The right to vote is the basis and spiritual heart of democracy—precious, hard won, sacred. Yet, ninety million eligible voters didn’t vote in the presidential election of 2016. Sixty-six million people voted for Hillary Clinton and sixty three million for Donald J. Trump, who became President by garnering more than the requisite 270 votes in the Electoral College, 306 for him to Clinton’s 232. The electoral College is an archaic vestige from slavery days.
The vote came out pretty clean though. No real problem other than that the Russian government, as it turned out, had spent millions playing with voter minds by multiplying negative images of Hillary Clinton on social media. Their object was to mess up our democracy and turn the result in Trump’s favor. Despite his victory, the new president felt the need to dub the vote “rigged.” Votes for Clinton, he claimed, had been cast by itinerant illegal immigrants, some presumably sneaking into New Hampshire by bus from Boston, others into the southwest from Mexico. A national commission was appointed to chase down the chicanery that had cost him a majority. When the states protested, and the chicanery turned out be mostly by the President and commission officials, Trump shut it down with a promise to address the non-existent problem another way. No one worried about the ninety million voters who failed to show up at the polls. Republicans had worked hard for years to retard voter turnout by various prerequisite, registration card, and redistricting schemes, and the Russians had done their best to discourage likely Clinton voters.
To date President Trump has shown little concern with Russian interference, and hasn’t been willing to confront Vladimir Putin or punish Russia for the intrusion. He nevertheless called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election in a sham election on March 18, 2018. Ballot stuffing and voter intimidation had been widespread. An opposition candidate had been jailed and his name removed from the ballot. Opponents and journalists had been intimidated. Assassinations of well known critics had occurred in the not distant past. Vladimir Putin “won“ the March 18 election by a landslide, with seventy-six percent of the vote. No big problems for Putin or Trump; the people had spoken. As far as is known, the United States didn’t interfere in the Russian election, as Hillary Clinton had intervened verbally in a previous one, when she was Secretary of State.
While all this was going on, the Trump campaign, it turned out, had been the subject since July 2016 of an FBI foreign espionage investigation probing possible collusion with the Russians. Might the campaign be complicit in any way with the hacking, publication, and targeted use of emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign? A foreign policy advisor to Trump, George Papadopoulos, had in May told Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat, that the Russians had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and had “dirt” on her. He had said this late one night over drinks in a London bar. But he shouldn’t have known that. Downer’s subsequent report led to the opening of the FBI investigation, which by now, May 2018, has ballooned into a multifaceted investigation headed by a special Investigator, Robert J. Mueller. The investigation has already produced indictments of Americans and Russians on such charges as lying, money laundering, conspiracy, and interference in the election. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
It seems from all this and more as if the United States and Russia are dance partners in a weird waltz for the future of democracy. This blog essay aims to tease out salient points about the future of democracy within this strange context.
Democracy is threatened all over the world. Democracy had surged after world War II, again after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and in the Middle East with the promise of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2010. Since then, nativist and fascist tendencies have sprung up. The military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is newly ensconced in power by sham election in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad, with Putin’s help, remains in power in Syria, after destroying the country in civil war. Dictatorships are emerging in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey, and China has made Xi Jinping president for life. Then there is BREXIT, Trump, and Putin. President Trump has already hosted most of the emerging dictators at the White House, as if they were among our closest allies. They typically exit Washington with a word of praise from the President.
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The United States and Russia are both titular democracies. The United States surely is one, even though its behavior falls far short of its pretensions and ideals. Russia has a constitution, and a government with democratic form, but functions like a dictatorship and oligarchy. The opposition in Russia courageously risks life and violence in its efforts to transform the nation into a real democracy. Meanwhile in the United States, the Trump administration attempts to transcend democratic norms and govern more like a dictatorship.
People of means from every country can and do regularly fly in and out of every other country to do business. They are an emerging international elite with shared interests and a common lifestyle. It is an open secret that democracy is an inconvenience to this emerging global power elite. Entrepreneurs in the United States and Oligarchs in Russia have much in common. They both find democratic institutions and norms a nuisance, and would like to avoid them.
