Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Traitor in Washington

Devin Nunes, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, is an American traitor. What he did yesterday was so profoundly wrong that by comparison Benedict Arnold is an American hero. Nunes betrayed his office as a member of Congress; he betrayed his role as chairman of the intelligence committee; he betrayed the other congressmen and members of his committee; but worst of all, David Nunes betrayed the trust of the American people.

The committee he is in charge of is investigating the Trump administration’s ties to the Russian government. There is mounting evidence members of the Trump campaign – possibly even Donald Trump himself – colluded with the Russian government. If this proves to be the case, it would mean Americans acting as agents of a foreign government manipulated an election to place a Manchurian candidate in the White House. The magnitude of the situation cannot be exaggerated. Such a scenario, if proven, would be a thousand  times greater scandal than Watergate (in comparison, described accurately by Richard Nixon as “a two-bit burglary”). So it’s extremely important to get to the truth of the matter.

Congress has determined the best way to get to the truth is to let the House Intelligence Committee investigate the matter. But as with any investigation, the evidence must be kept secret as it is being collected. That’s why it’s important the committee members be individuals of integrity. They must be able to be trusted with confidential and Top Secret information. Yesterday, Devin Nunes showed himself to be a man totally devoid of integrity.

As soon as he was entrusted with confidential information, Nunes did four things in rapid succession culminating in one of the most shocking and scandalous displays Washington has ever seen.

First, Nunes held a press conference and revealed what many had suspected but was not confirmed: that the subject of wiretapping was not Donald Trump, but rather Russians targeted by FISA warrants. This means no one was bugging Trump or Trump Tower; the bugs were at the other end, probably on the Russian ambassador’s phone line and that’s how his conversation with former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was recorded. And that means President Obama didn’t order a wiretap on Trump: U.S. presidents cannot even do that as a FISA warrant comes directly from the FISA court. All FISA information is Top Top Secret, just as the FISA court proceedings are secret. Yet the chairman of the intelligence committee called a press conference to reveal such confidential information.

Second, Nunes deliberately did not reveal any of this information to the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. This is a break from protocol and ethics never before seen in Washington, DC. Nunes is supposed to share confidential information that comes to the committee with the ranking committee member of the opposition party; instead he shared it with everyone else but the ranking member. Right after the press conference he told House Speaker Paul Ryan about it. But he still never told the ranking Democrat on his committee.

Third, as soon as his press conference ended, Nunes rushed to the White House to brief Donald Trump on what he had learned. As Trump may be considered a possible subject of the investigation, this is akin to a police detective hurrying to a suspect to show him what evidence they’ve collected. The information likely came from a federal employee who, as a whistleblower, is protected by law. But how likely are future potential whistleblowers to come forward after watching the committee head they’d entrust with their information immediately run to go show their boss? Can you say “chilling effect”?

Fourth, Nunes then held a second press conference after speaking with Trump! Nunes obviously has a need for attention even greater than that of the Donald. But here is the man entrusted with the nation’s secrets as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee gathering the media to blab secrets while still not finding the time to say a word to the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Nunes has destroyed the integrity of the investigation and possibly corrupted it to a point where it cannot continue, at least not through his committee. He has leaked confidential information four times in a single day while managing to not tell the one person he was required by protocol to tell.

Why would Nunes possibly commit such an egregious breach and betrayal? Shouldn’t the head of an investigatory committee proceed in an unbiased manner to arrive at the truth and not be a surrogate for the Trump administration, as ranking Democrat Adam Schiff described him? What possible reason could explain Devin Nunes’ outrageous behavior? Perhaps the first sign of bias came on February 27 when Nunes made headlines warning against “a witch hunt” over Trump-Russia ties. "We still don't have any evidence of them talking to Russia," Nunes said. Then the FBI produced the evidence. Ironically, that same day Nunes said he was “concerned about leaks of classified and sensitive information.” Apparently, he’s not as concerned when he’s the one doing the leaking.

