edited by O Society Mar 28, 2019
written by Chris Hedges TruthDig
The Mueller report’s categorical statement “Donald Trump and his campaign did not collude with Russia” ends one of the most shameful periods in modern American journalism, one which rivals and perhaps surpasses even the mindless cheerleading for the Iraq War by most of the press.
It further erodes and may prove fatal to the credibility of a press who steadfastly rendered most of the country invisible and functions as little more than an array of gossiping courtiers to the elites.
“The investigation did not establish members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the report by special counsel Robert Mueller says, according to a direct quotation given in an official letter by U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
The charge Russia stole the 2016 presidential election, Vladimir Putin holds secret “pee tapes” of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel with prostitutes, or Trump is a longtime “Kremlin agent,” repeated by reporters whose work I admired in the past, is demagoguery as pernicious as the vile taunts and racist tropes to come out of the White House. The press endlessly repeats such allegations while ignoring the expanding social inequality and suffering of a country where half the population lives in poverty, as well as the collapse of our democratic institutions.
These facts, not Russian manipulation, saw enraged American voters elect a demagogue who at least belittles the elites, including those in the press, who sold them out. The charge that Trump was a tool of Russia is entertaining. It attracts billions in advertising dollars. It allows the press to posture as a moral crusader. But over the past three years this obsession blotted out most of the real crimes committed by this administration and the reality most Americans endure.
The mainstream press, owned by the corporations, extinguished the democratic state and are fleecing the public, as well as destroying the ecosystem on which we depend for life, does not hold its employers to account. The empty chatter about Russia, including in The New York Times, exposes the bankruptcy of the U.S. media. MSNBC and CNN, which long ago abandoned journalism for entertainment, breathlessly clogged the airwaves with ridiculous conspiracy theories and fantasies and used these to justify a faux crusade.
First, they insist the intelligence dossier compiled by British ex-spook Christopher Steele that’s one basis for the F.B.I.’s own investigation has been discredited or is at best uncorroborated. In the same vein, they claim that Fusion GPS, the research firm that helped pay Steele for the dossier, is little more than a “sleazy operator.”
The truth about Fusion is that it is paid to dig up dirt by whoever is willing to pay for the dirt. Its business model relies on the Beatles ’timeless insight “everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey.”
But questions about Fusion’s credibility, client list or aggressive tactics are irrelevant. Fusion brokered the dossier but Steele produced it. What’s relevant is his credibility, the reliability of his sources and the truthfulness of their claims.
These check out. Bill Browder, the anti-Putin campaigner who is an outspoken critic of Fusion, calls Steele “a top-class person whose reputation is beyond reproach.” At least one of Steele’s possible Russian sources was found dead and three others were charged with treason, suggesting, as one Wall Street Journal news account noted, that the Kremlin was cleaning out the moles who had betrayed its hand in last year’s election meddling.
As for the allegations themselves, former C.I.A. station chief John Sipher laid out the decisive case for their broad truthfulness in a lengthy article in September in Just Security.
“Well before any public knowledge of these events,” Sipher notes, Steele’s report “identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents. Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.”
(After this column went to print, The Times reported Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page met with Russian government officials in a July 2016 trip to Moscow, something he has long denied. This further confirms another claim made in the Steele dossier.)
There’s more of this, but you get the point: The suggestion that the Steele dossier has been discredited is discreditable to the point of being dishonest.
This brings us to the second anti-Mueller contention, which is that his indictment of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort for tax fraud connected to his political work in Ukraine, along with news of the guilty plea entered by Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to the F.B.I., is merely evidence of the slimness of the special counsel’s case.
The nonchalance about Manafort’s illicit ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine is almost funny, coming from the same people who went berserk over China’s alleged meddling on behalf of Democrats in the 1996 presidential campaign.
But if nothing else, the Manafort indictment underscores the Trump campaign’s astonishing vulnerability to Russian blackmail.
Did that vulnerability explain the campaign’s bizarre intervention (denied by Manafort) to soften the Republican Party platform’s language on providing help to Ukraine?
