A Response to Steve Harper’s Trump Resistance Plan: A timeline

In cataloging investigative reporters’ digging into the Trump-Russian affinity in his February 15th article featured on the Moyers & Company blog, Steven Harper does an excellent job compiling the response by mainstream media to Trump’s seeming bromance with one of the world’s leaders in human rights abuses and his autocratic rule as well as Trump’s business dealings with oligarchs.

Beginning with Trump’s business forays into Russia in 1997, Harper leads us through a winding path of salacious mainstream reports and direct quotes featuring Trump’s business dealings — all of which offer evidence of his commercial interests in Russian: dealings which would undoubtedly enrich him personally. However, a compilation of media reports that date only to 1997 and which offer, at best, circumstantial evidence of a Trump-Russian business relationship misses an opportunity to see Trump through the lens of available well-grounded scholarship and amassed data which goes beyond Trump’s nouveau riche greed and points to why his current administrative style takes the autocratic approach it seems to. Consequently, many of these reports, while fascinating, do not offer a deeper exploration into Trump’s seeming Putinesque presidential style. There is a reason for this:

For example, none of the reports take advantage of the available scholarship which shows Trump’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and mobsters which goes back much further than 1997. For example, in his essay, “The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections,” economist and investigative journalist, James Henry, uses a wide variety of sources — including court records and the Panama Papers to not only show Trump’s connections to Russian mobsters as far back as 1990 but what gave rise to them and how he became enmeshed with them business-wise.[i] Although Henry has received plenty of praise from his American colleagues, few it seems have tried to follow any of the many bread crumbs he has laid out.

Nor do these media reports take advantage of earlier scholarship (or interviews with the authors) which help explain how the Russian state used disinformation and masterful “political technologists” in order to win political contests. An indispensable guide to what is an entire industry is Andrew Wilson’s considerable monograph, “Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World”. [ii] A careful read of Wilson shows noteworthy parallels between Yeltsin and Putin elections and the Clinton-Trump contest. Most notably is Trump’s use of disinformation in order to discredit his opponent. While Trump, unlike Putin, did not have the use of a State-controlled propaganda apparatus at his command, his did raise the alt-right media’s level of contribution to a compelling scale, granting them status as proxy propaganda apparatus, a tactic which continues unabated today — indeed, ratcheted-up by most accounts — by his continuing to attempt to torpedo the mainstream media by labeling them “fake” news, or by showing clear preferential treatment to alt-right media at White House press briefings. None of these tactics are new in Russia; they are standard operation procedure. And it seems unlikely Trump could have learned them overnight.

Likewise, there is no discussion by way of comparison in Harper’s chronology of how legitimate reportage is treated in Russia where numerous journalists have been murdered and dissidents end up dead under mysterious circumstances. [iii] The U.S. parallel is not outright assassination, of course, but in Trump’s full-throated demonizing of the judicial branch of government which has checked his authoritarian rule on more than one occasion, (its most recent, compelling example being the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s refusal to lift an injunction of his Muslim travel ban,) Trump responded by calling the system “broken.” It is his presidential version of Putin’s own indifference to law and order. His attempt to delegitimize our third branch of government as a tactic to legitimize his own omnipotence is likely also not coincidental.

Nor do these reports show how the “voucher privatization” system under Yeltsin and then Putin helped give rise to the extant oligarchy — an economic class, the result of which Trump considers an example of Putin doing “great things,” for his country. An actual survey of how this oligarchy has been allowed to rape and pillage the country’s resources via privatization and neoliberal policies, provides a clear counterpoint to Trump’s fawning admiration. It’s a system of corruption which Henry, mentioned earlier, illustrates clearly:

Russia’s 1992 “voucher privatization” program permitted a tiny elite of former state-owned company managers and party ‘apparatchiks’ to acquire control over a vast number of public enterprises, often with the help of outright mobsters. A majority of Gazprom, the state energy company that controlled a third of the world’s gas reserves, was sold for $230 million; Russia’s entire national electric grid was privatized for $630 million; ZIL, Russia’s largest auto company, went for about $4 million; ports, ships, oil, iron and steel, aluminum, much of the high-tech arms and airlines industries, the world’s largest diamond mines, and most of Russia’s banking system also went for a song.

Given Trump’s decision to appoint Betsy DeVos as Department of Education Secretary and her swift confirmation by the Senate coupled with her clear interested in “privatizing” the U.S. Public School System, the parallels here should be obvious. Again, this march toward privatization will likely extend to other Trumpian reforms of what are normally government--controlled institutions which journalists should be alert to, especially given how disastrously they have played out in Russia but have enriched those who brought the reforms about.

Also missing from the list of reports are interviews with or coverage of actual Russian journalists and dissidents who risk jail and harassment by speaking out against Putin in order to gain a clearer idea of the type of model Trump has used to gain and maintain power; a model he is likely to continue using. These dissidents and journalists know all too well the social and physical price of going against the Putin grain — punishments which go far beyond simply being snubbed at a press conference. For example, there’s Oleg Kashin, a Russian journalist who was nearly beaten to death for daring to speak out against Putin. He later identified his attackers in a post for his Russian blog, Kashin, even as his own government has been hard pressed to uncover the assailants.[iv]

Finally, one must ask: where are the American investigative reporters reaching out to their Russian colleagues like, Alexey Kovalev, whose plea, “A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media,” was published on this platform last month and who offered first-hand knowledge of dealing with Putinesque free press suppression?[v] It appears none. Kovalev described in vivid detail what Trump’s hostility toward American media would likely mean and which is now eerily unfolding exactly as he predicted it. How long before CNN and the New York Times find themselves in the back of the room at a once-yearly Trump presser, waving placards as Russian journalists are reduced to, begging to be called on while Brietbart and Info Wars bloggers are seated up front getting first crack at soft-ball questions to Trump? If this scenario sounds bizarre, remember, this is probably the same media who thought the prospect of a Trump presidential win was also ludicrous.

The resources and opportunity to short circuit Trump are there for the media to use — hiding, almost in plain sight. If, in fact, Trump is using Putin’s playbook to assert a kind of Fascism-lite over the American electorate, any media dedicated to understanding in what way he is using it would do well to take advantage of the resources available in order to understand how he is using it and what they can expect. With many members of Congress running to Trump’s aide and defending his many outrages, the 4th estate may be on their own in defending democracy in ways they are not accustomed to, but for reasons their colleagues in Russia understand all too well and for which they risk far more than being called “fake” when they stand up to tyranny.

Notes

[i] James Henry, “The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections,” The American Interest, December 12, 2016, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/12/19/the-curious-world-of-donald-trumps-private-russian-connections/

[ii] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, Yale University Press, 2005

[iii] See: “Natalya Estemirova, Novaya Gazeta, Kavkazsky Uzel July 15, 2009, in between Grozny and Gazi-Yurt, Russia” (undated) Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report, https://cpj.org/killed/2009/natalya-estemirova.php See also: “Magnitsky Bill Clears First Hurdle in US Congress,” June 7, 2012, World Affairs Report online, http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/vladimir-kara-murza/magnitsky-bill-clears-first-hurdle-us-congress These are but a few of numerous examples.

[iv] Oleg Kashin , “Three Million three hundred Thousand,” September 7, 2015, Kashin, http://kashin.guru/2015/09/07/tri-milliona-trista-ty-syach-rublej/

[v] Alexey Kovalev, “A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media,” January 6, 2016, Medium.com, https://medium.com/@alexey__kovalev/message-to-american-media-from-russia-6e2e76eeae77#.89baza3bb

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