Republicans Split on Putin and Ukraine

I’ve heard that Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling at Ukraine is about pipelines, or it’s about wanting to put the old Soviet Union back together, or it’s about wanting to break up NATO, or get rid of U.S. influence in Europe, or maybe Putin just wants attention. This is not my area of expertise, so I can’t offer an opinion. I just hope he backs down.

What I can comment on is what the Ukraine crisis is doing to the Republican Party.

Let’s compare the Trump Republican Party to the post-9/11 Republican Party under George W. Bush. Remember the neoconservatives? Jack Hunter wrote in The American Conservative in 2011, “The ‘neocons’ believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement.” According to neocons, any President who hesitates to send troops to address a foreign crisis isn’t “serious.” And the neocons were the main stream of the GOP during George W. Bush’s tenure, and after.

When President Obama failed to order a military strike on Syria for its use of sarin gas in 2013, Republicans attacked him mercilessly as being weak. (Here is some even-handed background on who did what, and why.) Republicans also were outraged when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, and President Obama responded only with sanctions.

One suspects Republicans were ready to slam Democrats for being soft on Russia in the 2016 elections. But one of the first things Donald Trump did as the GOP presidential nominee was to delete a call for arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons from the platform. And one of the first foreign policy things the Trump Administration did was relax the Obama sanctions on Russia. And the GOP was silent.

For four years, the neocons were shoved aside — many became “never Trumpers” — while Trump supporters were taught that Putin is a model leader, and there’s something fishy about Ukraine. Right-wing media outlets like OAN say that the whole “Russia may invade Ukraine” thing is fake news. Here’s a screenshot of their website today:

I can’t tell you which “Ukranian diplomat” is saying this, because I would have to watch a video to find out. It’s true that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is telling western powers to chill about Russian troops on his border, because he doesn’t want people to panic. Panic might cause runs on banks and a mass exodus from the country. One also suspects Zelensky is in over his head, but I don’t know the guy personally.

But at Breitbart — to which I do not link — I found an article about Sen. Lindsey Graham issuing a warning that “if you care about world order, you better get the Ukraine right.” Graham wants NATO troops to be deployed to the Baltic regions. Graham’s concern was met by derision from Breitbart commenters, who called Graham a RINO who supports amnesty for illegal aliens (?). And the Ukraine crisis is being blamed on President Biden’s warmongering.

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Kovensky writes that the GOP can’t decide what to do about Ukraine.

A yawning split has emerged. On one side is the MAGA right, skeptical of any U.S. support for Ukraine. On the other are Republicans animated by ideas that linger from the pre-Trump GOP, including a blind commitment to American intervention overseas, regardless of the cost.

At Axios, Jonathan Swan writes that the GOP’s usual tough-on-Russia talk has nearly been silenced.

Republican hopefuls who vow not to assist in any potential conflict in Ukraine are reflecting — and fanning — anti-interventionist sentiments in the modern GOP. …

… There’s a stark split in the GOP over how to handle Russia’s threat to Ukraine. It’s less useful to think “doves” versus “hawks” and more illuminating to view it as a divide between Republicans who are responsive to their base and incumbents who feel they can afford to maintain some distance from GOP primary voters.

For example, Lindsey Graham isn’t up for re-election until 2026.

One repeated point made by the Breitbart commenters and elsewhere is that nobody cares about Ukraine’s border, but why isn’t somebody (Biden; NATO) protecting the U.S. southern border? This may have something to do with the claim I saw at Breitbart that by calling for NATO troop deployment in Baltic regions, Graham is taking the side of illegal aliens in the U.S. Breitbart readers tend not to be the sharpest crayons in the box.

You see the same thing at Gateway Punidt — I don’t link to it, either.

Of course, President Biden has said there would be no U.S. ground troops in Ukraine. I haven’t heard anyone call for U.S. troops in Ukraine.

