” But as a presidential candidate, and subsequently as the country’s chief executive, his world of make believe is unparalleled. Everything orbiting in Trump’s universe — a universe that includes his 62 million voters along with Fox News — is a fantasy.
Everything that’s real is fake and everything that’s fake is real.
Trump held a Cabinet meeting on Monday morning where he asked his department-level secretaries to offer allegedly unsolicited praise for him and to express effusive gratitude for the honor of serving Trump personally. The usually stoic CNBC reporter John Harwood described the meeting by saying, “Honestly this is like a scene from the Third World.” Indeed. Vice President Mike Pence said serving Trump was “the great honor of [his] life.” (Pence has three children, by the way, whose births must be way down on the list of honors.) Chief of staff Reince Priebus, who’s fighting for his job, said, “Thank you for the blessing you’ve given us.” Yes, I’m sure it’s quite a blessing to be in charge of scooping the rhetorical feces from the cage of a clownish supervillain who needed four tries to correctly spell “hereby.”
The Cabinet’s gooey, over-the-top praise was cloying and artificial, but in Trump’s world of make believe the president and his disciples were sufficiently fluffed, injecting every word of the Cabinet’s Eddie Haskell-ish ass kissing into the news cycle. Insofar as perception is reality, we can assume it worked on the faithful. If all these serious people think Trump is the greatest president God ever created, then it must be true!
Likewise, Trump expects everyone to believe there might be tapes of his one-on-one meetings with former FBI Director James Comey. Knowing Trump and the mendacity of his online blurtings, it’s safe to say there aren’t any tapes even though (to coin a phrase), “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” If the tapes exist, he’d release them. But releasing the tapes is irrelevant because as long as his base believes Comey is what Trump claimed — a crazy, cowardly grandstander who’s obviously lying about the meetings — then pretending that such tapes might exist is enough for the voters who matter.
Contrary to Trump’s world of make believe, there weren’t 3 million illegal Hillary Clinton voters, nor did former President Barack Obama have Trump’s “wires tapped.” The tax reform bill Trump says is being negotiated doesn’t actually exist. The American Health Care Act (also known as “Trumpcare”) will not provide health insurance to more people and will ultimately leave tens of millions of people with no coverage, among other terrible things. His tweets about the “travel ban” won’t help his chances in court and only make matters worse for the future of his executive order.
Meanwhile, Trump praised his record on jobs so far: While 1.1 million new jobs have been created since Election Day, 1.3 million jobs were created during the previous seven months during former President Barack Obama’s administration. (Trump has also forgotten about the supposedly “real” unemployment rate he mentioned so often during the campaign.) Trump insists the Democrats are feckless, rudderless failures who can’t get anything done yet they’re also effectively obstructing his entire agenda despite the fact that the GOP controls everything. And sorry, James Comey is telling the truth.
I could do this all day. Nothing Trump says is real or accurate — nothing. Even discussing his statements as if they’re mere off-the-shelf political lies serves to only normalize him when, in fact, what he’s doing is galactically destructive. The world has lost faith in America’s leadership or is losing it fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe Trump has gone bye-bye. Why? Because his fictitiousness is so completely obvious that we have no choice but to wonder whether he’s mentally fit to lead. (He’s not.) He seems to sincerely believe that his kooky outbursts and cartoonish threats sound legitimate when anyone with a brain knows he’s tilting at windmills — even some of his core supporters.
Congressional Republicans are excusing Trump’s loony behavior, for the moment, as the consequences of his being “new to the job,” arguing that his rookie stature is the source of his nonstop flailing. I’m all in favor of any excuses that underscore the president’s massive incompetence, thanks. But the GOP seems to forget that Trump has acted like this for his entire career. He sculpts his own reality to compensate for his endless roster of inadequacies.
