Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 May 2017

Is Trump a Traitor?

[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Asking the right question is nearly always the beginning of wisdom. Ask the wrong one, and your answers will be irrelevant at best, useless at worst.

Many Democrats and other detractors of our president are asking, in effect, is he a traitor. Did he somehow collude, conspire or cooperate with Russians to undermine our government and way of life?

I have seen no evidence, let alone convincing evidence, that he did that. What Trump did do is get elected by any means possible and necessary. Isn’t that what every electoral campaign is all about? (Recall, for example, the spectacle of Hillary and Bill, who are anything but racists, playing the race card in their unsuccessful primary campaign against Barack Obama in 2008.)

Trump has ignored, minimized and dismissed the conclusions of virtually all our intelligence services: that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump elected president and took concrete and apparently effective steps to achieve that end. It’s also reported that Trump and his team had a lot of past, present and nascent money deals with Russians, including work, real-property, or name-licening deals with Russian officials, oligarchs and/or Mafiosi.

But does all that amount to treason? Probably not, unless there’s such a thing as treason by negligence. Trump did what Trump does: act always with utter carelessness and inattention to detail, minimizing or ignoring hard evidence that does not conform to his cozy narcissistic world view, and lying whenever convenient to make a political point.

But was his goal in so doing to help Russia and to hurt us? Did he yearn to become one who “goes over” (the original Latin meaning of “traitor”) to the other side? It’s hard to see how. His goals were to enrich himself and his family and aggrandize himself, as is his narcissistic wont, without regard to consequences. A secondary goal—still far from realization—was to “make America great again.”

Yes, there is still a lot of ground on which Trump might legitimately be impeached and removed from office. He may have violated the Emoluments Clause. He’s almost certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter, of multiple modern rules on conflicts of interest. And he may well be guilty of obstructing justice—in a sort of ham-handed, unsubtle way—by trying to push Comey off the scent of Trump and his team, later by firing Comey, and now by attempting to stack the deck of the follow-up investigations of Trump and his cohorts pending in Congress and the FBI.

Our Founders did us a grave disservice by not giving us a simple vote of “no confidence” in our chief executive that most parliamentary democracies have. In its stead, they gave us a procedure for “impeaching” an undesirable chief for “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”—a phrase which reeks of lawyers and legalism.

But in the final analysis, interpreting that phrase is an entirely political exercise. The phrase means whatever a majority of our House of Representatives (for impeachment) and two-thirds of our Senate (for conviction and removal) say it means; no more, no less. Our Supreme Court, which is the ultimate arbiter of our law, has no say in impeachment proceedings. (Recall the impeachment, but not the conviction, of Bill Clinton for receiving fellatio from a White House internet and lying about it.)

And so we who would love to see Trump back in private life come up against a hard reality. We just don’t have the votes. There are nowhere near enough votes in either House to impeach or remove Donald J. Trump for anything. So investigating him for treason—one of the least likely bad things he may have done—is a huge waste of time.

So, at present, is investigating Trump for all those other potentially impeachable things he may have done. Whatever evidence the investigators find will be useless, in our constitutional order, until Trump’s opponents have the votes. They don’t now. So we can expect investigations of Trump and his team to proceed with all the deliberate speed of a Congress having had two centuries’ practice in dragging its heels elegantly.

Meanwhile, we have three burning questions that cry out for answers. All have little to do (at least directly) with Donald Trump.

Vladimir Putin has made no bones about wanting Trump, not Hillary, in the White House. Virtually unanimously, our intelligence services have been screaming bloody murder (as much as they can without unlawfully disclosing state secrets) that Putin took concrete and probably effective steps to achieve that end.

So our three important questions are simple. What concrete steps did Putin take? How effective were they? And what do we do to prevent Vladimir Putin from choosing our next president, if not our next Congress, on our behalf?

We do know three things from simple history. First, Hillary looked like the likely, if not inevitable, winner up to a couple of weeks before the election. Second, only three things cropped up late in the campaign that might have changed that consistent picture.

First, James Comey unprofessionally (and possibly illegally) made public the then-recent discovery of Hillary’s emails on a computer that the disgraced pol Andrew Weiner shared with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was a Hillary campaign official. Second, sensitive emails of Hillary’s and the Democratic National Committee were hacked and make public through shadowy agencies associated with Russia. Third, our intelligence services reported that fake news from suspected Russian-backed sources, distributed late in the campaign, may have helped throw the election to Trump.

So all we know so far is that two of the three sources of the “October Surprises” that may have put Trump in the White House appeared to have come from Russia. The other one came from James Comey.

