Friday Jihad Reading


A rebranding and personnel announcement by the CEO of a newly independent franchise. Image from al-Jazeera

1). Jabhat al-Nusra made an important move yesterday when they officially decoupled themselves from al-Qaeda, establishing an independent group. Charles Lister of Foreign Policy says that this shouldn’t make anyone think they are somehow more moderate or less dangerous.

Nobody should be confused by this maneuver: Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, remains as potentially dangerous, and as radical, as ever. In severing its ties to al Qaeda, the organization is more clearly than ever demonstrating its long-game approach to Syria, in which it seeks to embed within revolutionary dynamics and encourage Islamist unity to outsmart its enemies, both near and far. In this sense, the Nusra Front (and now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) differ markedly from the Islamic State, which has consistently acted alone and in outright competition with other Islamist armed factions. Instead of unity, the Islamic State explicitly seeks division.

Ultimately, while this may be a change in name and formal affiliation, Jolani’s group will remain largely the same. Therefore, this is by no means a loss to al Qaeda. In fact, it is merely the latest reflection of a new and far more potentially effective method of jihad focused on collective, gradualist, and flexible action. Its goal is to achieve recurring tactical gains that one day will amount to a substantial strategic victory: the establishment of an Islamic emirate with sufficient popular acceptance or support.

This is what we talked about when discussing them last week: that they are smart enough to work in small local gains as a way to expand. It’s why they can outlast ISIS (which isn’t going away anytime soon). It’s also a really good sign of what is happening: we’re not at the beginning of the end, or the midpoint, of the Islamic extremist phenomenon. It’s probably much closer to the beginning. It is shaking itself out, and adjusting to new political realities (many of which are themselves an adjustment to the phenomenon). It will continue to mutate and evolve and operate in a variety of competing and complementary ways for decades.

2). This is a long, detailed, and amazing demographic report about what we know on ISIS foreign fighters, by Nate Rosenblatt at the International Security project of New America. Called All Jihad Is Local, it goes into what makes someone leave to fight for a group like ISIS. It’s a combination of their message and, of course, of local conditions that drive the fighter to leave. There is a lot to absorb in this report, which came out last week, and I’ll be doing a deeper dive into it next week, with its lessons and what it means for the next wave. In the meantime, Bethan Mckernan at The Independent pulled out some charts and info from it to look at.

All in all, what we’re seeing is a time of transition and regrouping. And, blogtimes aside, it is a long process without a clear path. An unexpected military setback by Asad could butterfly-wing the dynamic of jihad in 10 countries. But I think we’re really seeing the clear delineation between two different models: current-period Qaeda and ISIS. There are a lot of in-group differences of course, and there is also a lot of crossover, but for now, that seems to be the helpful model, and something we’ll come back to here. The way these models compete (because it would be reductive to say the “groups” are competing, because both models have incredible amounts of locally-driven varietals), and the way they influence each other, will shape our world for a long time to come.

Anyway, happy Friday.



DNC Day 4 Liveblogging: Hillary And the Convention’s Best Moment

8:27: Barack and Michelle were transcendent, Biden was magnificent, the apolitical John Allen is right now driving the military into a frenzy, and Bernie brought down the house. But the finest moment of the week was just a few minutes ago, when the parents of Khizer Khan, a Muslim soldier who gave his life to save his comrades, spoke about what America truly was. And what it wasn’t, and what it cannot be. The best and truest moment was when the father offered Trump, who he was calling out by name, a copy of his ragged, dog-eared pocket Constitution.

He finished, though, with a call for anyone who cares about immigrants, who cares about religious plurality, and who cares about the rights of minorities, to vote. That they can’t sit this one out. Who knows the subtlety of his politics, but to me it was an implicit criticism of “Bernie or Bust” types. So what if you didn’t get every single thing you want? If Trump wins, some people will get nothing. They’ll be shut out, castigated, and demonized. The sacrifice of his son will be negated. The message is that you don’t have that right. You don’t have the right to sit this one out because your feelings are hurt. You don’t have the right to sit this out because more people voted for another candidate. If you do, if you arrogate unto yourself that right, then you are not progressive. You represent a party of one. You only represent your feelings.

More after the jump.