But before too long — and I hope this is true — the president and his supporters will be blindsided by reality. Sometime soon, Trump will be fully exposed for his part in the Trump-Russia attack whether as a willing participant or a conspirator after the fact, orchestrating the cover-up. No fairy tales from his Twitter feed will dig him out. The story has to end this way. Trump and all Trump’s men have to be held accountable, otherwise we might as well resign ourselves to believing our democracy is owned and operated by the Kremlin. We can’t allow Trump’s delusions to become American delusions. The bedtime story Trump is telling has to end and end the right way — or else.
Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob Cesca Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Why are we focusing on who leaked what to whom, when our democracy is under siege?
It was a breezy, surprisingly pleasant summer week in Washington as the frenzy around potential Trump-Russia revelations reached near-carnival levels. On Thursday, brightly clad groups scattered across the lawns of Capitol Hill could almost have been picnickers — if not for the mounds of cable leashing them to nearby satellite trucks. Every news studio in D.C. seemed to have spilled forth into the jarring sunlight, eager for the best live backdrop to the spectacle that awaited. Bars opened early for live viewing of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Political ads against Comey — who isn’t running for anything — aired during coverage of the hearing, often back-to-back with vibrant ads praising President Trump’s first foreign trip, where he “[united] forces for good against evil.”
Only D.C.’s usually opportunistic T-shirt printers seemed to have missed the cue, forced to display the usual tourist “FBI” fare in rainbow spectrum but offering no specialty knitwear for the occasion. The conversion of America’s political arena into a hybrid sporting event/reality show was nonetheless near complete.
Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on either of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.
And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.
The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.
Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is born by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.
Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn.
So here are the real issues — about Russia; about the brutal facts we have yet to face; and about some hard questions we need to ask ourselves, and our political leaders, and our president.
1. No matter what is true or not, we have moved toward the fractured, inward-looking, weakened America that President Putin wants to see.
An honest assessment of where we are reads like the setting of a dystopian spy novel. Paid advertising is defaming private American citizens viewed as opponents of the president, while political ads praise our glorious leader. The policy process is paralyzed while both party caucuses, once well-oiled legislative and messaging machines, have factionalized into guerrilla-like cells. The same can be said of many government agencies, whose halls remain quiet, awaiting political appointees who may never arrive. Policies are floated and tweeted and drafted and retracted. There are uneasy relationships between the White House and the intelligence community, and between the White House and Congress, and between the White House and other parts of the White House — which is bleeding over into how the intelligence community interacts with the Congress, as well.
This factionalization mirrors a deep and deepening public divide, which has been greatly accelerated by a war on truth. The Russian narrative is increasingly being echoed by far right media, and finding its way into mainstream conservative media. Episodes of violent unrest, and the potential for wider chaos, don’t seem far off.
Meanwhile, no one seems to be watching what Russia is still doing to us. No one is systematically speaking about the tactics of Russian hybrid warfare, and that these go beyond “fake news” and “hacking” into far-reaching intelligence operations and initiatives to destabilize Western countries, economies and societies. No one is talking about how Russia provides training for militants and terrorists in Europe, even as U.S. generals say it is supporting the Taliban as it attacks American forces in Afghanistan. No one is leading a unified effort to roll back Russian influence in Europe or Asia or the Middle East. No one is commenting on Russia’s new efforts to entrench its presence near eastern Ukraine, escalate the fighting there and destabilize the government in Kyiv.
No one is commenting on how Russia is sparking and fueling Middle Eastern wars — first a physical one spiraling out from Syria, and now a diplomatic one that sweeps across the region. In a very real sense, if you want a glimpse of the world that Putin’s “grey Cardinal” Vladislav Surkov imagined when he described nonlinear warfare — “all against all” — the current churn throughout the Middle East, the Gulf states and North Africa is a pretty good example. This is a massive realignment that deeply affects U.S. interests, and which will cost us, in blood and treasure, in immeasurable ways.
But no one is commenting on the new hardware and manpower that Russia has deployed to the eastern and southern Mediterranean, or to its eastern and western borders. Our trenches will draw nearer again after the summer exercise season, but who will man them on the Western side is more uncertain. Europe’s newfound fortitude is absolutely critical — but their military capabilities will lag their ambitions for years to come.
