The Republican National Convention was raucous, strident, kooky, and simply unhinged to such as extent that this week’s Democratic National Convention should have been at least an easy lay-up, if not a slam-dunk.
Instead, the Democrats’ big party got off on a significantly dissonant note—the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the wake of WikiLeaks releasing 19,000+ of The Democratic National Committee’s emails.
According to ABC News (“The 4 Most Damaging Emails From The DNC WikiLeaks Dump”):
In May, after disruption at the Nevada Democratic State Convention over how delegates were allocated, Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Bernie Sanders Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver a “damn liar.” In another email, she called him “an ass.”
Someone in the DNC thought Bernie Sanders an atheist—even though he isn’t. “It may make no difference but for KY and WA can we get someone to ask his belief,” Brad Marshall, CFO of the DNC, wrote in an email on May 5, 2016. “He had skated on having a Jewish heritage. I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
The DNC National Secretary emailed: “Wondering if there’s a good Bernie narrative for a story which is that Bernie never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess … It’s not a DNC conspiracy it’s because they never had their act together.”
“In an April 24 email [Debbie Wasserman Schultz] received with an article describing the ways Sanders felt the DNC was undermining his campaign, she wrote back, ‘Spoken like someone who has never been a member of the Democratic Party and has no understanding of what we do.’”
Charles Blow of The New York Times has the best take on this scandal that a liberal could have that day (7/25):
No matter whom one supported during the primaries, or even what party one aligns with, this should turn the stomach. This kind of collusion is precisely what is poisoning faith in our politics.
This reinforced the feeling of many that the system was rigged from the beginning.
As this story developed, CNN revealed that the FBI had warned the DNC about a “potential intrusion in their computer network months before the party moved to fix the problem.” By the time they were kicked out by technicians from CloudStrike, a computer security firm, the intruders “had been inside for about a year.”
Here are a few analysis and prediction-heavy notes spinning out of what Democrats may eventually come to see as the most damaging event of this election cycle:
1. It’s About The Bunch, Not The Bad Apple
At some point, Debbie Wasserman Schultz became toxic—probably around the time her close relationship with the pay-day loan industry was examined in depth. Thus tainted, firing her is a classic example of the “bad apple” theory of perception management. We see this tactic in some police departments after well publicized and blatant acts of brutality such as the Walter Scott case in South Carolina.
Throwing the bad apple out is expected to preserve the integrity of the bunch. Thus, the bad apple diverts attention away from the tree from which it grew. The bad apple also takes the heat for and allows the denial of the cultures and conditions that make bad apples possible. (See also, Roger Ailes, and the culture of FoxNews.)
Ironically, casting Donald Trump as the boogeyman also helps the bad apple narrative. Scorn gets heaped on Wasserman Scultz, but as soon as one tries to apply it generally to the DNC itself, or even the Democratic Party, the immediate response is that Donald Trump is the completely unacceptable alternative. Thus the Sanders and Clinton forces unite to slay the Dragon from Trump Tower.
It’s a cute story. Let’s see how long it lasts. The Clintons have had a grip on the Democratic National Committee since the death of Ron Brown. To believe that cutting Debbi Wasserman Schultz cleans up the DNC’s dirt revealed by the WikiLeaks disclosure is to add a few bullets to James Traub’s gun.
If anyone can wrest control of the DNC away from the Clintons, it’s Barack Obama. His true legacy may come post-presidency—taking control of the DNC away from the Clintons and steering it on to a different path.
2. “Putin Did It!”
It was revealed a few weeks ago that Russian hackers had pilfered data from the DNC. Security firms like Cloudstrike backed up the claim. However, on Sunday 7/24, Robbie Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, suggested that the WikiLeaks release had been calculated by the Russians to help Donald Trump. Earlier Monday, 7/25, the Observer supported this idea.