But there’s one thing I didn’t mention about Devin Nunes that might explain his behavior and his apparent bias in favor of the Trump administration in lieu of the impartiality one would expect from a committee chairman assigned to ferret out the truth: Republican Devin Nunes was a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Guest Blog - Reader Submission

In my last blog post, I introduced the concept of a Cthulhu Moment. I also asked my newsletter subscribers to submit their Cthulhu Moments and promised to choose one to publish on my blog. After wading through all the submissions, I’m pleased to present this Cthulhu Moment shared by Linda S.

From Linda S.:
My first one happened when I was 14 and moved from Massachusetts to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I was shocked at how kind, warm and approachable people were here. I looked back at my old home and saw it in an unforgiving light. My more recent one was a mixture of the U.S. election campaign, the election itself, and the reality we are now facing. It dismays me to see things so divisive, polarized and frustrated. I thought that the world was in a colossal mess, but I now realize that even though I had a relatively clear view of the world, I had no idea the depths that it could sink to in such a short period of time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Have You Ever had a Cthulhu Moment

Cthulhu, a creation of fantasy horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, was a cosmic entity from another planet. Cthulhu and his brethren were worshiped as elder gods by cultists. These elder gods were so unbelievably hideous that no human could look upon their true form without going mad. One of Lovecraft’s major themes was the complete irrelevance of humanity in the face of these cosmic horrors that ruled the universe. Remember Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth”? That’s what happens in Lovecraft’s universe. It turns out mankind’s not in control of its own destiny and humans aren’t at the center of the universe… They’re an afterthought, only a byproduct of creation. When they discover the truth – that everything they thought they knew about reality was completely wrong – they’re driven insane. They think the world is like this, but it’s really like that, and their brains can’t process it.

So a Cthulhu moment would be one in which you discover everything you thought to be true… isn’t. It’s when you realize you’ve been living in a false reality. Perhaps it’s the moment you see your spouse in a new light and realize “this isn’t the person I thought I married; I need to get a divorce.” Or maybe you were watching the election results, saying “No, that can’t be right.”  Or a lifelong friend suddenly says something that makes you realize this person hasn’t ever really been your friend. Or you see increasing hatred and violence throughout the country and shake your head, thinking this isn’t the country you grew up in.

Cthulhu moments may be uniquely personal or may be a shared experience. Have you had a Cthulhu moment? Tell me about it in the comments section below. 


Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Buy Now

A drunken Irishman stumbles across a man he believes to be a leprechaun, who shows him the true treasure he already has but doesn't appreciate. A short story by Keith B. Darrell. 4,041 words.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nothing to See Here


Washington is abuzz after the Saturday Night Massacre in which the Trump administration abruptly fired all 46 remaining U.S. attorneys general. The federal employees, fired without warning, were given 24 hours to clear out their desks interrupting many ongoing cases as no replacements were named. But keep moving; there’s nothing to see here.

Attorneys general are political appointees which means they are subject to the whims of partisan politics. When a new president is sworn in, political appointees routinely submit their resignations and the president selects those, if any, he chooses to retain. President Trump acted completely lawfully in firing all 46 U.S. attorneys general. Keep moving; there’s nothing to see here.

Except:

It’s unheard of to throw the U.S. justice system into a state of turmoil by firing all of the attorneys general without having lined up replacements for them. At best, ongoing legal cases and investigations will be delayed substantially until replacements are appointed and have time to be brought up to speed on all the open matters; at worst, ongoing investigations and lawsuits may be dismissed as the clock runs out on them, or due to failure to prosecute, especially should the eventual replacements choose not to pursue some of these matters.

Except:

Shortly after his election, President Trump met with New York Atty. Gen. Preet Bharara at Trump Tower in New York City and told Bharara he could stay on as attorney general. In fact, Trump went so far as to suggest Bharara hold a news conference following the meeting making the announcement, which he did. Retaining Bharara was not only a smart move but it was good politics.  Bharara has established a reputation as an honest, fair, legal bulldog who had prosecuted Wall Street crooks and indicted 17 prominent New York politicians without regard to partisanship: although appointed by a Democratic president, 10 of the 17 politicians he indicted were Democrats. Still, nothing to see here; keep moving.

