[Editor: I understand that the very dark tone of the following opinion piece might seem overly pessimistic and perhaps a bit paranoid. My only reservation is that the Trump Regime has been so delusional and so inept, and has bungled so many of their attempts at seizing control, that they just might lack the capacity to pull off what they have planned. The Regime seems to exist in its own ideological fantasy world where their psychotic delusions make perfect sense to them but not to anyone outside of their delusion.]
It is increasingly looking like the first acts by the Trump team are creating a smoke screen to draw the fire of lawyers and liberals whilst a far more sinister plan is unfolding out of sight.
You know how pickpockets work; one distracts you — bumps into you, drops something, asks you the time — whilst the other uses that moment you’re looking the other way to dip into your pocket and take your wallet. Is Trump the distraction? Is Bannon already half way down the street with your wallet?
Trump on immigration is awful, and rightly provoking outrage. Law suits are being filed across the country, people are protesting. The response from Trump’s team will be counter suits, more lawyers, more protests, more headlines. There will be more stories like that of the former Norwegian Prime Minister being questioned for an hour at Dulles airport. This is what has dominated the news, preoccupied protestors, and used the pro bono hours of campaigning lawyers.
What has consequently slipped from the news is the Russian hacking of the American election. What only just made the news was a dubious sale by Russia of 19% of their oil company Rosneft. People did not take to the streets, lawyers didn’t file writs. It made for some long, difficult articles. Immigration is an easier problem to engage with.
This article on the intelligence dossier into Trump’s links to Russia is a long read. It summarises the dossier produced by Orbis Business Intelligence about Trump and Russia. It mentioned in October that there would be a sale of 19% of Russian oil company, Rosneft, part of which would be offered to Trump’s team in return for lifting sanctions on Ukraine. The article then goes on to show that, as predicted by Orbis, 19.5% of Rosneft was indeed sold, with part of the sale going to an unidentified owner:
“On 25 January, Reuters reported that 19.5% of Rosneft had been privatised in December 2016 but that the details of who exactly had been the purchasers was shrouded in mystery because of the use of the Cayman Islands and a number of shelf companies. The sale was arranged almost single-handedly by the head of Igor Sechin and welcomed by Vladimir Putin as a sign of international confidence in the Russian economy. Readers of ‘The Muscovian Candidate?’ will recall that in October 2016 Christopher Steele reported that Sechin had offered one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, and other members of the Trump team a 19% share in Rosneft (perhaps it should have been a share in the 19% of Rosneft) in return for Trump’s willingness to lift sanctions imposed because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine. That the figure of 19% or 19.5% should have appeared in the July conversation reported in the Steele dossier and in the actual privatisation six months later seems more than a coincidence.”
Orbis’s possible Russian source of this information is now dead: “on 27 January, the Telegraph of London reported that the ex-KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin was found dead in Moscow on 26 December 2016 in the back seat of his car. Erovinkin worked as a “key aide” to the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and was thought to be the link man between Sechin and Vladimir Putin.”
This did not bring people out on the streets. They were busy protesting about a ban on immigrants. In the bigger picture, which story poses a more serious threat to America and the world, an ignorant and offensive ban on immigrants or a potential Russian bribe to a new American government, apparently put in power with Russian help, to allow Russia to annex part of a neighbouring country? (here, think Chamberlain, piece of paper, Sudentenland).
Jake Fuentes’ piece ‘The Immigration Ban is a headfake and we’re all falling for it:” has gone viral, for good reason. He suggests that the immigration ban is testing the ground for a coup. I also suggest it is a smokescreen. More and more is being written about the extent to which Trump’s Presidency is being driven by far darker forces, in particular Steve Bannon, and that it constitutes an overthrow of the democratic order in some way.
As the checks and balances are being eroded, the lawyers, demonstrators, and politicians are distracted protecting individuals and liberties. Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely the right thing to do, and it is truly admirable. In this respect Trump has brought out the best in America. However, I’m concerned that they are being diverted away from something bigger and badder.
What Trump and his team are doing is straight out of the Authoritarian Handbook, the Bluffers Guide to Dictatorship. They are relying on us thinking that American Democracy is so infallible that its downfall is unimaginable, so most people are not taking the time to imagine it could be happening, and they are distracting us with actions designed to outrage their opponents so they focus all their attentions away from what they are really doing.
As Jake Fuentes rightly points out, “It is a much bigger deal that the DHS felt they could ignore a federal court than that Trump signed an EO blocking green card holders in the first place. It is a much bigger deal that Trump removed a permanent military presence from the NSC than that he issued a temporary stay on immigration. The immigration ban may be more viscerally upsetting, but the other moves are potentially far more dangerous.”
