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Compared to What? A Very Dark Thought about November

(and an electrifying and enduring song of resistance)

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

Last Thursday, August 2, the daily Lie Fest otherwise known as the Sarah Huckabee Sanders White House press briefing featured the country’s five top intelligence officials, who individually and collectively announced to the world that their agencies, at the direction of the President, are gravely concerned about “foreign interference” in U.S. elections, and are doing everything in their power to monitor and to counter such “threats” to U.S. democracy.

The event was extraordinary by the conventional standards of daily briefings and even by the entirely unconventional standards of the Trump administration. For, while Trump consistently rails against “the Russia hoax” and does everything rhetorically possible to cast into doubt the idea that there was any interference in the 2016 election, here were his top intelligence officials stating that such interference was long-standing and very real.

There appeared to be a contradiction between the President and his “team.”

The mainstream media, predictably, seized hopefully on this contradiction. On MSNBC, a number of liberal hosts raised questions about whether there were indeed “two parallel administrations,” one inhabiting the West Wing, and the other located in the offices of the foreign policy bureaucracy. At Axios, a number of commentators that regularly appear on MSNBC similarly underscored the divide between Trump and his intelligence officials. Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon, was quoted: “The women and men who work in law enforcement, intelligence and the military expect their leadership to speak ‘truth to power,’ even if the President doesn’t want to hear it. That’s what happened today.” And Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, was quoted: “It’s pretty clear this press conference happened because the staff realized Trump did deep damage to his presidency in Helsinki and raised real doubts in people’s minds about where his loyalties lie, and they convinced him they needed to signal to the American people that he is not actually in bed with the Russians.”

This refrain continued in the days that followed. This past Saturday Joy Reid, for example, centered her “AM Joy” morning show on the apparent contradiction between Trump’s officials, who recognize “the Russian threat,” and Trump himself, who denies it.

To be clear: I have no doubt that there is genuine tension between at least some of Trump’s intelligence heads, especially Dan Coats and Christopher Wray, and Trump himself. These heads are serious about their agencies, about bureaucratic “professionalism,” and about world politics in a way that Trump is not. In addition, they have no personal interest in covering Trump’s ass or abetting the corrupt activities of Trump’s family, his close friends and associates, and Trump himself.

At the same time, appearances are sometimes deceiving. Can this much-discussed “contradiction” between Trump and “his people” be such an appearance?

I greatly fear that the answer is yes, and that the actual situation—as opposed to the apparent one—represents a further elevation of the serious threat that Trumpism poses to constitutional democracy. I have been writing about this danger here at Public Seminar for over two years. At the same time, I have insisted that simplistic comparisons between Weimar Germany or pre-fascist Italy are greatly exaggerated. Because they are. But this does not mean that there are no parallels, or that today’s danger is less real for being different than the dangers of the post-WWI period. As I have written, William E. Connolly’s Aspirational Fascism, for example, presents a very powerful discussion of the similarities between aspects of Hitler’s rhetoric and performative style and that of Trump. And while a Reichstag fire-type pretext for the wholesale suspension of liberties and rounding up of political opponents seems unlikely, a less dramatic but still consequential analogue has long worried many very smart people. I fear that what is happening right now represents such a scenario.

In short, I fear that what is being orchestrated right now by the White House, with the witting or unwitting cooperation of Trump’s intelligence chiefs, is a pretext for questioning, delegitimizing, and perhaps even invalidating the results of the upcoming November 2018 elections.

The melodramatic dispositions of some pundits to the contrary, last Thursday’s event was not some kind of surprise. It is not as if these officials unexpectedly showed up to question the official White House narrative. The entire event was arranged by the White House Press Office, and introduced by none other than Official Liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who opened with these words (all quotes that follow come from the official transcript of the event): “As you all know, we’ve addressed what occurred during the 2016 election numerous times and rather extensively. The purpose of today’s briefing is about what we are doing now and in the future to protect the integrity of our elections moving forward, and we ask that you stay on that topic.”

It is notable that these guys are being trotted out by the White House now, not fifteen months ago, at a moment when Trump’s posture is becoming increasingly untenable in the face of the Mueller probe, and when some kind of White House public relations maneuver is clearly necessary.

