A lot of people are waiting for something dramatic to happen, some line to be crossed, an epic event like the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller III that will allow them to say that now we have had a coup and now we are ready to do something about it.
We already had the coup.
It happened on November 8, 2016, when an unqualified candidate won a minority victory in a corrupted election thanks in part to foreign intervention. Any time is the right time to pour into the streets and demand that it all grinds to a halt and the country change direction. The evidence that the candidate and his goons were aided by and enthusiastically collaborating with a foreign power was pretty clear before that election, and at this point, they are so entangled there isn’t really a reason to regard the born-again alt-right Republican Party and the Putin Regime as separate entities.
Take the recent revelations about the president’s personal errand boy, Michael Cohen. He ran a shell company from which money was used to pay Stormy Daniels to remain silent in what was quite likely an illegal campaign contribution. Money came in, along with major corporations, from a Russian oligarch close to Putin, Viktor Vekselberg, or rather from a corporation called Columbus Nova, run by a cousin of his apparently appointed to mask Vekselberg’s own role. The New Yorker reports, “It is a company technically owned by others but which looks after money owned and controlled in large part—if not entirely—by Vekselberg and his family.” Or as Frank Rich put it at New York Magazine, it’s “an example of collusion so flagrant that it made Trump and Rudy Giuliani suddenly go mute: a Putin crony’s cash turns out to be an essential component of the racketeering scheme used to silence Stormy Daniels and thus clear Trump’s path to the White House in the final stretch of the 2016 election.”
The Washington Post reports that Columbus Nova “is listed as the organization behind a string of websites targeted toward white nationalists and other members of the alt-right.” That is, this Russian oligarch’s company was illegally attempting to influence the election, and they were giving money to the bagboy of the election’s winner. Pro Publica reports that another personal lawyer of the president’s, Marc Kasowitz, also worked on behalf of Columbus Nova. There are a thousand other details like that of financial dealings—real estate sales, investments, odd transfers of wealth, social connections, meetings—that tie the Trump mob to the Russian mob—because most of the oligarchs are, in that autocratic regime, in one way or another mobsters, because Putin himself runs that vast country as though he was a mob boss intent on exerting control through fear, and profit through extortion.
The Trump family aspires to mafia status, a thuggocracy, but they are manipulable and bumbling where Putin and company are disciplined and Machiavellian. They hire fools and egomaniacs and compromised figures—Scaramucci, Giuliani, Bannon, Flynn, Nunberg, the wifebeating Rob Porter—and then fire them, with a soap opera’s worth of drama; the competent ones quit, as have many lawyers hired to help Trump navigate his scandals. The Trumps don’t hide things well or keep their mouths shut or manage the plunder they grab successfully, and they keep committing crimes in public. Remember when Trump revealed highly classified data to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister when they visited him in the Oval Office, not long after he fired FBI director James Comey (but before he admitted it was to obstruct Comey’s investigation of his ties to Russia?). There’s a picture of that visit in which the Russians are laughing at him and he looks befuddled. Remember when Donald Jr. met with the Russian agent in Trump Tower in June of 2016 to get purloined data on Clinton and tried to cover it up by saying it was about adoptions? Remember when the Trump team was forced out of the Panama hotel that Trump still profited from, and how his lawyers appealed directly to the president of Panama? How he profits from that business and others despite the emoluments clause of the Constitution? Or the various lawsuits for violating that clause, including one pending from the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia? Or the women suing Trump for defamation? Perhaps not, as so many scandals have piled up on those ones.
From the aforementioned slush fund we just learned about, Cohen made a second payoff to a woman who had sex with and was supposedly impregnated by another wealthy Republican, though there’s suspicion that the $1.6 million payment wasn’t really on behalf of Elliott Broidy, but of Trump himself. Shutting up women is a big part of what these people do, though maybe the existence of those affairs shuts Trump up too. Jonathan Chait writes of last week’s Cohen revelations: “For all the speculation about the existence of the pee tape, the latest revelations prove what is tantamount to the same thing. Russia could leverage the president and his fixer—who, recall, hand-delivered a pro-Russian ‘peace plan’ with Ukraine to Trump’s national-security adviser in January 2017—by threatening to expose secrets they were desperate to keep hidden. Whether those secrets were limited to legally questionable payments, or included knowledge of sexual affairs, is a question of degree but not of kind.”
