As the American president comes more and more to resemble Vladimir Putin’s personal valet, the commentariat has reached for rhetorical escalations and historical analogies ripped straight from the tabloids. The collusive contacts between Putin’s intelligence apparatus and the 2016 Trump campaign—together with the quid pro quo arrangements stemming from that same dark alliance—amount to nothing less than treason, we’re told in ever-higher registers of alarm. And Putin’s cunning assault on the cyberbulwarks of our democracy is a latter-day Pearl Harbor. You know that the overall tenor of public discussion is a tad overstrained when Neville Chamberlain analogies come off as measured and subdued.
Without hazarding any premature judgments on special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia—which did clearly take place, even if it did not precipitate a World War—perhaps some more straightforwardly chronological historical inquiry is in order. Fortunately, something of a skeleton key to the whole corrupt and lobbying-infested labyrinth of the 2016 Trump campaign was delivered to weary students of covert politics-rigging on the right via the Mueller team’s recent indictment of Russian NRA agent Maria Butina. The Butina trail leads us to Republican political operative Paul Erickson—known as “U.S. Person 1” in the Mueller filing—who came to political prominence as treasurer of the national College Republicans, under the esteemed leadership of Jack Abramoff, the convicted lobbying fraudster who pioneered the conduct of reactionary foreign relations as graft by other means. Erickson was so tightly ensconced in Abramoff’s orbit that the two launched a mid-nineties D.C. lobbying campaign to salvage the reputation of vicious Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. And since mere politics was never enough to contain Abramoff’s world-conquering ambition, Erickson also served as executive producer for the Abramoff-produced film Red Scorpion (1988) a thinly fictionalized hagiography of Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan rebel leader backed by South Africa’s apartheid regime. Abramoff and his brother Robert also apparently brokered Erickson’s consultancy with John Wayne Bobbitt, the severed-penis late-night punchline who went on to pursue a career in the adult film industry.
The Butina-Erickson partnership may provide something of a skeleton key to the whole corrupt and lobbying-infested labyrinth of the 2016 Trump campaign.
Given Donald Trump’s own well-documented dalliances with adult-industry figures, the Bobbitt-Erickson connection has soaked up a good deal of salacious attention. But Abramoff’s sordid South African career is what should prompt national political reporters to, uh, prick up their ears. For the little we know of Erickson’s alleged role as Butina’s stateside handler—his creation of a dummy LLC to fund her D.C. activities, his deft cultivation of the National Rifle Association as a cut-out channel for communications between Russia and the Trump campaign, his evident assistance in Butina’s efforts to court American evangelical support—all comes straight out of the Abramoff South Africa playbook. For all the overheated talk of a sinister Russian takeover of a benign American electoral process, the details of this particular Russian infiltration of the leadership caste of the American right showcase an age-old stratagem favored among our homegrown conservative elite: ascribe an agreeably broad freedom-crusading identity to a deeply corrupt and undemocratic client regime; repatriate dubious cash flows through a tangled network of global organizations; smooth over, or conceal, any damaging conflicts or public disclosures by demonizing the opposition or the press as faithless abettors of liberalism, unfreedom, and other unforgivable ideological sins. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Indeed, Abramoff’s ardent support for South Africa’s right-wing white minority—his first major gig after the College Republicans—contains a good deal of the latter-day conservative movement in miniature, as Baffler founder Thomas Frank outlined in bracing detail in his 2008 book The Wrecking Crew. The sluicing gate for Abramoff’s South African offensive was a nonprofit think tank he dubbed the International Freedom Foundation. After a comically misguided bid to persuade high-level contacts in the South African government to fork over $400,000 to fund a campaign jet for the right-wing movement’s great white presidential hope Jack Kemp, the IFF set about fulfilling its main directive—launching a multifront misinformation campaign against any and all American critics of apartheid. As Frank reported:
The IFF approached its mission in a roundabout manner. Its backers well understood that apartheid could not be sold in the West for the simple reason that racism as a philosophy of government was flatly irredeemable here. Instead the organization was to tarnish apartheid’s enemies, “to paint the ANC as a project of the international department of the Soviet Communist Party.” This it did, energetically red-baiting the ANC. In this respect, the IFF was merely a large-scale replay of the political entrepreneurship [of the USA Foundation, another fledgling Abramoff influence-and-ideology clearing house], with Jack and the gang yet again hiring themselves out to a wealthy client to perform a hit on a troublesome left-wing group. High points in this campaign included hearings by the House Republican Study Committee in 1987 to blame “the plight of the children of South Africa” on the commie-terrorist ANC; reports playing up the ANC’s commie-derived taste for atrocities against kids; newspaper ads designed to throw cold water on Nelson Mandela during his triumphant visit to America in 1990; and an endless war on Ted Kennedy, a leading proponent of the 1986 sanctions [against apartheid South Africa].