Russians are a great people. Don’t just take it from them, or from the French actor-expatriate, Gérard Depardieu, who decided to move there. Consider also the view of George F. Keenan, our preeminent diplomat and Russia hand who engineered our containment policy to win “the cold war” over the Soviet Union. His biographers report that Keenan preferred Russians to his own countrymen; he considered them serious and us frivolous. Are we? If it’s up to the Russian people, democracy has a future to be realized there.
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The American spirit of freedom and individualism protects democracy more steadfastly than does even the right to vote. When government messes with Americans they yell, organize, protest, and march. They are so free that ninety million chose not to vote in 2016; that is one thesis! Don’t tread on them.
At the same time as individual liberty is extolled, Americans discourage each other from voting sensibly on the basis of lived experience, evidence, and reason. We prefer to psychologize and trick each other. We use sophisticated technologies and marketing strategies to troll and manipulate. I respect myself as a rational, self-governing person, but not you. I aim to make you vote my way by slippery media hocus-pocus. Americans no longer regard themselves as rational enlightened citizens in the style of John Locke. We treat each others as electronic freaks that money can buy, by big bucks spent right up to election day. Education and a love of learning invite a respectful attitude toward democracy. Marketing and advertisement do not. They diminish democracy.
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Paul Manafort enters the stage, as rendered in the March issue of The Atlantic. Roger Stone enters too, as self-described in the Netflix documentary, Get Me Roger Stone. There we see Stone at nineteen in 1972 working in Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP). Ah, there he is testifying before the Watergate grand jury, the youngest witness, an original dirty trickster. Today, Nixon’s head is tattooed proudly between Stone’s shoulder blades. In Memphis, in 1977, Manafort engineers Stone’s election as president of the Young Republicans. There the two are on Ronald Reagan’s team getting him elected in 1980; Manafort had run the Ford campaign earlier and will later run George W. H. Bush’s campaign. During their work for Reagan in 1980 they open with Charles Black the new prototype of the modern Washington political consulting and lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, and Stone (joined later by Kelly, to add a Democrat to the mix.) Their breakthrough insight is to mix rather than separate consulting and lobbying work to assure maximum political impact for their clients!
They make millions peddling Washington influence to American corporations, and later also to what critics called “the torturers’ lobby,” including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Joseph Savimbe of Angola, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, and Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia. More recently, Manafort works-in Ukraine for a decade, principally in getting Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, elected president, a profitable gig until Yanukovych is overthrown and turns tail for Russia in 2014, leaving Manafort with serious money problems. His appointment as campaign manager for Donald Trump, on the recommendation of Roger Stone among others, is fortuitous. Stone, it should be known, had been trying to convince Trump to run for years, and in fact had gotten him to do so once before, in 1999, against Pat Buchanan, for the Reform Party nomination. Trump withdrew from that race after winning a couple of primaries. That was enough. The result was as Stone intended. Mindful of how Ross Perot and the Reform Party had depressed the Republican vote in 1996, and given Bill Clinton the election, Stone aimed to prevent Buchanan from doing the same thing to Bush. In short, he was using Trump as a foil against Buchanan to get George W. Bush elected. He succeeded then. He succeeded again in getting Trump to run for the Republican party nomination in 2016. The rest is emerging history.
The salient point as regards democracy is Roger Stone’s deftness in introducing the ‘dirty trick’ into modern campaigning. He is a proud, unrepentant advocate and master practitioner of the art—which he thinks of as anything effective that isn’t illegal, including in 2016 such signs and T-shirts as “Clinton for Prison” and “Lock her up!” In the documentary on Stone, Tucker Carlson, the FOX host, says of him: “he knows how to get a majority.” This recognizes the pragmatism of one of Stone’s firm rules: “Win!” But Carlson errs in making majority attainment the essence of democracy. Tainted elections undermine democracy. Dirty Tricks diminish democracy and disrespect citizens.
Manafort, a masterful organizer, is merely corrupt. He has been for decades. Democracy, his party, and his nation are the worse for it.
