Post card from St. Petersburg
Vladimir Putin has had his sights set on interfering with American democracy since at least his rise to power in late 1999, during which period I opened the National Democratic Institute’s first, and only, short lived office in St. Petersburg. We were there at the invitation of the Yeltsin government to help build capacity of political parties and civic institutions in Russia. Our training seminars focused on local government in St. Petersburg; party building, message delivery, campaign training, fundraising etc. In a developing democracy, such training is standard and welcome. In an authoritarian dictatorship, as Russia became almost overnight in 1999, trained political actors are a direct threat to power.
When Putin took power, NDI’s welcome in St. Pete was revoked rapidly and visibly. Russia’s government immediately stopped being a democracy interested in building such institutions. Thanks to Donald Trump, the gory, salacious details of the attack on NDI in St. Pete are familiar now, and one day may be a movie script I write. But in those 4 months from July to November, 1999, NDI came under sustained, aggressive attack from Russia’s security services (the FSB, formerly KGB), and we were gone by December. The DNC hack, the swarming of the Trump campaign, the legitimization of ethnic nationalist political forces, are all logical extensions of a policy begun since Putin’s rise in 1999.
In a sense, Trump is payback for what NDI (and many other western NGO’s) were doing in Russia and the entire former Warsaw Pact in the 1990’s. Democracy building in former communist states was a hundreds of millions of dollars project by US administrations of both parties, funded by a Congress eager to embed democratic forces at every level of post-soviet societies as a check against the rise of dictators. Putin’s counter attack, of which Trump is the crowning glory, will have been at least as heavily funded, and at least as long planned.
Collapse of The New Deal’s Post World War II Order Gave Putin His Opening
Over the following 18 years, America accelerated its capitalist victory lap over communism, taking precisely the wrong lesson from the Cold War. America won the Cold War with a deliberate mix of socialism and capitalism, not pure capitalism. The West mistakenly assumed we won the Cold War with capitalism alone. Thus, our die was cast. As average Americans continue to believe the late 20th century fiction that capital is always good, and the state always bad, the essential mix of capitalism and socialism is gone now, with the New Deal dismantled by our own hands (especially Bill Clinton’s), the EU nothing more than a green light to capital, and average folks at the mercy of it all.
Let us also not forget; Putin is a trained Marxist. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, all fulfill a very basic Marxist analysis of white middle class decline (those with the most to lose from the collapse of the New Deal). This gutted white middle class is now on the hunt for anyone to blame other than themselves, a gaze which always falls on minorities. With capital now triumphant and unchained, Western public institutions now lay vulnerable to the same forces which gave rise to both 1920’s style oligarchy and the ethnic nationalism of the Great Depression 1930’s. Marxists know capitalism better than capitalists do, it turns out.
Putin will thus have seen Trump coming from a mile away, since at least the 2012 GOP primary, during which it became clear one of America’s political parties was uniquely vulnerable to an ethnic nationalist. If I were an FSB agent in the US in 2012 pitching to Putin a 4-year operation designed to destabilize half of America’s political system, Trump would be a no brainer; just as training the West’s Russia darling Yabloko was to Congress in the 1990’s. Putin will have begun surrounding Trump with unknowing dupes (the comical likes of Carter Page, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort), elevating them via a series of contracts, payments, VIP treatment, knowing the impact would at the very least poison a GOP descending for at least a decade into ethnic nationalism and fealty to capital.
Trump actually winning? Putin cannot believe his luck, although if Putin really does still believe in Marxism, he won’t be that surprised. Public institutions under such sustained attack from the interests of capital, for decades now, are no match for ethnic nationalism. Both capital and racism tear away at the fabric of pluralistic public goods and the pillars that support them, especially voter turnout. Voters predictably disengage from a system which no longer delivers anything except to the interests of capital, leaving democracy an empty field for capital and racism to trample. The risk for Putin was always that Trump would refuse to run.
Compounding Putin’s luck, Trump himself also appears to be an internet addict. Internet addiction is the same as any other clinical addiction; the patient receives a high from the interaction similar to any drug. Each successive high requires more dosage, and the cycle continues. As a 70 year old man suffering internet addiction, Trump is trapped in his own mind. He is impenetrable to the outside world. As a racist’s heir whose fortune was handed to him the day he was born, Trump is particularly vulnerable to internet addiction, or any other addiction. All of which will have been in any FSB personality profile supporting the pitch to Putin years ago.
In all, Trump is Putin’s masterpiece. We in the West are blind to it, because by and large, Western societies still buy the con that we’re all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, if only the state would just get out of our way. Meanwhile, the white middle class boils with rage that the payoff never comes, and never will. We have unlearned the lessons of the New Deal, while Putin has mastered them.