Why did the campaign pursue a course of semi-secret outreach to Russia through George Papadopoulos, giving him just enough visibility to let the Russians know he was a player but not so much visibility as to attract much media attention?
What else about Trump’s obsequious overtures to the Kremlin might similarly be explained by the contents of the Steele dossier?
These questions require answers, which is what makes calls to remove Mueller from his job or have Trump pardon Manafort, Papadopoulos and even himself both strange and repugnant. Since when did conservatives suddenly become conveniently bored with getting to the bottom of Russian conspiracies?
As it turns out, they’re not bored. They just want the conspiracies to involve liberals.
Thus the third Trumpian claim: That the real scandal is that the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee paid for the Steele dossier. Somehow that’s supposed to add up to “collusion” between Clinton and the Russians, on the remarkable theory that Steele was merely retailing Kremlin-invented fables about Trump.
Yet how else was Steele supposed to investigate allegations of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign except by talking to Russian sources with insight into the Kremlin? If Clinton was the beneficiary of the Kremlin’s designs, why did it leak her emails? And why would Putin favor the candidate most hostile to him in last year’s election but undermine the one who kept offering improved relations?
You already know the answers. The deeper mystery is why certain conservatives who were once Trump’s fiercest critics have become his most sophistical apologists. The answer to that one requires a mode of analysis more psychological than political.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency
By Joshua Green
272 pp. Penguin Press. $27.
Mellivora capensis — better known as the honey badger — is a thick-skinned and sharp-toothed little creature that in 2011 became a YouTube sensation thanks to a short video called “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.” In the clip, a honey badger chases off jackals, raids a beehive, survives a cobra bite and eats venomous snakes head first. Meanwhile, an unseen narrator extols the animal’s core virtue: “Honey badger don’t give a . . .” — well, a darn.
The video viewed more than 90 million times…
Most people who watch it probably find it amusing — and plenty gross.
But for Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist and leading impresario of the alt-right, the video and its furry hero were something else: inspiration. The animal is the mascot of Breitbart News, the truth-optional publication Bannon took over following Andrew Breitbart’s sudden death in 2012 and with which he can maintain communication thanks to a White House waiver.
After Trump made allegations about Bill Clinton’s sexual history in a debate last year with Hillary Clinton, Bannon exulted over his boss’s brazen but effective performance: “Classic honey badger,” he called it.
If there’s a lesson to draw from “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s deeply reported and compulsively readable account of Bannon’s fateful political partnership with Trump, it is not to underestimate the honey badger. “If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, in May 2016, and he was probably right.
Only someone with his and Bannon’s transgressive instincts, along with their seeming incapacity for moral and intellectual embarrassment, (paired and funded by Robert Mercer) could have defeated the well-oiled if soulless machine of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Green reminds us it wasn’t long ago both men were looked at as political jokes, and not even bad ones. When Ivanka Trump told Rupert Murdoch over lunch that her father intended to run for president, the media baron replied, without even looking up from his soup: “He’s not running for president.”
As for Bannon, when Green first met him in 2011 he came across as a “political grifter seeking to profit from the latest trend.” Later, as Bannon took the reins of the Trump campaign, he was seen by Beltway Republicans as “an Internet-era update of the Slim Pickens character in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ who rides the bomb like a rodeo bull, whoopin’ and hollerin’ all the way to nuclear annihilation.”
But whatever the pair lackes in conventional political experience, they make up for with other gifts. Both understood showmanship: slogans, narrative, put-downs and especially conflict. They knew the value of rage and outrage alike — the first as fuel for a movement; the second as the indispensable foil for that movement.
They also grasp much of what’s supposed to matter in politics no longer does — detailed policy papers, for instance, or personal decorum. Trump, Green writes, “figured out that the norms forbidding such behavior were not inviolable rules that carried a harsh penalty but rather sentiments of a nobler, bygone era, gossamer-thin and needlessly adhered to by politicians who lacked his willingness to defy them.”
