By Penny Smith

Jane Mayer, “The Man Behind the Dossier: How Christopher Steele Compiled His Secret Report on Trump’s ties with Russia,” The New Yorker (March 12, 2018): 48-65.

 In many ways Jane Mayer is a national treasure. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she covered the rise of Art Pope’s Republicans in that magazine (“State for Sale,” New Yorker, October 10, 2011) and later used part of that article for her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The “State for Sale” essay featured John Snow of western North Carolina and his loss to Jim Davis, which is hitting as close to home as one can get.

In this essay Mayer investigates the connections between the now infamous Steele dossier, Donald Trump and the election of 2016. One of her motivations is the public trashing of Steele, a British national and former MI6 employee, and his inability to respond in full (he knows a lot of secrets) and in kind (he obviously failed to attend the Trump University of Bullying). Mayer thought we should probably know a little more about him before we bought the official narrative that he’s a liar, a sensationalist, a loser and a paid Clinton operative.

There is a nugget of truth in the “paid operative” characterization. A Republican businessman first contacted an American firm, Fusion GPS, to do traditional opposition research on Donald Trump. He was supporting another candidate for the GOP nomination. When it become obvious that Trump was going to be the nominee, he ceased to support the opposition research.

Fusion GPS then connected with a law firm that represented the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and also the Clinton’s campaign. They picked up the tab, although at no time during the run-up to the 2016 election was Clinton’s campaign fully aware of Christopher Steele, his dossier, the FBI’s involvement, and the full scope of the Russian investigation. It was Fusion GPS that sub-contracted with Orbis Business, Steele’s post-spy place of employment; they did so, because it and Steele in particular were familiar with Russia and Russian business dealings.

So, unlike the story spinning in the Twitter-sphere, Clinton didn’t originate the investigation and had no direct involvement in the spicy dossier. The preliminary work pre-dates the DNC connection.

As to the chief investigator – Steele was known as a Boy Scout operative, someone who was serious to a fault, clean-cut, and honest. He was also noted for his professionalism and his command of Russian politics (he spoke the language fluently, served undercover there for several years, and ended his career at MI6 running the Russian desk). As his database on Trump-Russian ties expanded, he became increasingly anxious and shared his information with the FBI. When they appeared to do nothing with it (they had, in the interim and unknown to Steele, opened an official investigation), he shared it on deep background with friends he had at our State Department, with John McCain and a member of his staff, and with selected members of the press. It is McCain’s staffer who is suspected of being the source of the dossier’s public appearance on the Internet.

Steele “believed that the Russians were engaged in the biggest electoral crime in US history” and he felt the American electorate had a right to know the extent of their meddling as well as the potential involvement of one of the candidates. The Obama Administration tried to craft a bipartisan alert, but Mitch McConnell, an individual I’m increasingly coming to believe will one day live in infamy, torpedoed it. They did put out an alert in October, but it was swamped by news of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape and Wiki-leaks almost simultaneous dump of John Podesta’s e-mails.

Only after the election of Trump, something that surprised most of the players in the Steele dossier drama, did the President and Vice-President become aware of the extent of the dossier and potential Trump vulnerability to Russian blackmail. Biden’s conclusion (“If this is true, this is huge!”) was probably accurate, albeit a tad late.

After briefing the outgoing administration, FBI Director Comey briefed Trump on the dossier and came away from that meeting ready to compose the first of his now famous memos detailing what went on behind closed doors. Trump and Company immediately reacted publicly with a rash of “fake news” tweets. “No collusion here.” “Nothing to see, nothing to see, move along.” “Trust us.”

The Russians also weighed in with their own denials and condemnations of the work Steele had produced. Steele hunkered down for several months, moved his wife and family, and grew a beard. Given the string of former Russian operatives who have met untimely ends in Great Britain, that was probably a wise first step. He had managed to anger the heads of the world’s two superpowers.

One of the analogies in the essay was crafted by a Steele ally. He noted that they had thrown a line in the waters of dark connections and Moby Dick came back. That seems apt.

None of us among the common lay public really knows the extent of Russian collaboration with the Trump campaign. We do know that Russia and Russian trolls worked effectively to sow discord and disinformation throughout the land and they did so at Putin’s behest. We know that the timing of Wiki-leaks e-mail dumps were set to be most effective for the Trump cause. We know that churning the waters of suspicion and fear has been and continues to be an effective weapon in a new, cyber-driven clash of nuclear-armed nations.

We also know that Trump’s opinions about Russia and Putin have been at odds with traditional Republican positions. And, disappointingly perhaps, we know that the GOP true believers have decided to circle the wagons around Trump, even at the expense of national security.  We know that Trump has dallied repeatedly, cheated on his wives, and potentially engaged in behavior that might prove embarrassing to him personally and us as a nation who elected him. We know about the July Trump, Jr. meeting with Russians in Trump Tower and the guilty pleas of several of Trump’s top advisors to charges brought as a consequence of the Mueller Investigation.

So, I suspect the drama will continue. Another obvious truth in all of this chaos is the existence of a conscious effort to impugn our rule of law, to generate a story of collusion, not by Trump, but by the FBI and Obama’s Department of Justice. Steve Bannon and his minions have always claimed the existence of a Deep State Conspiracy against conservatives. Since it doesn’t exist in fact, they want to force it into palpable existence any way they can.

However, consider the guys Trump, have highlighted as Deep State conspirators: James Comey was a registered Republican for most of his life as was his FBI Deputy Andrew McCabe. Robert Mueller is a registered Republican. They seem unlikely to be working on behalf of some sort of socialist take-over. As Rachel Maddow is prone to say: “watch this space.” There is more to come.