It’s understandable if you find connecting the dots hard when there are so many dots they blur into a blob. So never mind the webs of connection; let’s talk about natural history. It is not actually true that frogs will remain in warming water until they boil to death, but there are some other natural-history metaphors that help us understand the administration, if not ourselves. I’m thinking of parasitic wasps, a large array of species whose lifecycle much resembles that of the aliens in the old Alien movie series. Some of them lay their eggs inside other animals, notably caterpillars, and the larvae devour the host from the inside.
Five days after the 2017 Trump inauguration, National Geographic reported on a newly discovered species: “Scientists have discovered a new parasitic wasp species with a life cycle so diabolical, they named it after Set, the Egyptian god of evil and chaos. Native to the southeastern United States, this species lays its egg inside the tiny, wooden chambers that another parasitic wasp species, the gall wasp (Bassettia pallida), carves out in sand live oak trees. Once the egg hatches, the crypt-keeper larva burrows into the other wasp and takes over its mind, forcing it to start tunneling through the tree’s bark to freedom—a feat the crypt-keeper struggles to perform on its own. Even more insidious, the larva then forces its victim to drill a hole too small for its own escape. Once the larger wasp is wedged in the opening it’s created, the crypt-keeper consumes its host from the inside out, finally erupting from B. pallida’s forehead out into the world.”
Right now, Devin Nunes is trying to drill a hole out of the Justice Department and push classified information through it, into the open. The Washington Post reported last week, “A subpoena that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) issued to the Justice Department last week made a broad request for all documents about an individual who people close to the matter say is a sensitive, longtime intelligence source for the CIA and FBI. The Justice Department has refused to provide the documents. Intelligence officials say the material could jeopardize the source.” There seems to be widespread expectation that Nunes is fully capable of setting someone up to be assassinated, since his clear agenda since Trump arrived has been to block, disrupt, discredit, or sabotage the investigation of ties between Russia and the president and his pack of thugs. It’s been more than a year since, in a midnight drama, Nunes rushed information to the White House that he got as a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal. An elected official is trying to prevent his country’s agencies and its citizens from finding out if and how the president and his goons are tangled up with a foreign regime and how that prevented us from having free and fair elections and may again. As fired FBI director Comey noted in his first briefing of the president, there is no concern with protecting the nation and its information systems. The president himself has done many extraordinary things to try to interfere with the investigation, and last year White House counsel Don McGahn reportedly only prevented him from firing Mueller by threatening to resign if he did.
The president himself has consistently revealed his lack of comprehension of the separation of the three branches of government, or his lack of enthusiasm for it, and has aspired to an authoritarianism like that of the dictatorial men he admires from the Philippines to Egypt to China. Earlier this month, Trump tweeted, “A Rigged System – They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal ‘justice?’ At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!” He’s also gone after a free press. Another tweet this month: “91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?” It’s an argument that what he likes is real and what he doesn’t like is fake and that he should be able to control the media so that only the former is forthcoming. It’s an argument against facts and the people who document them and the right of the rest of us to see that documentation. Ultimately, it’s an argument against any reality he does not control, because he aspires to dictate reality itself, which is what autocrats do.
“Sabotage of national institutions, laws, standards, and the greater good has been accepted as part of the new normal, which is staggeringly far from normal.”