In the absence of specific evidence as to the relative effects of these three sources of influence, we can only give them equal weight. Thus, at this stage of analysis, two-thirds of the acts that probably threw our presidential election to Trump came from Russia.

Our own intelligence services are virtually unanimous on this point, if not on my rude numerical analysis. No one appears to be investigating Comey, if only because he’s already been fired. So two-thirds of the evidence, and probably roughly two-thirds of the effect on our election, is, insofar as Congress is concerned, being completely ignored. Our elected representatives are blowing off the fact that our chief foreign rival, Russia, picked our president with (at this stage of our knowledge) two-thirds probability.

Trump himself doesn’t care. He and his team are in the White House, and they don’t much want to rehash how they got there. But that in itself is far from treason.

The GOP doesn’t care for similar reasons. But it ought to. Maybe next time Putin will pick a Democrat. (He certainly seems to have a preference for the inexperienced, incompetent and impulsive, and the GOP has no monopoly on them.) And if we don’t figure out how Putin did it this time and how we can stop him, nothing will prevent him from doing it again.

Every American ought to care, and ought to care deeply. Our chief foreign rival, with subtlety and guile, seems to have picked our chief executive and put him in office without firing a shot, and apparently without exciting much suspicion or objection outside our own intelligence services.

As I have reasoned before, the investigation of what Putin did and how he did it must be public because the effect of what he did was not on our intelligence services or on our pols alone, but on our electorate. As has been reported many times, Putin did not hack the vote talleys. What he hacked was our voters’ minds, with direct propaganda based on real, hacked secrets, and also on fake news.

That’s a subtle thing to do, and a hard thing to defeat, especially in a land where virtually no speech is illegal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring this patent subversion of our system to ground and try to counteract it. To do nothing is to put our elections in Putin’s and Russia’s hands without a murmur of objection. How treasonous would that be?

Coda: Quick Confirmation

Quick confirmation of the importance of running Russian cyber-interference to ground came from an unusual source: the very woman who had the election stolen from her. In an interview with computer experts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher published in recode and in the Boston Globe late May 31, Hillary Clinton discusses the reasons for her unexpected loss. While still emphasizing Comey’s unprofessional late disclosures of his then-new e-mail evidence, she also recognizes how important were social media, bot armies that placed fake news on them, and the Russian-led weaponized fake news.

Here are a few key quotes from her interview:
    “[T]here have been some studies done since the election that if you look—let’s pick Facebook—if you look at Facebook, the vast majority of news items posted were fake. They were connected to, as we now know, the 1000 Russian agents who were involved in delivering those messages.”
    “We see now this new information about Trump’s Twitter account being populated [sic: repeated?] by millions of bots. And it was such a new experience. I understand why people on their Facebook pages would think, ‛Oh, Hillary Clinton did that, I did not know that. Well that’s going to affect my opinion about her.’”
    [Asked whether she’s rethinking her campaign’s rule not to use fake news itself:] “I’m not rethinking it, but everybody else better rethink it, because we have to figure out how to combat this.”
    “[T]he Mercers did not invest all that money [in Cambridge Analytica and weaponized retail propaganda] just for their own amusement. We know they played in Brexit, and we know that they came to Jared Kushner and basically said, ‛We will marry our operation,’ which was more as it’s been described, psychographic, sentiment, a lot of harvesting of Facebook information, ‛We will marry that with the RNC. On two conditions: You pick Steve Bannon, and you pick Kellyanne Conway. And then we’re in.’ Trump says, ‛Fine, who cares,’ right? . . . Now, the question is where and how did the Russians get into this. And I think it’s a very important question.”
On that question rests the future of American democracy, and maybe liberal Western democracy generally. Propaganda has always been the most subtle and powerful tool of totalitarians. Weaponized, personalized and automated with AI, it becomes a super-weapon. Hillary may not have been its first casualty, but she is the most important to date.


22 May 2017

Is the end nigh?

The Other Mitch

Are you tired of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—the mealy-mouthed, catatonic lackey for the bosses and the rich? Are you tired of him coddling our man-boy president, who hasn’t a clue how closely he and his team have flirted with treason? Are you tired of watching so many men and women in our public sphere go low, so often, when we no longer have Barack and Michelle in the White House to go high for us? Are you tired of hearing and seeing our nation tear itself apart into clans and cliques like some high school from Hell?

Then take 23 minutes off to watch the other Mitch. Watch Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, explain why his city has taken down four towering monuments to Confederate leaders who fought, so long ago, against our nation and our common values. Watch a man of passion, articulation and divine eloquence explain the facts of history of the South. Watch him recount our nation’s original sin, how it haunts and divides us today, and why it’s time, at last, to confess and repent.