The glaring irony in all this—apart, that is, from the brazen effort to defend an authoritarian racist regime in the name of “freedom”—was that nearly all the covert, nefarious designs that IFF routinely attributed to the ANC and its supporters were in fact the group’s own stock in trade. As Frank observes, “the IFF had good reason to believe in a world in which grand conspiracies gulled the masses and public opinion was manipulated by the hidden hand of a foreign power. After all, that’s what they themselves were doing. As it turns out, the IFF itself was steered and subsidized not just by the government of another country, South Africa, but by its military intelligence.” The apartheid regime’s chief “superspy,” a covert infiltrator of leftist opposition groups named Craig Williamson, had effectively conjured up the idea for the group as an extension of his day-job obligations. (Abramoff, for his part, denied any knowledge of the group’s infiltration by South African military spies when the connection was exposed in 1995, but his denial was typically delivered with too much firebreathing IFF brio to be all that credible: “It’s pay-back time in South Africa,” he declared sententiously—as if the toppling of a decades-old regime of white supremacy was really a blow aimed at the heroic Reaganite freedom fighters of the West.)
Abramoff’s International Freedom Foundation was a brazen effort to defend an authoritarian racist regime in the name of “freedom.”
Fast forward twenty-odd years, and you can virtually sub in Putin’s Russia for P.W. Botha’s South Africa in the annals of American right-wing global intrigue. Like South Africa in the late twentieth century, Putin’s regime is in economic decline, and holds power thanks to a toxic compound of belligerent ethnic nationalism and domestic repression. Like Botha, Putin also draws power and revenue from an inner circle of powerful oligarchs, like Konstantin Nikolaev, whom initial reports indicate is the benefactor mentioned in Butina’s indictment. And the Butina scandal already has its own Craig Williamson—Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator with close ties to the leaders of Russia’s security service, the FSB, who was Butina’s boss during her U.S. sojourn. Torshin has been cultivating contacts with the NRA and the American religious right for the better part of a decade, going out of his way to befriend David Keene, the former president of the gun-rights lobby. The plan wasn’t to forge a global platform for untrammeled rights of gun ownership—the putative mission of Right to Bear Arms, the pro-gun group Butina founded in Russia. No, the idea, according to former CIA Russia chief Steven Hall was simply to “attract the NRA, specifically, over to Russia.” In other words, the NRA would be to Putin what IFF was to Botha: a pasteboard advocacy cut-out group, to channel through cash and influence-peddling, and to be discreetly discarded if and when the association became awkward and/or embarrassing. Here’s how Robert Maguire, an investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics, laid out the connection, as reported by Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson:
“The NRA is routinely used as a conduit” for “sketchy” money spent on Republican politics, says Maguire. . . . “We’ve seen some of the groups in the Koch network give large, six- and seven-figure grants to the NRA—knowing that the NRA is going to spend that money on ads in an election,” Maguire says. “They get away with it.”