Some of the press is already on board, of course, though we are at a point where we should probably stop calling propaganda outlets news sources. The rightwing Daily Caller, a widely read online publication co-founded by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, has cut out the middle men and the apologists and gone straight to Oleg Deripaska, aka Putin’s favorite oligarch, the one who kept Paul Manafort on a short leash, letting him publish an editorial headlined “The Ever-Changing ‘Russia Narrative’ Is False Public Manipulation.” Traditionally you don’t let the accused party dictate the narrative, especially when the accused is suspected of being part of a foreign conspiracy to subvert the government of the United States. But it’s is no more unusual than Fox’s and the National Enquirer’s deep allegiance to Trump over truth. For Fox that means constantly running disinformation or just avoiding major news that casts the president in a negative light (and for Fox’s Sean Hannity, that means, according to a stunning new piece in New York magazine, a bedtime call with the president every night—“Generally, the feeling is that Sean is the leader of the outside kitchen cabinet,” says one source in the piece, which also reminds us Fox is almost Trump’s sole source of news). For the Enquirer, it means catch-and-kill payoffs to women who might damage his reputation (a catch-and-kill is when you pay for exclusive rights to a story and then don’t publish it).
The Enquirer performed a catch-and-kill operation to silence former playmate Karen McDougal, who had a relationship with Trump around the same time Daniels had her lone sexual encounter with him.
There are so many threads in this tangle involving women and how to shut them up. Deripaska—whose money apparently went to Cohen’s slush fund—took Sergei Prikhodko, Russia’s deputy prime minister, on an August 2016 cruise on his yacht with a very young paid female companion on board who goes by the name Nastya Rybka. Rybka shared a video she recorded of the two of them discussing the US election and says she has 16 hours more of recordings containing valuable information for the Mueller investigation. The Putin regime found the video—and an opposition candidate’s interpretation of it—so significant that the government attempted to shut down YouTube in Russia. Rybka is currently imprisoned in Thailand on prostitution charges. The New York Times reports that earlier this year she said, “If America gives me protection, I will tell everything I know. I am afraid to go back to Russia. Some strange things can happen.” The US seems disinclined to take her or take a look at her evidence.
More recently the National Enquirer ran a hit piece on Michael Cohen, which makes it seem possible that Cohen is going to rat on Trump and the forces lined up with Trump are going to try to discredit him. CNN reports that it “could be a strong sign President Donald Trump is upset with his personal lawyer and turning against the man,” as though it’s normal for the president to use the tabloids to discredit longtime allies. Acts that would have been shocking if committed by previous administrations are overshadowed and crowded by equally transgressive acts that pile up into something that would like us to forget that this is not normal. Even when Trump is gone, the corruption of a significant percent of the American population, those with whom we don’t merely disagree on principles and goals, but on reality itself, will be a lingering problem. They are weaponized minds, and their hate, as hate always is, is easily directed. The Republican Party itself now stands for little other than its own grasp on power, and for the domination of this country’s white male Christian-identified minority over the majority of us.
This party over country loyalty manifests in many ways. Republican Senator John McCain has been concerned since before the election about Russian intervention, and recently revealed in his memoir what was pretty well known before: that he was given the Steele Dossier and passed it on to James Comey. He’s been an outspoken opponent of Trump on various issues (and is apparently not inviting Trump to his funeral, which may be quite soon). So Republicans are now lined up to spit on their former presidential candidate or even, prematurely, on his grave: one of Fox’s regulars, conspiracy theorist Lt. General Thomas McInerney, while defending CIA chief nominee Gina Haspel and the utility of torture generally, said that torture “worked on John. That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John.’” A right-winger on Twitter posted an image of a tombstone for McCain with “songbird” on it. Then White House aide Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain’s opposition to torture with “he’s dying anyway.” No one in the White House saw fit to apologize, though there was a meeting about leaks to the press about which five White House staffers leaked to the press.
The current situation of the United States is obscene, insane, and incredible. If someone had pitched it for a thriller novel or film a few years ago, they would’ve been laughed out of whatever office their proposal made it to because fiction ought to be plausible. It isn’t plausible that a solipsistic buffoon and his retinue of petty crooks made it to the White House, but they did and there they are, wreaking more havoc than anyone would have imagined possible, from environmental laws to Iran nuclear deals. It is not plausible that the party in control of the federal government is for the most part a kleptomaniac criminal syndicate.