Mitch Landrieu’s speech is one of the most eloquent and moving of our still-young new century. It’s also one of the most hopeful.

True, New Orleans is the San Francisco of the South. It’s a unique place. But if what this Mitch said, as a white man on race, catches on, you can see a whole new vision. You can imagine former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder turning back voter suppression and gerrymandering throughout the South, as they apparently intend to do. You can imagine them and countless others rising up and creating a truly new South, and with it a new America and a brave new world.

Don’t just read the speech. Watch it. Watch a great orator moved by both passion and reason. Rejoice that we still have pols like him. Rejoice doubly that this one comes from the South’s heart. And wonder, as we suffer and struggle under moral midgets in the White House, whether a giant like this Mitch might some day be president. This is what it means to lead.
[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: The end of the world is not nigh, although nuclear proliferation or global warming could bring us close. But we may be near the end of three generation-long causes of rapid decline in our government and society, their international prestige, and their credibility at home and abroad.

The first and most obvious trend—obvious from Trump’s presidency and its almost daily setbacks and scandals—is the dramatic and appalling decrease in our presidents’ practical experience.

Ronald Reagan began the trend in 1980. He had only eight years of experience in politics, as governor of California, and a bit more in private politics as leader of the screen actors guild. At the time, he had the least experience of any president in our history, if you count the military experience of our general-presidents (such as Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower) as the equivalent of political experience.

Look, for example, at my 2007 table of previous low-experience candidates, such as Kennedy and Lincoln. You can see that all exceeded Reagan’s experience by at least two years. Even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both exceeded or matched it as candidates.

But subsequent Republican presidents rapidly outdid Reagan’s “record.” Dubya had only six years as governor of Texas, nothing more.

Trump, of course, is the natural conclusion of the GOP’s mathematical progression. Before being elected president, he had had absolutely zero political experience of any sort, even on a city council. And he had absolutely zero military experience.

Insofar as concerns politics, government, and war, Trump is a babe in the woods. His first five months in office have showcased his inexperience well. So far, they have culminated in his providing, from his own mouth and Tweets, evidence of his obstructing justice in firing FBI director Comey to tamp down investigation of “Russiagate.”

The second cause of our government’s rapid decline is the trend toward simplistic abstract ideology, rather than specific policy proposals. Again, the GOP has led the way. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, GOP candidates and presidents spoke of “freedom” and “opportunity,” without specifying specific ways to increase them. They never spoke much about how the vast majority of Americans would get them. Instead, they spoke of things that would give them to the rich (lower taxes, less regulation) and maybe let some benefits “trickle down” to the middle class.

I was surprised to discover that Ronald Reagan, not Dubya, invented the political-ideological slogan “It’s your money!.” In so doing he ushered in a two-generational reign of personal selfishness that has: (1) given virtually all our nation’s GDP and productivity increases to the top, not the average worker, and (2) brought selfishness out from under universal condemnation in our churches, synagogues and mosques as a central value and motive force of the American right wing. For vast numbers of Americans, it’s now OK to be mean and selfish because your political party says so.

I have written two whole essays about the consequences of this tectonic shift in American morals. One describes how our students and poor have fared: not well. Another outlines something that may be surprising to some: how this ideology of personal selfishness has weakened our once-massive national advantages in education and the military, and how it has made our industries less competitive globally by saddling them with social obligations that our foreign competitors don’t share.

The points are just as true, and just as debilitating, as when I wrote that essay in 2008. And Trump may represent the high-water mark of this selfish ideology; he certainly personifies it.

Of course the first and second debilitating trends are related. If you have no experience in politics, you don’t know much more than abstract mush or bumper-sticker mantras. In fact, you don’t know much of anything substantive in policy. And if the people become accustomed to your pabulum, they will see it as normal and not seek pols who have specific ideas to improve their lives. Thus does the GOP both breed cynicism and destroy government at the same time.

The result is a vicious circle that may have culminated today, in which a proposal to deprive 24 million people (including 8 million poor) of health insurance, and to fail to insure pre-existing conditions without “gotchas,” is supposed to improve health insurance. Orwell would be proud that his prescription for “newspeak” in his dystopian novel 1984 has come so close to real life, only 33 years after he predicted.

The third debilitating trend in our recent national history is bossism. Simply put, it’s raw authoritarianism, American style. It asserts that the boss man (who is seldom female) knows best, and you’d best knuckle under.

This ideology comes most powerfully from our South, where it morphed from slavery based on race to today’s roughly equal-opportunity subjugation of the poor and unfortunate. It underlies the anti-union co-called “right to work” laws. It undergirds the notion that banks and businesses are best run freely by their CEOs, regardless of whether the cheat us as consumers, tank the economy, or pollute our air, water or soil.