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Tomorrow’s Jihad: How Foreign Fighters Can Reshape The World


Where you going next?


In the late 50s and early 60s, there was a TV show called Have Gun, Will Travel. I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I ever have seen a single episode. Maybe on Channel 50 when I was a kid, on a TV that still had a dial, but there are no clear memories. Still, the name always stuck out. In my imagination, it captured a desolate and sad American west, where if you were a violent man, or at least someone willing to do violence, you could travel the vast landscape and keep order. Or at least someone’s version of order. Whether lawman or outlaw, and the two sides could shift back and forth, if you had a gun, you were always needed somewhere.

That might seem a flippant way to talk about the next stage of jihadism, but that is the spirit. Because the next stage is going to be the vast spread of foreign fighters, stateless men who have been trained in war, that will come when ISIS crumbles or partially crumbles in Iraq and Syria. Yesterday, in a speech overshadowed by Trump and the convention, FBI director James Comey laid it out: we’re going to see “a terrorist diaspora out of Syria like we’ve never seen before.” But what does that mean? Who are they?

While for years, the massive impact of suicide attacks, whether in Beirut or Tel Aviv or New York, dominated the news. That was our idea of jihad. And to be sure, it was terrifying, terrorism in the true sense. But with some exceptions, it was also always the short game. Suicide bombers were, by definition, expendable, regardless of their courage or conviction. The real force of jihad was the battle-tested soldiers who might not have been afraid to die, but who were more useful alive. These were men who were comfortable with violence, and with gun, traveled.

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Quick Hits On Trump’s Press Conference: Non-Russian Edition


Might be the next President


Until the convention, Donald Trump’s insane and near-treasonous bafflegab of a presser yesterday dominated the news, especially his call for Russia to interfere with our election. That’s been pretty thoroughly covered elsewhere, so I want to make a few additional comments. I know writing about something some 20 hours after the fact is way too late, but I don’t think this news cycle should be over. There was so much in that press conference that defied imagination. It deserves to be talked about again and again, because, remember: this man could be President.

No way to get to it all now, but I want to highlight not specific policy things, because there are none except “Russia’s fine, ok?”. Instead I want to point out just how impossibly shallow this man is. The statements on Russia might have, as many said, “disqualify” him from the Presidency in a moral sense. But the rest of the words show that isn’t qualified, in the professional sense, to teach 3rd-grade social studies. He refuses to learn even the basics about the world, and can’t get through more than a tweet-length of a sentence without

He refuses to learn even the basics about the world, and can’t get through more than a tweet-length of a sentence without doubling-back, repeating himself, resorting to the verbal tricks of agreeing with himself, or (most often) self-aggrandizing. Insane anti-democratic fascistic tendencies aside, he’s really the most baffling incomprehensible public figure we’ve ever seen. Sarah Palin knew more about the world.

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Erick Erickson and the Obama Lookingglass

The GOP offered a vision of doom, despair, and division. Tonight the President I think divides us offered optimism. I hate this year.

There’s a tell here in Erick “Erick” Erickson, Son of Erick’s, baffled shoulder-shrug of a tweet. The tell is “I think”.  There are of course two ways to read that: the assertive, and the tentative, backpedaling way. It all depends on the inflection. If you emphasize the “I”, you’re taking ownership over the thought, claiming that this opinion is yours, and by dint of agency, you are transubstantiating it into fact. Imagine saying “Actually, your honor, I think that you’re the one drunk in court.” Bold, yes?

The second way is the emphasis on “think”. It’s hedging. It’s what you say when you are deeply unsure of something, and don’t want the responsibility for being wrong. “I think I can land a blimp?” It’s also used when the world is crashing around you, and the edifice of unreality you’ve been creating is knocked over. For Erick, Son of Erick, think he intended his tweet to be the former, but it is, almost unwittingly, the latter.

Last night’s DNC speech by The President of the United States Barack Obama was pretty much universally well-received, except by Donald Trump. On Twitter, at least, conservatives were calling it great, unifying and optimistic, in stark contrast to the “last call at Ragnarök” vibe we got in Cleveland. There was a certain teeth-gnashing about how Obama was using the language of hope and uplift, taking it from Reagan, whereas their party was one of doom and despair. Part of it was a sort of rueful pride and maybe even unconscious politics: see, they win only by acting like us. But I have to think there was also a bit of shock and even awakening. After all– this was not new.

