On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a Commie
by David Benjamin
“I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire. He has zero respect for Obama or the U.S.!”
— Donald Trump, 21 March 2014
PARIS — The Republicans have become a party of Commie dupes and Russian apparatchiks.
In response to this charge, you might argue that the Russians, currently holding hands and whispering sweet nothings into Donald Trump’s ear, are no longer the “Communists” of the Soviet era (even though Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin is one of the proudest, truest scions of that regime). However, there are historians who would patiently explain that the Soviet era was never really Communist in Karl Marx’s sense of the concept, but a rough continuation of the tsarist oligarchy that ruled the Russian empire for the previous millenium.
If you see Russia as a state run by an absolutist despot sustained by a handpicked clique of obscenely wealthy aristocrats, while the vast majority of the people struggle for survival and soothe their pain with vodka, you see a continuum that bridges both the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet breakup in 1991. Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin are Romanovs by other names and the upheavals that put them in power were not so much “revolutions” as a couple of major bowel movements (that flushed millions of innocent Russians).
During America’s Cold War with the USSR, the crusade against Commie infiltration by the Russians was a fullblown hysteria, led by the Republican Party. I grew up under the dark cloud of paranoia disseminated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the John Birch Society and the slander campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy. I watched Ronald Reagan rage against pinko liberals on General Electric Theater on Sunday night on CBS.
American kids all lived with certainty of death before adulthood in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet monster. While the White House and Pentagon were girding our national loins for atomic Armageddon and waging a bloody cycle of anti-Communist proxy wars in Asia, U.S. and Soviet intelligence were battling each other covertly with spies, propaganda, infiltration and misinformation.
If you’re not a Republican, you can see the irony here.
According to the U.S. spy services — CIA, FBI, DIS, NSA — who used to be the apple of every conservative’s eye, the Russians are interfering in American government more directly and far more effectively than they ever accomplished in the Soviet past. Nevertheless, all this espionage — engineered by a self-made tsar who cut his teeth as a fingernail-yanker in the Soviet KGB — has been pooh-poohed by pinko conservatives as a Democratic Party fantasy.
In a presentation last week on the Queen Mary 2, Scott Shane, chief national security reporter for the New York Times, called Russia’s cyber-campaign against America’s fundamental institutions “incredibly brazen, incredibly successful.”
“This,” he said, “is an attack that involved no Russian tanks, no Russian missiles, no Russian bullets.” Operating on the principle that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” Russians cybernauts wormed invisibly into U.S. organizations, federal agencies and political campaigns. This offensive was far more damaging than all that old-school military hardware. “They can pose as Americans. They can pose as news websites,” said Shane. “It’s infinitely more effective” than traditional propaganda.
Vladimir Putin launched this cyberwar capability years ago. He first used it to discredit political foes in Russia, then turned it against Eastern European democracies. Putin had foreseen the power of cyberspace information control even as his dread spy factory, the KGB, was being sidelined by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the chaotic ‘90s. Said Shane, “I never believed in 1991 that Putin would be able to regain information control the way he has.”
Putin has assembled a misinformation and propaganda — in Russian, kompromat — regime cheaper than Russia’s military budget, which is only about $65 billion a year (the Pentagon spends ten times as much). But it has defeated the United States more decisively than any Cold War conflict. Without money, without armies, “the Russians can do quite well in this cyber realm,” said Shane.
He cited the email leaks that targeted the Democratic National Committee and ended, suddenly, the chairmanship of Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. “When you look at this from the Russian point of view, this was a stupendous success,” said Shane. “The Trump campaign was overjoyed as well.”
Why target Hillary Clinton so aggressively? Shane said Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State were privately offensive to Putin, who — like Trump — is a pathologically personal person, especially when he perceives a slight from a woman.
“Putin blamed Hillary Clinton personally,” said Shane, “for trying to undermine him, as the embodiment of an arrogant America.”
Herein lies the answer to why the Republicans worms have turned so squishily against their Commie-hating heritage. Their quarter-century jihad against Hillary Clinton, the uppity bitch from Little Rock, predates their knowing Vlad Putin from a hole in the wall. Putin is the enemy of their worst enemy since Ethel Rosenberg. Even now, with Hillary beaten and tearfully wandering the woods in Chappaqua, Trump and his GOP minions in Congress launch weekly attacks on Hillary, conjuring imaginary crimes for imaginary prosecutors to prosecute in the Emerald City of imaginary Oz.