Bossism elevates the notion of subservience, servitude, and following the alpha male to some fictional higher moral ground. It’s a call to our evolutionary primate past, to follow the alpha male even if he leads us into the Jaws of Hell. You don’t have to be a genius at cause and effect to understand how this philosophy has led us directly to an arbitrary and erratic leader like Trump.

But there are reasons why these trends also may be ending with Trump. He’s showing us—graphically, constantly and in clear practical consequences—exactly where they lead.

Of course Trump represents the final step in practical experience. He has none in politics or government. He ran an allegedly successful business composed of his family, with probably less than thirty or so managers. He has no clue about running a vast bureaucracy of tens of thousands of workers, all of whom are far more diverse and have far more diverse views (and far more practical experience at what they do) than Trump’s family and employees, let alone Trump himself.

Not only does Trump not know how to manage or work with such a huge organization. He doesn’t even know he needs to. To this date he has filled about half of even the Senate-confirmable positions in the federal bureaucracy. The halls of government lie partly empty, and its operation is hobbled. Even the courts are understaffed, notwithstanding Trump sneaking Justice Gorsuch through the Senate after McConnell and the GOP stonewalled Judge Garland.

As for loyalty, Trump’s pathetic attempts to assure Comey’s by pleading with and questioning him, and then by firing him, are not how things are done in America, whether in government or large corporations. Here you earn people’s loyalty by working with them and standing by them over many years, through thick and thin.

Trump has none of the longevity of work with anyone in government required to build or test real loyalty, so he has none. His “loyalists,” if any, are sycophants who hitched their wagons to his star in the last few weeks or months of his campaign, hoping he could raise their dismal prospects. (Jeff Sessions comes to mind.) Not only do they have no reason to persevere with him through difficulties; he has no reason to be loyal to them. They are not much more than hangers on.

So Trump really has no team at all but his family: Jared, Ivanka and Donald, Jr. That’s a little thin to run a nation of 320 million people, isn’t it?

For Trump, ideology is a bit sticky. As many have noted, he doesn’t have much of any. I and others thought that might be a good thing. Maybe he might think problems through on his own without reflexively following the GOP’s dogmas and simplistic campaign mantras.

But things haven’t really worked out that way. In the absence of an organized philosophy, Trump’s id rules. Deep down in his psyche, he reflexively follows the dominant ideology of bossism. In his own mind, he was always the boss. He was the guy who got to say “You’re fired!” on his reality show.

He doesn’t realize that in a nation of laws, checks and balances, and infinitely diverse interests, bragging to domestic and foreign officials that you fired a guy who was officially investigating you because he wasn’t loyal and wouldn’t stop does not lead to a bright future. That might work in Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey, but not here. At least not yet, and not ever if we decisively reject Trump’s raw, un-American authoritarianism.

Just so with his own staff. You build loyalty in your own staff by protecting them and making their jobs easier, as much as you can in the world’s most difficult job. Trump has undercut his own staff and made fools of them repeatedly. He has done so not just with his spokespeople, but with his hand-selected Vice President Mike Pence.

The problem in Washington is that virtually everyone likes to think of himself or herself as a boss of something. Members of Congress are bosses of their own constituencies, at least for two or six years. Members of their own bureaucracy have their own bailiwicks, in which they reign supreme or have substantial freedom of action. You tread on their toes repeatedly, as Trump has done, and they don’t like it. More to the point, they don’t like you.

So Trump has been a bull in the china shop of political Washington. He has broken almost every shelf and every bit of China. That made him popular with his core base, but not with anyone in Washington, which, sad for him, will fix his fate.

Trump seems to have alienated even the sycophants who thought he might be their last grasp at greatness. He has left his own spokespeople mired in infighting, blame and despair. He has the very last orthodox GOP ideologues (like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) wondering whether, having captured all three branches of government, they will be enable to enact into law even one-quarter of their soak-the-people ideological agenda.

The basic problem is that Donald J. Trump is not a good person. He’s not a likable person. He has no compassion or empathy except in the abstract, for dead, gassed Syrian children. He’s not a rational, predictable or reliable person. He doesn’t often say or do what makes sense, even in his own best interest. He lies a lot. He’s a self-obsessed, half-rational, half-crazy narcissist who gets his news and facts by watching TV (God help us!)

And because of his zero longevity in politics, he has no real friends or allies in Washington. He has only temporary allies and partners of convenience and sycophants who will fade away, like Alberto Gonzales, when their fifteen minutes of fame for genuflecting are over. Deep down, all his so-called political “allies” who opposed him in the campaign hate his guts for insulting them, beating them and gloating about it.

