Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. and a Senior Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.
"Frozen conflicts” in our intellectual life are finally undergoing a welcome and necessary thaw if they are to find resolution.
Donald Trump’s many political opponents and media opponents have spent the time since his inauguration railing against the man as much as against his policies. His every misstep, and there were several remarkable flubs, none greater than the way his temporary ban on emigrants from 7 Moslem countries and outright rejection of refugees from Syria was rolled out, generated mass demonstrations, cries for impeachment, and mockery over his allegedly helter-skelter and contradictory executive orders which rained down on us day after day.
However, the reality is that there has been method to the President’s supposed madness. I have seen it these past several weeks in the emails I receive every few days from his campaign staff, now White House advisors, asking me to rank the priority for implementation of each of the several dozen policy positions that comprised Donald Trump’s pitch to voters before November 8: very important, important, not important, don’t know.
It bears emphasizing that the whole list of his promises remained top of his mind, and his very first actions once in office were to see to their enactment in the manner his supporters deemed most practicable.
Possibly we respondents cancelled one another out in our priority selections. Possibly the President decided in the end that there was no reason to pussy-foot or conserve his political capital, but instead to spend it all in one blow, take on all his opponents at once in a show of force these first 100 days that will clear the field for the next 4 or 8 years.
Notwithstanding all the self-righteous exulting before media microphones by Establishment figures from both parties over the foibles of this populist president and notwithstanding the shouting in the streets by demonstrators, it appears that the President is winning by his tactic of frontal attack.
A week ago, Rex Tillerson, the bellwether nominee to oversee a new foreign policy, made it across the line and was confirmed by the Senate to the surprise and pleasure of those of us who had kept our fingers crossed. We had wondered whether Rence Priebus as Chief of Staff and Steve Bannon as chief Strategist would prove to be as incompetent in running interference for this politically inexperienced president as Rahm Emanuel had proven to be for the politically inexperienced Barack Obama in his first term?
It is too early to say how or why Trump won this test of strength. But initial fierce opposition from ranking Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio was beaten down. Now, by very careful nose-counting in the Senate, by avoiding at all costs one more defection from the party ranks, and by bringing in the Vice President in at the end for the tie-breaking vote, even the most contentious of Trump’s cabinet nominees so far, Betsy De Vos for Secretary of Education, has made it through the confirmation process.
We may expect the same pressure and political savvy of Donald Trump and his close political advisers to drive the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court through to victory. After that, with a full cabinet in place and party discipline established, there will be a steady flow of legislative initiatives from the White House taking over from the Executive Orders that were Trump’s only vehicle for implementing his agenda at the outset of his presidency. By definition, the flow of legislation coming from our elected lawmakers will be better crafted, more far-seeing than the orders hurriedly prepared by the President’s close entourage.
Noisy as it has been, all of the above is partisan politics at work, a struggle for power within the Right-Left dimension . In a way, it has distracted both Trump’s detractors and his supporters from the struggle for hearts and minds that Donald Trump is leading in parallel to implementation of specific policies. This is the "revolutionary” side of Donald Trump’s campaign that he restated in his Inaugural address, with its in-your-face condemnation of most of those sitting beside and behind him on the rostrum: the self-serving Washington elites and their bubble of ideology that has been foisted on the American public through ever more blatant McCarthyite practices. Donald Trump directly rejected pillars of this ideology during the campaign - values-based foreign and domestic policy, globalization, American exceptionalism. He has continued this frontal assault in his closely watched and disputed Tweets, and in exclusive television interviews ever since he moved into the Oval Office.
Much ridicule has been directed against Donald Trump for ruling by Tweets, remarks by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer coming first to mind. They suggest this shows a lack of depth and facile narcissism that compares unfavorably with the reputation of his immediate predecessor, a former Harvard Law Review editor, for a highly cerebral approach to his presidential duties. But what they lack in intellectuality Donald Trump’s Tweets have made up for in moral strength and…feistiness, read courage.
In a Tweet on January 30, Trump urged his Republican nemesis John McCain and Lindsey Graham to "focus their energies on ISIS, illegal immigration and border security instead of always looking to start World War III” [emphasis mine]. This was, in its own way, as significant as the pithy and devastating rebuke issued by Joseph N. Welch to Senator Joe McCarthy on June 9, 1954: "Have you no decency?” Not many words. Not a typical lawyer’s brief. But the voice of an intrepid man who contributed greatly to McCarthy’s downfall and censure in the Senate half a year later.
To be sure, McCain was attacked by Donald Trump back on the electoral circuit, when he broke the decades- long taboo on criticizing this leader of the Senate hawks and loose cannon on the deck of foreign affairs during the Obama years. McCain had repeatedly traveled out to Georgia, out to Ukraine, most recently in the closing days of the outgoing Administration, to make US policy in the field and not merely consult with and provide consent to the Administration’s policies on the floor of the upper house.
But in the electoral campaign, candidate Trump had attacked McCain, the man. He publicly questioned the "war hero” status of the Arizona Senator when he asked rhetorically in what way spending years in captivity as a Vietnam prisoner of war, as McCain did, constituted heroic action.