Except:

No one was calling to remove Preet Bharara – perhaps because of his nonpartisanship in his prosecutions;  or his efficiency; or his doggedness in pursuing justice no matter how difficult the case or how prominent the target. He was that rare example of a public official who excelled at his job, and despite having been a political appointee, conducted himself in a nonpartisan manner. So it was odd that President Trump decided to fire him, especially after having assured him his job was secure. And especially as no one was calling for his removal.

Except:

For Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. Two days before the firing, the Fox showman publicly urged Trump to fire all the Obama holdovers, including Bharara. Much has been written about Trump’s obsession with right-wing media and his religious viewing of Fox news shows. Many pundits have speculated Hannity’s plea was the impetus for Trump’s surprising action. Bharara was investigating Fox News over its alleged failure to inform shareholders about multiple legal settlements concerning sexual harassment and assault allegations against former Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and other executives. Nothing to see here; keep moving.

Except:

A leading contender as the Trump administration’s choice to replace Bharara is Marc Mukasey, the son of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, a Bush appointee and prominent criminal defense attorney whose client list includes… Roger Ailes. If Marc Mukasey does end up with Bharara’s job and decides to continue the Fox lawsuit it could make for interesting conversation around the family dinner table. Nothing to see here; really, keep moving.

Except:

The New York state attorney, whoever he may be, has jurisdiction over criminal legal matters arising in New York State and that jurisdiction includes the Donald J. Trump Foundation in Woodbury, New York and Trump Tower in Manhattan: home of the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team, and the Trump organization. All of which does not mean Donald Trump might have any motive to remove an investigative bulldog to prevent him from digging up bones in his backyard. Absolutely nothing to see here; keep moving.

Except:

For the Russians. German bank Deutsche Bank was fined $630 million over a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme after enabling some of its Russian clients to transfer rubles out of the country and into offshore accounts and then convert those rubles into dollars. Deutsche Bank is also the largest known lender to Donald Trump's businesses, having loaned the Trump empire hundreds of millions of dollars.  Preet Bharara was conducting an investigation into Deutsche Bank – the operative word being “was”. Donald Trump fired him.

Rumors that Bharara was fired because of the Fox investigation are likely merely a smokescreen, perhaps even advanced by the Trump administration with the help of Hannity. As all good reporters know, if you want to get to the truth of the matter, follow the money. And in all matters Trump, follow the money… and the Russians.

Nothing to see here. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Divide and Conquer

In my previous two posts, I focused on one of the dual motivations driving Russian President Vladimir Putin: Greed. Already arguably the wealthiest man in the world, Putin is not satisfied. He wants more. A half-trillion dollars more for starters. His greed is insatiable, but so is his other motivator: an unquenchable thirst for power.

Most men would be content to have achieved a position of ultimate power within their geopolitical sphere as Putin has. But Vladimir Putin is unlike most men. His quest for power, like his insatiable desire for riches, knows no bounds… Or geographical boundaries.

The worst day of Vladimir Putin’s life was undoubtedly when he witnessed the fall of his beloved Soviet Union. Putin had risen dramatically in the Soviet state, becoming a high-ranking officer of the KGB. That the Soviet Union was a morally and politically bankrupt ideology that harmed rather than helped its citizenry does not matter to Putin; for him, as part of the elite, the Soviet state was a true paradise.  He dreams of restoring the Soviet Union, and perhaps even going beyond it to obtain global hegemony.

Even at the height of its power, the Soviet Union was no match militarily for the United States. Russia, as it stands today, is even more outclassed militarily despite being a nuclear power. Russia is nothing more than an enormous gas station in a barren wasteland. Putin is a shrewd man and he realizes he cannot achieve his dream of making Russia great again through military force. Instead, he has turned to an ancient stratagem of warfare when faced with a monolithic enemy: divide and conquer.