Coming first from Robbie Mook (a poor communicator and barely an improvement on Patti Solis Doyle), the claim sounded shrill and petty, even though some of it is credible. From Mook, “The Russians did it” sounds like a diversion from what many think—that the fix is in, and the likes of Bernie Sanders never had a chance. It would have been better had this kind of attack come from someone outside of Clinton’s campaign. That it didn’t and how quickly it appeared one of CNN’s Sunday morning shows suggests how desperate Mook’s operation must have been about WikiLeaks’ potential damage.
Mook and those who have parroted his claim want us to believe that a) the Russians pulled the hack, and that b) they did it to help Trump. There’s a lot of evidence to support a) and not much at all to support b). Indeed, the evidence that Russia through its WikiLeaks cutout leaked DNC emails to help Trump is barely circumstantial.
But that won’t stop the spin, for which its anti-Putin groundwork has been laid down quite thickly since the Russian autocrat seized Crimea.
As an example, consider “Donald Trump, The Siberian Candidate,” Paul Krugman’s New York Times column from Friday 7/22, printed before WikiLeaks announced its release of the DNC’s emails. In it, he writes:
“[T]he Trump campaign’s recent behavior has quite a few foreign policy experts wondering just what kind of hold Mr. Putin has over the Republican nominee, and whether that influence will continue if he wins.”
Could this and other innuendos Krugman makes have been Friday fuel for the fire that Mook started the following Sunday?
3. Putin As Prism
The “Putin wants Trump to win” meme is an example of the way in which one’s views on Vladimir Putin is now the barometer of how one also understands America’s place in the world. I’d bet that asking a geopolitically savvy American/Westerner how (s)he feels about Putin specifically is now the single biggest predictor of that person’s view of America’s place on the international stage in general. By extension, I think this is also true of NATO.
As for Putin himself, our idea of him is even more of a prism than this WikiLeaks scandal, and he’s managed that perception like a master of light and magic.
Putin claims that America is the world’s only superpower and downplays his feelings about Donald Trump, while his administration also warns against a new Cold War, or even World War III.
Whether he personally buys into any of this or not is immaterial. What matters is his style of geopolitical chess—beginning with the way that his words now play against his previous sentiment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Easily, secret policeman and Andropov protégé that he is, one imagines that Putin would like to right this wrong, as is evidenced by the build-up of the Russian submarine fleet—not simply in the North Atlantic, but in the Pacific, as well.
But there’s a sense in which military might is also immaterial. Of greater meaning for engaged observers in The West is what Putin represents. Somehow he has become the symbol of their opinions on whether the international order should be “unipolar” or “multi-polar.”
If many non-Russians are uneasy about “American exceptionalism” and its desire to call the shots in as many geopolitical spheres as possible, then Putin will always have a constituency that sympathizes with his opposition to that vision. This constituency will see his “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine, or the way that his state apparatus manages the perceptions of its own people (information warfare), or even the countless memes depicting him shirtless, riding a bear or wrestling a tiger essentially as elements of a David vs Goliath struggle. I suspect that Trump is in this camp, as well as his campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
However, if Putin’s fans see Russia as a superpower rising again like the phoenix, then he represents a counterweight to The West, a check on the sort of American imperial ambition that has already been checked by The Iraq War, Syria, and other blunders in The Middle East.
Either possibility allows Russia to act as an insurgent, which is precisely the way that Putin wants to play “the great game.”
4. Second Thoughts About Tim Kaine
Tim Kaine shares much of the Clinton world view, which is more centrist Democrat and neoliberal than it is progressive, regardless of what Clinton says. However, what would’ve seemed like a politically savvy choice before the WikiLeaks disclosure seems like a declaration of just how small a club of insiders the Democratic Party really is. I suspect that one could hold a separate convention of just the truly liberal and progressive House Democrats which would make the rest of the electorate aware of what real Democrats (the Democracts of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson) are.
Were the Republican Party less extreme, current Democrat leadership would seem like Republican-lite.