All this was pretty obvious from his candidacy and his performance in his campaign. Those of us who can judge character were pretty sure that Trump would become our very own American Caligula or Nero.

In ancient Rome, Caligula and Nero lasted long enough to do terrible damage to the Roman enterprise. But checks and balances and governing society have evolved considerably since those days. So have international relations. We no longer need senators to surround Caesar in the Senate and stab him to death. We have peaceful institutions to do that, figuratively, and expel the crazy and dangerous.

Those institutions may take a long time and a lot of effort, but they work. Already both Republicans and Democrats are starting to mention impeachment and declarations of incapacity under Amendment 25.

Either will take time, of course. Congress is full of people who can’t see the writing on the wall until it’s highlighted in flames. Hence the general reaction to global warming.

But Trump’s likely meltdown is much closer in time and much more up their alley. So the immune system likely will expel the germ.

Slowly but surely, one by one, the pols will take Trump’s measure. They will understand that he is psychologically and personally incapable of helping them and their cause, whatever it may be. They will see that he can only make things worse with his fickleness, unpredictability, erratic action, childlike temperament, and real loyalty focused only on himself, and as he sees himself reflected on TV.

When that happens, Trump’s removal from the seat of power will be assured. I originally predicted it by his third year in office, but now it might be sooner. I think the chances are at least 75%, if only because Trump is 70, and his personality and character are fixed.

He can’t get better. He can only get worse, as he tries to respond to events and challenges that are totally beyond his experience, character, emotional maturity, and attention span. And at his age he can get worse quickly. Who knows? Maybe his inability to remember what he said yesterday is simple senile dementia.

As soon as enough of those in Washington make the right call, we will be rid of him. Then the raging of these three rampant trends in our decaying society may slow by half. But it may take a “thumping” (Dubya’s word) of the GOP in the 2018 midterms to make that happen and to make the writing on the wall clear even to the slowest pol.

Footnote: See Elizabeth Warran, This Fight is Our Fight, at 29 (Macmillan, 2017) for discussion of this point.


12 May 2017

How to “investigate” and totally miss the point

[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: New: Endnote 2 added 12 hours after publication

You’ve got to hand it to old Vladimir. He may be bent. He may even be evil. But he’s wicked smart.

He managed to use Russia’s vast machinery of deception to throw our election. He helped give us our very first president with absolutely no political or military experience. (Even Dubya had six years as governor of Texas and service in the Texas Air National Guard.) And Vladimir did it using the Internet and social media that we Yanks invented and gave to the world—including Russia!—for free. How’s that for gratitude?

But the result for Russia may have been worth the moral and political transgression. Can you imagine any better or cheaper way to incapacitate your rival without firing a shot?

Of course we’ll never know which cause of Hillary’s loss was more decisive. Was it Putin’s hacking and well-timed disclosure of campaign secrets, combined with his army of trolls and precisely targeted fake news? Or was it James Comey’s “October surprise”: making public a preliminary investigation of Hillary’s then-newly-discovered e-mails, just months after assuring the public that the FBI’s investigation had been closed without indictment?

Some future doctoral student in political science might try to determine which was the primary cause. But the impediments to finding out will only grow with time. What’s up on the Internet can be taken down. Putin’s troll army’s output and his fake news can be erased as quickly as they were transmitted. Much of the evidence may already may be gone.

The Internet, it turns out, is a fine medium for plausible denial by historical revisionists. Nothing on it is really permanent, not even block chains (although they can come close). So fingerprints can easily be erased.

Putin may already have erased his. Even without willful deletion, the trail of evidence is growing cold. Meanwhile, our clueless Congress plays into Putin’s hands by posturing and delaying, and Trump slows things down further by firing Comey.

But that’s still not half the brilliance of Putin’s strategy. To see how brilliant it is, you have to focus on three completely distinct questions related to “Russiagate.”

The first is “how did Putin do it?” Precisely how did he, his troll army, and the vast deception machinery of his FSB (successor to the old Soviet KGB) propagandize and delude the American electorate directly?

Isn’t that by far the most important question? If we don’t know how he did it, we can’t stop him from doing it again. And again. And again. We might as well give up our democracy and ask Vladimir Putin to pick our leaders.

The second question is related: “how do we stop him?” How do we defend ourselves against the hacking and targeted cyber-deception that we naïvely never suspected and that appears to have given us Trump as president? How do we preserve our democracy and help our democratic allies preserve theirs?

The third question is the one on everyone’s mind now. How much, if at all, did Trump and his team help, by advancing either the Russian deception (which helped elect Trump) or some other Russian interest?