Our relationships with our truest allies are frayed and fraying — and not just in headlines, but in trust and intelligence sharing and functionality, even as critical ambassadorships and administration jobs gape open. Those who remain, especially from the Pentagon and military commands — Defense Secretary James Mattis and the EUCOM and SOCOM commanders, notably — have been patrolling Europe with trips and reassurances, good work that was undone when the president removed mention of Article 5 from his speech at NATO headquarters. Though he committed to the principle of collective defense on Friday during a news conference with the president of Romania, that one act of petulance is devastating to years of NATO’s strategic planning.
Even behind closed doors, Trump reportedly did not once mention Russia to the NATO heads of state — not to discuss Russian attacks against our allies, and not to discuss Russia’s menacing of NATO skies, seas and borders. Instead, he browbeat our allies. Maybe it’s news to the White House — but it was Russia’s aggression, not Trump’s hectoring, that inspired the alliance to boost national military spending. Days later, the sting still on the slap, Trump lashed out at the mayor of London following a terror attack. These words and images, next to those of the president yukking it up in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, add a dangerous element of fragility to the greatest military alliance in history.
It leaves us to wonder — who does President Trump imagine will come to our aid after the next attack on our soil? Who does he imagine will stand next to our troops and ease the burden at the front lines in the many wars he is fighting?
For while our attention is on the center ring and who may next find their head inside the lion’s mouth, we are engaged in expanding special warfare in Africa, a tense standoff on the Korean peninsula, expanding operations in the Middle East. The president has requested a military budget to match this operational appetite — even if his inability to manage Congress makes it near-certain this will be trapped behind a continuing budget resolution until after the midterm elections. The Pentagon is clear on the purpose and direction of these operations, but the president’s tirades against countries hosting our men and military assets — Qatar, South Korea, Germany, etc. — complicate our ability to execute on-task.
Even Putin admits that “patriotic” Russian hackers were behind the attack on America — a fact the president will still not mention without caveat. Trump is isolated, manages those around him with Stalinesque puppeteering, and rightly views himself as under attack. But even if given every benefit of the doubt about the election, it is clear he does not think Russia is a threat.
2. Russia has altered American policies, our relationships with our allies and our view of our place in the world.
To be clear: I am not saying Trump did not win the election, or that he didn’t have considerable momentum toward the end of the campaign. Candidate Trump had a narrative that captured many hearts and minds — but this did not happen in a vacuum, but rather a landscape awash in Russian active measures.
A constantly misunderstood narrative was revisited during the Comey hearing — questions about whether Russian actions “changed” the vote. The focus on whether this means Russia physically changed votes is the greatest diversion tactic of all. Ironically, D.C.’s political class — whose existence is based upon the ability to deploy narratives that get some people to vote, and others not to — refuses to admit that outside interests could change a small percentage of votes in the Rust Belt.
If the Trump campaign itself has openly discussed its use of data-backed information operations to conduct targeted voter-suppression campaigns, possibly at the individual level — why would we believe the Russians wouldn’t be experimenting with the same tools and tactics? Do we really think Russian-friendly parties, oligarchs and state-owned interests hire U.S. political consultants and pollsters and technology firms merely to run ad campaigns, rather than to learn how to use these things against us?
These tools and tactics in the information space work better against America than anywhere else because there are a lot of us, and because English is the language of internet — and the amplification factor because of these things is staggering, especially when one of our presidential candidates was borrowing and repeating Russian narrative and disinformation. What possible claim could any sensible American politician make that these factors had no impact in the decisionmaking process of the American voter?