5. Jill Stein
Despite how opposing forces are making nice and coming together at a very glitzy and well-produced Democratic convention, I wonder how many Bernie supporters are now behind Jill Stein because of the WikiLeaks disclosure, or because they still don’t see Hillary Clinton as a viable choice at all. Interestingly, CNN has paid serious attention to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate, but hardly any to Stein or The Green Party. Since as much as 20% of the total 2016 general election vote could be in play, I suspect this is because Stein has a greater potential for taking votes away from Clinton than Johnson (who will siphon votes from Trump) does, and is therefore more of a threat, even though she’s polling last of the four major candidates. But don’t let the polls fool you—the election could be close enough that Stein makes a difference.
6. A Big Thread For A Small Needle
Clinton vs Trump polls have been bullshit for a long time. I think that the polls are skewing towards Clinton over Trump because they are about personalities, instead of being about a rigged, corrupt, and thoroughly moneyed electoral and political system that has produced two of the most unlikable presidential candidates ever. Poll that and, weirdly, Trump would probably do better. He might even become neck-and-neck with Clinton.
7. Wither The New New Left
The New New Left (which I construe as the remnants of the late 90s anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Black Lives Matter, as well as those who substantially “agree” or identify with them) is faltering, mostly because of either poor messaging, inept strategy, or both.
However, the New New Left is not out of gas. With Obama (and his progressive past), as well as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (and their progressive present) on the same stage, the current incarnation of the Left didn’t have enough “ideological space” to breathe as deeply as it otherwise could have. We see now that its agenda(s) were limited by the leftist legitimacy of those like Obama and Sanders, who were already on “the inside.” Therefore, what it needs is the space to define something completely new for itself instead of arguing for variants of the same old policies that our current brand of globalized capitalism cannot sustain.
Hillary Clinton, being further to the right of Obama, Sanders, and Warren on domestic as well as foreign policy, could give the New New Left that space. However, she won’t give that space up willingly at all. Instead, she will constantly try to outflank it. (It might end up being on of Clinton 42’s chief functions, if he can refine his attack at this stage in his life.)
That could work to the advantage of both her and the New New Left. Or it could make her the new Lyndon Johnson.
8. If Trump Is Smart …
If Trump is as smart as he tells us he is, he sees the DNC hack and subsequent disclosure as a crucial opportunity to peel off some Sanders voters. The prospect of doing so before the WikiLeaks email dump was ludicrous, but is more realistic now that the system is seen by even more as “rigged.”
But there is a very small window for him to make a move. Here’s how he does it:
1) Some time in August, or before the first presidential debate, Trump suddenly pivots from the Nixon stuff to Eisenhower stuff. Still Republican, he talks about building stuff—roads and bridges instead of a wall—as the way to “make America great again.” Further, he talks about how the Democrats had the chance to do this in Obama’s first term, but squandered it.
2) Mike Pence takes on the role of the traditional Trump message: the Wall, Muslim ban, anti-NATO, but he tones it down to keep real Republicans still engaged.
3) As suggested earlier, votes for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein could reach 20%. Trump recasts the race as Trump, Sanders, Stein, and Johnson all against Hillary.
These moves make Trump look like … Putin. Whatever his image as an autocrat, Putin’s primary political strength is an ability to out-maneuver (perceived) enemies with moves that they never see coming. All of these options fall into that category. To some extent, Trump has been making moves like this all along. But he needs too take it to another level—where this kind of information warfare has the effect here that it has in Putin’s Russia.
There, it’s used to confuse, to add gray to spaces that were previously black and white. The desired effect is not that associated with propaganda or perception management—changing actions by changing beliefs, which is what the Clinton campaign desperately needs to counter her high negatives. Instead, the effect of the information warfare that Trump needs is just the opposite—by means of confusion and disruption, it puts voters in the position of not knowing what to think, of doubting what’s really true, and therefore not being able to make a clear choice, which can be a huge predictor of whether eligible voters go to the polls at all. As any political junkie knows, Democrats win when tons of people go to the polls, while Republicans win when tons of people stay home.
Should Trump pull this off, Hillary Clinton’s other email scandal would prove much more damaging than the first one ever could be.