NOTHING TO FEAR BUT EVERYTHING: Disgraced former president and evil foreign policy genius Richard Milhous Nixon would have celebrated his 104th birthday this past Monday. Were he still alive, Nixon, no doubt, would be spinning in his grave.
The grimly cynical realpolitik that Nixon perfected, however, has been replaced by a new wild-hair global political impulse, particularly as it relates to what was formerly known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Nixon made history by breaking with his anti-commie witch-hunter past and establishing diplomatic relations with “Red” China. This was done with the explicit purpose of containing the Soviet Union. Since then, of course, the Soviet Union has collapsed and has been replaced by Vlad “the Impaler” Putin. Where Nixon embraced China, President-elect Donald Trump antagonizes. Where Nixon antagonized the Soviets, Trump embraces Putin, belittling, until only recently, allegations that Putin interfered in our most recent presidential election to help get Trump elected. It’s arguable precisely what impact the Russian hacks and leaks ultimately had on the election result — though it’s obvious they set Hillary Clinton back on her heels — but Russia’s involvement would appear to be settled fact.
The speed with which Trump is reversing the fundamental global alignment of the past 50 years is sufficient to induce whiplash. One hopes there’s something to it beyond a fawning infatuation with tough guys, bad boys, and dictators. Maybe Trump believes Putin can help wipe out ISIS. Maybe he has private business interests in Russia. This week, we hear for the first time that Russian intelligence agencies had bugged the Moscow hotel room Trump stayed in three years ago when he hired Russian prostitutes to put on a golden shower orgy for his viewing pleasure. Under this scenario, the Russians would have had “something” on Trump. Trump predictably tweeted his outrage. “We are now living in Nazi Germany,” he protested. Likewise, Putin dismissed the allegations with customary scorn and contempt.
Personally, I have no doubt the hotel room was bugged and that Trump’s tastes where rain dances are concerned were every bit as kinky as described. But given Trump’s singular lack of shame, such tapes — no matter how explicit — wouldn’t afford Putin any leverage. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past Trump to push the dirty dossier story — which major media outlets have allegedly been sitting on — himself. Certainly, it distracts from the confirmation hearings about Jefferson Beauregard “I am not a racist” Sessions III for attorney general or former Exxon exec Rex Tillerson — yes, it’s Rex — whose coziness with Putin exceeds even that of Trump’s. When it comes to assaults upon the conscience of an amoral, indifferent universe, Tillerson ranks as a twofer. First, there’s the Order of Friendship Award bestowed upon Tillerson by Putin himself. Then there’s the fact that Exxon spent millions of dollars denying the fact of global warming even though its own scientists had confirmed the phenomenon dating back to the 1970s. To the morally unambiguous, that might seem like fraud. In the brave new fact-free world, it’s free speech.
In the past week, I had occasion to interview Mark Harris, a filmmaker whose documentary about the popular uprising in the Ukraine, Breaking Point, will be screening in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Harris reminded me how Putin invaded the Ukraine — the bread basket of the Eurasian continent — in 2014 after his stooge and puppet Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee in the face of Ukrainian opposition. Putin famously denied Russian troops were in any way involved — conspicuously, the invaders wore no national insignia of any kind — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If Trump and Putin regard facts with the same casual indifference, it’s not surprising. Paul Manafort, who functioned as Trump’s campaign manager until being famously fired, had provided similar services for Putin puppet Yanukovych, whose troops killed 123 Ukrainians while putting down that country’s equivalent of Tiananmen Square. Like other Manafort clients — Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines comes to mind — Yanukovych was stratospherically corrupt. Even after Yanukovych fled, Manafort’s services were deployed, seeking to resurrect the fortunes of his party. Manafort’s strategy was simple and chillingly effective. He rebranded the party as the Oppo Bloc and gathered to it “the largest number of people opposed to the current government … avoid anything concrete, and just become a symbol of opposition.” Sound familiar? Meanwhile, the Putin government spent billions via its Russia Today media machine spinning the invasion as an uprising of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Compared to Trump, Nixon looks far-sighted and brilliant. It’s worth remembering Nixon had no qualms about interfering with other nation’s elections. When Chileans elected socialist Salvador Allende in the 1970s, the United States made that country’s economy “bleed” and instigated a military coup. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s henchman, famously explained that the United States need not “stand by” because of the “irresponsibility” of Chilean voters. “The issues are much too important to be left to the Chilean voters to decide for themselves,” he declared. Recently released documents reveal Nixon played it the other way, too. According to written logs kept by Nixon White House confidante, Watergate co-conspirator, and, yes, Santa Barbara resident H.R. Haldeman, Nixon personally told him to “monkey wrench” the Paris Peace initiated by President Lyndon Johnson to end the war in Vietnam. If the talks succeeded, Nixon worried, he’d have a tougher time beating Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The peace talks failed. Five years later, Nixon pulled out of Vietnam. In the intervening years, a lot of dead bodies piled up.
The world doesn’t just seem upside down; it is. Time to stand on your head. And happy birthday, Tricky Dick.