In fact, you can track the radical changes in the belief of certain narratives during the time period Comey identified as when the most intensive Kremlin-led activities were underway (beginning in summer 2015 through present day). During this time frame, Republican views on free trade agreements dropped 30 points, from roughly the same as Democrats to radically divergent (Democratic views remained relatively steady). Putin’s favorability rating increased, even while unfavorable views remained constant, fueled by a 20-point increase among Republicans and an 11-point increase among Independents. Between early 2016 and now, Republican views of whether media criticism can help keep political leaders in line — which for the previous five years was almost identical to Democratic views — dropped by 35 points.
An isolationist America that is softer on Russia and more in favor of authoritarian traits in leaders fits right into the narratives that the Kremlin nurtures and spends billions to promote. And if views changed so dramatically on these aspects of Russian narratives — why is it we believe their efforts didn’t change any votes?
In many ways, the trust-based, state-based U.S. voting system is surprisingly resilient to basichacking or meddling. Every state, sometimes every county, runs its own elections with its own rules with its own machines (or not) serviced by their own vendors. Certainly, there are easy ways to hack this infrastructure — technicians servicing software, unsecured machines, etc. — but the decentralized system makes it a complicated affair. It’s uncertain and it’s messy and it would leave a trail of money and evidence that can be found and exposed.
Far simpler, it turns out, is just hacking people — getting them to change their views over time without realizing that they are doing so on the basis of deliberately coercive and false information that is targeted at them because they exhibit certain traits and habits that “data scientists” have profiled. And no one can prove anyone did anything.
And yes, this is indeed terrifying. So yes, it would be great if everyone would move on from denying the existence of the “hacked votes” no one is looking for to looking instead at the far more important issue: that Russian information warfare has come of age thanks to social media. Perhaps then, the tens of thousands of “programmers” working for Russia’s three largest data companies will make a lot more sense.
3. It will happen again; it is still happening now.
One final point, on the tactical weaponization of discrete pieces of information. Ours was not the only case where hacking introduced info or disinfo that came to dominate specific parts of the information space (particularly when massively amplified by botnets that know how to game the algorithms).
Just this week, the planting of a single false report, allegedly by Russian hackers, was used to justify a diplomatic rift that will fuel the realignment of the Middle East. Russia has been working to accelerate this process since 2011, when it used the Syrian civil war as a pretext to deploy to the region. It is no accident that this realignment has meant a proxy war that has empowered Iran — which has been helping kill Americans in Iraq since at least 2004 — and special efforts targeting countries that the U.S. has relied on for regional basing and power projection — including Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Iraqi Kurdistan.
This tactic works because it prays on doubts and grievances that are already present — as the best information warfare does. Truth doesn’t matter. Once we know how we feel about something, who cares what the truth is? And information is just one act of Russia’s shadow war.
So this is where we are, six months after first taking stock of what Russia did to America. We are paralyzed and divided, watching a salacious sideshow of an investigation while Russian initiatives are underway in countless places, completely unchecked. The American president, eager to be rid of this “cloud,” has equated dismissing Russia’s global imperialist insurgency with loyalty to him.
As I wrote for Politico in January, Russia is clear about what its objectives are. When I said then that Russia was at war with the United States, this was an edgy, controversial view. Now, it is regularly repeated by senators and TV commentators. But our societal understanding of the war we face has not expanded fast enough.
Even looking only at the advance of Russian military assets — men, materiel, supporting infrastructure — the picture is grim. And yet the most concise encapsulation of the Russian concept of hybrid warfare — the chart depicting the “Gerasimov doctrine,” developed by the Russian chief of the general staff — shows that information warfare is the constant through all phases, and that the ideal ratio of nonmilitary to military activities is 4:1. The more important war is, by far, the shadow war. And yet we still refuse to accept what’s happening.
I don’t know why we just choose not to believe what Russia says, when they have repeatedly outlined what their strategic goals are and then moved to achieve them by force and guile. But it’s a bridge of disbelief we need to be willing to cross.
