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The embers of Trumpism still smoulder, amid a slew of t...

South Africa

US POLITICS

The embers of Trumpism still smoulder, amid a slew of tell-all books and a red-hot memo ‘from the Kremlin’

Former US president Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

We still seem to have Donald Trump around, and his cult still loves him even though the ‘tell-all’ books about the appalling final months of his tenure are beginning to roll out fast and furious. But there is also a most curious document that apparently came out from the depths of the Kremlin.

For a while, we may have thought we were finally done with Donald Trump after he lost the 2020 presidential election. (And yes, he really did lose it, despite what some of his more deluded supporters still insist is true.) We really thought — hoped, prayed for — that seemingly never-ending national nightmare was finally over, for the sake of the country and our collective sanity.

But, late at night — when we are lying sleepless, tossing and turning, worrying about the future of the nation in these uncertain times — we also fret that the dragons and demons he had summoned, then nurtured, and then helped to lodge deeply in US political life during his short political career may yet continue to haunt us, with or without him.

Increasingly, of course, the nonsense about his actually running for the presidency in 2024 is just a luxuriant money-raising scam, like Trump University was years before, back when he was just an unprincipled real estate speculator with an ego the size of the Moon and a hunger for fame and money. But it keeps him in touch with fans, and the electronic mailing list this effort has generated makes it a ridiculously valuable commodity for potential candidates — and product marketeers.  

But the truth is Trump is likely to be tied up in state and federal courts for civil and criminal proceedings for many years to come. This increasingly is inevitable as prosecutors begin to smell the blood of their wounded prey in the first one or two cases, thereby leading to more half-buried shenanigans with taxes, strangely structured loans, dubious investments and all those fibs about property values to the banks and insurance companies. This will become an embarrassing, costly, time-consuming exposure in courtrooms — thereby turning dealing with all of this into his newest full-time job. 

Moreover, by the time 2024 rolls around, he will be in his late 70s and less likely to pass scrutiny on those mental cognition tests he has loved to brag about so often. You only have to listen to one of his speeches now — compared to his rhetorical thunderstorms from 2015-16 to sense just how the decline has begun to take hold. It’s the same old, same old tropes and he seems increasingly bored with his own schtick. No matter how much the crowds howl his name or bay “lock her up,” the calendar and the human condition do not give mulligans.

Crucially, however, that does not mean the movement, let’s call it “Trumpism,” now, is dead, even if Trump himself has become that, politically. This cult of Trump continues to command the unreasoning loyalty of those cult members within the Republican Party who have imbibed gallons of his political Kool-Aid, as well as those who have supplemented that beverage with some miscellaneous but dangerous insanities they brought to the picnic on their own.

Regardless, these people still only represent a minority of the national population, despite the incessant howling about who they are, that they are the old silent majority now gone extremely vocal and powerful, that they represent an essential bulwark against the evils of critical race theory, wokeness, unbridled immigration by you know who, those Lucifer-esque evils of Covid vaccinations, and all the other cardinal sins they rail against. And, most especially, they insist they actually represent the country’s true Americans when they show up at gatherings like those Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) covens. This may be the political equivalent of a veld fire: the actual fire may have been doused, but hot embers do remain, able to reignite the grass — at least within the Republican Party. 

What becomes important is the support of such true believers can be the pathway to victory within the party’s primary elections, since only a fervent minority of party supporters votes in party primaries, as primary voting turnout usually hovers around 20% or so of registered voters. Those true believers — especially the well-off ones — also represent a potent funding bank, especially when their core issues and beliefs are foregrounded in a candidate’s campaign. 

Inevitably, then, a growing roster of other potential Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, such as the incumbent Florida, Texas, South Dakota and Wisconsin governors, among others, are cautiously eyeing runs for the nomination. Yes, they continue to pay their obeisance to Trump, for now, but their deeper goals are to get their own names embedded into the consciousness of Trump cult members for when he falters or is embroiled in legal turmoil. At that point, they each think they can go for the nomination instead, seizing the flag of Trumpism for the future. 