I can’t say I’m sorry that the old neocon crowd is finding itself without a political home, but it’s being replaced by unadulterated idiocy, which doesn’t seem to be an improvement.

And it could be worse. Greg Sargent writes that the split between the old neocon hawks and the apparently isolationist MAGA heads may not be isolationism at all. “Something more pernicious is going on,” he writes. “The [Tucker] Carlsonian stance is perhaps better understood as alignment with a kind of right-wing Internationale, a loose international alliance of authoritarian nationalists who despise liberal internationalist commitments.”

Carlson has gone to extraordinary lengths to buttress Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s perspective on the brewing conflict. His depictions of Putin’s fears of NATO expansion into Ukraine are larded with great sympathy for Putin’s plight. …

…While Carlson piously suggests he is driven by a desire to prevent U.S. lives from being wasted abroad, he has also suggested we should take Russia’s side. He has even attacked U.S. media figures for suggesting Ukraine is a U.S. ally whose territorial sovereignty should be defended.

Tucker Carlson has gone overboard praising far-right dictators of late. He has a new documentary at Fox that’s actually called Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization. According to Zack Beauchamp at Vox,

… it purports to tell the story of how a plucky little democracy in Central Europe has carved out a conservative model in the face of a relentless assault by the forces of global liberalism personified by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier.

The story is a lie. Hungary is nominally a democracy but it has made a turn toward authoritarianism in the last decade; Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has painted Soros as a scapegoat whose allegedly nefarious influence justifies Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. The documentary amplifies this propaganda, treating the Jewish philanthropist as the spider at the center of a global web of conspiracy.

The Anti-Defamation League is not pleased.

At Daily Beast, Matt Lewis compares Carlson’s position to that of Neville Chamberlain.

For years, foreign policy hawks invoked the icon of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, to emasculate their more dovish liberal opponents. Today, the macho men on the right are arguing that an illegal incursion by an authoritarian regime into a European nation-state isn’t our business. It’s Chamberlain’s folly delivered with a confident Churchillian swagger.

But why is this happening now? There are multiple reasons, including either grudging or explicit admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose dictatorial strongman persona exhibits many of the stereotypical attributes of masculinity.

Among the “America First” isolationist right, there’s also the argument that Putin is fighting for Christian values, while our “woke” U.S. military is the “armed wing of the Democratic Party,” part of a leftist cabal indoctrinating our young people into godless Marxism.

See above about unadulterated idiocy. I can’t even begin to describe all the ways that’s bleeped up.

But if we want to talk about history repeating itself, let us not forget that in the 1930s many American conservatives thought Mussolini was a swell guy who was showing America the way forward. Do see this fascinating review of a recent book from Princeton University Press, The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism by Katy Hull. This admiration didn’t come from the fringe but from many mainstream figures in the U.S., “From Henry Ford to the esteemed, path-blazing New York Times foreign correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick.” The reviewer, Justin H. Vassallo, writes,

From the start, Hull’s subjects took Mussolini at his word, believing fascism would resolve the country’s postwar instability. But equally important for Americans were the lessons fascism offered the United States. “These observers,” Hull writes, “asserted that fascism produced a different kind of modernity from that which prevailed in the United States—one that upheld traditions, restored connections between government and the governed, and rebalanced the relationship between men and machines.” For them, Italian fascism could decouple technological progress from decadent consumerism and harmonize the humble, spiritual qualities of agrarian life with the martial pursuit of world stature. It thus stirred romanticized notions about the U.S. preindustrial past, even as the arrival of corporatism suggested Italy would surpass America’s own Progressive Era strides toward technocratic government. In essence, fascism simultaneously augured the antidote to and the fulfillment of the American experiment. As U.S. society confronts the ways the powerful have sanctioned rightwing extremism in our own time, this history uncovers a troubling legacy worth reckoning with.