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We’ve become aware recently of the shenanigans at Cambridge Analytica (CA), the English data analytics firm funded by the Mercer family and led by Steve Bannon and Alexander Nix. They conducted the media targeting work for the Trump Campaign in 2016. They used stolen personal data “scraped” from 76 million Facebook users to target their adverts, and used foreign workers illegally to conduct campaign work on American soil. Their CEO, Alexander Nix, since suspended, was caught in a surreptitiously filmed video telling prospective clients how CA, if requested, could entrap politicians in compromising positions—in a bribe or in the company of Ukrainian prostitutes, for instance—and stealthily post the videos on the Internet. Nix said he had met candidate Trump multiple times. The company measures success by the metric of whether its clients win election, in the United States, England, India, or elsewhere. So here we have deceit, lying, robbery, foreign interference, psychographic profiling, dirty tricks, and angry voter targeting, all wrapped up with advanced computer science and social media, with prostitutes, from Ukraine of all places, standing by in the wings. No love of democracy is evident in this nasty scene until a whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, a former administrator in the firm, steps forward to its defense. He thinks CA’s work influenced not only the American election, but also the BREXIT vote.
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Why aren’t Americans more upset at Russian interference in the election?. The Trump voters are blasé about it; the rest of us aren’t up-a-tree angry either. Few are inclined to buy the “this is an act of war” assertion.
Here is a simple theory. The Russians are unoriginal. They only repeated what opponents were already saying about Hillary Clinton. Americans are the grotesques who talk disgracefully. We’re the ones who gave up civility in our elections. We are willing to subvert our own democracy. All the Russians had to do is play the part of Iago: Psst! Take a look at this! Use our bot! Forward! Share! Pass it on!
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Treason may not be what it was once cracked up to be, say in Benedict Arnold’s times, or even in the Cold War days of Clancy and Smiley. I may be wrong, but I tend to believe Roger Stone when he says that legality is the line he doesn’t cross in dirty trickery. I’m not saying either—and its important to clarify this—that Paul and Roger are conspirators with the Russians in the election. They may be. Mueller will have to tell us that. Poor Paul is in trouble enough already for money laundering. I merely recite highlights from their political careers to convey the stink that has surrounded Republican Presidential politics because of them since the days of Nixon up through the dirty 2016 election.
The larger point about treason is that the colluders simply recognized that Putin thought of Hillary Clinton exactly as they did, so they welcomed his help. Candidate Trump said as much when he implored the Russians to publish the missing emails “if they could find them.” Trump thought the media and the public would welcome them as much as he did. Whatever has been going on between Trump and Russia hasn’t been about military secrets. Misogyny is what unites these good old boys, and that is no secret. Perhaps there are also a few dirty pictures and musty loan documents languishing in a Kremlin vault.
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Name calling is multiplying by leaps and bounds under President Trump. Nicknames are his speciality; he fashions himself brander in chief. “Little Marco,” “lyin’ Ted,” Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” and, ”Goofy Elizabeth Warren” are ones he used in the campaign. His favored portable adjectives are loser, failure, dummy, idiot, moron, and fool.
It seems apparent that Trump knows of what he speaks! Has he not already committed the offenses he accuses others with? Isn’t he displacing negative self-accusations onto projected enemies? In this context, “slime-ball” as his appellation to besmirch James Comey, the fired FBI director, seems particularly revealing, and self-incriminating.
But name calling is juvenile, un-adult. Labelling destroys community. Democracy calls for civility and respect. We should treat each other as human beings and adults. We’d be better citizens for our efforts.
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Name calling is coupled these days with a cultural shift privileging the quick, clever putdown—mean, dramatic, and decisive smacks. Student survivors of massacre ask the country to come together to craft sensible gun legislation. A critic immediately calls them out as hired “crisis actors.” Another wants them to take personal responsibility and learn CPR. A third accuses them of being “brainwashed and soulless.”
One of the issues behind name calling and putdowns is a perceived lack of time for listening and conversation. There is only time, we pretend, to recognize the enemy, pick a slant, and react. Democracy thrives in leisurely, neighborly conversation. It dies in smackdowns and in a dearth of time.