All of this may seem to be speculation about a far distant future, but it is already virtually almost upon us. The midterm congressional (and many state legislative and gubernatorial races, among others) will be on the ballot in primary elections within a year. Accordingly, nominating processes and campaigning are already under way. Moreover, would-be 2024 presidential candidates want to collect campaign IOUs they can cash in when the time is right from among the candidates running in 2022.

Amid this, media events have the power — perhaps — to affect the way people understand Trump. The first of these has been a near-simultaneous release of several books on the final year of the Trump administration — and especially the run-up to the 2020 election and into the 6 January insurrection.

One of these, Landslide by Michael Wolff, comes from an author whose breezy writing (sometimes criticised for its occasional lightish touch with hard evidence, or at least provable evidence) has probably made it a natural best seller. Still earlier, back in late 2020, there was Bob Woodward’s Rage. Now several others have been added to the shelf. Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender’s book, Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost is out, and yet another comes from The Washington Post reporting team of Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, I Alone Can Fix It. 

Reviewers are already describing this latter book as a particularly depressing, day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour countdown of the madness that gripped the White House court of true believers and opportunistic hangers-on, as 2020 became January 2021. One reason all of these are coming out now, perhaps, is that it is summer in the US and these may well be perfect beach reading for those obsessed with politics and, in particular, the entertaining yet maddening antics of Donald Trump.

In all of these volumes, it becomes easy to see the increasing unreality of the president’s campaign for re-election and the growing machinations towards somehow reversing his opponent’s substantial victory in November. This grows until the near-total unwinding takes place on 6 January, when a mob of Trump-supporting fanatics nearly succeeds in sacking the Capitol Building with its legislators inside, just as Congress is formally certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidency. 

Michael Bender, writing in The Washington Post (rather than in his home publication of The Wall Street Journal) to explain his research and writing methodology for his new book, said of the eager Trump acolytes, they often travelled cross-country to do so. Bender said by way of example, “[Saundra] Kiczenski was inspired by a vista of Trumpian strength and patriotism: the Washington Monument in the distance, the majestic Capitol in the foreground, and freedom-loving patriots fighting like hell to stop a stolen and fraudulent election, liberate their country and save their president. She snapped pictures and recorded videos. ‘It just looked so neat,’ she said. ‘We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.’ ” Of course.

And describing the mental landscape of the former president who had fed the delusions of such people, NPR’s Ron Elving graphs it out in his NPR review of I Alone Can Fix It. He writes, “Ten weeks after leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump hosted two reporters from The Washington Post at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion, club and base of operation. He told them that before COVID-19 came to the U.S. he had been assured of reelection. ‘If George Washington came back from the dead and he chose Abraham Lincoln as his vice president,’ Trump told them, ‘I think it would have been very hard for them to beat me.’ That straight-faced assertion, as recounted by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, came from a man who had never scored above 46% in the Gallup Poll in his first three years in office. And the two reporters note that simple fact in their new book on Trump’s last year in office….” Does that qualify as delusional?

By the end of the astonishing story of the wind-down of the Trump administration, there are two heroes of the tale — two Marks — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Together they were an informal tag team to head off the possibility of what the general called “a Reichstag moment”. This was a reference to the possibility Donald Trump would use false justifications and incidents to stage a kind of coup d’etat through troop deployments, or even attempt to postpone the election itself. The Reichstag moment refers to the Nazis’ false narrative of 1933, that the German left had set the Parliament’s building on fire, and that story became a key part of the justification for a Nazi takeover of Germany.

One version of this contemporary US tale has the top general and the secretary of defence agreeing that if bizarre orders came out of the White House, they would resign and every general down the ladder would do so as well to thwart any illegal, murderous or catastrophic Trump orders. It didn’t come to that, but, reportedly, on the day of Biden’s inauguration, Milley apparently had the biggest smile at the ceremony since the two Marks never had to carry out their plan. If anything could bear out the idea the Trump administration was living in a delusional world, this kind of tale should help do so. (Milley had, six months earlier, been conned into accompanying Trump in his stroll across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Lafayette Square and St John’s Church, while the general was dressed in his combat fatigues. After that, he seems to have found religion in the wake of the misadventure.)  