The issues then and now are not identical. But if you scratch beneath the surface you see a lot of the same elements — racism, antisemitism, xenophobia — basically, a deep fear of diversity challenging White hegemony, all framed in slogans about patriotism and traditional values.  See also David Smith How Tucker Carlson and the far right embraced Hungary’s authoritarian leader at The Guardian.

Russian Hacking: Should We Be Worried?

First, let me be clear that it’s sensible to be skeptical about anything ANYBODY is saying about the Russian hacking scandal. ANYBODY includes government agencies, news media and Julian Assange. ANYBODY includes the many nobodies crawling out of the internet woodwork who claim to be cybersecurity experts, or espionage experts, or both. Lots of people are pulling lots of “facts” out of lots of butts to serve their own ends. There are no disinterested parties here.

Let me also be clear that even if the assessment — that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the meddling of the election to favor Donald Trump — is true, it’s unrealistic to expect the intelligence agencies to explain what they know and how they know it. Assuming it’s true, this is an ongoing intelligence operation. “What they know and how they know it” must remain secret so that the Russians don’t know how the CIA is finding them out. So, the lack of “proof” is not in itself “proof” that the intelligence agencies are making it up. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. I’m astonished at the number of people I run into who don’t “get” that.

It’s also important to understand that we don’t know for a fact that the hacking changed the outcome of the election. Harry Enton of Fivethirtyeight analyzed polling data and said that one simply can’t see a clear pattern of Wikileaks releases moving the poll numbers. See also Matt Yglesias.

Opinions on who’s right or wrong on this matter seem to fall pretty much along predictable ideological lines. If you were a big Hillary Clinton fan before the election, you probably believe the intelligence agencies assessment, and more. Note that a poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russian hackers somehow hacked into voting machines and changed election tallies. I’ve run into these people on social media. When you tell them no government agency or major media source has made any such claim, they don’t believe it.

On the other  hand, both the whackjob Right and the #DemExit Left tend to believe anything Julian Assange says, uncritically. I personally don’t trust Assange as far as I can throw him.

I see lots of opinions on the Web that boil down to, “So what? The U.S. has interfered with lots of elections.” True, and usually that’s come back to bite us. However, that’s no excuse to dismiss the Russian hacking scandal as something of no importance. That’s a bit like saying that it’s no big deal if someone drops a nuclear bomb on San Francisco, since we dropped one on Hiroshima all those years ago. It’s rather a big deal if you live in San Francisco, or downwind of it, at least.

So let’s hypothetically assume there is some truth to the claim that Russia at least intended to manipulate the U.S. into electing Donald Trump. And he got elected. Why should be we concerned?

There is lots of speculation about how much money Trump owes and who his debt holders might be. There seems to be widespread agreement that his debt is over $1 billion, much of which has been repackaged as bonds. But without his tax returns, everybody is guessing.

Ben Kentish of the Independent (UK) reports:

Donald Trump’s companies are almost $1.8 billion in debt to more than 150 institutions, a new report has suggested – raising fresh questions about potential conflicts of interests when the Republican takes office in January.

The new evidence exposes the extent to which the businessman will soon be responsible for regulating many of the institutions he owes sizeable amounts of money to.

Mr Trump has previously declared $315 million (£254 million) of debt owed to ten different lenders. However, a new study by the Wall Street Journal claims an additional $1.5 billion is owed by companies that are partly owned by the billionaire.

(Wall Street Journal articles are behind a subscription firewall, and I refuse to buy a subscription.)

Is any of that debt held in Russia? Last August Jeff Nesbit reported in Time:

Most of the coverage of the links between Trump and Putin’s Russia takes the GOP presidential nominee at his word—that he has lusted after a Trump tower in Moscow, and come up spectacularly short. But Trump’s dodge—that he has no businesses in Russia, so there is no connection to Putin—is a classic magician’s trick. Show one idle hand, while the other is actually doing the work.

The truth, as several columnists and reporters have painstakingly shown since the first hack of a Clinton-affiliated group took place in late May or early June, is that several of Trump’s businesses outside of Russia are entangled with Russian financiers inside Putin’s circle.

