From The Progressive November 1951
Many Americans were shocked to learn about the CIA report that Russia meddled in the U.S. election in order to help elect Donald Trump.
Trump himself dismissed the CIA’s conclusion as “ridiculous,” saying “it is impossible to know” who hacked the email accounts of both major parties, releasing information that damaged the Democrats on the eve of the election. Trump has characterized the entire U.S. intelligence establishment as tainted, partisan, and generally incompetent.
But as Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman observed dryly in a New York Times opinion piece, “Dirty tricks against a democracy? I’d trust CIA expertise on that.”
Dorfman lived through the CIA-sponsored coup in Chile, which replaced a democratically elected president with a brutal military dictatorship. Now a professor of literature at Duke University, he notes the irony of the current situation, but says he takes no pleasure in watching Americans confront the spectacle of their democracy subjected to foreign interference.
This is not the Cold War, when American political leaders of both parties justified covert operations around the globe based on fears of an amorphous communist threat to the “American way of life.”
The threat we now face is that, after a close election, American voters have handed our country over to a President who has expressed loud contempt for the institutions of our democracy, who admires the authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin, and who appears to view U.S. foreign policy primarily as a tool to further his own business interests.
The danger is not that America will be taken over by a foreign power, but that under Trump we will be transformed into our own version of Putin’s Russia, a kleptocracy whose leaders have no regard for the common good or the planet.
There is plenty for Putin to like about the new administration. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, and has nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Tillerson received a medal of friendship from Russia and has been frustrated by U.S. sanctions that block Exxon’s plans to drill for Russian oil.
In the old battle between the public interest and private greed, as Robert M. La Follette, the founder of this magazine, described it, private greed is winning, personified by President Donald Trump.
Trump doesn’t even pretend to care about the Constitution or the rule of law. He has proposed rounding up people based on their religion, torturing detainees, murdering the family members of terrorists, and maintaining his own compromising business ties in other nations. His incurious, self-dealing style makes him a vehicle for many people with their own selfish aims. These include corporations and politicians who have long been working to get government out of the way of the forces of private greed.
This magazine has reported extensively on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a coalition of business interests and Republican state legislators that has spent the last four decades pushing bills to overturn environmental and labor protections in statehouses from coast to coast. As part of its agenda, the group has also backed voter ID laws and other efforts to cut down on public input and gerrymander a corporate-friendly Republican regime into power in states from Wisconsin to North Carolina.
In North Carolina, the Moral Mondays movement has been fighting back, bringing together working-class whites, black people disempowered by voting restrictions, LGBT people subject to discriminatory new laws, public school advocates, and everyone with a stake in maintaining a vibrant public sector.
One bright spot in the 2016 elections was the victory of Democrat Roy Cooper over incumbent North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. But before Cooper could take office, the Republican-controlled legislature called a special session and used it to ram through laws limiting the new governor’s authority. Hundreds of protesters chanting “power grab” filled the state capitol building in Raleigh.
It was a state-level coup—coincidentally in the very state where Ariel Dorfman lives, and from where he has lately been musing on the historical parallels between Pinochet’s Chile and Trump’s United States.
How do we begin to mount an effective resistance to the forces overrunning our democracy?
For starters, as Christopher Cook suggests in a piece in our February issue, we need to build a nationwide Moral Mondays coalition, bringing together progressive groups with blue-collar voters, including those who supported Trump. The 2016 election shows we have a long way to go.
Bernie Sanders recently made a stab at reaching out to working-class Trump supporters at a town hall in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
In a panel discussion broadcast by MSNBC, Sanders talked to voters in this former manufacturing hub, which chose a Republican for President in 2016 for the first time in nearly fifty years.
It says something about how tippy the American electorate is that the voters on the panel expressed an affinity for both Sanders and Trump.
While they generally agreed with Sanders that working people have been stiffed, they expressed skepticism about his proposals to increase the minimum wage, provide universal health care, or make college tuition-free. “OK, that’s great, but how are we going to pay for that?” asked Trump voter Jamie Sabena.
Sanders seemed to find common ground with the panel on economic inequality, getting them to agree that the very rich do not pay their fair share in taxes. “They got rich off us, so it’s time they put back,” said Trump supporter Gail Sparks. But Sparks parted ways with Sanders, and the panel, when it came to cracking down on undocumented immigrants, who, she said, make it harder for her to get ahead at work.
When a Muslim American woman in the studio audience brought up fears based on Trump’s comments about rounding up immigrants and Muslims, most of the other panelists denied that there is any real threat. “There’s not one person in this room that would allow that to happen,” said Matt Augustine. “That’s never gonna pass.”
“I would never want to see anyone thrown out just because of their beliefs,” said Sabena.
Sparks disagreed: “To a certain extent, I hope he does that,” she said. ”It’s even been said on the radio that a lot of them don’t even pay their tickets. They just go hide in Mexico,” she added. “I’ve seen this.”
It will take a lot more than one town hall to overcome the influence of rightwing talk radio, Fox News, and the strain in American politics that leans away from the friendly socialism of Bernie Sanders and toward the authoritarian populism of Donald Trump.
And despite the panelists’ general lack of concern about the excesses of the new regime, we need to prepare ourselves for a real threat to what we think of as the American way of life.
“We hear on every side that the American Way of Life is in danger,” Robert Hutchins, former chancellor of the University of Chicago, wrote in The Progressive in December 1950. “I think it is. I also think that many of those who talk the loudest about the American Way of Life have no idea what it is.
“You would suppose, to listen to these people, that the American Way of Life consisted in unanimous tribal self-adoration,” Hutchins continued. “Down with criticism; down with protests; down with unpopular opinions; down with independent thought.”
Yet America boasts a proud history of criticism, protest, and independent thought, Hutchins noted. “We ought to be afraid of some things,” he wrote. “We ought to be afraid of being stupid and unjust.” Despite Red Scare propaganda about Russia, “we are busily engaged in adopting the most stupid and unjust of the ideas prevalent in Russia, and are doing so in the name of Americanism.”
Those words could hardly be more relevant today.
I attended another panel recently. This one was put on at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the dissident Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot. Band members Masha Alyokhina and Sasha Bogina discussed how to keep dissent alive under an authoritarian regime.
Pussy Riot became popular in Madison when the group produced a song in solidarity with the Wisconsin Uprising against Governor Scott Walker.
Band members showed clips from a documentary about their protest performance in a Moscow cathedral, their trial and imprisonment, and the international outpouring that preceded their release.
It was as though the colorful, costumed marchers protesting in the streets of Madison against Walker in 2011 were rounded up and shipped off to a penal colony. Putin’s crackdown on dissent in Russia—after a surge of post-Soviet free expression—was just as much of a shock.
Pussy Riot’s courage is both inspiring and daunting.
Members showed shocking video from their news website, Mediazona, of troops in Chechnya attacking reporters and human-rights workers and setting fire to their bus. That scene might look like a bunch of “strange men in strange beards” committing violent acts in a “strange country,” Masha said. “But this is our country.”
And that country used to seem much safer and more free.
Her message: “Don’t wait as long as we did to protest.”
Any American kid can relate to Pussy Riot’s spirit of protest and the wild, naughty punk rock impulse toward freedom. It is the spirit of the progressive movement and of American history, as Hutchins wrote in the darkest days of the McCarthy era. It is our job to keep it alive.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.