Putin’s enemy is the post-World War II Western alliance formalized as NATO and led by the United States. NATO is a construct emanating from the move toward globalization after the war. We had two world wars in the first half of the 20th century; we have not had a third world war and the reason for this is globalization. The free nations of the world have voluntarily entered into alliances – political, military, and most importantly economic – that have allowed them to achieve mutual objectives with economies of scale and have so integrated their economies, and to a certain extent their cultures, that war would be unthinkable because the nations are interdependent. Declaring war on one another would be self-destructive.

If you’ve ever lived in a community with a homeowners association, then you understand the concept of globalization. Neighbors banding together form an organization, contribute money and labor, and use its combined buying power to provide for the security and maintenance of all its members and doing so with greater bargaining power achieved through their economies of scale. In this case, it’s neighboring nations that band together through organizations like NATO and the European Union to provide for the security and well-being of its member states. Homeowners associations provide valuable services to their members but sometimes their rules and regulations can become onerous, motivating members to sell their homes and move from the community. That’s what we saw happen on an international scale when Britain voted to leave the European Union in what has become known as Brexit.

Putin’s stratagem of divide and conquer rests on breaking up the Western monolithic entities such as the European Union and NATO. As I said, he cannot do this by force so he is doing it by subterfuge. The antithesis of globalization is nationalism. A group or team is made up of cooperative members working for the common good; if each member were encouraged to focus inwardly as an individual and not as a team player, then the team would disintegrate. Economists have seen this happen with cartels which fall apart when the individual members put their interests ahead of the cartel. For Putin’s stratagem to succeed, he must make the individual nations look inward and place their well-being ahead of anyone else’s. Britain first. France first. America first. Divide and conquer.

Putin realized the way to conquer the West, and perhaps the world, was not through guns and missiles but rather through stroking the flames of nationalism. This meant identifying the outliers, the fringe element, in those nations that were advocating nationalism or isolationism over globalism, and doing everything it could to support them. The nationalist parties work from the same template: they promote nationalism over globalism, often with a slogan of (Name of country) First!; they are vehemently against immigration; and they target a particular ethnic group as scapegoats.

Who are the leaders of the far right, nationalism movements throughout Europe?
Britain's Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, successfully campaigned for the Brexit vote.
France's Marine Le Pen leads the anti-European Union, anti-immigration National Front party. She took over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.
Heinz-Christian Strache leads Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO) founded by Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi official and SS officer.
Frauke Petry leads Germany's Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) which is poised to become Germany’s third largest political party  — and the first overtly nationalist party in the German government since the Third Reich.
Geert Wilders heads The Netherlands' Party for Freedom, and is currently on trial for hate speech.
Gabor Vona leads Hungary’s third-largest party, Jobbik – an anti-immigration, populist, and economic protectionist party. Considered anti-Semitic, it rails against “Zionist Israel” and supports criminalizing homosexuality. Hungary's xenophobic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized by human rights groups for his hard-line policy on migration.
Jimmie Akesson leads The Sweden Democrats party, which has roots in the white supremacist movement. Its platform calls for heavily restricting immigration and a referendum on European Union membership.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos is the head of Greece's neo-fascist, anti-Semitic Golden Dawn, the nation’s third-largest political party. Golden Dawn, described by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner as “neo-Nazi and violent,” promotes extreme anti-immigrant views and favors a defense agreement with Russia.

What do I mean when I say these people have extreme anti-immigrant positions? Germany’s Petry suggested police should have the right to shoot illegal migrants at the border "if necessary." Her deputy Beatrix von Storch took it a step further, emphatically stating "yes," border guards should fire on illegal female refugees with children. After a public outcry, she backed down, stating "The use of firearms against children is not permitted," but added "women are a different matter." Petry’s most disturbing comment, at least in my opinion, was her justification for her anti-migrant position based on the premise that Germany must control who is living in the country: not who immigrates, legally or illegally, to the country but rather who may live within its borders. It struck me as reminiscent of a right of determination German Chancellor Adolf Hitler espoused.

