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

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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.

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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.