It seems disingenuous for them to pretend that the Obama message, that of an imperfect union where we work together, strive together, look failure straight in the eye and learn from it, and reject the calls of demagoguery and hatred, is new. He’s always said these things, from his first major speech until last night. He’s tied the liberal values of community and togetherness, of not letting people be crushed by an invisible hand, into the theme of what America was founded on, and what it has too often failed to be. He’s always been the best at tracing that jagged, crooked, and often-broken line between who we want to be and who we can be, recognizing who we are, but not despairing. You can fairly say that the line shouldn’t lead to liberalism, or statism or whatever, and that’s fine. But to pretend he hasn’t always been who he was last night is incorrect.

I said “seems disingenuous” instead of “is, in fact, wildly and comprehensively disingenuous” because I think the level of cognitive dissonance was so great that it took a Trump to break it. They were so deeply vested in the idea of Obama being a divisive President, for reasons that go from normal (for our elevated and rabid times) political disagreements to a vast well of newly-tapped racial hatred. The thinking went. A) There are a lot of people who hate him partly or largely because he’s black.  B) Those people are on “our” side, therefore, I can’t say they are racist. C) I myself don’t like his idea of government, and let’s be honest, don’t love the idea of a successful black liberal, because then what does the party have. D) Therefore, the hatred isn’t coming from our side, but because he’s divisive.

Everything was contained in that shattered lookingglass. The whole theory of Obama- aloof, American-hating, jihad-loving, police-killing, Panther-adjacent, the real racist– had to spring from the idea that he was the divisive one. It was raw cynicism, and the opposite of any of his deeds and actions. Yes, he wanted Democratic policies to succeed. He was a Democrat. But they had to pretend that every action and every statement was so far beyond the pale that he was shattering every norm. And that left them deeply emotionally and intellectually unprepared when the caricature of Obama they created– a dumb, shallow, callow, vain, divisive, narcissistic, thin-skinned, hateful racist authoritarian demagogue– took over their party.

So yeah, that must have been tough for Erick “Erick” Erickson. This was the real Obama, the one whose has always moved to unite. The imperfect President with whom they can have serious and substantive disagreements, but who is clearly thoughtful, clearly intelligent about America and American history, and who clearly cares deeply about the country. They are forced to pretend that this is a reaction to Trump and that Obama is stealing from Reagan and all that, but I’d like to think that for a moment, before the gauzy veil of political hatred fell back down again, that they recognized, for a moment, the lies of the last eight years. And maybe they were saddened for a bit that hatred, paranoia, and petty small-brained bullshit made them miss entirely the most remarkable politician of our lifetime.

Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama Liveblogging



Kind of neat.

9:04 Softball tonight kept me away from some of the convention. I heard Biden bring the house down on the radio, though. He sounds really good on the radio. He’s got that ol’ timey confidentiality, even when he’s shouting. He pulls you in. And there is no one who sounds more sincere than he does when saying he can’t believe that Donald Trump has a shot at being the next President.  Man, I love Joe Biden. I’m glad he didn’t run, though. He deserved to go out beloved, not losing to Hillary.

Kaine’s here. More after jump.

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Cool Stuff if You Like Chicago, Or Labor History, Or Just Cool Old Stuff

And who doesn’t?


The Chicago River is very pleasant now. That…that wasn’t always the case. 


It’s often remarked that Chicago doesn’t make anything anymore. The city, in addition to being the “hog butcher to the world” and lumber hub between east and west, was throughout its history a major industrial city, drawing workers from around the world to its factories and warehouse, creation dotting the riverfront and radiating into the neighborhoods. Now we’re more known for finance and startups and the normal “transforming city” type businesses. And that’s fine. It’s imperfect, and even cruel, as the city’s new wealth is incredibly uneven. But to say that Chicago is not better off than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, after old man Daley did everything he could to keep Chicago from adjusting to new realities, would be a lie.