Putin would love to see each of these leaders rise to power within his or her own nation and take their countries away from globalism and international cooperation, and turn inward in rabid nationalism. It would benefit Putin’s vision for world hegemony but it would not be beneficial for the world, or for the individual countries who go down that path and especially not for minorities living in those countries.

Donald Trump and members of his campaign and administration have met with many of these far right-wing European leaders. Trump has espoused the same far right wing philosophy of nationalism over globalism, even adopting the historically tarnished slogan of America First! ; Trump is vehemently against immigration, having built his campaign around the concept of literally walling off America; and Trump has targeted members of a particular ethnic group as scapegoats, in his case Muslims. As more revelations come to light regarding the connections between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we should keep in mind Putin’s ultimate objectives and Trump’s actions and rhetoric and look for their convergence.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ten Little Indians (Russians)

Would you kill a man for $5? Robbers in New York did. Three robbers were willing to kill Moises Rivera for $5.18. In Cobb County, Georgia, Anthony Welch was murdered for a $5 piece of costume jewelry. In Indianapolis, 19-year-old Terry Williams was killed for $5. There are people all over willing to commit murder for as little as $5. How many deaths would $500 billion buy? Maybe 10? Let’s count them.

My previous post discussed the half-trillion dollars in lost oil profits that would have flowed from a deal between Russia’s state-run oil company Rosneft and Exxon-Mobil had it not been for sanctions placed on Russia by President Obama. Sanctions Hillary Clinton would have kept in place, and that Donald Trump’s campaign operatives discussed ending in meetings with Russian officials. Russia then interfered with the U.S. presidential election. Trump was elected. Details of the secret meetings are surfacing. And so are the bodies.

Dead men tell no tales. Who knows what the man The New York Post calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “favorite driver” might have overheard chauffeuring Putin and others. We’ll never know because he was killed in a car crash in September.

Ten months earlier, Putin Senior advisor Mikhail Lesin – founder of RT, the Russian propaganda news organ instrumental in spreading “fake news” during the U.S. election – was found dead in a Washington hotel room. Russian media claimed the cause of death was a heart attack, but the medical examiner reported ”blunt force injuries.”  Who knows what plans Lesin might have been privy to regarding the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign? He’s certainly not talking now.

Russian diplomat Sergei Krivov died at the Russian consulate in New York on the morning American voters went to the polls to choose a new president. Initial reports said the cause of death was “blunt force trauma” after falling from the roof; but when journalists arrived on the scene the consulate changed the story to say Krivov had died from “a heart attack.” Apparently Russian heart attacks are much more violent than American ones. Buzzfeed reports Krivov likely "helped transmit cables (coded messages) in and out of the heavily guarded (consulate)." He was a man who would have known the details of any messages to the Kremlin from, or about ,the Trump campaign. Buzzfeed also quotes U.S. intelligence officials as saying "it's an open secret" that "the consulate is a staging ground for Russian intelligence operations." 

In my last post, I referred to the Steele dossier compiled by the highly-reputable former MI6 agent Christopher Steele that showed how the Russians had gathered compromising material that could be used to blackmail or pressure Donald Trump. Ex-KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin is believed to have assisted in drafting the dossier. Erovinkin knew a lot about Putin and Russian oil deals because he was an aide to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who now runs Russia's state-owned oil behemoth Rosneft. Vox describes Sechin as "a shadowy figure who is widely seen as second only to Putin in influence" and a "friend and business partner" to Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It was reportedly at Sechin's request that Putin awarded the Russian Order of Friendship to Tillerson in 2013. Erovinkin was found dead in the back of his car the day after Christmas. 

