Putin knows that the survival of his presidency depends on defeating Ukraine, which means getting control of the US political system.
MBS knows that the best way he can minimize unrest and maintain his severe oppression of women and democracy advocates in Saudi Arabia is by helping Republicans defeat those pesky Democrats who keep talking about human rights, Jamal Khashoggi, and replacing oil with renewables.
And Xi knows if he ever wants to seize Taiwan and eventually all of Indochina he must first cripple America’s Democratic Party, whose president a few weeks ago had the temerity to call Xi a “dictator.”
The world’s richest and most powerful oligarchs are depending on America’s Republican Party to make the world safe for their 21st century form of autocratic kleptocracy. And Donald Trump, who’s been owned by the KGB/GRU since the 1980s, is their man who’s leading the charge.
The oldest form of government in the world — the one that, as conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk point out, at one time or another ruled every “civilized” nation on Earth — is (as I detail in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy) oligarchy: rule by a small group of the morbidly rich.
Today, only about 45 percent of humans worldwide live in anything resembling or claiming to be a democracy; the rest are controlled by the iron fist of oligarchs, absolute dictators, warlords, or hereditary kings. And those rulers, particularly the ones with the wealth to influence American elections, are all-in on helping Trump or another autocratic Republican win in 2024.
You can thank five Republicans on the Supreme Court for their ability to operate in the United States.
Back in 2010, the Supreme Court was given a case asking whether a 2008 movie produced by a group called “Citizens United” and trashing Hillary Clinton was a “campaign contribution in kind,” in violation of the good-government laws passed by Congress after the Nixon bribery scandals of the 1970s.
After hearing initial arguments, five corrupt Republicans on the Court asked for it to be re-argued on the larger grounds of whether billionaires and corporations — American or even foreign — could use unlimited amounts of “dark money” to essentially buy American elections, Supreme Court justices, and American politicians.
After the second set of arguments were heard, claiming that corporations were “persons” and money was actually “free speech,” the five Republicans overthrew over 100 years of campaign laws in nearly all 50 states and dozens of federal laws to throw open the American political system (and themselves) to whomever was willing to shower them and their GOP colleagues with the most money.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in his Citizens United dissent, warned that the Supreme Court had not only thrown the door open to American billionaires and corporations corrupting our politicians and political process: they also rolled out the welcome mat to foreign governments.
“If taken seriously, our colleagues’ assumption that the identity of a speaker has no relevance to the Government’s ability to regulate political speech would lead to some remarkable conclusions. Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.”
Tokyo Rose, of course, was the infamous woman who was constantly on the radio listened to by US solders in the Pacific theater during WWII, telling our people in uniform that the war was lost, Japan would win, and we should just go home. Her broadcasts were designed to destroy our sense of solidarity.
Today it’s not just foreign governments willing to harm us with old-fashioned warfare that are tearing America apart. There are also numerous foreign corporations, for example fossil fuel and pharma operations, who want to corruptly exploit us — and then lie to us about it — just to make more money.
Some climate change obstructionists in congress and deniers on social media, for example, have funding that tracks back to state-owned oil operations in the Middle East, and many of the big Pharma operations funding rightwing politicians are based overseas. All of this adds to Americans’ certainty that our system is corrupt, making us more vulnerable to foreign trolls who work to turn us against each other.
“More pertinently,” Stevens added in the next sentence, “it would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans…”
And, sure enough, this generation’s version of Tokyo Rose has installed herself — or millions of versions of herself — into the fabric of our social media, making it appear that support for white supremacy, violence, and the destruction of our democratic institutions is far broader in America than it actually is.
Justice Stevens, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 99, looked into the future to this populist moment, emphasizing how destructive the Citizens United decision of his 5 conservative colleagues would be by corrupting American democracy:
“In addition to this immediate drowning out of noncorporate voices, there may be deleterious effects that follow soon thereafter. Corporate ‘domination’ of electioneering can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy.
“When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy. A Government captured by corporate interests, they may come to believe, will be neither responsive to their needs nor willing to give their views a fair hearing.
“The predictable result is cynicism and disenchantment: an increased perception that large spenders ‘call the tune’ and a reduced ‘willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.’
With this Citizens United ruling, he wrote, American politicians could become subservient to these corporate corrupters of our democracy, further fueling and driving the anger of citizens. Stevens said:
“To the extent that corporations are allowed to exert undue influence in electoral races, the speech of the eventual winners of those races may also be chilled. Politicians who fear that a certain corporation can make or break their reelection chances may be cowed into silence about that corporation.
“On a variety of levels, unregulated corporate electioneering might diminish the ability of citizens to ‘hold officials accountable to the people,’ and disserve the goal of a public debate that is ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’”
Stevens was right, and perfectly described this moment.
We have foreign drug companies telling us on TV that if the American government — unique in the world in being forbidden from negotiating drug prices — were to do so, elderly cancer patients will start dropping like flies. In Arizona, overseas-based drug companies were funding ads telling people how wonderful Kyrsten Sinema was after she blocked drug price negotiations.
Americans are angry, disenchanted, and disheartened by the state of their country. If “democracy” means “the will of the people is put into law,” they’ll tell you, then we haven’t been a democracy for a while.
