Art for Treacherous Waters.
False flag of false patriot / Gage Skidmore

Treacherous Waters

Does Trump want help from Russian spies?

False flag of false patriot / Gage Skidmore


All right, then—America’s own major-party-anointed oligarch has officially urged Russian cyberspies to hack State Department communications.

And his underlying political rationale is enough to give M.C. Escher a throbbing migraine: Hillary Clinton is guilty of grave, if unspecified, trespasses against American national security for conveying classified information on an unsecured private email server. So to nail down the case against her alleged crimes, the Republican party’s presidential nominee wants to . . . unleash the info-warriors of a rival power on classified email communications. It’s a bit like pledging to combat the spread of the West Nile virus by importing a robust new strain of Zika-infected mosquitoes.

At a manifestly deranged political moment like this one, it behooves us to pan back and ask a pair of interlocking questions: “What the fuck?” and “How the fuck did we get here?” A definitive reply to the former is probably best left to psychological professionals. But we can discern a key clue to the latter in the predicate vow Trump lofted eastward as he tried to seal this particular display of deal-artistry: “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

It is by now a weary truism that the whole Trump insurgency was bred by the bottomless media-fed demand for titillation and shock-jock diversion. But the logic of Trump’s winking overture to Russian data breachers goes beyond anything we encounter in standard laments about the cable news cycle and the pseudo-outrage industry known as reality television. No, Trump, who has long crafted campaign messages and policy pronouncements for maximum press exposure, is actually promoting foreign espionage on the grounds that it will yield rewarding press coverage. And hey, why not? The sensationalized mastery of the political press corps has gotten Trump this far. Maybe the next stage of media evolution will be a Bravo franchise called The Real Hackers of Moscow. Where, oh where, is Guy Debord when you need him?

Trump is actually promoting foreign espionage on the grounds it will yield rewarding press coverage.

Senior GOP quislings—er, sorry, thought leaders—such as Newt Gingrich stoked the lost-in-the-late-capitalist-sensorium vibe by insisting that their party’s standard bearer was joking, even though the pronouncement had precisely none of the spontaneity or humorous content that marks jokes as such. For a rough but revealing contrast, consider Ronald Reagan’s off-the-cuff announcement that “we begin bombing in five minutes.” Reagan delivered that 1984 aside into a microphone he didn’t realize was live, and the comic effect (such as it was) stemmed from his own awareness that he was widely viewed as a rhetorical enthusiast of all-out nuclear confrontation. The setting and delivery of Trump’s comments show that the utterance conveyed zero such self-awareness—and far from inadvertently finding its audience via a mike that the speaker thought was dead, the appeal to Russian hackers came at a press conference organized and choreographed by the Trump campaign for maximum news-cycle attention.

For good measure—and to heighten the general ideological-derangement factor—Gingrich of course insisted that the media was yet again downplaying the national-security peril posed by the Team Democrat nominee (forgetting to note that news of Clinton’s private email server was actually broken by the lickspittle liberal elitists at the New York Times). Fox News anchor Brett Baier joined in the chorus, and soon enough, the gist of Trump’s promise was borne out: he was off and dominating another news cycle, on the very eve of Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

So just to review: promise foreign hackers a free media ride for breaching U.S. national security; elicit sympathetic responses from ideological hacks and glorified cable carney barkers; and ensure all along that the credulous press that’s enabled your political rise is now roundly derided as craven political partisans who only care about Russian-led security threats when their pet candidate is targeted by them. It’s a perfect closed system of self-ratifying strongman grievance: What enterprising Russian info-warrior wouldn’t envy it, and want a piece of it?

What’s more, if strong-stomached investigators probe a bit further to the bankrupt rule-of-law rhetoric that fuels these camera-friendly Trump outbursts, there’s a deep affinity between the Russian brand of political scapegoating and the Republican variety. As MSNBC commentator Ari Melber notes in an astute breakdown of the RNC’s witch-trial offensive against candidate Clinton, these authoritarian antics represent a tremendous step backward in our conception of how the law is supposed to function in a formal democracy that fancies itself something more than an oligarchy or a banana republic. Reviewing the RNC’s “unofficial slogan” of “lock her up” and former federal prosecutor Chris Christie’s demagogic indictment of Clinton for ostensible crimes that amount to little more than policies that depart from approved conservative orthodoxy, Melber sounds an appropriately grim note of civic-republican caution:

The notion of reopening a closed case because a new party is in office runs counter to the foundations of America’s nonpartisan legal system. It’s exactly why the FBI director has a fixed 10-year term, regardless of who wins the election. In the United States, what is illegal is not supposed to change depending on who is in power.  

It’s not just political surrogates and attention-seekers pounding this theme, either.

Back in July, Trump himself said if Clinton was not indicted, the “five year statute of limitations” would not have run when he enters the White House, and “I’m sure the attorney general will take a very good look at it, from a fair standpoint.”  The prospect of politicians using investigations and prosecutions to settle political scores is a problem Americans generally associate with foreign failed states, not the unabashed promises of a major party. 

Yet here we are, with a GOP presidential nominee and a rich array of his ideological stooges arguing for the incarceration of his rival for a four-year term of protecting and defending the Constitution. And now he invites us all to appreciate just how seriously he takes the rule of law as he openly barters his law-and-order bona fides on the global espionage market with the promise of media celebrity clutched in his tiny-fingered, deal-making fist. Donald Trump probably doesn’t qualify as a traitor under the Espionage Act—especially given the way that many of our political leaders (most especially his major-party opponent) have twisted the charge of treason out of all coherent recognition to demand their own witch-hunt style prosecutions of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. But maybe we can revive some of our badly battered civic-republican traditions by exiling him from the polis. I’m pretty sure, between one thing and another, his chief campaign adviser Paul Manafort can find him a very soft landing—and a more congenial politico-media climate—somewhere in Ukraine. Just consider the many perks: he could marshal an army of Hillary-baiting hackers at will; Putin would be a local call; and Trump would be a natural for a Russia Today hosting gig. After all, if the Grand Guignol of 2016 has taught us nothing else, it’s this: oligarchs richly deserve each other’s company.

Chris Lehmann is editor at large of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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