“We have a constitutional crisis today,” representative Don Beyer wrote on Twitter. “Four members of Congress asked CBP officials to enforce a federal court order and were turned away.” This just does not make as good a headline as a mother and child being arrested at an airport, but the ramifications are far more alarming.
So is this all part of a far more coherent plan, hidden behind a blundering and blustering buffoon?
Since his Inauguration, Trump and his team have done so much so fast that it’s genuinely hard to keep up with. And that may, in fact, be the point. A blitzkrieg of actions are already inflaming part of society, overwhelming the media, and bamboozling the average onlooker. They have also started to create a parallel narrative that has no bearing on reality at all, a technique used in Soviet and contemporary Russia to create confusion in order to hide what is really happening.
As Charles Sykes, a former Conservative radio show host, wrote in the New York Times, “In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media have already turned the term “fake news” against its critics, essentially draining it of any meaning.”
Trump’s erosion of confidence in the media will allow him in the future to deflect any criticism of his own failures, or even any accusations of illegal and unconstitutional actions but saying the media are lying, propagating Fake News. By throwing out completely contradictory stories to those of the mainstream press, they shed doubt about the media’s reliability, and bury the true story in amongst a collection of possible stories, none of which look true when compared to each other.
As Russia has shown recently, for example with the shooting down of MH17, if you put out enough contradictory stories, the real story gets lost in amongst them. It doesn’t matter if nobody believes the false stories, because the aim is to get people to the point that they don’t believe any of the stories. In the West we don’t understand this, and wonder how and why Trump and his team can make demonstrably false claims. Kremlin critic Gary Kasparov summarised it thus:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Whereas this strategy was developed in modern Russia by Putin’s advisor, Surkov, in America it appears to be the work of Bannon. Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad wrote about Bannon in Quartz, “after all, as Andrew Breitbart made clear when he famously dubbed him the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party,” Bannon is a master propagandist. He’s also a master opportunist, going by his fitful shifts in career. So it’s possible that the narrative flowing through Trump’s inaugural address and executive actions is simply what Bannon has calibrated over time to rouse maximum populist fervor — and that it doesn’t reflect plans to upend America. There’s also, however, the possibility that Bannon is steering Trump toward the “enlightened capitalist,” Judeo-Christian, nationalistic vision that he has come to believe America needs.”
This suggests that Trump could actually be the distraction. It would not be the first time a loud idiot has been placed in power to be the puppet of far more sinister and clever puppet masters. He is perfect for the role — so convinced of his own magnificence it would never occur to him that he is actually just the puppet. When Bannon was placed on the National Security Council it appears Trump wasn’t aware this had happened, leading to the suggestion that Bannon placed himself there:
“Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban.”
Meanwhile the people who could obstruct him, the Attorney General, and a large swathe of the State Department have either been fired or encouraged to resign. Keep in mind that whether someone is sacked, is discredited by a scandal, or resigns in protest, the end result is that they are gone. To Trump’s administration it is irrelevant which of these three achieves that goal. So by behaving so outrageously, and riding roughshod over conventional political practice, causing people to resign is not actually an embarrassment for the regime it is just a desired outcome. Yonatan Zunger goes into these actions in his Medium essay, “Trial Ballon for a coup,”
What if we are now in a maze of smoke and mirrors? This would be straight out of Surkov’s playbook. Create confusion, misinformation.
Sarah Cooper, writing in Medium, points out that it was not the CIA clapping at Trump’s recent talk there, but Trump’s own people leading the attendees into applause. This apparently comes from people who were there and could see this. She concludes her piece saying:
“This is how he’s going to chip away at our understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s real and what’s not. This is even stronger, more powerful gas lighting — making us question our own instincts and even start doing things because we want to fit in with “everyone else” who from what we know, seem to think this is all fine…The media needs to take a cue from one of Trump’s own complaints during the campaign: show us the crowd. Let us see who is clapping, and who is not. Otherwise we’re all going to start feeling like we’re going crazy, even more so than we already are.”
If we base what Trump is doing on similar regimes now and in the past, what will happen next is that a terrorist attack, or a riot or large-scale civil unrest, or something, will be used to justify the Government reigning in civil liberties under the guise of a security risk. Paul Walderman in The Week calls this a Reischstag Moment:
“In February 1933, an arsonist set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament building. When a young communist was arrested for the crime, Adolf Hitler, who had become chancellor one month before, declared that it was part of a communist plot to overthrow the government. The next day, a law was signed essentially suspending all civil liberties, and Hitler quickly purged his political opponents from government and consolidated the Nazi Party’s grip on power.”
Trump will use this to attack the judiciary, who he will claim are either behind the protests, or caused the terrorist attack by blocking his immigration bill. This is clear already from the ground Trump laid with his Tweet:
“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.”
