This Is Why You Have a RESPONSIBILITY to Vote

vote, election

Tuesday, November 6th is election day. Millions of Americans will head to the polls. Millions of other Americans will ignore the election and not bother voting. Both groups have the right to vote or not vote. But only those who vote will be fulfilling their civic responsibility.

I teach the US citizenship test to refugees. The test has 100 questions. The testing officer could ask up to 10 questions and the applicant has to get 6 correct. Question 50 asks, “Name one right only for United States citizens.” One of the correct answers is “vote in a federal election.” Question 49 asks, “What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?” And one correct answer is “vote in a federal election.”

We could make a simple Venn diagram of things that are both rights and responsibilities, and voting would be smack in the middle of it. There are not many things that are both a right and a responsibility. Serving on a jury is a responsibility, but it’s not a right. Owning a gun is a right in America, but it’s definitely not a responsibility, even though the NRA and its cheerleaders disgustingly try to tell us it is after every mass shooting.

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The Second Amendment implies the right to not own a gun. The First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantees the right to observe no religion at all. The right to vote seemingly implies a right to not vote, but not voting is ethically more similar to failing to show up for jury duty than to not going to a church or not buying a gun.

The fact that voting is a right is important. The effort by Republicans to strip hundreds of thousands of American citizens of their registrations and access to polling places is an attack on their rights.

But we shouldn’t think of it strictly as a right. Liberalism in America has lost sight of its emphasis on democracy’s duties, obligations, responsibilities. President John F. Kennedy called the nation to civic duty in his inaugural address with the call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This may be taking it a bit far. A healthy social contract requires mutual investment between the people and their government. But his point is true: we need to think about what we can do for our country. And voting is one of the most important duties we have as citizens.

Writing about the national debt, Thomas Jefferson said, “For a nation as a Society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his Society.” This idea is at least as old as Plato’s “Republic,” which thinks of a good society in terms of the best way to educate an individual.

Jefferson’s ideas were born in the Enlightenment. The greatest thinker of Enlightenment ethics was Immanuel Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative, sort of the golden rule for grown-ups, states that you should always act in a way that it would make sense for everyone to act. It might seem okay to run a red light once in a while when no one is looking. But if everyone always did that, the whole traffic system would collapse and people would die.

Similarly, it’s easy to think that your one vote doesn’t matter. But if everyone decided not to vote, then not-voting becomes the deciding factor in an election. And something other than democracy would decide how the country is ruled.

In 2016, only 55% of eligible voters participated. In 2014, only 34% voted. THIRTY-FOUR PERCENT. That’s a third of all voters. Two-thirds of Americans sat out that election. The highest turnout election in recent history was 2008, when 58% of voters showed up. That’s still 42% who didn’t bother. The last time 60% or more of voters turned up was in the 1960s. We have been lucky for a long time that there were no truly bad faith actors who exploited that void of legitimacy in our democratic system. But our luck in that regard started to run out in 2016.

As a whole, America is failing to fulfill its responsibility to vote. And each individual who doesn’t vote shares his or her moral responsibility for that mass failure. Even though Republicans are doing their best to make it hard to vote, the number of people who don’t bother to vote is the biggest threat to democracy.

Our media culture has conditioned us to think of our democracy as an interminable pageant of horse-race analysis. It’s easy to tune that out. And millions of Americans have.

But the two-year election cycle is the wrong prism through which to view democracy. Achieving and maintaining a democracy is extremely rare. There have only been three significant expansions of democracy in world history.

In the ancient world, the Greek city states invented democracy. Their run of democracy lasted under 200 years, shorter than the history of the United States. And during that time period, probably under 100,000 people lived under democracy at a given time. Meanwhile, the Greeks were warring with the decidedly undemocratic Persian empire, which had a population of around 100 million. So, even though the ancient Greeks passed down a remarkable cultural heritage to the world, it’s important to remember that it was far from a normal experience to live under democratic rule in the ancient world.

In the modern world, the Enlightenment sparked a series of revolutions that began with the bloody birth of America in 1776 and continued for nearly a century as monarchies crumbled around the world.

In the 20th Century, democracy contracted with the rise of communist and fascist dictatorships. After World War II, some liberated peoples were restored to democracy, while others languished under the Soviet Union or new forms of military junta for the next half century.

The fall of the Soviet Union was the last great expansion of democracy, which saw the former Soviet satellites rush toward integration with the West. And it is only in the past few decades that a majority of people in the world have lived under something resembling democratic rule.

In the 60,000 years or so since homo sapiens began leaving Africa and building complex settlements, there has probably been less than 500 years during which there was a broadly organized, highly functioning democracy somewhere on earth. And even during those times, the vast majority of people didn’t live in a democracy.

In the grand sweep of history, most societies have been organized around clans or tribes. Most social contracts have been openly hierarchical and unjust. Most political paradigms were of warring states and rising and falling empires. Most human beings who have ever lived were lucky if they lived in a time of relative stability, wherein a warlord provided protection in return for menial labor and unquestioning loyalty. Hundreds of millions of people even in the 20th Century died grisly deaths because they were even less lucky than that. That our democracy exists at all and that we happen to live in it makes us among the most profoundly fortunate people who have ever lived.