Parenthetically, that plan has echoes with the story of the last days of the administration of Richard Nixon in August 1974, as his impeachment and conviction seemed increasingly certain — just before he resigned instead — his secretary of state and national security adviser, Henry Kissinger and chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had instructed Pentagon officials not to execute any orders from the White House (like a nuclear attack perhaps) that seemed unhinged, unless the defence department confirmed the absolute necessity of that order. 

But the next story to break was — and by now we are probably overusing the word, “bizarre” — a surreptitiously obtained copy of a memorandum from the inner sanctum of the Kremlin about how Putin’s regime had put its money on Donald Trump right back at the very beginning of 2016 and that they lined up resources on behalf of this decision. Oh, and that they really had the goods on him, just in case they needed to use them. 

This story appeared in The Guardian on 15 July, noting, “Vladimir Putin personally authorised a secret spy agency operation to support a ‘mentally unstable’ Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election during a closed session of Russia’s national security council, according to what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents.

“The key meeting took place on 22 January 2016, the papers suggest, with the Russian president, his spy chiefs and senior ministers all present.

“They agreed a Trump White House would help secure Moscow’s strategic objectives, among them ‘social turmoil’ in the US and a weakening of the American president’s negotiating position.

“Russia’s three spy agencies were ordered to find practical ways to support Trump, in a decree appearing to bear Putin’s signature.

“By this point Trump was the frontrunner in the Republican party’s nomination race. A report prepared by Putin’s expert department recommended Moscow use ‘all possible force’ to ensure a Trump victory.

“Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them. The papers, seen by The Guardian, seem to represent a serious and highly unusual leak from within the Kremlin.

“The Guardian has shown the documents to independent experts who say they appear to be genuine. Incidental details come across as accurate. The overall tone and thrust is said to be consistent with Kremlin security thinking.” 

The Guardian went on to say, “The report — “No 32-04 \ vd” — is classified as secret. It says Trump is the ‘most promising candidate’ from the Kremlin’s point of view. The word in Russian is perspektivny….

“There is also apparent confirmation that the Kremlin possesses kompromat, or potentially compromising material, on the future president, collected — the document says — from Trump’s earlier ‘non-official visits to Russian Federation territory’.

“The paper refers to ‘certain events’ that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow. Security council members are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states. It is unclear what the appendix contains….”

The paper concludes, “Written in bureaucratic language, the papers appear to offer an unprecedented glimpse into the usually hidden world of Russian government decision-making. Putin has repeatedly denied accusations of interfering in western democracy. The documents seem to contradict this claim. They suggest the president, his spy officers and senior ministers were all intimately involved in one of the most important and audacious espionage operations of the 21st century: a plot to help put the ‘mentally unstable’ Trump in the White House. The papers appear to set out a route map for what actually happened in 2016… Moscow would gain most from a Republican victory, the paper states. This could lead to a ‘social explosion’ that would in turn weaken the US president, it says…” along with various international benefits from a Trump win.

Wrapping up, it said, “…Andrei Soldatov [and other experts], an expert on Russia’s spy agencies and author of The Red Web, said the leaked material ‘reflects reality’. ‘It’s consistent with the procedures of the security services and the security council,’ he said. ‘Decisions are always made like that, with advisers providing information to the president and a chain of command’… Soldatov said, citing his own sources.”

The paper cited other experts who also felt the documents were “spell-binding”. 

While Trump did not initially respond, the paper said, “Liz Harrington, his spokesperson, issued a statement on his behalf. [saying] ‘This is disgusting. It’s fake news, just like RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA was fake news. It’s just the Radical Left crazies doing whatever they can to demean everybody on the right. It’s fiction, and nobody was tougher on Russia than me, including on the pipeline, and sanctions. At the same time we got along with Russia. Russia respected us, China respected us, Iran respected us, North Korea respected us. And the world was a much safer place than it is now with mentally unstable leadership.’ ” Vintage Trump.

