Initial Thoughts on the Developing Political Crisis in the United States
I believe that we are in the initial stages of a serious political crisisin the country, one that may not subside soon. Rather, I suspect itwill continue to fester through a series of revelations and scandals.And depending on circumstances, it may well escalate intosomething on the level of the impeachment of Bill Clinton andperhaps even to the heights of Watergate.
The crisis currently centers around two explicit issues, with anadditional one as yet implicit. The explicit issues are: (1) President-elect Donald Trump’s relations with and attitude toward VladimirPutin and Russia, and (2) Trump’s business interests and whetherhe will separate himself from them sufficiently to avoid conflicts ofinterests. The third, so far implied, issue is Trump’s fitness to bepresident — his colossal ignorance, his complete lack of politicalexperience, and his narcissistic, bullying, and paranoid personality.
At the moment, the issue taking up most of the news is Trump’srelations with Russia. This includes the interrelated questions ofwhether Russia directly interfered with the 2016 elections to helpTrump get elected and whether Trump is somehow beholden toRussia, that is, whether Trump is, to put it crudely, a Russianstooge. We need not share the outrage expressed by US politicians,leaders of the intelligence establishment, and media commentatorsthat the Russians tried to or actually did influence the recentelection. The US government has been intervening in othercountries to influence their political lives for decades, with outrightinvasions and invasion attempts (Cuba, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada,Iraq, Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Somalia), CIA-backedcoups (Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Vietnam, Chile), assassinations, anda variety of “dirty tricks,” including blackmail, planted stories, andpropaganda campaigns. Nor ought we to be overly concerned aboutthe precise details of the current to-do, whether there is definiteproof of Russia’s actions vis a vis the elections, Trump’s preciserelations with Putin and other Russian oligarchs, whether theRussians have compromising material on him, etc. What mattersmore is the overall political context.
Specifically, I think it is very likely that the Russians tried toinfluence the elections, because, given the history of the twocandidates, it would definitely favor Russian interests if DonaldTrump won and Hillary Clinton lost. Clinton is on record as beinghostile to Russia, particularly over Putin’s support of Iran; hisintervention in Syria; his annexation of Crimea, occupation ofseveral provinces of eastern Ukraine, and ongoing militaryrepressive actions related to Russia’s domestic scene, e.g.,assassinations of political opponents in Russia and abroad, hisharassment and repression of the mass media and the politicalopposition, and his campaign against LGBT people. In contrast,Trump has long had friendly relations with Russia: he held a beautypageant there, has tried to get hotels and resorts built inpartnership with Russian oligarchs, has been quite vocal about hisadmiration of Putin and his style of leadership, and has statedexplicitly that he wants to improve relations between the US andRussia. He’s also had several advisers who have been unabashedlypro-Russian, if they haven’t been paid agents or at least hadongoing contact with the Russians during the election campaign,including Paul Manafort, Boris Epshteyn, and Steve Bannon. Lastly,he has nominated Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, who’slong done business in Russia and is on friendly terms with Putin, tobe secretary of state, and has selected retired general Michael T.Flynn, who’s also been chummy with Russian leaders and oligarchsand been open about his desire to reset Russian-US relations, to behis national security adviser. (I also believe both Tillerson and Flynnhave both been given awards from Putin.)
As for whether the Russians have compromising material on Trump,I assume they do. It’s long been one of the main jobs of theRussian intelligence and security apparatus to come up with suchstuff, going back to the Stalin if not to Lenin, so it would makesense for them to have something on Trump. (And if you don’t thinkthe CIA, the FBI, and the NSA don’t compile such dossiers on bothdomestic and foreign figures, you ought to wake up; former FBIDirector J. Edgar Hoover had voluminous files on just abouteveryone, which was one of the reasons he stayed in power as longas he did.) In Russia, every phone is tapped, every room is bugged,there are video cameras everywhere, and foreign visitors, especiallyfrom Europe and the United States, are routinely tailed by agents.In an attempt to discredit the notion that the Russians havecompromising material on him, Trump has claimed that, since hehas long known about Russian surveillance, he would not have donesomething that would have put him in a compromising position.This argument, however, does not stand up to serious scrutinyFirst, at the time his compromising acts likely occurred, he didn’trealize he’d be pursuing a political career in the future during whichhis past conduct might be used against him (after all, he neverworried about going bankrupt, stiffing creditors, hiringundocumented workers and refusing to pay them their full wages,and cheating the students at “Trump University”). Second, hispresumed circumspection didn’t prevent him from bragging aboutgroping and harassing women under circumstances in which hiscomments might be (and, as we know, were) recorded.