The war is in the shadows. And right now, Russia is winning. There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton and the true cause of Donald Trump’s legitimacy crisis — his own actions
HEATHER DIGBY PARTON
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton (Credit: AP/Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)
On Wednesday Vox’s Ezra Klein published a long piece about the current crisis in our government. He wrote that “our president lacks legitimacy, our government is paralyzed, our problems are going unsolved.” I would say that legitimacy, the first of those issues, is the source of all the others.
Donald Trump’s legitimacy problem is not just a matter of losing the popular vote. Other presidents have assumed office after such an outcome. In 1824 John Quincy Adams became president after the election decision was thrown to the House of Representatives. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became president after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden by more than 250,000 votes — although corruption was so rife in that election it’s fair to say no one will ever know for sure who got the highest tally. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison won 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, but lost the national count by about 90,000 votes. It didn’t happen again for 112 years when George W. Bush was installed by the Supreme Court after a virtual tie in Florida and a dubious vote count. And then just 16 years later, it happened again.
Throughout that last 16 years questions have been raised about our democracy, including the workings of the anachronistic Electoral College, the fact that every locality and state seems to have a different system, and the way Republicans have systematically disenfranchised voters whom they believe would be likely to vote for their opponents. There has been underlying doubt about the integrity of America’s electoral system simmering for a long time. This year it has come to a boil.
For at least a year we’ve been aware of social-media propaganda and foreign actors hacking the systems of various arms of the Democratic Party in order to influence the presidential campaign. The experts tell us that the Russian government has directed a number of similar cyber operations around the world and that this one was their most sophisticated. Evidently, the idea was to sow chaos and undermine Americans’ already sorely tested faith in our electoral system.
According to a highly detailed investigative report by Massimo Calabresi of Time, the evidence suggests that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a particular ax to grind against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he termed a “signal” she sent in 2011, which he claimed sparked protests against him. The extent to which Putin truly favored Donald Trump is still unknown, and the question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is now the focus of various investigations of Congress and a Justice Department special counsel. The odd behavior of Trump’s close associates as well as his obsession with shutting down the investigation certainly raise suspicions. But at this point it is pure speculation to think about what kind of “deal” might have been made.
This week’s story by The Intercept, reporting on an National Security Agency document that showed evidence the Russian military had made serious attempts to infiltrate voter information rolls around the country, suggests, however, yet another way the goals of Donald Trump and the Russian government were the same. Former FBI counterterrorism officer and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts (best known for his quip “follow the bodies of dead Russians” in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee) raised some additional questions in a piece for the Daily Beast this week. He believes that the main objective of this operation was not to alter the vote count but rather to instill more doubt about the process.
Watts wrote, “I noticed a shift in Kremlin messaging last October, when its overt news outlets, conspiratorial partner websites, and covert social-media personas pushed theories of widespread voter fraud and hacking.” He cited a Reuters article indicating that a Kremlin-backed think tank report “drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election.” The think tank also advised it would be “better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.”
It’s interesting to note that at the same moment the operation shifted in that direction, Trump himself was relentlessly flogging exactly the same accusation, saying in every rally from October on that Clinton and her campaign had “rigged the system” in her favor. Over and over again he would suggest that the outcome was predetermined:
When the outcome is fixed, when the system is rigged, people lose hope — they stop dreaming, they stop trying
He routinely told his followers stories like this:
One of the reasons I’ve been saying that the system is so corrupt and is so rigged, is not only what happens at the voters’ booth — and you know things happen, folks.
In fact, Trump did more to create mistrust and doubt in the U.S. electoral system than the Russian government’s highly developed hacking and misinformation campaign. Whether they were working together is still unknown but they were definitely rowing in the same direction. As much as the president likes to whine and complain about the Democrats being sore losers, the irony is that Trump himself played the greatest role in undermining the legitimacy of his win.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
The administration keeps delivering “policy announcements” that are little more than hollow media spectacles
President Donald Trump had a “bill signing” on Monday. After delivering some televised remarks, he sat at a small desk emblazoned with the presidential seal, signed a document, and handed out pens to assembled members of Congress. But the actual document he signed was not a bill, never passed through Congress, and had no legal effect whatsoever.