That said, there does feel like something has been lost. Into that void comes the Made In Chicago Museum, a new site exploring the things that Chicago used to make. Full disclosure: the site’s creator and collector, Andrew Clayman, is a very good friend of mine, who introduced me to my wife, and who is the best damn shortstop a softball pitcher could hope to have behind him. But I’m promoting this because it is awesome. My friends do a lot of stupid shit that I never write about. It’s a celebration of industry, both high and low, from the most useful to the most ephemeral and whimsical.

Even that stuff, though, stands out because it is long-lasting.  Clayman doesn’t just collect and take pictures of old ice skates, clocks, scales, tins, and other gee-gaws and doo-dads. He celebrates a history of manufacturing. On each page there is a history of the company tht made these items, and as much as possible, the people that worked there.

Let’s take this Ice Skater Sharpener, made by FW Planert and Sons in 1910.

Patented in 1910, this metal clamping device was used to keep an ice skate secure while its blade was sharpened. The manufacturer, F.W. Planert & Sons, was one of the “The Big 3” in the Chicago-dominated ice skate industry of the early 20th century. The other two, family rivals Nestor Johnson and Alfred Johnson, were also headquartered on the Northwest side.

Did you know that Chicago used to dominate the ice-skating industry? Or that there was rivalrous Big 3? I certainly didn’t! Throughout the piece, Clayman talks about Planert, his business, and the people that worked there. He’s dug up archival pictures from newspapers, because, throughout the life of a city, nearly everything has been covered.

One of the cooler parts is that for every manufacturing plant, he tells what is there now (in the case of Planert, it is the trendy Cotton Duck, a restaurant in the extremely hip and foodie-oriented Ukranian Village neighborhood.

It’s sort of elegiac. I’m old enough to remember when Ukranian Village felt sort of rough. It wasn’t, but comparable to the neighborhoods we usually hung out in, it had some hard edges that gave you a glimpsed hint of the city before the great transformations of the 90s and 2000s, of the hard city of Algren and Terkel. Even now, the huge gilded churches remind you that the neighborhood has a history, that it isn’t just a name, that it is where an ethnic group found comfort and solace and work in a new and confusing country.

That works has faded, and the neighborhood is entirely disconnected from the idea of being “Ukranian” in any real sense. Most residents probably barely connect it with the Ukraine, the place. It’s just a name. And that’s fine: cities change. The toil that consumed lives fades into blurry pictures and hardly-understood designations. Factories that defined whole existences become transient restaurants waiting for the next food trend to shut them down.

Into that comes Clayman’s project, which reminds us that these neighborhoods, these streets, these cities, and yes, these anachronistic and old-looking products were all created by people, who devoted some or all of their one short and difficult live to make them. It isn’t romantic; these were hard lives. But they were real lives. There is a weight on every page, a lived weight, which in its own way is a cry against the weightless nature of our new disconnected economy.


Julian Assange Casts His Vote


His vote will ultimately be worth more than yours.

When you’re thinking free and open society, you’re thinking Donald Trump, right?

Six weeks before the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks published an archive of hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of the Democratic convention, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, foreshadowed the release — and made it clear that he hoped to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.

(The Times immortally invaluable Charlie Savage put this all together)

So, one could have initially, if one ignored the Russian angle cast this as an attempt to throw a corrupt and evil “democracy”, the world’s great evil and enemy of freedom, into a state of real higgedly-piggedly. But that’s clearly not the case.

Mr. Assange replied that what Mr. Trump would do as president was “completely unpredictable.” By contrast, he thought it was predictable that Mrs. Clinton would wield power in two ways he found problematic.

First, citing his “personal perspective,” Mr. Assange accused Mrs. Clinton of having been among those pushing to indict him after WikiLeaks disseminated a quarter of a million diplomatic cables during her tenure as secretary of state.

“We do see her as a bit of a problem for freedom of the press more generally,” Mr. Assange said.

I’m going to ignore the middle part, where he is mad at Mrs. Clinton for moving to indict him after, you know, breaking the law. I get why he sees her as an enemy, but did that really come as a surprise? Regardless of what you think of the justice or efficacy of the Wikileaks diplomatic dump (and I think they are a different type than Snowden’s heroism), it stands to reason that the US government would be miffed. I get why Assange sees her as an enemy, but really, shouldn’t take it so personally.