Since the former president has roaringly denounced the story even though it seems to fit with much already in the public arena, for many that should guarantee its believability. But surprisingly, The Washington Post had a few niggles about the purloined memorandum. 

Its investigative reporter Philip Bump wrote, “Since the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election first emerged that year, there’s been a lot of blurriness about the two main activities it involved. There was the social media push, centered on elevating and exacerbating existing tensions in American society, particularly on race. Then there was the hacking of the email account of a senior staffer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the computer networks of the Democratic Party. The latter, that hacking, was quickly linked to the Russian government; the former — what many people think of as the critical interference effort, incorrectly — more belatedly was tied to a Kremlin-linked business executive. There’s no serious question it happened, particularly in the wake of subsequent investigations into the interference. There is some question, though, about how it all worked.”

Bump had several specific concerns. “First and foremost, it’s very neat. As described by the Guardian, it reads like one of those viral Twitter threads from a guy with 4.4 million followers whose bio describes him as ‘resister-in-chief.’ It purportedly describes Trump as ‘unstable’ and ‘mentally unstable,’ descriptors that will make any number of Trump haters throw up their hands in exasperated appreciation. The Guardian goes out of its way to explain this as ‘characteristic of Kremlin spy agency analysis,’ but, again: convenient for generating enthusiasm.”

Second, “…is the vague reference to compromising material on Trump collected during ‘non-official visits to Russian Federation territory,’ the long-sought kompromat of legend. But while the document takes great pains to detail Trump’s psychological quirks, it shunts this damning evidence off to an attachment — an attachment that, lamentably, wasn’t included with the leaked document.”

Third, “In retrospect, the prediction that a Trump victory would ‘lead to … destabilisation’ and push ‘hidden discontent’ to the surface seems to be accurate. But that’s with the hindsight of reading it in 2021. In January 2016, before Trump was the Republican nominee, much less the president-elect, that prediction becomes far more impressive. Almost unbelievably so.”

Fourth, there is the question as to why it has only come out now. “…[I]t is odd that this document, so closely related to the national discourse over the past five years, only emerged now. It was purportedly leaked from within the Kremlin, but that happened only now? Or it only trickled down to the media now, when so many other things emerged more quickly? It’s curious.

“The document doesn’t do much to confirm what we know about the interference effort, but it does help bolster the idea that Russia had a deep understanding of U.S. politics, an array of information about its leaders and the ability to insert itself into our system. It gives Russia renewed credit for its efforts at a moment when there’s a new American president who has confronted Putin and Russia. Of course, it also stimulates the divisive debate about the dossier of documents compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, the original source of the idea that Russia held incriminating material targeting Trump.”

And fifth, “A more interesting question about timing goes back to the original distinction between the social media effort and the hacking. The latter began in mid-March 2016, according to the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, though there was evidence of an intrusion the prior year. The social media effort began even earlier, with participants traveling to the United States in 2014 and the effort itself beginning with paid ads on social networks in 2015.” That would seem to contradict the timeline described in the memorandum, casting some doubt on the argument in The Guardian’s article. 

Still, there is little disagreement, save from the former president, that the Russians were eager to meddle in the 2016 election and then did so, and, further, it seems reasonable to be concerned they may well do so again. But the memorandum in question seems eerily prescient, with a virtually omniscient understanding of the US political universe making the Russians appear nine feet tall and really, really clever. Or, someone else is dribbling out material to tantalise us again about Trump’s Moscow umbilical cord. 

Oh, and just for the fun of it, the kompromat everybody wants to read is in an appendix not passed to The Guardian. Ultimately, we are left to puzzle, as the Latin has it: “qui bono?” — who benefits from all this? And what, exactly, do they hope to achieve in releasing this red hot, smoking memo, four years after the 2016 election, but ahead of the next campaign? DM

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