But isn’t this last question putting the cart before the horse? Don’t you have to know what Putin actually did before you can decide whether Trump helped him do it? Agreement alone may be enough to establish a legal conspiracy, but is it enough to establish moral or political guilt? And how do you know whether Trump actually agreed, when his every utterance or Tweet is terminally imprecise and subject to multiple interpretations?

Here’s where Putin’s tactics were and are absolutely brilliant. As the evidence made public so far shows, Putin and his Ambassador Kislyak sought out Trump and members of his team. They had meetings, and some of them were secret. They made or had made payments to some of Trump’s team. They offered work and jobs.

Did a man as smart as Putin really think he could use Trump as a “Manchurian Candidate” to do his bidding? There’s a whole institute in Moscow dedicated to the study of the US and Canada. Think the Russians don’t know about checks and balances? the power of Congress? our huge independent federal bureacracy and powerful courts? the political power and semi-independence of our military and the Pentagon?

One can never be sure, of course. But what Putin and Kislyak probably wanted most was not a lackey, let alone one as erratic and unpredictable as Trump. What they wanted most was something as common to Russia’s politics as kissing babies is to ours: “kompromat.” They wanted to compromise Trump and his team, i.e., to make them look bad to Americans, in order to increase our already debilitating dissension and division.

And that they most certainly did. There’s enough evidence of conscious or unconscious cooperation with the Russians, or even collusion, to waken the FBI’s massive investigatory apparatus and to have Democrats clamoring for Trump’s head.

Now Putin is a recognized master of deception. To become one, you have to be a good judge of character. No doubt Putin carefully assessed Trump’s erratic, inconsistent and narcissistic character. No doubt he came to the conclusion that, when challenged on his relations with Russia, Trump would call the whole thing a “hoax,” be personally offended by any investigation, and use his Tweets and the power of his office to stop any investigation or slow it down, as by firing Comey.

Maybe Putin came to another conclusion, too. Knowing how divided our nation is politically, he might have concluded that our pols would focus on investigating Trump and forget all about what Putin and his trolls and spooks had done. We would go after the man of the hour and forget all about the main question: how Russia and its deception mill sought to throw our election and probably succeeded.

If so, Putin’s strategy has worked better than even he had a right to expect. As if on cue, our pols fell right into line. The left is clamoring for Trump’s head. The right is trying mindlessly to protect him—even though they would just as gladly have had his head themselves ten months ago. No one is worrying, at least in public, about what Putin and Russia did and how to keep it from happening again.

So Vladimir Putin seems to have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of international relations. He may have helped elect his preferred candidate as his rival’s supreme leader, and he may have completely covered his tracks, concealing not only how he did it, but that he did it at all.

Unless we Yanks wise up, we will have no defense to his massive hacking and deception apparatus, whether in our 2018 midterm elections or in our next presidential election in 2020. We will be governed, at least in part, by Russia’s FSB at Vladimir Putin’s command, without even knowing when or how.

This is what happens when you are so incensed at your fellow Americans, based on nothing more than abstract ideology, that you forget that they are your countrymen, and so you neglect to protect your homeland and your way of life. This is what happens when good people turn on each other for little reason. This is how democracy itself can decay, wither and die.

They say the best defense is a good offense. But that’s not true when your enemy has his fist inside your chest, clamped on your aorta. Sanctions won’t stop the deception; they will only motivate more lies and deception.

We need effective defenses that stop Russia from using the Internet and social media that we invented against us. And we need them yesterday. To get them, we first need to find out more precisely what Russia did and how it did it.

That’s what our investigations should be about. Whether Trump is implicated can wait. He might have been merely careless, clueless, negligent and inattentive to detail, as he has been about almost everything that has crossed his desk as president. If willfully complicit, he can be impeached for treason later.

But if we let Putin get away with the greatest non-violent coup in human history, it will certainly happen again, if not to Germany this year, then again to us, as soon as next year’s midterm elections. And our mindless ideological division will have assisted our own defeat, allowing Putin to use a strategy older than Caesar: divide and conquer. Investigations aimed solely at Trump and his team just play into Putin’s hands.

Endnote 1: A former FBI agent interviewed on the PBS News Hour insists that the FBI is already jumping on what Putin did, how he did it, and how to stop it. The agents won’t rest, she insists, until they get answers and the means to protect American democracy. But in virtually the same breath [timer at 30:48 to 31:54], she admits that the American public won’t ever know anything about the means Putin used or the countermeasures our spooks adopt because both will constitute classified counterintelligence.

With all due respect to a dedicated and apparently concerned professional, I have to say that classified measures alone will never solve the problem. From what we know now, it appears that what Putin did was itself largely public, at least until concealed or erased. He used a troll army and fake news to change voters’ minds, individually or in groups. If he didn’t do it individually this time, the technology is available for him to use next time.