Instead, what Trump signed was a set of “principles” for his plan to hand air traffic control duties to the private sector. The document was purely symbolic; no one has even introduced new legislation to enact these principles, though the basic gist of them was derived from an older proposal.
Add Trump’s “principles” to the long and growing list of White House announcements that have zero legal import or policy ramifications. Another entry: the very same day as Trump’s pantomime bill signing, Brookings Senior fellow Bruce Riedel announced that the administration’s much-ballyhooed $110 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia is, in fact, “fake news.”
“There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts,” wrote Reidel, citing “contacts in the defense business and on the Hill.”
“Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday,” he added. “None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.”
When Trump doesn’t yet have a fake policy to fake-announce, he sometimes pledges that one will be announced soon, and chalks that up as an achievement in of itself. (As Bloomberg noted this week, every White House proposal seems perpetually to be “two weeks” away from unveiling.) Other times, he boasts about wholly imaginary legislation, as when he said last week that his “tax bill is moving along in Congress” and “doing very well.”
President Trump is not embellishing his agenda with fictitious achievements. The pretend bill signings and symbolic declarations are his agenda. This was clear from the very beginning of his presidential transition, when he claimed to have spared numerous jobs from outsourcing by negotiating deals with individual manufacturers. The details of his agreements with businesses like Carrier invariably turned out to be less than spectacular — but even if he had delivered everything he promised, strong-arming one factory owner at a time was never going to have a meaningful impact on the employment rate across entire sectors of the economy.
Then again, the employment rate was never the point. Trump’s announcements netted him a series of uncritical headlines and some upbeat cable news coverage. For the transition team, that counted as a policy “win.”
The problem with such victories, besides their essential hollowness, is that they’re intrinsically fleeting. Plus, like all bids for positive media attention, they depend on novelty to make a splash. It wasn’t long before Carrier-style deals were yielding diminishing returns in the PR department.
But once Trump entered the White House, he had other tools at his disposal. So he and his team hastily promulgated a series of sloppy, legally dubious executive orders that he could describe as policy victories. Those included, most famously, his misbegotten travel ban curtailing arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries. While these orders looked like displays of untrammeled power at first, the took on a slightly different color once the judicial branch got involved.
The administration’s frantic push to repeal Obamacare — regardless of the dire consequences for millions of Americans — was similarly driven by a need for some kind of “win” that would light up Anderson Cooper’s A-block for a few precious minutes. This is not speculation; as Politico reported in April, administration officials pushed for a rushed House vote to replace the health care law specifically so Trump “could tout [it] as a major legislative victory before… his 100th day in office.”
When the bill to strip 23 million people of their health insurance did eventually get through the House (albeit after the 100-day deadline) Trump celebrated with a Rose Garden ceremony, despite not having a final version of the legislation to sign.
But at least that was a real piece of legislation, which had passed at least one chamber of Congress. As the president’s approval rating continues to collapse and the odds lengthen that he’ll get any other major legislation through either the House or the Senate, the White House has now defaulted to touting “achievements” that are little more than jerry-rigged performance art.
Some of these non-policies can invigorate Trump’s base, or provide the temporary illusion of momentum. But few have translated into anything approaching a real legacy. And none of them have arrested the inexorable downward slide of the president’s approval rating — quite the opposite, in fact. Based on the Gallup daily tracking numbers, it looks like taking away millions of people’s health coverage and ripping up multinational agreements to mitigate climate change are unpopular even in the abstract.
The secret of any good con is knowing when to take the money and beat a hasty departure. But Trump’s con landed him a four-year term in America’s highest office; his efforts to extend that grift for the duration have not, so far, been particularly successful.
After Donald Trump’s election, many Americans wondered whether he’d stop tweeting from his personal account as he’d pledged during the campaign. He didn’t. In fact, in the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump sent more than 500 tweets from his @realDonaldTrump handle. According to an analysis done by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, those 500 tweets contained 18 explicit references to the TV show Fox & Friends, more than 100 jabs at the media, and the phrase “FAKE NEWS!” four times.