Particularly since Citizens United introduced today’s brave new era where politicians no longer need to consider their voters’ desires but can simply rely on billionaires and big corporations carpet bombing their districts with feelgood ads ever two, four, or six years — and elaborate social media operations run by the Russians and Chinese governments.
And now, as a result, we have fake populists — foreign agents, pretending to be American citizens complaining about our politicians, promoting conspiracy theories, or cheerleading attacks on our government — overwhelming political dialogue on social media.
Just three months ago, Microsoft (now that Republican lawsuits in US courts have stopped our own government from telling us about foreign election interference) identified thousands of social media accounts on Facebook and Xitter that were being run by the Chinese government and promoting MAGA memes.
As Reuters noted:
“The Microsoft spokesperson said the identified accounts had attempted to appear American by listing their public location as within the United States, posting American political slogans, and sharing hashtags relating to domestic political issues.”
Russian trolls are all over Xitter and Facebook, trash-talking Democrats while trying to make Americans hate each other over skin color, gender identity, and religion. When Kyle Rittenhouse was facing prison time (but had the good fortune of drawing a judge who was apparently afraid for his family’s safety), former FBI Assistant Director Frank Figluzzi tweeted:
“A sample of 32,315 pro-Rittenhouse hashtag tweets, Nov 19-20, showed 29,609 with disabled geolocation. Of those, 17,701 were listed as ‘foreign,’ but a deep scrub revealed most of those were in Russia, China, and the EU.”
The fact-checking site Snopes looked into similar claims and found massive evidence of foreign-based social media accounts pretending to be Americans while cheerleading Rittenhouse and questioning the viability of America. Not to mention the clear intervention by Russia on behalf of Trump that both Robert Mueller and Senate investigators found in the 2016 election.
This is how democracies are destroyed from the outside, by planting seeds of hate and division that appear to come from inside and alter the sentiments of the nation.
Democracy can be a remarkably resilient form of governance, since it depends on the people it serves to maintain its own authority, credibility and ongoing support. As long as the people of a democracy remain engaged in and trust the democratic process, it remains viable.
Democracies fail, however, when the people cease to trust and support them.
Usually this starts with small cracks, typically having to do with corruption within the democracy, which erode its claim to moral and political authority.
If those cracks — the bad actors who are abusing the system or the foreigners who are exploiting it — aren’t removed or reprimanded and thus stop their corrupt behavior, the democracy goes to the next step in a downward spiral: an explosion of populism to serve as a corrective against the corruption.
And let’s be clear. These foreign governments would be delighted if they could provoke a civil war in the United States or throw us into such chaos that a strongman autocrat would have an opening to rise up and seize control of America.
“See, we told you democracy was a flawed system,” they’d say. “Our system of [president-for-life, Communist Central Committee, Emirs, Kings, etc.] is really better and now that we’ve proven how bad democracy is we’re going to double down on crushing dissent in our own country, too.”
In fact, this is exactly what the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee warned of in 2019, a warning that was ridiculed and ignored within the Trump administration.
“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” wrote the Republican committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr. “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
And now we’re learning that Russian interference, while substantial in 2016 in support of Donald Trump and reported extensively in the Mueller Report, is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Trolls from multiple countries are tearing our nation apart with their dominance of social media; pro-political-assassination trolls were even operating from places like Belarus and The Philippines, according to Snopes.
We still don’t know who it was who, in June of 2020, sent tens of thousands of small-town Americans into their streets with shovels, baseball bats, and chainsaws to stop the “Antifa busses” filled with Black people that foreign trolls pretending to be Americans on Facebook said were coming that weekend and were paid for by George Soros.
When dictators fail, their lives rarely end peacefully. Putin, Xi, MBS, Kim, and Orbán — the dictators who seem to be funding or running much of the social media effort to make Americans hate each other and distrust democracy — all know that their lives and futures are literally on the line with the 2024 election. And each has access to billions of dollars and an army of trolls to swing American popular opinion, thanks to Citizens United.
President Biden has made it clear that he will continue to support democracies around the world — including in Ukraine and Taiwan — as well as democracy movements in countries like Saudi Arabia and Hungary. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has said that he’ll realign America with the Russian Axis powers and break our traditional ties to Europe and NATO.
While American corporations and billionaires will be major players in the 2024 election, these foreign dictators may well play as large a role as Putin did in 2016; without his help reaching 126 million people via Facebook, Trump never would have won the Electoral College after losing the popular vote by three million.
Unlike 2016, AI is further complicating prospects for 2024, since it’s now possible to generate absolutely believable fake memes, some of which are already circulating on social media. It’s a prescription for chaos, and chaos is exactly what Putin, Xi, MBS, and Orbán want here.
Given the Citizens United precedent, they’re having a lot of success and odds are there won’t be any effective protections against the billions Russia, China, Iran, Hungary, and North Korea will be spending to influence American voters.
But the most infuriating part of this entire sordid story is how the GOP has joined Trump in taking the side of foreign dictators’ efforts to destroy American democracy and institute a neofascist strongman authoritarian form of government here.
It’s unlikely our Congress or courts will be able to protect us, so we all must be vigilant in pointing out the lies and distortions when they come flying at us fast and furious in the coming months.
Forewarned is forearmed.