It is also notable that what they are being trotted out to say, now, is not that in 2016 the Putin government plotted to defeat Clinton and to support Trump’s election, but that now the Russians are threatening our electoral system. No questions were raised about the legitimacy of the 2016 election of Trump, and indeed the officials claiming center stage presented themselves as the entirely legitimate guardians of the nation’s “security.” Indeed, FBI Director Wray went out of his way to articulate what has been said hundreds of times by Republicans since November 2016—that whatever had happened, it had no bearing on the election: “But, as Director Coats said, any moment is just a moment before, you know, the dial can be turned up one, much as we saw in 2016. Again, not in terms of affecting the vote count, but in terms of potential penetration of voter registration databases or something like that.”

Two questions of logic immediately present themselves. The first: does that actually make any sense, to imagine that Russia “interfered” and yet the “interference” was without any consequence, especially in a close election in which the “winner” actually lost the popular vote by over three million votes? (There is also an empirical question: have any of these people made the slightest effort to analyze the kinds of evidence that might be dispositive or to commission forensic experts to do this?)

The second: does it make any sense to maintain that an actual plot in 2016 had no effect, but that a possible plot in 2018 requires the active measures of the intelligence agencies in order to “ensure the legitimacy of the election” (emphasis added)?

Logic aside, as I listen, what I hear is this and only this: “We, the appointed members of the Trump Administration who were appointed by and who serve Donald Trump and who legitimately speak with authority on behalf of the American people’s security—which President Trump faithfully protects—are very concerned that the 2018 elections will be compromised, and that the results of the 2018 election will not be legitimate.”

It is worth focusing in particular on the comments of Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, since he has been particularly effective in recent weeks in distancing himself from some of the most outrageous of Trump’s claims, and from Trump’s embrace of Putin, and has thus, in comparison to most other Trump officials, demonstrated some real integrity.

In his prepared statement, Coats declared:

We have incorporated the lessons learned from the 2016 election, and implemented a broad spectrum of actions to share more information across the federal government, as well as with state and local governments, and also with the public and the private sector. The intelligence community continues to be concerned about the threats of upcoming U.S. elections, both the midterms and the presidential elections of 2020. In regards to Russian involvement in the midterm elections, we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.

This exchange with a reporter, in which he expands on this theme, is worth quoting at length:

DIRECTOR COATS: Well, in relationship to the 2016 election — of course, none of us were in office at that particular time — but both the President, the Vice President, and I think everyone on this stage has acknowledged the fact that the ICA was a correct assessment of what happened in 2016.

We have subsequently made the determination to make this a top priority, that it doesn’t happen again. And we’re throwing everything at it. And we will have and will be discussing that here today. . . our focus here today is simply to tell the American people: We acknowledge the threat, it is real, it is continuing, and we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.

In addition to that, it goes beyond the elections. It goes to Russia’s intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things. And we are looking at that also. Today we are here to talk about the elections coming up and what we’re doing in ensuring the American people we’re going to have a legitimate —

Q: Thank you, Sarah. I have a question for Director Coats. Director Coats, how would you characterize the current efforts — Russian efforts — to meddle in the 2018 election relative to 2016? Is it more intense? Do you see those efforts focused on a particular party? And, in general, is the pace of those operations in any way relative to 2014, 2012? Or is it more intense?

DIRECTOR COATS: Relative to what we have seen for the midterm elections, it is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election. We know that, through decades, Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America. However, they stepped up their game big time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.

As I mentioned publicly sometime — just a few weeks ago, we’re only one keyboard click away from finding out something that we don’t — haven’t seen up to this particular point in time. But right now, we have not seen that.

Q: To follow up sir, do you see it directed to any particular party? In its current 2018 efforts, is there any particular party that is benefitting from current 2018 Russian efforts?

DIRECTOR COATS: What we see is the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.

As I noted above, Coats has demonstrated some integrity within this administration. At the same time, let’s be honest: this administration sets a pretty low bar for integrity. And Coats, however “honest” he may be by Washington standards, is a very conservative former Congressman and Senator from Indiana who has long been a strong opponent of LGBT rights, a strong supporter of a far-right cultural agenda and, most important, he is someone who was appointed by Trump and who has stood by Trump and fellow-Hoosier lackey Pence in spite of whatever differences he might have with them. Even in this press conference. Coats was a loyal member of this awful administration, who shares the general worldview of this awful President.