Democracy is now under siege around the word. Countries as disparate as Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, the United States, are experiencing an insurgence of oligarchy and strongman demagoguery chipping away at the foundations and safeguards of democratic society.

It used to be an article of faith that democracy would eventually and inevitably inspire one-party states like Russia and China to open up as more of their people experienced globalism. Recent events have actually shown the opposite. Authoritarian states are closing down more, and serve as inspiration for anti-globalist, anti-democratic, anti-immigrant parties in longstanding democracies.

Democracy is something that can never be taken for granted. And yet, when we fail to vote, that is exactly what we are doing. It is my fervent hope that recent elections, and the right wing erosion of the right to vote, has taught the American people that we are never more than one election away from potentially losing our right to vote forever. When we don’t vote, people who don’t want us to vote get into power. Once anti-democratic forces gain power, even in a democracy, history shows us it can be very hard to get them out.

In America, we are straddling the razor’s edge of grand historical change. We will either pull back our democracy from the brink of authoritarianism, or our apathy will allow anti-democratic forces to slice us into pieces and slide American society into the garbage disposal of history.

America is profoundly lucky that we have had a deeply flawed yet very real democratic social contract for 242 years. You would be very hard-pressed to find another run of democracy that long anywhere else at any time in human history.

The people who authored the Constitution were skeptical that it would last long. Asked what kind of government the Founders were creating, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Since the Constitution was ratified in 1788 every election has featured input from some part of the population, and some form of peaceful transfer of power (yes, you can find exceptions, but they prove the rule). Throughout human history, most transfers of power in non-democratic societies are bloody and terrifying, and are ultimately decided by a small cabal of the powerful for their own private interests.

Every single election is a passing of the torch, not to some abstract unknowable future, but only until the very next election. Failing to vote is dropping the torch that has been handed off since the American Revolution. Failing to vote is saying that you don’t need to have the right to give your input in how society is run. Failing to vote is saying that you’re okay with a bloody power struggle. Failing to vote is saying that it’s okay if a small cabal of those who monopolize military, financial and media power decide who rules and how. Failing to vote is saying that it’s okay if you and everyone who comes after you lives in a dictatorship.

Despite the wreckage of the 2016 election, there is still a lit, but sputtering torch being passed to you. You have not only a right, but a responsibility to pick up that torch on Tuesday, and pass it on until the 2020 election. If you don’t hand it off, it might not be there at all next time. And then the flames coming for you won’t be a torch.

No matter how hard it is to vote on Tuesday, no matter how long the line is, no matter what ID they ask you for, do whatever you have to in order to vote. If they try to deny you, ask for a provisional ballot. They cannot legally refuse you a provisional ballot. If anyone does anything to attempt to deny you your right to vote, including unreasonably long lines, contact the ACLU.

It’s no accident that our national anthem ends on a question. Every election we have to decide whether our flag still waves over the land of the free, or if it waves over something else. No generation of Americans since the Civil War have been faced with that question in a more fundamental way than we are. On Tuesday, please fulfill your responsibility, and answer that question with a resounding yes.

Vote.

This website is funded entirely by the generosity of patrons. Please click here to support Marc Belisle’s honest ad-free analysis of the threats against American democracy.

Featured image via Mrs. Gemstone/Flickr

Here’s a Radical Solution to Trump’s Saudi Murder Mess

Mohammed bin Salman Trump White House

Mr. Bone Saw

The disappearance and likely torture-murder of Jamal Khashoggi is Trump’s biggest international crisis since engaging in brinkmanship with North Korea, and he has made a huge mess of it. By backing Saudi Arabia’s ludicrous evolving explanations for how an American permanent resident and Washington Post journalist walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and vanished, Trump aggressively undermines journalists all over the world and America’s claim to leadership in the free world.

Related Story: What Did Trump Admin Know about Saudi Killing of Journalist and When Did They Know it?

Trump has obvious conflicts of interest in this case. Trump’s ties to Saudi royalty go back decades, as Business Insider reports. In 1991, he sold a $20 million yacht to a Saudi prince. In 2001, Trump rented out an entire floor of Trump tower to the Saudi royal court.

More recently, the Saudis have spent a fortune at his hotels since he became president. It is believed that the Saudis spent a great deal on his inauguration. After announcing his candidacy, Trump set up several shell companies in Saudi Arabia.

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It’s worth noting that Trump’s ongoing violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause are more than a technicality. They got a man killed. Saudi Crown Prince “MBS” for Mohammed bin Salman (or Mr. Bone Saw?) would not have been so brazen as to whack an American journalist if he didn’t believe he had the White House in his pocket.

