Trump And Putin And The UK Right: The World Turned On Its Head

Ronald Reagan

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.  We begin bombing in five minutes.”

US President Ronald Reagan’s radio sound check joke in 1984 perfectly caught the mood of America-Russia relations throughout most of the twentieth century.  For Conservatives particularly, the Soviet Union was the ‘Evil Empire’, the antithesis of everything the US stood for, a threat to peace and security, an opposer of western values, and an enemy bent on world domination for its ideology.

For many in the West, again particularly Conservatives, it was a comforting worldview: you knew who wore the white hats, who wore the black.

But if you’re looking for a comforting touchstone in the massive disruption of the twenty-first century, politics is not the place to go.

Donald Trump, the candidate of Reagan’s Republican Party, praised Vladimir Putin as a “leader far more than our president” and has offered other words of support for the Russian strongman.  Trump, too, seems thoroughly happy that the Old Enemy’s hackers have interfered in US democracy.  Two days ago, the online version of the journal of the Hard Right in the UK, the Daily Mail, published a Russian propaganda piece as news.  (For US readers, the Daily Mail is a mainstream newspaper which, like many hard right publications, claims to be the voice of the ‘silent majority’ – it supported Fascism during the time of Hitler’s rise and proudly sported the front page headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’.)  And Nigel Farage, the right wing former leader of the UK Independence Party and one of the architects of Brexit, has also waxed lyrical in his praise for Putin.

Now Russia is not the Soviet Union in terms of geography, but much at its core remains the same.  The UK and US military and security services still see Putin’s government as the single greatest threat to world peace.

The current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of Nato states are all significant causes of concern.

“We are in familiar territory for anyone over the age of about 50, with Russia’s behaviour a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security. Hence, continuing to gather intelligence on Russia’s capabilities and intentions will remain a vital part of intelligence effort for the foreseeable future. It is no coincidence that all of our agencies are recruiting Russian speakers again.

For many who remember the last century, a Republican Party candidate for President praising a Russian leader over his own commander-in-chief is incomprehensible.

And yet, this is the world we’re in now and the explanation lies in one of the regular themes of these posts: that the widespread disruption of all areas of the twenty-first century has wiped away the familiar Left-Right basis of party politics.

The real divide now is those who are ready to accept the future and those who want to cling on to the past, and that crosses party boundaries.  It explains a big part of Brexit, and Trump and the formerly left, right and independent supporters of both.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz carried out a series of focus groups in the UK before the last General Election where he tried to understand the rise of the UK Independence Party.  When its members were asked to mention something they really loved about Britain, there was a long, long silence until someone ventured: “The past.”

Those who want to cling on to the past, or turn the clock back, admire authoritarians like Putin because that kind of Fascistic control is the only thing that might possibly halt the tramp of progress.

There’s a must-read piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine about how America is flirting with Fascism at this election and how many mainstream commentators are afraid to call it for what it is.

That’s a mistake.

The choice at this month’s US election is stark, but there are many people still treating it as if it’s politics as usual.  It really isn’t.  And the Past or the Future is the only outcome.

Third World War: Two Steps Closer

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Later today (Saturday) talks will take place in Switzerland between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The aim: to broker another ceasefire in Syria. Kerry has already said he doesn’t expect any positive results.

Why?  US-Russia relations have not been so poor since the Cold War, and they’re getting worse by the day, with potentially terrible results.  It’s easy to get distracted by all the other troubling events unfolding domestically and abroad – as many people have pointed out, there’s just too much “news” in 2016 (and Francis Fukuyama is probably getting sick of all the ribbing for his ‘end of history’ quote back in the 90s, rightly or wrongly) – but this should be demanding everyone’s attention.

Last night (Oct 14), NBC discovered the CIA is preparing an unprecedented cyber strike against Russia, one designed to “harass and embarrass” the Kremlin leadership. Because this is all keystrokes and screens, many dismiss this as not true warfare, or at the very least one that will not result in any deaths. That’s misjudging both the psychological state of Putin and his precarious position as the leader of a Mafia State where the rule of law is tenuous for people at the top and where the bullet beats the ballot.

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Meanwhile, here in London, at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been talking up the likelihood of UK-US military action in Syria” “We can’t just see Aleppo pulverised…  We have to do something.  Whether that means we can get a coalition together for more kinetic action now I cannot prophesy, but certainly what most people want to see is a new set of options.”

This could only result in direct confrontation with Russia, which, under Putin, has wagered everything in support of Syria’s desperate President Assad.  At the moment, this might be considered sabre-rattling, to warm the blood in advance of today’s Swiss talks.  But, again, the psychology, the Mafia State..  Backing down is not an option for Putin.

There’s a growing sense that NATO sees Syria as critical.  If Putin isn’t stopped now, he will keep going – he will *have* to keep going to appease domestic critics concerned with a tanking economy.  But the West also senses that he’s vulnerable, and there’s a belief that the hard men around him might choose to act against the leader rather than risk a devastating confrontation with an unpredictable outcome.

Or not.

One thing’s for sure: when everything is so finely balanced on the brink of war, in the coming months and years, the West is going to need leaders that are a safe pair of hands.