And so Coats said nothing about the impact of Russian interference in 2016, and raised no doubts about the legitimacy of Trump’s election. He refused to acknowledge that Russian efforts have clearly been intended to support Trump (and other right-wing populists throughout the world), insisting instead that they were aimed at “democracy” in general—which might be true in a very general sense but is also profoundly misleading. And his basic point, repeated numerous times, was that he was less interested in the past than in the future, and he was seriously concerned not that the election of 2016 that empowered him was questionable, but that the elections of 2018 might be illegitimate.

Illegitimate.

A term that has only rarely been used to describe Trump’s election, even by those Democrats most outraged by the likelihood of “collusion,” is now being invoked, not in a memo but in a very public press conference, by the most authoritative national security officials of the Trump administration, to describe the upcoming elections of 2018 and 2020.

Perhaps Coats is sincerely concerned about the integrity of upcoming elections (though even he admits, along with others at this press briefing, that current evidence of “meddling” is minor compared to the evidence for the 2016 election).

At the same time, if we step away from the motivations of Coats, and consider the fact that this press event was not “rogue,” but was orchestrated, introduced, and concluded, by the President’s official Liar, aka/”Press Secretary,” then it is worth thinking about this:

Trump and his family are now in serious legal trouble.

Most pundits predict a “Blue Wave” in November—something typical of off-year elections with an incumbent President, much less an unpopular one—that might well flip the House (and possibly even the Senate).

Such a “Blue Wave” will represent an important political setback for Trump, and if it succeeds in flipping the House, it will certainly lead to very serious Congressional investigations backed by subpoena power, about the 2016 campaign, and the rampant corruption within this administration, and the cruel and inhuman treatment of undocumented immigrants, and the malign neglect with which Puerto Rico has been treated. And it will almost certainly lead to the initiation of impeachment proceedings against Trump in the House.

Such developments will severely weaken Trump and the Republican party, and will greatly increase the chances that Trump will be voted out of office in 2020.

None of these Democratic successes is guaranteed. But the truth be told, such successes are what every Democrat, from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and even Joe Manchin, has been working toward for two years. Outside of the very far left, the opposition to Trump has centered on mobilizations by Indivisible, Our Revolution, Move On, and dozens of other similar groups to defeat Republicans through the electoral process.

And now—not last year but now, but a few months before November—the White House is assembling its team of national security officials to tell us that the upcoming elections, which represent the most important institutional means of checking and turning back their power—are in jeopardy, and we ought to be very worried about legitimacy. Indeed, we ought to believe that the only thing that stands in the way of their illegitimacy is—them. Them. Donald Trump, John Bolton, Dan Coats, Christopher Wray, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Paul Nakasone. They are the guardians of our democracy?

You believe this?

Again: we are not talking about the candid words offered by one or another of these people during an interview with Andrea Mitchell. We are talking about a major publicity stunt staged by the White House.

A recent Salon piece poses a question: “Is Rudy Giuliani truly a bumbling idiot? Maybe—or he’s an effective agent of chaos. Giuliani’s TV appearances fit a larger pattern: Trump controls the narrative through constant overload.”

Meanwhile, at the New Yorker, Susan B. Glasser writes that “It’s True: Trump is Lying More and More, and He’s Doing it On Purpose.”

I could easily furnish links to scores of similar commentaries.

The White House is engaging in a deliberate strategy of lying to justify its crimes, corruptions, collusions, and obstructions. And whether Trump is himself deluded enough to believe some of these lies is beside the point.