It’s the first and third bits that are either idiotically naive or completely sinister, depending on where you stand on Assange. Seeing Clinton as “a bit of a problem for freedom of the press” is fair: the Obama Administration has a terrible track record on press freedom, and Hillary has never been known for her openness, exactly. I think being peeved at the cable dumping, in which legitimate diplomatic communication was exposed and lives were put in danger, doesn’t in and of itself mark her as an enemy. But I get it.

However, the contrast is, and was known at the time Assange made these statements (about six weeks ago) Donald Trump. Donald Trump. Donald Trump. He’s made it…very clear where he stance on the media, the role of antagonistic journalism, and the role of the press in a free society, which is: fuck the press. If they aren’t subservient to him, they are useless. He’s shown it in his willingness to excommunicate anyone who is “unfair” (by which we mean fair) to him.  He’s shown it on his ravaging Twitter feed, where he demonstrates that trying to keep the media in line is a bigger goal than talking about policy or anything else. This tweet— “I was at and met Juan Williams in passing. He asked if he could have pictures taken with me. I said fine. He then trashes on air!”– is a perfect example of his childish authoritarianism.

Not all his authoritarianism is childish and petulant (though really, aren’t those the emotions at the heart of tyranny?). He has made it very clear that he intends to, or at least wants to, “open up libel laws” so that he can sue unfriendly press out of existence. He’s been trying to do that for decades. One could argue the pursuit of this power is one of the driving goals of his Presidency. So even he won’t be able to open up libel laws, as that wouldn’t come close to holding up in court, he’s clearly a man who wants to quash press freedom, either de facto or de jure, in order to burnish his own heroic image. Not exactly an ally of an open society.

So when Assange says Trump is “completely unpredictable”, he’s lying, or else he’s not paying any attention, which doesn’t strike me as plausible. Trump has made it very clear he’s a huge fan of waterboarding, and of even more torture. He’s been clear about that his entire run. That Assange chooses to ignore that, and, worse, accommodate it, raises a few questions about motivations.

The charitable interpretation here is that Trump is an agent of chaos, will rattle America, will end the neoliberal agreement that is underpinning much of the world’s immorality. He’s ignorant about who Trump actually is, and underestimates the racism and nativism that undergirds the campaign, focusing on globalization and isolationism.

That’s actually dovetailed with the uncharitable interpretation, which is that Assange sees the US/EU as the real enemies, and any of their enemies– including the ruthless and literal-press-murdering Putin regime– as his friends. That’s pretty sinister, but when someone sets himself against one party, in this case the war-mongering, trade-hawking, and press-stifling US (and all these are legitimate charges!), he tends to cling to any port in the storm.

You are free to question if he is pro-freedom, merely anti-West and pro-Russia, pro-authoritarianism if it’s the right person, or anywhere in between. I don’t think there is a cut-and-dry answer, though I lean toward him being a bit of an authoritarian creep with libertarian clothes. All I know for sure is that with friends like these, freedom doesn’t need the many enemies it already has.

Talking DNC Blues: Dems Walk Fine Line Between Optimism and Anger


And as through your life you travel, Yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw Drive a family from their home.

So, the Democrats were in a weird position last night. After the gotterdammerung of the RNC last week, with it’s “last night in a Pompeii whorehouse” vibe, they were eager to make them the Republicans look like panicky chumps, those who saw a mouse in the corner and imagined Godzilla. It was a strange turnabout for the party of Reagan: Dems were basically saying, you guys hate Springsteen, and now you’re singing his songs?

Of course, to do so ignored that the driving energy in the Democratic Party this year was the anger of Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and others, especially Bernie Sanders, against the rigged system, the idea that the most powerful controlled the system and shut everyone else out. This idea is correct, and they’ve been beating that drum for decades, only to be derided as leftist jobkilling goons. So it must have been particularly galling to hear their language appropriated by Trump and the rest of the Republican Party, for whom words like “inequality” and “rigged system” sounded as foreign and distasteful as, well, I guess any actual foreign words would be.

So that was the trick yesterday, and that tension was a parallel track to the Bernie/Hillary debate. After all, saying “everything is fine and we’re great” ignored the driving force behind the Sanders campaign. To pretend that the newfound GOP distaste for the rich and powerful (which, we have to be reminded, is not sincere) was somehow incorrect or misdiagnosed would not just be wrong, but it would be politically idiotic. That’s why an uplifting speech like Cory Booker’s fell flat.