Trump’s personal account has nearly 32 million followers, almost twice as many as the official @POTUS account, and his spokespeople say he tweets because it’s the most direct way to reach his supporters. But Trump’s tweets about the news are often themselves newsworthy: In the past few months, the president has contradicted his own spokespeople, posted unsubstantiated allegations against former President Obama, and most, recently, taken the words of London Mayor Sadiq Khan out of context in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack.
In a Monday interview on Today, White House special counselor Kellyanne Conway downplayed the importance of Trump’s social media habits and condemned the media’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter,” and Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka reminded New Day host Chris Cuomo that Trump’s twitter is “not policy, it’s not an executive order. It’s social media. Please understand the difference.”
While it’s true that Trump’s tweets don’t carry any legislative weight, they do appear to come directly from the phone of the president of the United States. Why shouldn’t they be treated as official presidential statements? It’s a question Russel Neiss has been asking himself.
Neiss is a St. Louis-based software developer who, over the weekend, created @RealPressSecBot, a Twitter bot that transforms the president’s tweets into official statement format, like this:
I spoke with Neiss about his bot—and why he believes Americans should treat Trump’s tweets as real presidential statements. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: How did you come up with the idea for the bot?
Russel Neiss: [Former Obama staffer] Pat Cunnane tweeted on June 4 that he mocked up one of the president’s tweets about the London attacks in a traditional presidential format. It struck me as a really powerful image, the idea being that essentially, at their core, these tweets are literally presidential statements for media use.
Putting it in the traditional format made it all the more jarring between what we’ve expected to see from those formal press releases—and the kind of stuff we see coming out of the president’s Twitter account on a regular basis.
So, when my kids took a nap on Sunday afternoon, I took 40 minutes and put [the bot] together.
Godfrey: How does it work? Are you going to go back and reformat previous tweets?
Neiss: Twitter has an application programming interface (API), that allows programmers to interface with the platform. I’ve created a Python script, a small computer program, that triggers that API, and says “Hey, Twitter, give me the last couple of Trump tweets.” Then it takes the text, runs it through an image processing library, converts the text to the nice format as an image file, then posts it to Twitter.
Now it’s basically tweeting in real time. Every five minutes, it scans the president’s Twitter feed for new tweets. We’ve had some requests from folks who have wanted to see some of the classics, but there’s something more pure about just focusing on going forward.
Godfrey: Do you see Trumps tweets as presidential statements? Should Americans treat them as such?
Neiss: We have a press secretary who is being constantly undermined by his boss’s tweets, and we have surrogates who say they can’t speak for the president. At this moment, the best thing we have is the man’s Twitter account.
That classic quote from the campaign that you have to take the president seriously but not literally? Everyone’s been telling Trump not to tweet, and he continues to tweet, and so I think it’s important to take him seriously, even if not literally. These are serious words coming out of the highest office holder in the land, and all that this bot does is just give those messages the proper honor they deserve.
Godfrey: Do you think it’s harmful that Trump is using Twitter as a sort of replacement for more formal presidential statements?
Neiss: I think it’s fine for Trump to tweet. Obama maintained a personal Twitter account. I’m sure that Clinton would have tweeted had Twitter existed at the time. Presidents always use alternative media to get their message out. This idea of going around the mainstream media is completely understandable and legitimate.
But one of the really interesting things about this president, is that it does not appear that these things are filtered through any formal vetting process. As such, it creates this really interesting world to see the thoughts and objectives of this particular president. These are statements of the president. Putting those tweets in this format emphasizes that, more than just saying it.
Godfrey: The account already has 65,000 followers. How long are you planning to keep it active?
Neiss: It’ll run for as long as Trump keeps tweeting. Maybe come 2020, or sooner, when the next president is inaugurated, we’ll turn it off.