This is why Trump’s birtherism — the support he gave to the lie Barack Obama was born abroad — never disqualified his candidacy, even as it helped him “forge a powerful connection with party activists.” It’s a tactic he would repeat straight through the end of the campaign, when he took to denouncing “international banks” in terms that shaded into anti-Semitism.
“Darkness is good,” was Bannon’s advice for dealing with criticism from groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. “Don’t let up.” At another moment, when the campaign feared House Speaker Paul Ryan would try to steal the G.O.P. nomination from Trump, Bannon threatened to rally Breitbart’s army. “Pepe’s gonna stomp their ass,” he said — “Pepe the Frog” being the alt-right’s white-supremacist cartoon mascot on Twitter.
Green is consistently interesting on the subject of Trump. But the real value of “Devil’s Bargain” is the story it tells about Bannon, some of which has been previously reported (not least by Green himself) but never so well synthesized or explained as it is here. The product of a working-class family and a Catholic military high school in Richmond, Va., he was taught from an early age that the defining moment in Western civilization occurred in 1492 — not with Columbus’s discovery of the New World, mind, but with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista from the Moors of the Iberian Peninsula.
“The lesson was, here’s where Muslims could have taken over the world,” recalled one of Bannon’s classmates. “And here was the great stand where they were stopped.”
If that was an early hint of Bannon’s political vision (and now a staple of Trump’s foreign policy speeches), other lessons suggested the means he would employ to achieve that vision. On Wall Street in the mid-1980s, he came to admire Michael Milken, the so-called junk bond king, who showed how a “band of outsiders” could set about “laying siege to a comfortable, fattened and vulnerable establishment.”
Later, while running an Internet business in Hong Kong, Bannon discovered the underworld of online gamers; “intense young men” who “disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities.” One of those alternate realities was “World of Warcraft,” in which millions of people were digitally transformed into secret soldiers waging titanic battles in unseen worlds against mythical enemies.
Bannon seemed to intuit this digital world could be recreated for his political purposes, by designing an apocalyptic narrative of righteous warriors waging an end-of-days battle by all necessary means against assorted enemies: jihadists, progressives, Acela-corridor Republicans, the Clintons. Republican political operatives had spent the Obama years wondering about the “missing” white voters who had failed to show up for John McCain and Mitt Romney. Turns out, they (or others like them) were online, and Bannon — whose own fantasies were suggested by a portrait he had of himself in his office, dressed as Napoleon — was proposing to supply this army with the necessary ammunition.
Much of it would come from the bile factory at Breitbart News. Another part would be supplied by the Government Accountability Institute, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based nonprofit that mined the “deep Web” and dug up the dirt on the Clinton Foundation for Peter Schweizer’s 2015 blockbuster “Clinton Cash.” There was also a data-analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British company “that advised foreign governments and militaries on influencing elections and public opinion using the tools of psychological warfare.”
What all of this added up to was a kind of alt-G.O.P. — agile and indifferent to norms and boundaries — could supply the Trump campaign with everything it needed to win. Bannon has described himself as a “Leninist” for wanting to “destroy the state.” Whether he will achieve that is doubtful, but he seems to share Lenin’s genius for building a secret party with radical designs, ready to pounce at the historically opportune time.
Now it has succeeded. To what end? As an electoral gambit, the honey badger approach was a good bet: Trump is president not in spite of the wretched things he said about Mexicans, women, John McCain, Megyn Kelly and so on, but because he said them. He sold his shamelessness as fearlessness and his charlatanism as charisma, and people believed. Lord save us when Democrats alight on a similar candidate.
As a governing principle, however, honeybadgerism has been less of a success. As an article in Mental Floss noted, honey badgers may be smart, resilient and incredibly tough, but they’re also “lazy about housekeeping,” “mean” and “skunk-like,” meaning they possess an anal gland that releases a suffocating smell when in distress.
Readers can draw their own parallels, but that’s usually not a formula for political success. Bannon and his acolytes should beware: Sooner or later, they’ll outstay their welcome.