I feel that no matter what had happened, of course, there would have been a very small portion of Bernie supporters who would have been livid, and rightfully so. They would have booed and chanted regardless. That chanting “We trusted you” at Elizabeth Warren shows a complete disconnect from reality almost doesn’t matter: they had the energy, and that energy had to be recognized.

And, I think, by the end of the night it was. Sarah Silverman, of all people, broke the ice and said what a lot of people were thinking. She elegantly pointed out the stakes here, and used her brilliant with and reputation as a serious thinker to perfect advantage. It was a beautifully honest moment, an unscripted bit of theater that helped bring the convention back to script. I say “of all people” not because I am surprised she had the chops, but because if you had “Sarah Silverman” in the “who’ll save the party” pool, then my hat is off to you.

But there was still some tension, and still some Hillary hate. Then Michelle came on, and gave a stirring speech– really, one of the best most of us have ever heard. She sliced and diced the Trump campaign, but also the childishness of #BernieorBust. There are real stakes here. Her optimism, and her story of America’s arc, brought the night in focus. The White House was built by slaves. But now her daughters (“two beautiful, intelligent black young women”, in the proudest and most touching line of the night) played on it. It was a great way of showing that things can be truly and genuinely awful, but that the people can make a difference.

That set the stage for Warren and Sanders. They didn’t shy away from the problems of America, and didn’t build a sunny backdrop. They weren’t triumphant. They were fighters, and most importantly, they were partisans. They were saying, listen, sometimes the Dems can be be bad, but the Republican basically always are. If you care about this, you’ll kick the Democrats in the ass by pushing them to to left, but fighting and agitating, and by voting so that the Republican will lose. That’s the only way to continue any progress. That’s the way to make the marches and the energy and the tears and the hopes and frustrations mean something. It was a Woody Guthrie song. It was angry and determined, and it was what I think the majority of the holdouts needed.

It is sad that the Bernie Sanders campaign is over. The America ad, which they cannily played, reminded me of why I voted for him. He had a vision for America. What’s amazing is that his vision is winning. It is in a flawed vessel, but think of what he accomplished. Almost no one was at his announcement last year. He moved from that to controlling the platform, moving the party, and getting a 5-minute standing ovation at the DNC. The fighter may be done, but the fight continues.

They’ll have one last shot at catharsis today with the roll call. And I think they’ll be fine. The blade is sharpened, and the real enemy is known. Hillary might not be inspiring, but the cause is. I think through the final three speakers, they accomplished the difficult task of showing that they weren’t rose-tinted, but saw the problems clearly, and unlike the lipservice blowdried phonies in Cleveland, they actually have a plan to fight it.

Grasping Toward a Cohesive 21st-Century Trump and Russia Story


The man playing the real high-stakes game


I’ve spent a long time arguing on the blog that Trump’s campaign is not a grift, but a con— that is, it has defined goals (the Presidency), but is getting there by pretending to be a campaign. I think the slapdash family affair that was the RNC showed that to be pretty true, but what I didn’t realize is that he is also a mark. He’s being played by Vladimir Putin, who is playing a much bigger game.

Franklin Foer, Josh Marshall, and Max Boot (among others) have done a great job of laying out in detail the ties between Trump Tower and the Kremlin, a sentence I can’t believe I even wrote.  The problem is that it is hard to really tell what certain motivations are, and which horse is leading which cart. Let’s lay out some facts/suppositions. (Info from these links, and from other sources like The Times and Foreign Policy)