Christopher Steele fled his home in Surrey, a county southwest of London, and went into hiding, fearing for his life. He’s a smart man. He’s also an experienced intelligence operative who knows how the game is played. The British newspaper The Telegraph quoted Steele’s friend as saying after his name and nationality were revealed, Steele had become “terrified for his and his family’s safety.”

Russia's Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated on live television during a photography exhibition in Ankara on December 19. Hours later, Russian diplomat Petr Polshikov was found in his Moscow apartment with a bullet wound to his head. The gun was found under the bathroom sink. The details surrounding the shooting are unknown, but first reports suggest it may have been a particularly aggressive form of Russian heart attack. Andrei Malanin, the Russian Consul in Athens, Greece, was found dead in his apartment on January 9. There has been no official cause of death. Alexander Kadakin, Russia's Ambassador to India, died two weeks later on January 27, following a "brief illness." A month later, on February 20, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin died in New York of an apparent heart attack.

Sergei Mikhailov was the senior Russian cyber-intelligence official who reportedly oversaw Russia's hacking of the American presidential election. In late January, a few days after Trump’s inauguration, Mikhailov was dragged out of a meeting in Moscow with a bag over his head and arrested on charges of treason. Friends fear he may be at risk of a heart attack.

In my previous post, I told you about a meeting between Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen and Trump’s Russian former business partner Felix Sater that led to Cohen delivering a Kremlin-backed proposal to National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn’s office immediately before Flynn resigned. Presumably, the plan was for Trump to use Russian-provided blackmail to force out the current Ukrainian president so Andrey Artemenko – Russia's man in Ukraine – could become president and legitimize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. The meeting was arranged by Alex Oronov, reportedly a resident of Trump Hollywood, a group of condominiums in Hollywood, Florida controlled by Trump and a real estate partner. Oronov, a Ukrainian-born naturalized American and in-law of Trump’s attorney Cohen, "died suspiciously" yesterday.

Of course, these deaths could all be coincidental. To assume otherwise, one would have to believe that Vladimir Putin – a KGB agent from the day he graduated from college in 1974 until 1991 and head of its successor organization, the FSB – would be willing to murder at least 10 men to cover up any investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. Is it conceivable Putin would order these men killed to protect a $500 billion oil deal? On the other hand, men have killed for far less.





Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Russians are Coming

“The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” was the hue and cry of the eponymous 1966 film in which Carl Reiner headed an all-star cast. In this classic Cold War satire, a Russian submarine runs aground on the shore of a sleepy coastal American town leading its inhabitants to believe they’re being invaded. A half-century later, the Cold War is now back on for real and the Russians are popping up on our television screens and in the Trump White House.

We’ve seen Gen. Michael Flynn resign as national security advisor after lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian ambassador  Sergey Kislyak . We’ve seen Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself after lying to Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Kislyak at Trump Tower after the election. Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, claimed he didn’t have any contacts with Russians, at least not “outside of Cleveland” during the Republican Convention. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned when his lobbying work for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine came to light and he was implicated in a scandal involving payments from a Ukrainian political party aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The infamous dossier compiled by former MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele alleges Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen met with Russian officials in August 2016. The New York Times reports Cohen discussed a plan to give Russia long-term control over Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, in a meeting with Russian-born developer Felix Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko.

It’s beginning to sound as if the Russians are already here. Then there’s Trump’s Secretary of State, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has a history of close business ties with Putin during his 40 years with America’s largest oil company. Before becoming Exxon-Mobil’s chairman and CEO, Tillerson was the corporation’s head of operations in Russia. He made many deals with Russia, among them one in 2011 that gave Exxon-Mobil access to Russian Arctic oil in exchange for allowing state-owned Russian oil company OAO Rosneft to invest in Exxon-Mobil’s overseas operations. In 2013, the same year the Kremlin gave Tillerson a coveted Order of Friendship award at a Moscow banquet where he sat beside Putin, Tillerson cut a deal with Russia to pump oil out of 60 million acres of Russian territory. But there was one snag: the oil flowed through pipelines in Ukraine, which placed a heavy tax on it. The following year, Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimean peninsula and taking control of the sea ports, enabling it to transport the oil by sea, tax-free.