It’s an incompetent criminal syndicate full of leaks and stumbles, easily played by the professionals across the sea. For example, Russian trolls used social media and a petition to try to prevent Trump from making Mitt Romney secretary of state. The allegations British spy Christopher Steele turned over included, as Jane Mayer put it in the New Yorker, this: “The Kremlin, through unspecified channels, had asked Trump to appoint someone who would be prepared to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, and who would coöperate on security issues of interest to Russia, such as the conflict in Syria. If what the source heard was true, then a foreign power was exercising pivotal influence over US foreign policy—and an incoming President.”
There are so many pieces to this picture, and so many of them point to Russia. The criminal Oliver North, the illegal arms dealer convicted of three felonies related to his cover-up of the Iran-Contra deal, is now the head of the NRA. Bloomberg News reported last month, “The NRA’s relationship with Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician and deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who has been linked both to Vladimir Putin and to Russian organized crime, is too troubling to ignore.” The organization seems to have received money from Russia, including this sanctioned oligarch, and it certainly gave a lot of money to Trump. There are weeks where every day a scandal erupts that would have been the defining crisis of previous administrations, and they pile on top of each other, obscuring the ones beneath. Amy Siskind, in her book The List, has tried to compile all the not-normal creeping-authoritarianism of the Trump era, but her project is itself almost too vast to comprehend.
In the case of the parasitic wasp species known as Glyptapanteles, the larvae eat through the caterpillar’s skin and build a cocoon. “At this point, something remarkable and slightly eerie happens, New Scientist explains. “The caterpillar, still alive, behaves as though controlled by the cocooned larvae.” The hijacked caterpillar serves its parasites, not itself, and it dies just as they emerge. Something is going to burst forth from the shell of what they once were. Or perhaps it has. Perhaps they’re it. Or perhaps you can picture the Russians inside the Trump team inside the Republican Party inside the American right wing as a set of Russian dolls. It’s certainly true that Russia’s waging a one-sided cyberwar against this country—through hacking of emails and election rolls, through professional trolls and online propaganda and surveillance. The response? The Trump Administration, according to Politico and other sources, is considering eliminating the administration’s top cybersecurity job.
The United States government has been a force for both good and evil, and in suggesting we defend its institutions I’m not defending all its players, actions, and history. I’m defending our ability to hold it accountable, because the current administration is endeavoring to make itself increasingly unaccountable to us and appears to be all too answerable to a hostile foreign regime. It’s not clear if Russia had any direct effect on, say, exiting the Iran nuclear pact, but Russia is a beneficiary (along with Saudi Arabia, another regime the Trump family is tangled up with). As former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on May 10, “Days after Trump leaves Iran nuclear deal, oil prices are rising and ruble is strengthening.”
Over and over we’ve seen Trump contort his administration to serve Russia, whether he’s trying to hold back sanctions or to undermine the Paris climate treaty. The question isn’t whether we’re in a zombie horror movie starring an insane clown puppet with some very long and yankable strings, but what we’re going to do about it. Because what all those little pieces add up to, what the tangle sorts out as if you pay attention is: this is life after the coup.
After the coup, everything seems crazy, the news is overwhelming, and some try to cope by withdrawing or pretending that things are normal. Others are overwhelmed and distraught. I’m afflicted by a kind of hypervigilance of the news, a daily obsession to watch what’s going on that is partly a quest for sense in what seems so senseless. At least I’ve been able to find the patterns and understand who the key players are, but to see the logic behind the chaos brings you face to face with how deep the trouble is.
We still have an enormous capacity to resist the administration, not least by mass civil disobedience and other forms of noncooperation. Sweeping the November elections wouldn’t hurt either, if that results in candidates we hold accountable afterward. Or both. I don’t know if there’s a point at which it will be too late, though every week more regulations, administrators, and norms crash and burn—but we are long past the point at which it is too soon.