McCain took his revenge on the day before Donald Trump’s press conference in the run-up to the inauguration, when he informed the press that he had just handed over to the FBI for follow-up a report generated by a former British intelligence agent accusing Donald Trump of being liable to Russian blackmail, from his alleged imprudent behavior during a visit to Moscow a decade ago, hence a national security risk. McCain also took the initiative to introduce a bill in the Senate calling for new, increased sanctions against Russia in a bid to stymie the incoming Administration’s plans to reverse course on Russia and find an accommodation, a new détente.
Now, from the White House, President Trump directly challenged McCain’s actions and views as fomenting a World War. It will be a fight to political death of one or the other, and the President’s hand is, in the nature of things, stronger than the Senator’s.
In his Tweet on February 1 admonishing University of California officials for canceling an appearance by a right-wing speaker and threatening cut-off of federal funds to the university, Trump spoke directly in defense of "free speech” and against "violence on innocent people with a different point of view.” This was not some offhand fit of grumpiness on his part. It was fully consistent with measures he took to ensure order at his electoral rallies during the campaign and to prise open the determinedly closed minds of a large swathe of the electorate.
The original McCarthyism of the early 1950s appeared with the consolidation of the Cold War. It was a witch-hunt over Communist subversion of our democratic institutions, about the Red Menace, meaning the Russians. The new McCarthyism grew with onset of a New Cold War and has been about the…Russians. The vilification of Vladimir Putin, the "Russians did it” hysteria reached a point of near absurdity in the last days of the Obama Administration.
Of course, the vicious conformism and denial of free speech that we saw in this culmination phase did not come from nowhere.
One can trace it back to the presidency of George W. Bush. It is easy to forget how he gutted the Bill of Rights by a stroke of the pen and with almost no public dissent when he promulgated the Patriot Act. It is easy to forget how uneasy many of us became talking politics on the phone or using the internet or taking books out of the library after that law was passed.
But we can pull the string of causality back still one more presidency to find the immediate antecedents. The conformist streak in American culture moved into a stultifying Liberal-chic Political Correctness under Bill Clinton. Then for the 8 years of George W. Bush, Liberals fell silent as post 9/11 hysteria over terror took hold.
Surveillance did not go away when the Democrats retook the White House and Congress in the 2008 elections, but we stopped thinking about it because the right people now held the levers of power.
Liberal-chic Political Correctness set in with a vengeance after 2008. On the foreign policy side, liberal values of democracy promotion and human rights took charge both inside and outside of government.
Suffice it to say, after the confrontation with Russia over Crimea and the Donbas began in the summer of 2013, those of us who did not accept what was now the Washington Consensus on foreign policy began to see ourselves as dissidents, in the Soviet sense. We were blacklisted, largely excluded from publication in the professional journals, not to mention mainstream print and broadcast media. If on campus, we kept our mouths shut fearing for our jobs and not only for our careers.
In the narrow, but politically important field of Russian studies, just how bleak the times had become was revealed in the December 2015 "Christmas issue” of Johnson’s Russia List, an important daily digest of expert and generalist writings about Russia which contained 40 pages of propaganda barrage directed against Vladimir Putin and his ill-begotten country. (for a discussion of the issues see http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2015/12/25/a-christmas-present-to-russia-bashers-from-johnson-s-russia-1148604.html ). The content of that daily issue merely reflected what was entering the editor-publisher’s in-basket each day. However, the silence of dissenters should not be confused with agreement.
Donald Trump campaign messages punched huge holes in the Neocon ideology that underlay the Washington Consensus on foreign policy under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. He asked, aloud and repeatedly, what could be wrong if the United States were to get along with Russia and cooperate on common interests, starting with a joint campaign against ISIS.
Behind all of this questioning of US policy with respect to one country, Russia, there lurked a far more damaging rejection by Trump of America’s global leadership in its existing form of intervention in the affairs of other countries, lecturing the world from a soapbox and, yes, regime change. This came out in full display during Donald Trump’s televised interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, February 4. In response to O’Reilly’s asking how Trump could get along with Putin, given that the Russian was "a killer,” Trump famously replied: "We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” In a sound bite lasting less than a minute, the President dispatched the whole notion of American exceptionalism that has been riding high since the days of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright through the Obama era, as appropriate only to babes in the kindergarten.
This open rejection of the prevailing wisdom by the candidate and now President Trump has given the rest of us, writers and publishers, new courage. My perusal of Johnson’s Russia Listthese past few days after a year in unsubscribed status in protest has put me in a state of unexpected delight. A thousand flowers are blooming. There is once again diversity of opinion across the board.
Diversity is also making its way into mainstream now that the President is dominating the daily news with a plethora of policy initiatives, some of which, the editors and publishers of newspapers of record like The Washington Post and news agencies like Bloomberg, find themselves agreeing with however much they dislike Trump. "Frozen conflicts” in our intellectual life are undergoing a thaw that is welcome, that is very much needed if the country is to live up to its democratic potential.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017