As a storm breaks over Washington, and the details of foreign “collusion” and intrigue over the 2016 presidential election break out into the open, I just happened to be re-reading Gore Vidal’s The Golden Age, a novel set in the run up to World War II in which pretty much the same plot line plays out on the same terrain.
The novel is a reminder that nothing has really changed since 1940, except in terms of scale. Washington is still teeming with agents of various foreign powers, and, as in Vidal’s novel, the British intelligence organization plays a key role, but then again the book is set before our much touted “seventeen intelligence agencies” were founded. Vidal takes us through the drawing rooms and editorial offices of Washington, listening in on conversations between characters both real and imagined. It’s as if the National Security Agency was operating at a time when computers existed only in the realm of science fiction, scooping up all our data and giving us a bird’s eye view of how the world works.
The reader meets Wendell Wilkie, the “barefoot boy” from Wall Street, his antipode, the isolationist Senator Bob Taft, mastermind British agent Ernest Cuneo, Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, H. L. Mencken, and of course Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Couple are at the center of it all, pulling strings invisible to the American people but all too obvious to the Washington insiders, who scheme, gossip, and fornicate as they march the rest of the country into the inferno of World War II.
The city is a battlefield largely occupied by the British, who are determined to get us into the war and spare no details in their elaborate campaign. The interventionist Wilkie is their man, a marionette made to order by the British Security Coordination, which deploys a series of ingeniously dirty tricks to get their man the nomination, and thus block the antiwar Taft from giving the American people a choice at the ballot box. Juicy nuggets of historical detail are thrown into the novelistic mix, e.g., the story of the powerful isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg, whose turnabout was due to his seduction by a British Mata Hari. The result is a panoramic view of how America was invaded and conquered by a foreign power and pushed into a world war while the isolationist hinterland slept.
“We shall have it all!” exclaims Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s Svengali, and when he’s asked what is “it,” he replies: “The world.” The Golden Age is the story of America on the road to empire, and how the American people were dragged, kicking and screaming, down that bloody highway. Today, having reached our destination, we’re smack in the middle of what seems very much like a work by Vidal, the posthumous capstone of his series of historical novels chronicling the progression of our old republic into a bloated imperium.
The drama now playing out in the headlines has all the same elements: foreign agents plotting to sway the nation’s destiny, the looming threat of war, and dirty tricks aplenty. Speaking of which: just how, exactly, did the three anonymous sources cited by the New York Times come to possess Donald Trump, Jr.’s emails? It is a measure of the Deep State’s desperation that, by this device, they have blown their cover and openly, brazenly, come out as the coup plotters they are. Yes, rumors abound that the sources are in the White House, and this may be superficially true: but of course, unlike Don Junior, the actual sources are smart enough to use go-betweens.
As the machinations and murky allegiances of various swamp creatures come to light, the main players are so much like the characters out of a novel that one wonders if Vidal isn’t up there – or, perhaps, down there – pounding away at some supernatural word-processor, his creation demonically translated into real events.
There is Don Junior, the fresh-faced and rather obtuse presidential progeny, who walks straight into the arms of the clownish Bob Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist and events promoter, who set up the fateful meeting. There is Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who previously worked with Fusion GPS, the dirty tricks firm employed by the Never Trump crowd that came up with the salacious “dirty dossier,” claiming that Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence.
As Ernest Cuneo put it in The Golden Age, he had to play “both sides of the fence” in order to pull off the hijacking his British paymasters required, and this old ploy may well have played out in this instance.
There’s the matter of how Veselnitskaya got into the country, having been initially denied a visa by the State Department and then given special dispensation allowing entry. In her affidavit stating why she should be allowed to enter, she said that she was representing a Russian company, Prevezon, in a money-laundering case brought by the US Department of Justice. In this task she was working alongside Fusion GPs, which had been hired by Prevezon to assist in the case. No doubt Veselnitskaya’s history with the folks at Fusion GPs will eventually come out, but they are resisting demands for documents by Sen. Chuck Grassley, citing their First Amendment rights as “journalists.” Given what “journalists” have become these days, one can see their point regardless of the legal technicalities.