President Obama placed sanctions on Russia in response, curtailing oil production from all but three of the 60 million acres. Tillerson complained the sanctions were “harmful.” Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian ambassador following the election. Putin, whom Rachel Maddow says is arguably the wealthiest man in the world, is rumored to own a substantial interest in Rosneft. The Steele dossier speculates the Russians may have offered Trump a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft through secret Cayman Island accounts. Lifting the sanctions would bring in an additional half-trillion dollars in oil revenue – flowing tax-free through Ukraine.

At present, the Russian affair is a jigsaw puzzle but the pieces are rapidly coming together and the picture is taking shape. It involves some of the world’s wealthiest men, America’s largest oil company, Russian spies and diplomats, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and his closest associates, trillions of dollars… And a plot more convoluted and unbelievable than a Russian submarine beaching itself on the shore of a small American town.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Looking through the Overton Window

Politicians are a cowardly lot. They fear saying anything that will alienate voters so they stick to the mainstream of public opinion. They identify the sweet spot of moderate positions on the issues and the liberals fall slightly to the left of that while conservatives align slightly to the right. But both fastidiously avoid going too far from the center into the fringe.

The late Joseph Overton, a vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, coined the eponymous phrase “the Overton Window” to describe the range of ideas  deemed palatable in public discourse. Every political issue sits on a spectrum of public opinion. Take drug use for example. On the far left of the spectrum is the libertarian notion that any drug use should be unregulated and completely legal based on the precept that individual should be able to do whatever they wish. On the far right of the spectrum, an ultraconservative position would be that recreational drug use be illegal and violators should be put to death. Those are two extreme positions. The sweet spot, of course, would be in the middle:  a moderate position that makes some drugs like alcohol and tobacco completely legal, some drugs decriminalized with lesser penalties, and some drugs heavily criminalized with long prison terms as penalties for violators. The Overton Window defines what’s politically acceptable. The extreme positions would fall outside the Overton Window because they would be considered radical and unthinkable, whereas positions inside the Overton Window would be viewed as mainstream. There’s lots of room within the Overton Window for conservatives and liberals to squabble but both would agree anything outside the window would be a fringe position far too radical and controversial ever to be seriously advocated.

Remember when I said politicians are a cowardly lot? They don’t lead social change, they follow it. They’re like weathervanes, pointing in whatever direction the political wind is blowing. Our political leaders are not leaders, they’re followers. They follow public opinion because they always have their eye on the next election. Because of this, political change almost always follows social change. Over time, the Overton Window shifts to the left or the right on different issues and what was once considered radical and unacceptable (e.g., civil rights, homosexuality) becomes mainstreamed, and conversely previously mainstream positions (e.g., slavery, smoking in public places) become unacceptable.

Thus, social pressure leads the Overton Window to shift over time, turning fringe positions into mainstream positions, and likewise transforming previously acceptable social or political views into politically incorrect taboos outside the window. This means the Overton Window doesn’t move in response to political pressure from politicians (remember, they seek the sweet spot within the window) but rather from societal pressure when the society that elects the politicians changes how it sees the issues. This has the effect of leaving most politicians behind and scrambling to catch up whenever the window shifts.

Intrinsic to the Overton Window is the idea of acceptable boundaries for public discourse. Two hundred years ago, a candidate might well have campaigned on a platform supporting the institution of slavery. Since then, the Overton Window has shifted and any candidate attempting to do that today would be considered so far out of the mainstream as to be a “fringe” candidate and completely unelectable. The two-party system, for all its faults, has always ensured stability within the nation because its nominees have always taken positions within the Overton Window. America has other political parties such as the Communist party, the Socialist party, the American Nazi party, and the Green party but they have always been considered fringe parties well outside the Overton Window and therefore politically irrelevant. Unlike other nations, America does not have a coalition government because all but the two major parties are considered to be outside the Overton Window. Mainstream means either Democrat or Republican, and at least in presidential elections only a nominee from one of these two parties will be elected. Conversely, the label of “Democrat” or “Republican”  is an imprimatur assuring voters that the candidate, no matter how liberal or conservative, remains squarely within the Overton Window, assuring the stability of the nation will continue.