  1. The Trump campaign is deeply in bed with Putin’s Russia. Paul Manafort worked for Putin’s Ukranian proxy, Paul Flynn is a close friend of Putin and has advocated for Russia’s regional rights, his top FP advisor, Carter Page, has ties to Gazprom, and has given speeches in Russia advocating for the US to back off.
  2. Trump himself relies on Russian banks and Russian money to do business, since a lot of American banks won’t touch him anymore, on account of him being a disastrously bad businessman and a terrible bet.
  3. It is pretty clear by now that Russia has had direct involvement in the American election to try to sow more chaos in the DNC. They have more emails, and more hacks, and everyone is waiting with a nauseous fear to see what Russia, with its useful stooge Wikileaks, will do next. That a couple of neckbeards booed Elizabeth Warren is the big story rather than Russian interference on behalf of a candidate says quite a bit.
  4. The Trump campaign let social conservatives run wild over the party platform, including lunatic things like gay conversion therapy (which I guarantee you Trump doesn’t care about), but interfered to water down language about supporting Ukranian opposition to the Russian invasion/annexation of Crimea.
  5. In addition to Crimea, his most coherent FP statement is that, more or less, every country should fend for itself. He couches it in the language of business– we’ll help them if they pay us– but if there is anything in the ballpark of a coherent foreign policy it is that no one is in this together. Needless to say, that means that larger countries will dominate the smaller ones.

#5, by the way, happens to be Russia’s main foreign policy: dominating their “sphere of influence” (think a colder Monroe Doctrine for the 21st-century). For Putin, anyplace that was a Soviet state, or was at least under the Soviet thumb, should be gravitationally attracted toward Russia. Russia should be able to dictate their fates, who they buy oil and gas from, what their foreign policy will be, and more. That’s why they are so livid at the Baltics joining NATO, or the Ukraine or Georgia looking west. Our putting out thumbs on the scale is seen as tantamount to war. That’s their FP: control the near abroad.

To be fair, it is hypocritical to say that they have “no right” to do so, since America certainly tries to, and tries to control the far abroad as well. But in terms of competing sectors of influence, it isn’t unfair to say that we encourage countries to fall into the US/EU/NATO sector. If Russia thinks power politics are the main game, they have to know that losing is an option.

Ah, but what if it doesn’t have to be an option? What if America had a President like this:

  • Who was essentially incurious about the world?
  • Who, insofar as he was interested, leaned toward strongmen and bullies?
  • Whose native instincts were to pull back and not help anyone else except in the absolute narrowest definition of self-interest?
  • Whose native instincts were inherently racist, and so hated any projects (the EU, immigration) that might foster integration?
  • Who had a lifelong admiration for people who felt the same way?
  • Who was incredibly susceptible to flattery by the powerful?
  • Who felt that business and political power should be inherently intertwined?
  • Who could be swayed by the riches of Russia?

That’s um…well, not to put my thumbs on the scales, but I think we have something here. Hint: it isn’t Hillary Clinton.

I don’t think Putin is funding Trump’s campaign, nor do I think the two are strategizing. Trump isn’t the Manchurian candidate. However, he is the perfect candidate for Russia’s vision of the world: a world of spheres, of dividing the near enemy in Europe, of making as many countries as possible reliant on Russian resources. It’s a world of walls and of anti-immigrant posters rattling by torchlight. It’s a world where international organizations are nonentities, so for any protection, countries have to do the bidding of the near and strong.

This is a world were thuggish psuedodemocrats (like Putin and Orban and Trump) form teams where they get rich through the rawest of power politics. This is what Trump believes, and he’s surrounded himself with people who feel the same way. I doubt this is by design. It is probably partly by temperament, but more by suggestions from people like Paul Manafort, who knows how the game is played.

This reveals a far more dangerous side of Trump. Everything he does is a threat to the Constitutional order, but it took me a while to realize that he himself was being played by far darker forces. Trump has the idea that whatever he does is genius. People like Manafort, who have actual goals, will ride this fearmongering and racism and hatred and blithering incoherence as far as it will go, telling him he’s brilliant, and steering him in a pro-Putin direction. They know they have the perfect idiot who believes his own clippings (indeed, that’s all he reads).

This isn’t to say that he isn’t an American fascist. He is. His melding of the personal and the political into a garish abattoir, a reality freak show, is the perfect expression of the 21st-century, and exactly how fascism would form in the here and now. His ideas of the world are a 21st-century reaction to the ills of modernity, of the dislocation, mixed with a lifetime of racism and self-aggrandizement. He’s extremely dangerous on his own. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t also being played, being manipulated by people with a larger game, who recognize that he can be a useful clown. Trump, with his snarling ridiculousness, is the perfect American counterpart for the growing anti-Europe axis: the fool who thinks he is the king.