By Penny Smith

Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. New York, 2018.

 Michael Isikiff and David Corn are long-time Washington DC reporters and frequent cable news analysts. Most of us have seen them on television at one time or another. Many of us have read Corn in Mother Jones. So, we know they have the connections to do a decent tick-tock, a timeline, of Putin, Russia and elections as well as the experience to put it into some sort of context.

And, my, did they write a disturbing read. This book isn’t the final report of the Mueller Investigation and it doesn’t contain a bunch of new reporting so much as an ordering of the multitude of reports floating around on clouds, in newspapers and magazines, and various forms of social media. However, what it also does is suggest how far we have advanced onto a new battlefield with ideological, military and economic opponents.

Routine espionage is dead. Bond, James Bond, is a quaint relic. His Beretta 418, complemented with whatever the weapons department of MI6 can devise, no longer goes to battle. It’s coders vs. coders, trolls vs. trolls, frustrated virtual gamers now employed in real games on digital platforms.

Trump was absolutely right. We live in an universe of fake news, but the fake news looks so real and sounds so much like good old Uncle Bryson, who served in the last war and knows a thing or two about the world, that it’s hard to know which fake news to believe. When Orwell’s 1984 three imperatives (“War is Peace.” “Freedom is Slavery.” and “Ignorance is Strength.”) no longer seem absurd, we should begin collectively to worry.

Among the strengths of the book: a decent timeline; identification of all the players and their various positions in the on-going drama; a good look at the Steele Dossier and its likely veracity; and the various attempts of the GOP to thwart any investigation of Russian involvement. It’s biggest deficit: the event is on-going and the ending is not yet clear. Another strength is detailing the dithering in the White House about telling the American electorate the extent of Russian interference and the successful resistance of the Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, to such disclosure.

I would be happy to know the full involvement of various Trump actors in this made-for-bad-TV plot, but the most important point of the entire investigative exercise is being lost in the politics of the scandal. And what’s that, you might ask? It’s the corruption of fair and free elections in the countries that must trust them the most for their governments to remain stable.

We’re losing faith in institutions and that’s happening throughout the western world. We’re also losing faith in the Post-World War II alliance system that we structured to avoid bombing the planet into oblivion. And we’re losing an epistemological war. There is no longer a national consensus on truth-finding.

Words now mean different things to different people; we all may be talking English, but our ideological dialects differ so much we can’t understand each other.

We have far more at stake in that struggle than we have in debating blue and red states, right or left politics, or the dramas associated with cultural and social issues, collusion or collaboration. We’re nearly to another election and we don’t even know the extent of the problem yet, much less a solution.

 

David Frum, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. New York, 2018.

 I was usually not a fan of David Frum. He got his law degree from Harvard University in 1987, then went to work as a political analyst and public pundit, doing stints at Forbes and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, before ending up at the Weekly Standard and the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. During the 2000 election, he was involved in the Bush campaign and became a speechwriter for the President. (He’s credited with the phrase “axis of evil.”) After leaving the White House, he went to work at the American Enterprise Institute. All too often I found him preening and self-satisfied on television news programs.

However, in 2014 he joined the staff of The Atlantic, beginning his migration from Republican conservative to a moderate willing to vote for Clinton over Trump. He has evolved on some positions, like same-sex marriage, but remains a hawk and an economic conservative. Yet, over time he has written some of the more interesting critiques of the conservative movement in America (note Dead Right, 1994) and Trumpocracy, particularly if you aren’t a Trump fan, does not disappoint.

Among the sins of the current regime, Frum notes nepotism, kleptocracy, distain for the rule of law, mindless deregulation. corruption of political norms, and personal pettiness. At its core, Frum sees the Trump Presidency as an opportunity for family plunder. Perhaps its greatest asset is an insistence on the help Trump got from a diverse set of enablers, including congressional supporters, the Republican Party, the media, and industrialist sponsored PACs. It also came from ill-informed, albeit irate, voters whose news came from Fox and whose anger came from talk radio and the reality of their stalled economic climb on some metaphorical ladder to middle class success.

A question that arose while I read the book is exactly what sort of danger does the Trump Administration and the current mood of the country pose. Certainly many of us, including me, are overwhelmed by the sheer incapacity of this administration. It’s like watching a Restoration Comedy, a farce with doors banging open and shut at a rapid, hilarious pace. You could fall down laughing, if, simultaneously, it weren’t all so tragic and potentially disastrous to the body politic.

Remember during the campaign when Clinton called some of Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables. What she said was:

We live in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables: The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

That was certainly not a politically correct thing to say in the midst of a campaign and it was the headliner for the next month or so of Clinton criticism. It even became the slogan on some Trump t-shirts. But there are two things that must be said about that statement and that were left out of the ensuing debate.

One is that she’s right – a whole lot of people have deplorable views and they have acted on them. For example, what can you say about “Lock her up” that doesn’t prove misogynist intent? Or, say, Charlottesville isn’t an example of racism? Not to mention the troop of Trump trolls out there calling people names and threatening public blood-letting. What we could have debated is the number that fall into that basket, but not that no one deserves to be there.

Secondly, here’s what she said immediately thereafter:

But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Nobody paid attention to that part of the speech, yet it pleads for attention to the very people described in Hillbilly Elegy, the people who have experienced middle class shrinkage over time.

There was a stampede to criticize, but not a stampede to read the full context of those remarks. One result of more than a year of such press coverage is that we are now in the midst of a potential disaster (as described by Frum or Wolff or any number of other authors) or a very dark comedy. What we are not in the midst of is a reclamation of national confidence and a collaborative focus on our very real domestic short-comings and foreign failures.