What Putin did or can do is something new under the Sun. The Internet and AI now make possible retail delivery of tailored propaganda, tailored to each voter’s individual “hot buttons.”

Perhaps the FBI can use classified cyber-warfare techniques to prevent hacking of private, politically sensitive material. Perhaps it can shut down known sources of deception on the Internet. But doing so would be like trying to convert a sieve into a bowl by patching it with pieces of tape. Even China, with a reported 30,000 Internet censors, can’t stop the flow of information, and we Yanks will never have anything like 30,000 Internet censors. Our First Amendment doesn’t permit censorship.

Not only that. As our authorities close in, Putin’s trolls can make their propaganda more subtle, their fake news less obviously false, but still effective. Then how do we distinguish their propaganda from legitimate political discourse and variant points of view? Do we ban all information coming out of Russia?

A moment’s thought suffices to show that our countermeasures against propaganda and fake news can never be wholly secret, although such specifics as sources, personnel and technical means might be. Countermeasures will be useless unless the targets of deception—our ordinary voters—know what is going on, believe our authorities when warned, and wise up. Nothing else will do. Someone—our authorities or designated private fact-checkers—must let our people know when news is fake and coming out of Russia.

Because any effective defense must be public and credible, the political and informational obstacles are legion. Yet we must vault them to save our democracy. The extreme difficulty of the project demands that most of it (besides sources, actors and technical manner and means) be public, and that our pols set aside their differences long enough to protect our democracy, our free elections and their credibility among our people. Anything less will let clever lies prevail over truth, every time, because the only way to ban lies from the Internet reliably is to shut it down. Even President Trump knows that.

Endnote 2: I haven’t provided links to reporting on Putin’s troll army because I assume that readers of this blog are familiar with months- or years-old stories in the New York Times (1 and 2) and the declassified summary of our intelligence agencies’ conclusions reported in the Washington Post. But readers should know that a troll army is likely just the first, experimental step toward institutionalizing massive, deliberate deception of the American electorate as a routine tool of Russian foreign policy.

How did we find out about the trolls at all? Reporters seems to have stumbled on them by accident. They found individual trolls-for-hire willing to talk. From their stories, reporters were able to piece together the vast scale and audacity of the enterprise.

In other words, we found out by easy human intelligence, by picking the low-hanging fruit that mere news reporters could gather. But think a minute. The trolls were hardly seasoned FSB operatives, nurtured in silence and trained in deception. They were ordinary hackers—some not even Russian—put together in an ad-hoc organization. And there were far too many of them to kill for talking.

So what happens when Putin, having proved the concept with expendable peons, brings the whole operation inside the Lubyanka? What happens when seasoned, trained intelligence operatives take over the enterprise? Won’t any who talk then know they risk death? And won’t Putin then invest in the equipment and software needed to automate the fake news project and its retail delivery to individuals (a process that AI now makes possible)?

When (not if) that happens, human intelligence will virtually dry up. Signals intelligence will become exponentially harder to get because the professional FSB operation, unlike the trolls, will use every known technique (and may invent some new ones) to disguise the propaganda’s origins and delete it as soon as it has done its job.

Russia’s intelligence agencies are among the best in the world. Their push to elect Trump was probably an experimental, “extracurricular” project. Now that it has succeeded beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations, Putin will institutionalize it, refine it, expand it, and bury it in secrecy. It will only get smarter, wilier, more subtle, and harder to spot.

Do you begin to see how fighting this menace is not going to be easy?

So maybe we ought to start serious investigation now, while there are still some traces of Version 1.0 scattered around the Web. Maybe we should stop our internecine warfare and start taking seriously the greatest threat to our way of life since the Soviet 50-megaton H-bomb—a threat all the more sinister for being non-violent and therefore more likely to be used routinely.


10 May 2017

Trump’s “Threefer”

[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
To understand Donald J.Trump, you must recall three things about him. First, his most successful businesses involved selling himself: his name, hotels that hawk his personal style, and his aura of being a “winner”—an aura that sometimes only he can see. His TV reality show was and is far more successful than his Trump University, which tried to teach students something real, namely, how to become a real-estate mogul like Trump without his massive start-up inheritance.

Second, Trump lies a lot. He probably lies more than any politician of national stature, let alone any president, in American history. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to care much when called on his lies. He’ll even confess to lying, as he did in recanting his “birther” lie about Obama’s supposed alien birth.