So, yes, it’s true that Trump has failed to land a business venture inside Russia. But the real truth is that, as major banks in America stopped lending him money following his many bankruptcies, the Trump organization was forced to seek financing from non-traditional institutions. Several had direct ties to Russian financial interests in ways that have raised eyebrows. What’s more, several of Trump’s senior advisors have business ties to Russia or its satellite politicians.

(There’s an internet rumor that Trump owes the Blackstone/ Bayrock Group $560 million dollars. I can’t find any confirmation of that. A quick google didn’t turn up confirmation that Blackstone and Bayrock have ever had anything to do with each other. Blackstone’s CEO is cozy with Trump, but Blackstone is supposed to have stopped doing business in Russia a couple of years ago. Bayrock Group is a sleazy company with definite connections to both Trump and American crime families. The managing director, Felix Sater, is rumored to be the son of a Russian crime boss, but I can’t find a not-hinky source for that. )

On the other hand, Putin has a keen interest in jacking up the price of oil, and Trump’s election may be a critical part of making that happen. The selection of an Exxon CEO as Secretary of State does seem suspicious; see Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! on that point.

My larger concern has to do with the Middle East. If Trump is doing favors for Putin, how will this influence Middle East policy? There is an alliance between Russia and Iran. I don’t want the U.S. to be pulled into making that a threesome. Another concern regards the Iran Deal, about which Putin is said to be ambivalent.

So yes, I’d say there’s reason to be concerned.

False Flags About False Flags?

WaPo has a story up about evidence of a possible Russian attempt to hack the power grid.

A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials.

While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a security matter, the discovery underscores the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electrical grid. And it raises fears in the U.S. government that Russian government hackers are actively trying to penetrate the grid to carry out potential attacks. …

…Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.

Besides the fact that I’m beginning to think I should be worried about my Kaspersky (a Russian company) security software — this story is a bit ambiguous; this might or might not turn out to be a big deal. But hacking of the electrical grid is a major deal, so it is something to be taken seriously. There will be more investigations.

This story also is being reported by Reuters, the Associated Press and the Guardian, although they are attributing most of their information to the Washington Post. These are news outlets with some standards about sources. Again, maybe it’ll turn out to be nothing, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

However, others do. Today there was much hooting in social media about false flags. Sample:

Latest False Flag scapegoating, Russia hacking Vermont says MSNBC and Faux News?? Lol Lol. After all Vermont is a high value target. Feel the Bern. Lol. SERIOUSLY?? Anyone Remember the Movie, The Russians are Coming (a cold war era comedy)

Well, yeah, and there really were Russians, although nice ones. Hey, did you ever see the trailer for that movie? It’s a hoot.

Classic. Anyway, at the bottom of the WaPo story is a disclaimer, saying:

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.

Someone associated with Alex Jones called the WaPo story a false report. The Daily Caller put out a story headlined “Washington Post Publishes False News Story About Russians Hacking Electrical Grid” by a reporter named Alex Pfeiffer, who looks like he might be almost old enough to shave.

A story published by The Washington Post Friday claims Russia hacked the electrical grid in Vermont. This caused hysteria on social media but has been denied by a spokesman for a Vermont utility company.

The “denial” was that the hacked computer was not attached to the grid, as WaPo corrected. The Vermont utility company did not deny that a hacking code was found on one of their computers. But apparent journalism school dropout Pfeiffer continued to ridicule the WaPo story, playing up “panic among journalists.”

The thing is, that any foreign government might be attempting to hack the electrical grid, even if they haven’t succeeded, really is a big, scary serious thing. Even Pfeiffer might appreciate that if he ever finds himself in the middle of a major, prolonged blackout.

My larger point is that there’s such a thing as being too skeptical for one’s own good. I really hate that it’s now “cool” to dismiss everything in the news as just more manipulation.