On Tuesday, July 24—but a few days ago—Trump tweeted a terrifyingly outrageous and an outrageously terrifying statement that has been very widely noted: “I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”

Since that time Trump has continued to repeatedly denounce the Mueller investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” and to whip up hysteria at his Nuremberg-type rallies by insisting that the entire investigation is part of a “Democratic conspiracy.” Meanwhile, right-wing writer Jonah Goldberg, author of the 2008 “classic” Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and the equally “classic” 2012 The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideasasks in the Los Angeles Times: “Will the Russians help Democrats this time around? It would make sense if they did.” And Rush Limbaugh declares on Brietbart that the Democrats seek “to eventually get rid of elections,” in the process sowing an insidious doubt about the upcoming elections:

You realize as far as many Americans are concerned, every election going forward is not to be tainted depending on who wins and loses it. If the if the Democrats win, everything will be fine, you’ll never hear a word about tainted elections. In fact, the next time Democrats win the House or the Senate, pray tell the White House you’re probably going to hear one of two things: “Yeah the Russians were still trying to help the Republicans, we found out about it this time and we were able to overcome it and the Russians are going to be trying every election but we Democrats have found a way to beat them back. Vote for us, we can control the Russians, we’re not in bed with them,” Blah blah. The other possibility is that if the Democrats won the election, that’s going to be, yet there won’t be any talk of the Russians meddling or colluding whatsoever. We won’t even hear a word about it. But when they lose, when they lose it, can’t be because they’ve been rejected by voters. There has to be some nefarious reason. There has to be tampering , there has to be meddling, there has to be collusion. In the process they have done a great job of making so many millions of Americans question the integrity of elections now.

In short, the message is being conveyed: Democrats are enemies of democracy (“enemies of the people”?) and they can’t legitimately win in 2018.

When I contemplate all of this, I am forced to ask: are Trump and his supporters laying the foundations for a claim that the November election results should be denied? Or are they simply working preemptively to poison the results by doubt, a doubt that Trump’s base will eagerly buy?

What is clear is that while the statements of Trump’s intelligence officials might appear to conflict with Trump’s own hyperbolic claims, in fact they converge with the claims of Trump, Limbaugh, Goldberg, Hannity, and others, to raise questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming elections that are almost certain to strength the Democrats.

And ironically, and perversely, those liberal commentators and Democratic stalwarts, regularly featured on MSNBC, whose criticism of Trumpism has increasingly sounded a single theme—“Russia is attacking us and Trump is siding with Russia and we need the national security establishment to protect our democracy from Russia”—are aiding and abetting this maneuver, however sincere and valid their concerns.

For the more it is emphasized that “the Russians” are our enemies, the less it is emphasized that the political enemy we face—Trumpism—is Made in America. And the more it is emphasized that our electoral processes are being compromised by the Russians, the more it would seem to follow that the results of these processes—results which are likely to benefit liberals and Democrats, and to represent the only chance to stop Trumpism via constitutionally prescribed means—ought to be treated with suspicion.

Trump and his Machinery of Lies big and small will seize on this, play it for all it is worth, and. . . . the future of liberal democracy will be further jeopardized.

This is not a reason to stop talking about the suspicious circumstances surrounding Trump’s victory, and the accumulating evidence that Trump is in some sense guilty of both “collusion” and “obstruction.” But it is a reason to stop making this all about Russia and instead to make it about Trump and the Republican party that has become a vehicle of his authoritarianism; about how Putin’s support for Trump is part of a broader pattern of supporting nationalist leaders who oppose cosmopolitanism, human rights, and liberal democracy, and how it is these values that must be defended; and about how the real challenge is to use the fragile and limited means available through constitutional democracy to politically defeat right-wing populism and to defend and further deepen liberal democracy.

I stand by what I wrote in my last column, on “Trump and Treason”:

I doubt that “treason” is necessary to explain Trump’s recent performance, and I am inclined to agree with the assessment of Andrew Sullivan: “This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America — like NATO and NAFTA and the E.U. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak. Trump is simultaneously vandalizing the West, while slowly building a strongman alliance that rejects every single Western value. And Russia — authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous, internally brutal, internationally rogue — is at its center. That’s the real story of the last week, and at this point, it isn’t even faintly news.”

What is necessary now is to fight politically against the illiberal vision of America supported by Trump (with the assistance of his ideologically ally Putin) and in favor of a better vision of democracy, one that combines liberalism and social democracy and justice. We need to win elections in November. Whatever allows Trump and his allies to cast doubt upon our victories is something to keep at a distance.