Equally if not more important than all this is the likelihood thatTrump owes the Russians money. It’s certainly reasonable toassume that after one of his (six) bankruptcies (I assume the lastlone), nobody in the United States and Western Europe would lendhim money, so he went where it was offered. (As players of thelong game, the Russians likely surmised that this might give themsome leverage down the road.) Of course, Trump could easily refutesuch rumors by releasing his tax returns. But he has, so far,adamantly refused to do so. I suspect he has several motives: (1)He’s not as rich as he says he is. He claims to be worth $10 billion;others estimate his net worth at $1.3 billion. This isn’t smallchange, but it’s not $10 billion, either; (2) He doesn’t pay his fairshare of taxes. It was revealed during the campaign that, throughclever utilization of the existing tax laws, Trump hasn’t paid taxesfor 18 years. I suspect this is standard operating procedure for him;(3) He’s tied to/does regular business with organized crime aka theMob; (4) He’s in debt to the Russians.)
The Trump/Russia issue is not likely to go away soon. One of thereasons for this is Trump’s extreme defensiveness about the issue,beginning with his blunt dismissal of the allegations that theRussians tried to influence the elections by hacking the DNC’scomputers and releasing the emails. I seriously doubt that theleaders of the intelligence organizations were personally againstTrump, so if they did release their findings and are now standing bythem, this would suggest that they are reasonably confident suchhacking actually occurred. A normal response (from a more astutepolitician) would be, “These are serious charges. If the Russians diddo this, this ought to be interpreted as an aggressive act againstthe United States. We need to investigate this as thoroughly aspossible, both to see whether it did happen, and if so, to makesure, as best we can, that it doesn’t happen again. I have completeconfidence in the intelligence community to carry out such aninvestigation and come up with the truth.” Instead, Trump lashedout, pooh-poohing the charges and insulting the intelligenceorganizations, disparaging them and reminding them of their pastmistakes. Even without the other allegations and rumors, such aresponse would warrant suspicion: just what is Trump so desperateto hide?
But the main reason for the persistence of the story about Trumpand his Russian connections is that the allegations have evoked theire and the concern of a significant sector of the politicalestablishment, not just Democrats (which is to be expected, sincetheir candidate lost the election), but also prominent Republicans,particularly (so far) Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, andmore recently, Marco Rubio. After all, the hard line taken againstthe Russians has had strong bipartisan support for some time. Ifanything, the Republicans have accused the Obama administrationof not being tough enough. Those in the lead on this issue havegood reasons (from the point of view of defending the global – readimperialist – interests of the United States) to take that position,whether from a stance of cynical realpolitik or from more idealisticconceptions of US foreign policy. And they are not likely to accept asubstantial change in the United States’ global geo-political stancewithout a fight. Whether other Republicans choose to join theDemocrats and the Graham, McCain, and Rubio team remains to beseen, but until the allegations against the Russians and Trump andhis team are cleared up or eventually die of a combination of lack ofproof and fatigue, I doubt the issue is going to subside any timesoon, especially if Trump continues to refuse to release his taxreturns, which I suspect will be the case. Indeed, the issue is likelyto escalate since, lacking any clear proof to the contrary, thequestion will continue to be raised – is Donald Trump acting, defacto, as an agent for the Russians?
To make matters more complicated, several of Trump’s choices forhis cabinet and other top posts have expressed explicitdisagreements with Trump’s views, especially on Russia. Theseinclude retired general James Mattis and designated CIA chief MikePompeo. With Trump’s team containing so many people with somany conflicting views, will the Trump administration speak with aunited voice, and if so, what will it be? Is anybody really mindingthe store? Some commentators have suggested that after usingPutin’s support to win the election, Trump will turn on him andmove toward the US elite’s position of hostility to Russia. If so, thecrisis over Russia’s involvement in the election and Trump’s Russiaconnections may well die down. But if he persists in buckingreceived opinion, there’s no telling what will happen.