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Whatever I say about “you” and “they” diminishes and enhances “me” and “we.” For example, President Trump says: Only “stupid people” don’t want to get along with Russia. By this statement he elevates and submerges himself into a “we,” smart people, and banishes the possibility of personal stupidity. The auditor can only side with or against him, merging oneself into “we” or “they,” and submerging along with it one’s individuality. So it is with any and all human description. Personalities emerge and die in fateful nouns and adjectives.
Political descriptions of opponents groomed and grooved over decades by expensive research and marketing campaigns have manufactured the two-sided gridlock that today stymies our politics and political parties. The irony is that Americans who live and work together do not in fact divide themselves up so neatly. I’m not the traitorous, liberal elitist “your” people say I am. You’re not the tight-wad, heartless, redneck “my” people say you are. Hillary is neither crooked or criminal. Bernie isn’t crazy. Donald Trump isn’t any of his self descriptions.
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Bullying has become a political fashion. This is deeply ironic. Who of us avoided the bully in middle school? Very few? Now bullying is a political style to routinely bring to the state capitol and Washington. Meanwhile, the middle school bullies are fantasying ways to bring weapons to school.
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The difference between public opinion and actual legislation is the clearest measure of oligopoly’s dominance over democracy. If over fifty percent of adult citizens persistently and consistently favor universal health care, or the banning of assault rifles, or anything else, and it never happens in enacted legislation, the system is undemocratic to that extent. While our nation is a republic, and was not intended to be fully democratic, the chasm between citizen opinion and enacted legislation is exacerbated grossly by the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision. If a corporation is a person, and that is the sense of the latin ‘corpus’ underlying ‘corporation,’ then the corporations and officials with the money get the influence and control over legislation and policies. The choices of alive individual citizens are dwarfed and buried without a need to stuff ballot boxes.
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Americans by all accounts are badly split, polarized, gridlocked even, and I guess we are a little bit. But the actual interests of people don’t neatly divide only once, nor perfectly match political affiliation. Examples are legion where voters vote against their own interests.The politics surrounding the Affordable Care Act, is a recent example. Some who benefit from the program advocate against Obamacare, not knowing that the benefit they get is from the legislation they detest. Ours is mostly a two party system in which everyone eventually votes for one or the other party. Both parties use social science research and marketing programs to sustain their constituencies. These affiliations make us seem more divided than we are.
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One absurdity of the Trump Administration is the President’s inclination to insist on prejudice as policy. He proposes to ban Muslims, wall up borders, throw out regulations, keep out people from “shithole countries,” rip up the Iran Treaty, get out of the climate change accord, renegotiate trade agreements, have teachers pack guns, put the sick to work, do deals with enemies, etc. He wants to govern by executive fiat. The problem is that prejudices— even widely held, popular ones— are mostly symptomatic, simplistic, personal, and disconnected from reality. The purveyor of prejudice is likely to address non-existent problems and cause new problems to come into existence. The American democracy is mired in a miasma of unintelligent and silly actions that lead nowhere. In such an environment blind men effectuate unexpected good and induce unintended tragedies. Conversing with each other as thoughtful, intelligent citizens has to be a better course.
Among the categories of folk that the Trump Administration harbors prejudice against, people of color, particularly descendants of slaves, receive particular revile, along with independent women, university professors, and scientists.
Yet, Trump is succeeding. No wonder his base sticks with him. He has acted upon every hostile impulse they share with him. Restraints on police are lessened in black communities; sanctuaries are defiled as if The Fugitive Slave Act of the 1850s is being enforced; public schools are neglected in favor of charter schools; good, neighborly, employed citizens are needlessly deported, and our foreign alliances are reduced to shambles. It looks like the extreme right of the Republican Party is getting all that it has dreamed from Trump. Why would they not support him?
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The persistent anger, rage, and palpable unhappiness of the President is surprising, and revealing. Many of his wealthy friends share the anger with him. How could a fortunate man who has achieved so much of the American Dream—wealth, fame, mansions, lovely wives, beautiful children, time, independence, freedom, and power—be unhappy and crazy angry? And how could he possibly believe that his unhappiness is caused by others? Why the derision and scapegoating?
Perhaps the dream itself has failed him? Perhaps materialism fails to nurture. Perhaps success is unfulfilling.