As for the incriminating email itself, which – in a burst of novelistic drama worthy of Vidal – was posted along with a statement by Don Junior, its explicitness renders it laughably suspicious. Goldstone informs Junior that he has some juicy information on Hillary’s canoodling with the Russians and that the Russian Crown Prosecutor – their Attorney General – is prepared to release “some official documents” attesting to this. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information,”says Goldstone, “but it’s part of Russia’s and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Do I detect a note mockery in Goldstone’s missive? You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss it. Yes, he says, this material is “sensitive,” but I’m going to reveal the identity and motivations of the source in writing, for the record, so that it can exist in cyberspace forever, a message to posterity saying: There’s one born every minute!
The ghost of Gore Vidal isn’t the only one who’s laughing.
The outcome of all this is so predictable that it reads like the kind of script war propagandists have been churning out since the days chronicled in The Golden Age, where Hollywood’s role as the War Party’s instrument is deftly dramatized. The narrative goes like this: evil Trump populists plot with our “adversary,” Russia, to steal the election from the rightful winner, as a White House inhabited by traitors hands the country over to Putin the All-Powerful. Whatever comes out later – the Fusion-Veselnitskaya connection, the real motives of the deliberately stupid Goldstone, the original source of the Goldstone-Junior correspondence – will get lost in the general impression that Trump is some kind of Manchurian candidate, or at least a “useful idiot,” as the old cold warriors used to say.
Indeed, Michael Hayden, the former chief of both the CIA and the National Security Agency – which is the probable source of the Goldstone-Junior emails – called Trump exactly that. The script was written months ago, when it became apparent that Trump would be the nominee – and that he had a real chance of becoming President. Now it is being played out, it all its melodramatic vulgarity.
And while this may be strictly a grade-B production, the producers and financiers behind the show are likely to get some good box office, with multitudinous investigations, commissions of inquiry, and a full-court press. Thus they’ll accomplish their primary objective – blocking any rapprochement with Russia, and heightening tensions to the breaking point – while laying the groundwork for Trump’s political demise. The question we’ll be hearing continuously from the media, which will be doing the oppo research for Rep. Adam Schiff and his fellow grand inquisitors, is: What did Trump know, and when did he know it?
Republicans will fall back on the probable truth that there’s nothing illegal about “collusion” with a foreign power: our lawmakers regularly collude with foreign lobbyists, some of whom are undoubtedly foreign agents (registered and not-so-registered), with Rep. Schiff being a prominent example. His relationship with a Ukrainian arms dealer is less well-known than it ought to be.
The “it’s not illegal” argument, however, won’t pass scrutiny where it counts: in the court of public opinion, and among the chattering classes. The latter are already our most vocal Never Trumpers, but their increased vehemence, broadcast far and wide, will echo throughout the country, with consequences that bode ill for the cause of peace, détente, and a rational foreign policy.
“What should American policy be toward Putin’s Russia?,” asks Cathy Young in her Reason magazine polemic arguing for a new cold war with Russia. In what is the only true statement in her 7,000-word screed, she writes: “The answer to that question depends, above all, on your view of America’s role in the world and of how broadly America’s national interest should be defined.”
Well, at least it’s a half-truth. For the answer to that question as it relates to Russia is to be found at the end of an inquiry into the real nature and intentions of the Russian leadership. We must ask: What does Russia want?
According to the embittered Russian immigrants who play an inordinate role in the policy debate, Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian nightmare, where the regime slaughters journalists with clocklike regularity and Putin the All-Powerful exercises even more control over the brain-deadened Russian populace than he does over the Trump administration. The Russian media is totally controlled, elections are rigged, and the secret police take care of anyone who raises his or her head with ruthless dispatch.
