On the strength of Thursday’s news, we can reasonably assume that one of two things has happened. One possibility is that Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, decided to stage a piece of low-grade political theater in the hopes of somehow getting the Republicans ahead of a news cycle.
The other is that someone finally took the time to explain to him how Palantir works. In normal circumstances, one would be justified in assuming that the latter was impossible. But we are so far through the looking glass that I had to shoo the Cheshire Cat off of my laptop in order to write this piece, so even this can probably not be dismissed out of hand.
One could certainly accept the formed explanation, given how abysmally the administration and its various minions have been faring in the serious media these days. Over and above the series of ridiculous gaffes and poor decisions that have been the hallmark of this crowd in every week since the end of January, it has become increasingly clear that the Russia thing is simply not going away.
It would be hard to dispute that Mr. Trump’s assertions (typically accompanied by not a shred of evidence) that his phones in Trump Tower were tapped, either by some wing of the American security apparatus or by GCHQ, were yet another product of his fevered imagination meant to deflect attention from other problems. Things shifted as this narrative developed, first because there was none of the paper trail through American intelligence bureaucracy that would have accompanied this sort of operation if a domestic agency had undertaken, and then because of the contemptuous dismissals of such suggestions by the British.
Still, as has always been their way, Mr. Trump’s various mouthpieces insisted on gripping doggedly on the stick, irrespective of the fact that only the most one-eyed of Fox News habitues could put any stock in it whatever.
So then we have today’s kerfuffle, in which Congressman Nunes revealed material to the White House and the public which is both ostensibly secret (and thus not within his purview to discuss openly) and known to everybody with access to the Internet. Information on Mr. Trump’s people was incidentally captured in the course of surveillance operations against foreign targets. There is a real irony here since Congressman Nunes is essentially stating in public the implications of things for which Edward Snowden is now much reviled in official circles for revealing.
Indeed, as recently as a week ago, Snowden (speaking on Jeremy Scahill’s Intercepted podcast) pointed out that practically any US citizen (up to and including the President himself) is liable to have their communications passively collected by the NSA’s SIGINT program.
Congressman Nunes’s actions seem to reflect a sort of failure of nerve. The hearings were certainly not going the way that Mr. Trump’s supporters and abettors would have wanted. Not only had the Directors of the FBI and the NSA explicitly denied that the Trump campaign was the subject of directed intelligence gathering, Mr. Comey also confirmed that the FBI has an active investigation in progress directed at connections between figures in the campaign and Russia.
The matter of collusion with Russia by people associated with the Trump campaign has been an issue in American public life for the best part of six months. There is undoubtedly some fire beneath the smoke. Real, material connections have already cost several figures in the Trump coterie their positions. Paul Manafort, the lobbyist and former Trump campaign manager now described by Mr. Trump’s mouthpieces as having had “a very limited role” in the campaign, has been shown to have collaborated with a Russian businessman to to promote the interests of the Putin government, as well as having worked to advance Russian interests in the Ukraine.
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who spoke on Mr. Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention, failed to disclose contacts with the Russian government prior to Mr. Trump’s assumption of the presidency and should have registered as a foreign agent long before he did.
The connections between the Trump Administration and Russia are real. And, in fact, they should come as no surprise. They represent the confluence of two important threads which are woven together throughout the upper reaches of American public life, but particularly tightly in the current administration. One propensity of those engaged in international finance is to gravitate to large pools of capital untrammeled by legal controls.
As the premier kleptocracy on the planet, Russia is fabulously attractive to these sorts of people. It is a place where gigantic sums of capital can be reaped an invested without fear of systematic political oversight, as long as one is willing to direct a cut of the action to the right people.
The second connection (of which General Flynn is an important representative) is rather more alarming. These people see Russia as an ally in a millennial clash of civilizations between some collection of industrialized states (notional bearers of the civilization of the West) and the Islamic world. This view, which sees the United States and Russia leading a fight in which Europe is marginalized and humanistic values are either sidelined and or consigned to the dustheap of history, is strongly supported by elements of the far right of the security industrial complex throughout the industrialized world.
According to this way of thinking, the primary enemy as some combination of the Iranian state and international jihadism, The spread of Islam, facilitated by “weaponized” refugees flooding across Europe’s borders, is a sort of fifth column meant to destroy Western civilization or pollute our precious bodily fluids, or whatever.
While it is clear that these connections exist, the question is what they amount to in terms of the stability of the Trump administration. The answer is…not much. What passes for a political left in the United States is still reeling from the psychic shock of Mr. Trump’s election. Ever since that black day in November they have gone back and forth between running around with cries that the sky (in the form of every civilized institution in the country) is falling, and clustering in front of MSNBC hoping that some element of the deep state will throw up a basis on which Mr. Trump can be impeached or otherwise removed from office.
Sadly, these latter hopes are certain to be dashed. Although there have clearly been contacts between Mr. Trump’s circle and Russia, there is as yet no hard evidence whatever of the kind of collusion that would rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. This is true a fortiori because the very body that would have to designate them as such is controlled by right wing zealots who view Trump’s Russian shenanigans as, at worst, a minor distraction to their project of completing the conversion of the United States into a neoliberal theocracy.
The range of activities that Mr. Trump would have to be shown to have engaged in with the Putin government in order to get him impeached is vanishingly small and does not include political collusion or shady business deals. The fact that even the best case scenario results in swapping Trump for Pence (who is hardly much better in terms of the defense of liberal values and the democratic institutions of the nation).
And thus we are left with the peculiar situation in which liberals, many of whom (at least the leftward fractions) have traditionally been very suspicious of the US security establishment, are pinning their hopes on the FBI, or the NSA or some other element of the deep state to act as savior. This is very strange, especially given the role that FBI director Comey played in the final stages of the presidential campaign. But, over and above this, it is really a frank admission of the collapse of the structures of American politics.
Nothing so clearly illustrates the complete bankruptcy of the Democratic Party than the desperate hope of redemption by the security establishment. While the Republican Party has been thoroughly colonized by Trump and his allies, the Democrats are in a desperate search for a way out of their current political impotence that doesn’t involve compromising their position as the left wing of finance capital.
Clearly, a large proportion of their base has shifted to the left. Not far to the left, but far enough to embrace the Wonder Bread socialism of Bernie Sanders. This shift is something that the panjandrums of the Democratic Party simply cannot abide. Yet the old formula of passive labor unions and identity politics no longer seems to be able to generate enough votes to keep them competitive.
This situation is likely to persist until the Democratic Party either decides to shift to the left or becomes entirely moribund. Given the connections to capital, the latter of these is by far the most likely. That the hope of rescue of the democratic institutions of the country from national security bureaucrats is patently ridiculous seems lost on the American left, for whom it is a substitute for actual political organizing. The background track to Rome burning this time will not be a fiddle but the theme music to Rachel Maddow.