Third, Trump doesn’t seem to care much whether everyone accepts his lies or his fantastic promises (Wall, anyone?), as long as some do. He seems to be self-satisfied with having his national popularity drop off a cliff as long as 96% of the 40% or so who voted for him still like him. He’s happy with his die-hard loyalists, who will follow him anywhere, even into the jaws of Hell.

Put these three facts together, and you quickly come to the conclusion that perception is far more important to Trump than reality. It’s not what is that matters to him, but what the people he cares about (his fellow rich and his dupes) can be made to believe. He’s a president made for Fox, just as Fox was made for him. His presidency is the natural consequence of an entertainment business’ dominance of our national media.

And so it is with the firing of FBI Director James Comey yesterday. To serious people, only one thing about the firing mattered: what’s going to happen now with the investigation of “Russiagate”? But Trump and his crew made a triple coup, a “threefer,” in public perception.

First, Comey’s firing offered after-the-fact “proof” of Hillary’s criminality, the “rightness” of Trump’s constant charges against her, and the legitimacy of his lose-the-popular-vote election. It wasn’t Comey’s premature and public revelation of the Huma Abedin-Andrew Weiner e-mails, which probably cost Hillary the election, that Trump emphasized in firing Comey. It was Comey’s unilateral decision not to indict Hillary, while criticizing her vociferously in his premature, unilateral public statement. Firing Comey for deciding not to indict Hillary was manna from heaven for Trump’s “Lock her Up!” crew.

But Trump (or his cleverer advisers) didn’t stop there. They didn’t fail to mention Comey’s second gross breach of DOJ protocol: his premature disclosure of confidential evidence (the Abedin-Wiener e-mails) without any analysis or conclusion, leaving conclusion-jumping to Trump’s red-meat crew. The Trump statement cited this breach as an additional reason for firing Comey, as if to say, “Aren’t we even-handed? We fired Comey for both the breach that might have hurt us and the one that gave us the election!” The resulting perception of being “fair and balanced” was the second coup in Trump’s “threefer.”

All of this matters much to Trump’s self-perception as a “winner,” and to vindication of his lies. But in the real world where the rest of us live (and sometimes die for lack of access to health care), none of this matters.

What matters is that Comey, for all his warts, is a highly trained professional of widely acknowledged skill who was leading the most powerful and effective investigatory institution in our federal government in a thorough investigation of “Russiagate.” Now he’s not.

That fact, dear readers, completes the “threefer.” And in the real world where most of us still live, isn’t it by far the most important? Hillary has lost not just the presidency, but her leadership of the Democratic Party. No one is going to relitigate her loss. Comey will go on to a cushy job in a private law firm, an academic sinecure, or a conservative think tank. But who will save America, or even Germany, from the next Russian hacking or cyberattack against the roots of popular rule? Who will even notice the subversion?

That sad fact is that the GOP-controlled Congress appears to be doing nothing. It might be doing something secretly, behind the scenes. But the news we get suggests that that “something” is delaying, denying and obfuscating, not finding, subpoenaing and interviewing even the most obvious witnesses. Indeed, Comey himself was just two days away from testifying before Congress when he was fired.

The only institution that most of us trust that looked as if it were investigating seriously was the FBI. Now it is leaderless. Not only that. The primary target of the investigation has the constitutional power, subject to Senate confirmation, to pick its next leader.

Motive is a slippery thing to gauge. It will be so until advances in fMRI imaging allow us to read minds. But in the absence of mind-reading, we can still assess consequences. Isn’t retarding and perhaps halting the investigation the chief consequence of Comey’s firing, while all else is show?

Think back to our Founding, or to our two American centuries, the nineteenth and twentieth. Wouldn’t any attempt by a foreign power to flip our presidential election and fix our national destiny have been a cause for war? You could almost see an American Cato the Elder inveighing against the perpetrator, saying “Russia delenda est.”

But today, what do we have? We have divided and bickering people’s representatives, who’ve done nothing but posture for sixth months after a successful foreign cyberassault on the foundations of American democracy. We have a GOP more interested in fighting Democrats and preserving a presidency that it once opposed from the beginning than in seeking the roots of the greatest scandal in American history—one far bigger than Watergate or Teapot Dome.

This, gentle reader, is what decay and decline look like. When a society fails to protect itself against blatant foreign threats, can it long survive? when it is so divided among itself that an inimical foreign power can presume to choose its leader with no effective response? without even an effective investigation?

Yes, Trump got his “threefer” of red meat for his base. Yes, his erratic and incompetent administration continues as if all were normal. But deep within the Lubyanka, Vladimir Putin and his KGB cohorts are laughing uproariously while, having failed in France, they turn their cyberguns and fake news on Germany. Neither Donald Trump nor anyone else can “make American great again” until their laughter stops.