The fact that more Russian journalists died under mysterious circumstances under Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s “pro-Western” predecessor, than during the sixteen years of the All-powerful One’s reign, is ignored, as are the contradictions in the neoconservative narrative. On the one hand, we are told that there are no fair elections in Russia, and in any case the Russian media has so indoctrinated the people that dissent is hopelessly marginalized, and on the other hand they say Putin is mortally afraid of being ousted by Western-backed “dissidents,” whose numbers are growing daily.
Yet this is just the build-up, the demonization process that is the prelude to Putin’s full Hitler-ization. Taking off from the nonsensical premise that all dictators are expansionist aggressors, ready to launch a war of conquest at the first opportunity, while liberal democracy is inherently pacific, the Russian leader’s character development morphs into a Genghis Khan-like figure. Putin’s Golden Hordes are portrayed as massing at Russia’s borders, ready to pounce in any direction – Ukraine, the Baltics, Georgia, or perhaps even Poland. And just to make sure the Russians stay in character, a few provocations should rouse the Russian bear.
Perhaps it will happen in Ukraine, where President Poroshenko is busily bombing the citizens of the eastern provinces into submission. Unlike the Syrian scenario, this movie is only playing in small art theaters: the official fiction is that the sole resistance to Poroshenko’s dictates are Russian soldiers out of uniform. The people of the Donbass have been erased, a green light for their execution by the thousands. Or maybe one of those close calls will get much closer, and the collision of a Russian fighter with one of our jets – over Syria? The Baltics? Kalingrad? – will be the spark that sets the world aflame.
As the winds of Cold War II sweep the political landscape, support for peaceful relations with Russia – never mind the de facto alliance envisioned by President Trump – will freeze over. And the witch-hunt now focused on Trump and his immediate circle will broaden, targeting anyone who challenges the central myth at the heart of the Russophobic narrative: that Russia, a declining power that spends one-tenth of our military budget, is aggressive by its very nature, and specifically aims to topple the US from its pedestal. Of course, this view of Russia is highly colored by the assumption that the US is and must continue to be the global hegemonic power, a premise disputed by us anti-interventionists.
This premise is both unwise and untrue: not only is the United States effectively bankrupt, but it has failed to control world events, a capability to be expected of any proper global hegemon. The “world order” we are constantly being told must be maintained simply does not exist, as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria demonstrated to anyone with eyes to see. The primacy of American military power is a fiction: we haven’t won a war since the Japanese surrendered in World War II.
The reality is that we live in a multipolar world, not the unipolar fantasy concocted by Francis Fukuyama and his fellow neooconservative grandees. We have gone from a world divided between two superpowers to a multipolar order, and Putin, the unsentimental realist, is acting accordingly, while US policymakers have yet to make the necessary transition.
Defeated by the United States and its allies – although one could argue, as I have, that the Soviet Union was undone primarily by the impossibility of socialism and its own inner contradictions – the post-Soviet Russian leadership is faced with an Islamic insurgency that threatens to subvert the foundations of the state. Not only the Chechen problem, but the wider conundrum bedeviling Putin is how to deal with a Muslim population in the multi-millions in the age of Islamist terrorism. Probably the majority of the core fighting terrorist force in Syria has come from the Muslim areas of the Russian Federation – which is why the Russians are now in Syria, seeking to eradicate them lest they come home.
And so they turn to the alleged Keeper of the World Order, the target of the 9/11 hijackers’ wrath: we too, they say, are in the terrorists’ crosshairs, as Beslan and the apartment bombings throughout Russia make the San Bernardino and Orlando incidents in the US look like pinpricks. They turn to their old enemies, those who brought down the Soviet empire and have now encircled it despite solemn promises from the Americans that this would not happen.
I don’t know what Putin, whom I’ve characterized as a realist, expected: surely not the warm embrace of our deluded political class, and a national security bureaucracy that has a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of American hegemony. The Russians were rebuffed, for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with real American interests, the main one being the overweening arrogance of US policymakers, who chose not to be generous in victory.