The second Trump-related issue that’s been in the news recently isthe question of what to do with Trump’s businesses. A broad arrayof ethics-and-politics experts have insisted that to avoid any conflictof interests, or even the appearance of conflicts of interest, Trumpand his entire family must completely divest themselves of theirbusiness enterprises, either sell them off or, at the very least, putthem in a blind trust managed by an independent manager. So far,Trump has refused to do this, proposing instead to turn them overto his two sons who will supposedly manage them without anydiscussions with or any input from him. According to the ethicists,this is totally unacceptable and will leave President Donald Trumpopen to continued accusations of acting not in the best interests ofthe United States but with the intent of (further) lining his pockets.I believe that this issue also has staying power. Will the presidencyof Donald Trump be a four-year soap opera, an ongoing series ofoverlapping and intensifying scandals? (As the World Turns,anyone? How about Dallas, or Empire?) I, for one, hope it will.
So far, the current crisis is being played out in the political sphere,including the intelligence bureaucracy, with little or no input frombroader layers of the ruling elite beyond the media and the politicalcommentators. In particular, the corporate leadership, the“capitalist class” proper, has been watching and waiting. As far as Ican tell, the vast majority of business leaders of all the majoreconomic sectors of the American economy either supported HillaryClinton or remained neutral in the election. (The Koch brothers didnot support Trump, although they gave money to down-ballotRepublicans. Even casino magnate and arch-Zionist SheldonAdelson, who initially came out for Trump, did not give money tothe campaign.) Except for a few individuals, corporate leaders wereextremely wary of Donald Trump; capitalist business needsstability, and a Trump presidency seemed to promise anything butthat. Since then, they have been at least guardedly optimistic,taking advantage of a rising stock market and hopeful that Trump’spromises of lower corporate taxes, less government regulation, asurge in spending on the country’s infrastructure, and a substantialboost in military spending will mean higher profits and an improvingeconomy. Yet, they still have their concerns. Some have warnedthat if NAFTA is scrapped without being replaced with somethingsimilar, the country could lose 12 million jobs. They are worried thatif the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal is dropped and another,comparable treaty is not signed, the Pacific Rim countries, such asPeru, will increasingly look to China as their major trading partner.They are also concerned that slapping a 35% tariff on imports willspark a trade war. Others are wary of the talk of building the borderwall, tightening immigration, and deporting millions ofundocumented workers; already, farmers are complaining about alabor shortage and having to plow under entire fields of crops orjust leave them to rot. The healthcare industry is fretting aboutrepealing Obamacare without having a workable replacementready; hospitals are already cutting their budgets. And a group ofseveral hundred business leaders sent an open letter to Trumpurging him not to reverse the progress made on fighting globalwarming.
Further down the social scale, some of the Trump voters are alreadyexperiencing buyers’ remorse. Laid off coal miners and other peoplein Appalachia are worried about losing their health insurance.Trump voters who are also supporters of Planned Parenthood areconcerned that it might be defunded. And then there are themillions of people who either voted for Clinton, voted for third partycandidates, or didn’t vote at all who already despise Donald Trumpand everything he stands for. At its largest, Trump’s political base isunder 27% of the electorate. (He won 46% of the votes, while only58% of the eligible voters voted.) I suspect that his actual base isconsiderably smaller than that, since many people voted for himsimply out of disgust at Hillary Clinton or out of a desperate beliefthat, if elected, he would listen to their cries for help and dosomething to help them. And then, of course, there are the peoplewho feel directed targeted by Trump and the racist and reactionaryforces he’s mobilized: undocumented workers and in fact allimmigrants; Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, Jews, and otherethnic and religious minorities; women; union members; healthcareworkers; school teachers; and liberals and radicals of manypersuasions. Are all these people likely to sit by and watch as aboorish, scandal-ridden president attacks their rights and livingstandards? We’ll just have to see. At the very least, I expect thatthe next four years will be very interesting.