[Note for TomDispatch Readers: TD is taking this weekend off. Next post: Tuesday, August 9th. Tom]
If you're of a certain age (as I am), there's something that should have startled you recently and yet, as far as I know, no one has bothered to mention it: anytime in the last seven decades, any American politician running for any position from dogcatcher to president who had called on Russia's leaders for help in a domestic campaign (no less for them to release the supposedly cyber-hacked emails of a former secretary of state) would have been pilloried. His or her career would have instantly been over; his or her reputation turned to ash; his or her future life, rubble. No exceptions.
Yet the immortal Donald, the Incredible Hulk of present-day American politics, did just that -- not once but twice. First, he said: "By the way, [the Russians] hacked -- they probably have her 33,000 [missing] emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted because you'd see some beauties there. So let's see." Then, assumedly just in case anyone had missed what he was getting at, he put it even more bluntly: "Russia, if you're listening: I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens."
And he lived to tell the tale and threaten to "hit" not Russian President Vladimir Putin, but former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who dissed him at the Democratic convention) "so hard his head would spin." It's true that a little flurry of press accounts reported on the way Trump had inserted himself into an already roiling scandal involving the possible Russian cyber hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computers. It's also true that various national security state types leapt, in typical Cold War fashion, to accuse him of engaging in acts that were "tantamount to treason," or of having committed an actual, prosecutable crime. But they, not The Donald, were clearly the dinosaurs of our post-asteroid moment.
For the first time in 70-plus years, an American politician made mockery of the knowns and givens of the American national security state's definition of The Enemy and got away scot-free. So consider Trump's plea to Putin as an announcement that we've all been thrust willy-nilly into a new age, a new era so strange that we need TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, to begin to unravel it for us. Tom
The Decay of American Politics
An Ode to Ike and Adlai
By Andrew J. Bacevich
My earliest recollection of national politics dates back exactly 60 years to the moment, in the summer of 1956, when I watched the political conventions in the company of that wondrous new addition to our family, television. My parents were supporting President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term and that was good enough for me. Even as a youngster, I sensed that Ike, the former supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, was someone of real stature. In a troubled time, he exuded authority and self-confidence. By comparison, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson came across as vaguely suspect. Next to the five-star incumbent, he seemed soft, even foppish, and therefore not up to the job. So at least it appeared to a nine-year-old living in Chicagoland.
Of the seamy underside of politics I knew nothing, of course. On the surface, all seemed reassuring. As if by divine mandate, two parties vied for power. The views they represented defined the allowable range of opinion. The outcome of any election expressed the collective will of the people and was to be accepted as such. That I was growing up in the best democracy the world had ever known -- its very existence a daily rebuke to the enemies of freedom -- was beyond question.
Naïve? Embarrassingly so. Yet how I wish that Election Day in November 2016 might present Americans with something even loosely approximating the alternatives available to them in November 1956. Oh, to choose once more between an Ike and an Adlai.
Don't for a second think that this is about nostalgia. Today, Stevenson doesn't qualify for anyone's list of Great Americans. If remembered at all, it's for his sterling performance as President John F. Kennedy's U.N. ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Interrogating his Soviet counterpart with cameras rolling, Stevenson barked that he was prepared to wait "until hell freezes over" to get his questions answered about Soviet military activities in Cuba. When the chips were down, Adlai proved anything but soft. Yet in aspiring to the highest office in the land, he had come up well short. In 1952, he came nowhere close to winning and in 1956 he proved no more successful. Stevenson was to the Democratic Party what Thomas Dewey had been to the Republicans: a luckless two-time loser.
As for Eisenhower, although there is much in his presidency to admire, his errors of omission and commission were legion. During his two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations, and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators -- in effect, planting a series of IEDs destined eventually to blow up in the face of Ike's various successors. Meanwhile, binging on nuclear weapons, the Pentagon accumulated an arsenal far beyond what even Eisenhower as commander-in-chief considered prudent or necessary.
In addition, during his tenure in office, the military-industrial complex became a rapacious juggernaut, an entity unto itself as Ike himself belatedly acknowledged. By no means least of all, Eisenhower fecklessly committed the United States to an ill-fated project of nation-building in a country that just about no American had heard of at the time: South Vietnam. Ike did give the nation eight years of relative peace and prosperity, but at a high price -- most of the bills coming due long after he left office.
The Pathology of American Politics
And yet, and yet...
To contrast the virtues and shortcomings of Stevenson and Eisenhower with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is both instructive and profoundly depressing. Comparing the adversaries of 1956 with their 2016 counterparts reveals with startling clarity what the decades-long decay of American politics has wrought.