The appearance of Donald Trump on the scene upset the plans of the policymakers, who thought they were going to have a smooth road on their way to fatally overextending and bankrupting their invincible empire. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” This sentiment, repeatedly expressed by the GOP presidential candidate, sent shivers down the spines of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.
Upon hearing this, the Deep State pricked up its ears – and went into high gear. Not just here in the US, but internationally: so far we know that the intelligence services of Ukraine, Estonia, and Britain were involved in a coordinated effort to destroy Trump. No doubt there’s some contemporary version of Ernest Cuneo somewhere, or a gaggle of Cuneos, managing the leaks, the false flags, the dirty tricks according to a script that undergoes daily revisions.
We’re at the beginning of Act II, and it’s going to be a lengthy movie. In any case, it’s a long way from the Goldstone-Junior emails to the DNC/Podesta document dump, but given the guidance of Louise Mensch and Adam Schiff, I’m sure the coup plotters will find their way.
In the face of all this, the real test for the President’s defenders will be over the question of whether or not Russia is an “adversary,” or a potential ally with interests congruent with our own. If the former, “collusion” – such as it is – equals treason: if the latter, then it’s business-as-usual cooperation.
The GOP is divided over this, with the grassroots increasingly amenable to the idea of détente, but the leadership – particularly in Congress – is kneejerk hostile to all things Russian. Just as Trump’s presidential campaign, which was actively opposed and sabotaged by the Republican mandarins on Capitol Hill, owes its success to the Trumpian base, so success in fighting off this assault on his legitimacy will depend on the administration standing up for the ideas that got Trump elected. To fight effectively, Trump and his allies must make the case that Russia is not necessarily an adversary, and that the War Party is simply cashing in on a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is unlikely to happen. An entire wing of the administration, in addition to Obama era holdovers, is bitterly opposed to a Russian rapprochement, at the center of which is H. R. McMaster, whose office over at the National Security Council is a veritable fifth column. His ally, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, runs her own foreign policy, seemingly entirely detached from what comes out of the White House and the State Department. McMaster represents the Army faction, which sees the “Russian threat” as a way to funnel more tax dollars into an already bloated-beyond-all-measure budget. Haley is a stand-in for the old internationalist eastern seaboard “moderate” Republicans, who are anything but moderate when it comes to foreign policy: think Wendell Wilkie in a dress.
With the McCain-Graham chorus yapping in the background, the GOP majority in Congress will be hard-pressed not to override Trump’s veto of the incoming Russian sanctions bill, an issue that will be to this era what the vote on Lend Lease, or the repeal of the Neutrality Act was during the great debate of the 1940s. Whether Trump has the courage to veto, and withstand an energetic – nay, hysterical – campaign to override remains to be seen. In any case, his decision will be the measure of the man and his true character, and an indication of whether his presidency will survive beyond a single term.
While the details of the “collusion” story will shift day-by-day, it’s best not to get caught up in minutiae: surely the public will soon tire of this plot line. The real battle is over policy, and the question of America’s role in the world. Do we want to run an empire that brooks no rivals and take up the burden of enforcing the “world order”? Vidal imagined Harry Hopkins exclaiming “We shall have it all!” Do we want or need it all? Is that even possible?
Trump and his supporters cannot avoid asking – and answering – these questions if they want to avoid defeat and political extinction. It’s as simple as that. This administration has been at war from the beginning, and there is no avoiding it. One may not be interested in war, as Leon Trotsky is reputed to have said, but war is most definitely interested in you. They can’t win the war without making the case for détente.
The Deep State and its attendant swamp creatures play for keeps. The only way to defeat them is on the battlefield of ideas, not by hemming and hawing about matters of law. It must be made clear that the War Party wants to criminalize policy differences: they want to shut down debate, because they know that’s a battle they can’t win. Despite years of strenuous propaganda aimed at painting Putin’s Russia as a modern Mordor, the American people aren’t interested in launching a new cold war. They’ve had enough of war, which is the key reason why Trump won in the first place. If Trump & Co. can keep on this message, they will win. Otherwise they are headed for the dustbin of history.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.