Whatever it is, and whether it’s real or contrived, expect some sort of action in the near future that is the trigger for a tightening on the grip of power by Trump.
If this happens, what would come next? Here’s an extrapolation, just a guess, more of a warning, based on what is staring us in the face, and what’s happened before and elsewhere….
The people who are currently demonstrating at airports or in pink hats would all turn their attention to this new clamping down on civil liberties. Trump will point to them as an enemy within, no doubt sponsored by some enemy from without, as Putin and Erdogan have done, and has happened throughout history (we’re still in chapter one of the Authoritarian Handbook).
Pretty well all of Trump’s supporters have guns at home, purchased in the fervent believe that the Second Amendment gives them the right and duty to defend their country. Indeed, Trump’s team even just changed the law to enable more vulnerable and easily manipulated people to own guns. Trump has already called on his followers before to be violent. He has already told them their country is riven with violence, under threat, and falling apart, with terrorist attacks happening all over the place.
Having laid those foundations, he might either call on them to take up arms to defend their President, and defend their America, or at least imply they should. Huge quantities of guns and ammunition in the hands of scared, confused, and angry people, now convinced that an enemy is attacking them. We saw this in a small way with the Pizza shooting during Trump’s campaign. (The contrived enemy is classic Dictator Handbook stuff, see Reichstag Moment…)
Trump would now have armed units loyal to him (perhaps the BPS, and his private security), and a huge armed civilian militia in the form of crazy and right wing people with guns. How would the demonstrators with pink hats and the lawyers react to that? Well either it all descends into civil war, or they back down, cowered by the aggression and violence, falling back on laws, protests, and angry articles in the Washington Post. It is likely that, as with Putin, we will see Trump both fire up the crazed civilians with guns, and at the same time decry them, becoming the arbiter of peace and stability, the only person who can save the country.
Once it is clear to those who protest that they face death, violence, and imprisonment, from right wing crazies with guns, or from law enforcement loyal to Trump, once they are scared they will mysteriously lose their jobs, become subject to random tax investigations, hacking, and false accusations, and have courts find against them on anything from a parking fine to a property dispute, they will begin to withdraw (this is modern Russia). The media will continue to protest where it can, but the likes of CNN will fall prey to hacking, scandals, tax investigations, and intimidation from right wing groups with known links to the government.
The Trump supporters will only see what Breitbart, Fox News, and Trump’s Twitter account tells them is happening. They will accept an infringement on their civil liberties in return for the safety and security Trump is offering in the midst of constant media reports of riots, foreign enemies, and terrorism. Indeed, Trump’s campaign and current actions are all based on this extreme fear, unfounded by any reality.
They will vote him in for a second term, in an election where large numbers of people are denied a vote by changes in the law and gerrymandering (already a tool of the Republicans in North Carolina), the independent media hardly gets a voice, or are drowned out by Fake News sites, and militia groups and crazy guys with guns threaten opposition politicians, voters, and newspapers. It will, on paper, be a free and fare election, but one in which the opposition struggles to be heard or represented.
With that, the coup is complete. Quite possibly history will decide it was regime change effected by Russia, or maybe there was no foreign plot, and it was all the genius of Steve Bannon and a small coterie of right wing rich men who, as in Russia, decided to make the State theirs, and syphon of it’s wealth.
(Meanwhile, Russia invades Ukraine, China invades Taiwan, Israel builds more settlements, the EU breaks apart, and an enfeebled NATO is powerless to resist Russia annexing Eastern Latvia and dominating the Baltic Sea, but that’s for another day.)
I know this sounds like an alarmist fear mongering conspiracy theory. I am not saying it will happen, but that it could, and is worryingly believable if you look at what is happening and connect it all together in this way. It seems so implausible that a group of men, perhaps backed by an enemy country, could take over America, that nobody is looking in that direction. That is why it is so chilling. I hope I’m wrong, and with things changing so fast who knows what is really going on. But it’s worth stopping and thinking about scenarios we may not be seeing.
Stefan Zweig, in 1941, wrote of his fellow intellectuals in Germany and Austria:
“The few among writers who had taken the trouble to read Hitler’s book, ridiculed the bombast of his stilted prose instead of occupying themselves with his program…the big democratic newspapers, instead of warning their readers, reassured them day by day, that the movement . . . would inevitably collapse in no time.”
As Nick Cohen writes in the Guardian, “The 21st-century’s model for a strongman is a leader who makes opposition as hard as possible, as Orbán is trying to do in Hungary, but does not actually declare a dictatorship, for not even Putin has done that,” That is the path Trump and Bannon are treading, and the Americans, used to the basic rules of play in a democracy, may not be equipped to see it happening.