Two associated books to consider reading, one out this past week and one coming out next month;

 James Comey, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership (forthcoming on April 17, 2018); and

  • Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (published on March 13, 2018).

Both are listed as Amazon best-sellers, even though one was just published and the other‘s popularity is based only on pre-orders.


 W. Robert Connor, “A Vacuum at the Center: How a Demagogue Resembles a Typhoon,” The American Scholar (Spring 2018): 20-31.

 This is one of those little gems of an essay that takes a unique take on a much discussed theme. As such, it can start a productive and unexpected conversation. The American Scholar is a quarterly magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It usually includes an eclectic assortment of topics, presented in a popular rather than a scholarly format.

W. Robert Connor is a classicist. He studied at Oxford and Princeton, and taught at the latter school. He has a North Carolina connection: Connor headed the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle from 1989 until his retirement in 2003. He is currently Director Emeritus of that institution and a senior advisor for The Teagle Foundation, a non-profit advocating for the liberal arts. Conner continues to live in Hillsborough.

Because his area of expertise is “the classics,” he grounds his argument in Greek literature, specifically the comedies of Aristophanes and the history of Thucydides. His goal is to reclaim the word populist and advocate the judicious use of the word demagogue in describing some of our political leaders.

Populism, he argues, implies a coherent world view, a set of ideas that shape one’s perspective. In American history it’s a movement that ebbs and flows. Although the term did not come into common usage prior to the William Jennings Bryan era, one can glimpse its basic elements in the rise of Andrew Jackson and the appearance of the Native American Party (appropriately, perhaps, called the Know-Nothing Party) prior to the Civil War. Founded in 1891, the People’s Party, better known as the Populist Party, was an agrarian-labor coalition that was hostile to banks, railroads, and Eastern elites. It attracted some colorful characters (Clarence Darrow, Sockless Jerry Simpson), but declined when it fused with the Democratic Party and endorsed their candidate, Bryan.

After a flicker of public attention prior to World War II (the various America First movements), populism ebbed as a national phenomenon until the rise of Grover Norquist Republicans and the Tea Party. As the popularity of “populist” as a political designation rose, the use of the terms demagogue and demagoguery declined. Connor thinks we should reconsider that decline.

A Demagogue is someone who looks like a Populist, may sound like a Populist, may even claim to be a Populist, but who is, at heart, a seeker of power for its sake and not the sake of a particular, consistent political agenda. Demagogy first appears in western literature during the Peloponnesian War and is closely associated with the emergence of Cleon as the political leader of Athens. Here’s where Aristophanes comes in: he satirizes Cleon in a number of his plays. Thucydides skewers him in his histories.

From them we learn that a demagogue is impulsive, prone to hyperbole, and unashamed of slandering his opponents. He thinks too much book learning is a bad thing, if one wishes to gain the attention and support of the people writ large. A demagogue “has to be an ignoramus who will turn your stomach.” He is an anti-intellectual. A demagogue uses insults and boasts to good effect.

At the center of demagogy is a vacuum and in that way it is much like a typhoon. It sucks into itself “clichés, slogans, facts, factoids and fabrications, fragments of ideologies, policies developed by others, sometimes those others themselves – whoever and whatever might help him gain power in any given moment.” “Demagogues, unlike populist leaders, do not have to stand on a well-crafted platform or espouse a consistent program. Their strength comes from their skill at expressing and manipulating motions.” “A demagogue can feel right at home with inconsistency.” They use a form of expressive politics, depending for success on an ability “to give voice to the emotions and discontents of segments of the citizenry.”

But there is a danger in cleaving to demagogy. Often a demagogue becomes a tyrant. As Connor points out, there is considerable Trump in the person of Cleon, at least the Cleon who comes down to us in the works of Aristophanes and Thucydides. Trump is no Populist; he is a demagogue who yearns, perhaps, to become a tyrant. Although supposedly said in jest at a closed-door event, Trump claimed he admired Xi Jinping, China’s President and that maybe we Americans might want to give the idea of “President for Life … a shot someday.”


Theo Anderson, “Breaking the Two-Party System,” In These Times (April 2018): 18-25.

 This is a simple heads-up alert to the policy wonks out there. One of the ideas that floats around every election cycle is that both political parties are corrupt; the two-party system is broken. Unfortunately, at the moment what that usually devolves into is a food fight among Democrats, who then split their votes among the traditional party and a bevy of third party, ideologically pure, hopefuls. The GOPers hold their noses and vote the party line. (A lesson here: there are few honorable men or women in America these days who call themselves conservatives and that’s a shame.)

In Maine and a few cities in California there will be some attempts to either use or get on the ballot to use in the future an alternative system of voting: PR or proportional representation. It is already in operation in over 90 democracies across the globe, although most of those have systems that differ in some respects from our own. Basically, PR combines legislative districts and, rather than having a winner take all system, has the first several leading vote-getters serve that mega-district.

What that means is that elections focus less on personalities and more on issues and that could be, obviously, a good thing. It encourages compromise or at least talking across political divides. It means that small parties might have a chance of success. It also means the end of gerrymandering as we know it.

An ally of PR is RCV or ranked-choice-voting. Rather than voting for one candidate, you vote your first and second and sometimes third choices. RCV is now used in some California cities and has resulted in a greater percentage of minority candidates winning.

This might be an interesting election reform to watch. It would eliminate spoiler candidates, make effective gerrymandering almost impossible, stimulate more interest in the electoral process. minimize the negative effects of personality cults and name-recognition advantages and motivate sensible dialogue. Another advantage: it wouldn’t necessarily take a constitutional amendment to make some of the changes.