In abandoning their vendetta versus Russia, the Republicans have dismissed Putin’s cyberwar as a petty political ploy, propagated by Democrats and by “fake news” outlets like Shane’s New York Times. Having blamed Dems and the press for exaggerating Putin’s impact on the U.S. election, Republicans dare not touch this issue. They’ve so thoroughly demonized Democrats and the media— since the McCarthy era— as dupes and “fellow travelers” with the Soviet subversion machine, that they cannot now make common cause with these fellow Americans against Putin’s much more effective campaign of subversion.
Besides, as Donald Trump has delusionally tweeted, “Putin likes me.”
Not surprisingly Shane’s take on Putin is more nuanced. Vladimir Putin targeted the Democratic campaign partly out of hatred for Hillary. But, even better, he saw Trump as a potential U.S. president uniquely susceptible to greed, flattery, lust and — as a last resort — blackmail (a beloved KGB device). Putin recognized Trump, said Shane, as a U.S. version of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyantly corrupt ex-prime minister of Italy, whom Putin also curried, cultivated, co-opted and fleeced. “He saw Donald Trump, similarly, as a blustery Western businessman who’s not all that hung up about human rights and that sort of thing.”
Putin’s winning streak, which included Trump’s sniveling performance at the G20 conference, is hardly over, said Shane.
Shane cited ongoing investigations by the Times based on a Trump dossier assembled by former British secret agent Christopher Steele. The contents remain largely uncorroborated (although some details have been proven true). Neither the Times nor any other responsible news organization has risked any assertion on the veracity of Steele’s largely unsourced claims.
Shane admitted his own frustration at trying to track down these stories to either verify or kill them. But while working the puzzle, Shane has clarified that the Russians “had their eye on Trump to get leverage over him.” The details of the Steele dossier are evidence of that objective — even if they’re not true.
Among Steele’s notes, said Shane, is an alleged meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, a Trump confidant, and a Putin surrogate named Alexander Solodukhin. Whether the meeting happened, said Shane, is thus far “completely unprovable,” even though to a veteran national security reporter, it “looks like Cold War ‘Spy vs. Spy’ stuff on steroids.”
But the genius of Putin’s kompromat game, said Shane, is that no charge or rumor requires proof as long as America’s media pounce and spread it virally around the globe while the truth is pulling on its socks. Referring to the possible Cohen-Solodukhin meeting in Prague, Shane said, “Let’s consider that this meeting was fabricated. If it was fabricated… it was fabricated by Russian intelligence.”
Fake or not, the mere report that the meeting might have occurred implicates the Trump presidential campaign with the highest levels of Russian power. The inescapable conclusion, noted Shane, with a measure of embarrassment over the rank gullibility of the 21st-century U.S. media, is that, “the Russian government, having run an incredibly successful misinformation campaign against Hillary Clinton, has also planted some time bombs against Donald Trump.”
Even without proof that Cohen contacted Solodukhin, other Russian meetings — some unproven, some revealed by various idiots in the Trump camp, like Donald Trump, Jr. — have dominated the news for months.
The result is “a brilliant information operation against Donald Trump that has cast a shadow over the first months of the Trump administration.” Said Shane, “It has set US intelligence agencies onto a trail that leads nowhere… [It has] discredited American democracy and made Western democracy less credible to Eastern Europe as a threat to [Putin’]s regime and the style it represents.”
Shane readily faults the American press. Its susceptibility to celebrity and bullshit greased the skids for Trump’s ascent. Now it’s enabling a murderous Russian autocrat to subjugate this American presidency to his largely unknown but dangerous purposes. “We are very easily manipulated,” he said. “If somebody leaks something, do we just go and run with it?”
“It worries me,” Shane added, “that by sort of jumping on anything that we think is authentic but was leaked by an intelligence agency, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of hackers or [foreign] intelligence agencies” whose sole mission is spreading sophisticated lies.
Putin, without leaving even a fingerprint behind, is turning all news into fake news and “Believe me!” into America’s national punchline.