The Russians, Maguire says, could easily have funneled money into the NRA’s coffers, using a similar pathway: “It is not surprising that the NRA would be used in that way.” It might even have been legal, he says. The NRA is allowed to accept foreign cash; it’s only forbidden from spending that money directly on U.S. elections. But in an organization as vast and varied as the NRA, cash is fungible. A legal, ostensibly apolitical donation to the NRA by Russia could have freed up other, unrestricted funds to spend on politics. It’s also possible the gun lobby was duped. “The NRA may have been used without even knowing it,” Maguire says. “Russians could easily set up a Delaware corporation, with a name like ‘Americans for Gun Freedom LLC,’ and give the NRA a $5 million check. The NRA would just say, ‘Hey great, it sounds like our kind of people,’” and spend the cash.
This, too, is one of the great legacies of Abramoff’s career: cloak a moneyed agenda in the protective coloring of issue-advocacy work. It’s how Abramoff continued to shelter cash once he leveraged his politics resume into a lucrative lobbying franchise overstuffed with ill-gotten gains—incorporating phony think tanks such as the infamous American International Center, captained by a Delaware lifeguard and a part-time yoga instructor, in order to advocate for the sweatshop manufacturers of Malaysia without the bothersome strictures of the Foreign Agents registration law. That the NRA is not, in fact, a dummy corporation, but a high-powered multimillion lobbying group, only serves to give the Torshin-Butina putsch a pleasingly respectable veneer.
The other great irony here, of course, is that a protégé of anticommunist he-man Jack Abramoff like Erickson would wind up quite literally in bed with a Russian foreign agent. But such is the cunning of history—Russia under Putin is a gleeful abettor of authoritarian right regimes, particularly those that are pleased to imagine themselves bearing a higher spiritual pedigree. So while the more breathless accounts of Russian intrigues within the American political system may sound superficially like rehashed Cold War pulp fiction, the reality is a more mundane adaptation to a radically shifting set of global circumstances. And here, too, Comrade Abramoff’s track record is instructive: after the Soviet regime fell and apartheid South Africa followed quickly on its heels, you’d think that the IFF would have quietly disbanded, perhaps chastened by its colossal expenditure of cash and energy on behalf of the wrong side of history. But you would, of course, be wrong: the IFF nimbly pivoted to the position that the late apartheid regime was in fact a handmaiden of demon socialism, and that all measures must be taken, in the critical period of transition to black majority rule, to ensure that the new leaders of South Africa be duly instructed in their sacred duty to protect, preserve, and expand free-market capitalism in all its wondrous purity. As Frank writes,
By 1991, with apartheid tottering over the grave, the IFF was ready to denounce it as another system of government interference in the economy . . . just like socialism! After all, both apartheid and social democracy involved a “top-down system of control over the economy,” one of the foundation’s magazines proclaimed, and therefore the two were essentially identical, with the only real alternative being a plunge into the healing waters of unregulated capitalism. All the old oppositions were instantly transformed into kinships by this logic: instead of being the most zealously anticommunist government on earth, the South African regime was now rather pink itself—“apartheid is South Africa’s war against capitalism” was how one IFF staffer put it. The social-democratic plans of the ANC, on the other hand, could now be seen to bear “a remarkable resemblance . . . with the abominable economic means of the system of apartheid.” . . .The most fantastic formulation of the IFF’s point came in a 1991 article about “energy markets”: “The former Soviet Union has abandoned Stalinism. Perhaps so should South Africa with respect to energy generation.”
In other words, the mighty God of the libertarian market reverses all uncomfortable polarities, pardons all trespasses, and genially reverses the inner logic of history—so long as you, devoted believers, obey and carry out its will. This dismal, stalwartly evidence-averse dogma is what truly enabled the catastrophe of the 2016 presidential election—and to chart its deranged legacy, you don’t have to recur back to Benedict Arnold, or Emperor Hirohito. You just need to know a little something about the well-funded, inexhaustibly cynical hucksterism of the American right.