It is a huge mistake to allow Coats and his colleagues to seize the “high ground” on the question of elections and their integrity and “the defense of democracy.” For they are not defenders of democracy. They are servants of Trump. Instead, we should link the particular concerns about the undemocratic features of the 2016 election to a broader agenda of democratization that focuses on the much more powerful obstacles to democracy that the Republican party vigorously promotes: voting rights restrictions, the purging of voter rolls, deliberate efforts to gerrymander away the representation of liberal constituencies, the weakening of the financial base of the union movement, and the promotion of dark money in electoral campaigning. These things, much more than anything related to “Russian hacking” in 2016, have contributed to the long-term erosion of liberalism in the U.S and to the long-term erosion of liberal democracy in general. And these things must be challenged, vigorously, in a way that links democratic proceduralism with real solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems.

Compared to Donald Trump, Dan Coats might seem like a voice of reason. But he is only a more “moderate” version of the awful things promoted by the man he willingly serves.

Compared to Italy circa 1922 or Germany circa 1932, we surely can count our proverbial blessings. But our President is an aspirational fascist, he is currently engaged in a multi-faceted effort to disrupt and permanently damage core features of liberal democracy, and we have reason to fear that neither he nor his many millions of angry supporters will graciously accept the results of the November elections should the Democrats make major headway.

In short, we have much to fear. And much work to do if we are to succeed in November. And we would be very foolish indeed to imagine that the election results will simply “speak for themselves.”

However successful we might be, on Wednesday, November 7, the day after, Trump will still be President; he will still have at his disposal both executive powers and the power to mobilize many millions of angry Americans; and he will still be a malevolent individual with no respect for the law, and willing to do almost anything to advance his interests. That is why the resistance to Trumpism must be broad and multi-faceted; must focus on 2018 but also on 2020 and beyond; must target Trump but also the Republican party that is now the vehicle of his right-wing populist politics; and must be fueled by a combination of outrage and strategic savvy.

As I’ve thought about these things this week, I’ve returned repeatedly to a single song: “Compared to What.” A powerful protest song, composed and performed during the turbulent period of the late-1960’s, “Compared to What” was made famous, and indeed became something of a Billboard hit, by the 1969 live performance of Les McCann and Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which was recorded and turned into a very successful album called “Swiss Movement” that was actually the very first jazz album I ever owned. Here is a video of the electrifying live performance:

The tune has been recorded many times, and with many different arrangements.

It was first recorded by Les McCann in 1966:

It was also recorded by Roberta Flack in 1969:

Only in preparing this essay did I learn that the song was actually written, in 1966, by Eugene McDaniels. McDaniels, who died in 2011, was a prolific and brilliant composer and performer who never achieved the stardom accorded some of the greats with whom he worked as a song-writer, performer, collaborator, and manager, most notably McCann and also Roberta Flack (he wrote her 1974 hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” which was actually a Grammy-nominated and Billboard #1 hit single) . In this 2010 interview he discusses the composition of his tune, which he describes as aimed at “right-wing push toward . . . acing out the normal people in the world like myself and you . . .”

McDaniels was a thoughtful and talented artist who for decades worked in the veritable shadows to make great music. Music critic Don Heckman indeed wrote of him in a 1970’s piece in the New York Times, that “[it is] difficult to think of any other composer since Bob Dylan who has managed so well to find musical expression for the swirling cultural currents that envelop us.” While “Compared to What?” resonates with and speaks powerfully to our current political moment, the way that he lived and the manner of his bearing offers a powerful contrast to the increasingly bombastic tone of our public life in the age of Trump. Learning about him, and listening to him, has been a reminder to me of the power of music, to transfigure the world but also to sometimes transcend the world. There is something transcendent, and healing, about his unpretentious February 2011 performance of the ballad “The Nearness of You” at the Portland Maine Museum of Art:

McDaniels passed away, at the age of 76, six months later. But his music lives on. It seems fitting to close with this 2010 cover of “Compared to What” by John Legend. For Legend, a hugely talented musician, has admirably used his pop culture celebrity as a platform for serious engagement in public affairs, and has long been an outspoken and articulate critic of Donald Trump and of Trumpism.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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