The election of Donald Trump saw a seismic shift in the Overton Window, creating faultlines that threaten the stability of American democracy. David Brooks framed the election as a choice between “an ardent nationalist, which Donald Trump is sort of a European-style blood-and-soil nationalist, versus a candidate on the Democratic side who is more of a globalist.” Trump consistently took positions considered well outside the mainstream and thus beyond the Overton Window. He was a populist, a nationalist, and an anti-globalist. He argued for protectionism and tariffs; isolationism that included withdrawing from NATO and the UN; and an “America First” policy including massive deportation of illegal immigrants, construction of a border wall, and a travel ban on Muslims entering the country.

The Overton Window continues to shift, as the unthinkable becomes politically acceptable: The president installs a white nationalist in the White House as his de facto Chief of Staff; the president routinely lies to the American public; the president names the most unqualified cabinet in history; the president bans the New York Times and the BBC from press conferences; the president declares the news media to be “the enemy of the people” and states the press should not be allowed to use unnamed sources; the president attacks and insults America’s allies like Australia while cozying up to its longtime enemy Russia. A national registry based on religion is now a topic of debate. What was once unthinkable has become normalized.

It would be frightening to believe one man could shift the Overton Window in such a brief period of time. A popular consensus among civil libertarians is that Donald Trump, through a cult of personality based on his years as a media figure culminating in his reality TV show star status, was able to mainstream the pernicious Alt-Right agenda riding a wave of populism and anti-globalism. But the truth is even scarier and represents a greater threat to American democracy.

Trump did not shift the Overton Window; he merely realized before the media or anyone else that the Overton Window had already shifted. Remember, most politicians are always behind the curve. Apparently the media were too. Trump tapped into the zeitgeist of the American public: the feeling that globalization has left the ordinary citizen behind economically while benefiting only the large multinational corporations; the xenophobia and resentment toward immigrants, especially illegal ones; and the racism inherent in populism.

Trump manipulated the news media by staking out positions outside of what most considered to be the Overton Window. By taking such apparently controversial positions, Trump received more than $2 billion in free media coverage while spending only $10 million of his own campaign funds during the primaries. Trump’s media coverage routinely eclipsed that of Bernie Sanders who drew significantly larger crowds throughout the campaign. Trump received the coverage because he was viewed as an oddity, a fringe candidate despite his continuing success throughout the primaries, because he was constantly espousing positions presumably well outside the Overton Window.

Because the Overton Window has shifted so dramatically, social and political consensus will be difficult to achieve and there will likely be a greater political polarization and less civility in society. But the most important point, and the greatest threat to democracy, is that Donald Trump did not shift the Overton Window: he merely revealed that its boundaries have been realigned by American society. The American people did this. Our values as a nation have changed, and not for the better. The ideas on which America was founded – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, separation of powers, judicial review – are being devalued, denigrated, and ultimately disregarded. The foundations of democracy, which generations of Americans fought and died to preserve, are being discarded under the guise of populism.

Trump has seized on this and ridden the wave of populism into power. But the underlying problem and the threat to democracy itself stems from the American people who no longer understand or appreciate the unique government the founding fathers fashioned. Whether due to a lack of education in areas of civics or American history or the dumbing down of society through popular culture, Americans themselves have shifted the Overton Window and made the unthinkable a reality. The problem with the Overton Window is that once the unthinkable becomes normalized we accept it as the New Normal. If that becomes the case this time, then democracy will be lost and history has shown freedom lost is not easily regained.