All an observer can do is inquire of his own happiness and feelings? I am not unhappy. I feel no enduring anger. I thank my family, friends, and students for all I am and feel. I experience pride of accomplishment and satisfaction. No one has caused my mistakes; I made them all myself.
President Trump’s invented gods seem to have failed him. I hope he gets the chance to go in another emotional direction. Did not Cicero advise wisely? I think he did. If one has access to a library, a garden, and good company, one has everything. However, I do not begrudge the President his golf; it is the finest recreation available to him. I wish him a great epiphany on the fairways one of these fine spring mornings. Everyone can change. With the President, It can’t happen too soon!
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In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon a political prisoner charged with treason in a Stalin show trial decides to back the prosecution’s false charges against him because, as a dedicated communist, he finds it more important that the party thrive than that he survive! Truth-telling could intolerably weaken the party if his truthful defense prevailed! This may be a sophisticated extension of a parent’s willingness to die for an endangered offspring. The general formula is: vote for X over beloved Y to gain A while preventing B. I guess we could call this displaced voting or alienated voting. The thinking can get so convoluted and attenuated as to approach nonsense. I vote for a candidate I loathe because he will do good for me! For instance, an Evangelical Christian votes for Donald Trump while deploring Trump’s moral values because he will appoint a conservative judge to the Supreme Court. It worked in this case! But, in general, alienated voting portends poorly for democracy, particularly because it requires overcoming cognitive dissonance and tricking oneself. Self deception is a frequently used human art in which one can lose oneself in the maze.
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Professional sports culture has birthed a mindset that has spread to politics; the citizen turns into the fan. Listen to sports radio in any city or media market and you will hear infinite minutiae dedicated to winning championships and defeating detestable foes. The lonely fan wants to “just this once”—and yet “every single game”—win, and beat the crap out of the opponent. Many an alienated voter wants the same thing, and only that, victory for his team! Reason, morality, nation, and cost be damned!
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Immigration is always an issue; the species is massive, burgeoning, assaulted, chased, and on the move. In that regard ‘Life’ has won out over ‘Choice.’ Borders are pierced and concepts of peoplehood threatened. Still, turning our backs on the wretched and turning refugees away, defiles us, is deeply Un-American. This shames us before the altar of our lady of liberty, the “Mother of Exiles” who commands:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(Emma Lazarus, Inscription on the Statue of Liberty, 1883)
We cannot claim to be apostles for democracy, freedom, and individualism while denying suffering humanity.
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Nature presides over us: our mother, our home. We are not the deciders; we are not in command, particularly of ourselves. Nor are the gods we invent. Our species is not the apex of evolution; we are not even necessary to life. Are not the worms and the ants more elemental? Yet, we reject science with guff talk and take up the role of developer and destroyer. We cannot be avatars for freedom, democracy, and humanity while reducing nature to an enemy. Earth and life will surely prevail, but will we? Can we expect to survive by kidding ourselves?
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We must decide individually and collectively whether we want democracy. We live at a moment when democracy is under attack by authoritarianism, and is increasingly a nuisance to international economic elites. It is shocking to see journalism and freedom of press under daily attack and to witness legal institutions under pressure to short circuit the rule of law. This is discouraging. On the other hand, events like The Women’s March of January 21, 2017 and the youth March For Our Lives of March 24, 2018 are encouraging. Incessant, persistent, organizing work by parties, groups, and collectivities of all persuasions shows that millions upon millions care deeply for democracy all over the nation and around the world. Hopefully, democracy will survive, inspire, and prevail. But democracy cannot be taken for granted. Be eternally alert.
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The “one person, one vote” principle provides a bed rock foundation for the remediation of democracy. A related step is to make it congenial for the ninety million missing voters to use their franchise. We need their minds and voices. I ask myself: Should my vote count more than another American citizen? No. I don’t steal from other people. I am fortunate to be a citizen and have a vote. Should my vote count more than the interests of non-living entities, corporations? Yes. I’m alive. I think and feel. I’m a citizen. They are not. I celebrate our nation and our species.
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Musing, while aimless, encourages. If not answers and solutions, musing promises thoughtfulness, fresh ideas, and a more humane world.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
May 3, 2018
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good