Turning Tricks

On an immediate level we can thank Trump’s blatant corruption for this problem. But on a deeper level, Trump is preserving the status quo. Official Washington has embraced the House of Saud since World War II as a key element of its international security architecture. The Saudis keep crude oil flowing and the United States sends cutting edge weapons systems to the Kingdom. According to data compiled by the Pentagon, Saudi Arabia has spent almost $90 billion on US defense contracts since 1950, the largest purchaser in the world by a large margin. The US imports nearly 10 million barrels of Saudi crude per day, comprising about 10% of the Kingdom’s total export volume. This arrangement keeps the balance of power in the Middle East, and especially balances against Iran.

That, at least, is the surface logic of the relationship. And it may have had a lot of truth to it in past decades. However, nowadays, Washington is a brothel of influence. That’s the nicest way to put it. The Saudis have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and PR firms to curry favor in Washington, where you can get whatever you can pay for. They’re not the only country doing this, but they’re one of the most aggressive with their cash. So, as Mr. Bone Saw rapidly consolidated power in Riyadh, he also paid a small fortune to peddle the tale inside the Beltway that he was a “reformer.”

The most obvious example of this is how Mr. Bone Saw gave women the “right to drive” then imprisoned the top activists of the women’s rights movements in the Kingdom. In retrospect, this whole thing was an obvious PR operation for Western consumption. With one hand, Mr. Bone Saw gave Washington cover to publicly back his regime because it’s “reforming.” With the other hand, he strangled the people he had allegedly liberated.

Congress had to have been aware of this, and they were fine with it as long as it looked kosher from a distance.

Jamal Khashoggi had the audacity to speak the truth about this situation. And Mr. Bone Saw reacted as a thuggish mafia don by allegedly having the man sawed to pieces. The Saudi Prince didn’t do himself any favors, though. Khashoggi’s message has become far more powerful through his death than it was while he was alive.

Grand Strategery

So, the argument for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is that they are a deterrent to Iran. The theocracy in Tehran is ascendant in the region and needs to be contained, the thinking goes. But nothing gave Iran more power in the region than George W. Bush’s decision to flick Saddam Hussein off the board. Tehran flooded the resulting power vacuum. Baghdad is now a virtual satrap of a new Persian empire. Barack Obama and Europe confronted this reality and struck a deal to live with Iran by putting a lid on its nuclear program. Trump then tore up America’s involvement in the Iran nuclear deal.

So, the fact is, no country has destabilized the Middle East and given Iran room to expand more than the United States. Do we really know what we’re doing there?

But the more horrifying fact is that the weapons we sell to Saudi Arabia are not being used as a “deterrent” at all. Saudi Arabia is committing genocide in neighboring Yemen, a weak and poor country incapable of defending itself from the Kingdom wielding American weapons. The indiscriminate bombing has massacred tens of thousands of civilians. It has created a dire situation of widespread plague and famine that threatens millions of lives.

The US is complicit in these war crimes. In August, Saudi forces launched a guided bomb that shredded a school bus bumping along a dusty road in Yemen. The blast slaughtered dozens of children. Lockheed Martin produced the bomb, which means that American workers assembled it at a plant in California, Texas, or Georgia. And the Pentagon approved its sale to Saudi Arabia.

Such incidents have been happening regularly in Yemen for years.

Since the end of World War II, the US has championed the international system that granted America global hegemony, helped it win the Cold War, and ushered in the “unipolar moment.” The three key pillars of this system are (1) oil production in the Middle East, (2) global finance in North America and the democracies protected by America in Europe and Asia, and (3) weapons sales to allies from the bloodiest tinpot dictator to the most bourgeois social democracy. This routine has been so ingrained for the past 70 years that the oil, finance and weapons industries arguably run the American government more than the government regulates them.

But America is long overdue for a grand rethinking of its strategic posture in the world. In the next few decades, the American-led tripartite oil/weapons/finance system IS DEFINITELY GOING TO DIE. How do I know that for certain?, you may ask.

Climate Change

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an alarming report on October 8th. It concluded that the world has warmed by 1°C (1.8°F) since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This change is caused primarily by human societies pumping carbon waste into the atmosphere. The report warns that the world has only 12 years remaining to act to reduce global carbon consumption in order to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5°C (2.7°F). In order to do this, the human species would have to reduce its carbon consumption by 45% by 2030. If we fail to, the earth will likely warm by 2°C (3.6°F). The difference in outcomes from half a degree is enormous.

According to The Guardian,

Sea-level rise would affect 10 million more people by 2100 if the half-degree extra warming brought a forecast 10cm additional pressure on coastlines. The number affected would increase substantially in the following centuries due to locked-in ice melt.

Oceans are already suffering from elevated acidity and lower levels of oxygen as a result of climate change. One model shows marine fisheries would lose 3m tonnes at 2C, twice the decline at 1.5C.

Sea ice-free summers in the Arctic, which is warming two to three times faster than the world average, would come once every 100 years at 1.5C, but every 10 years with half a degree more of global warming.

At 1.5°C, climate change will be bad, but manageable. If we allow the earth to warm by 2°C, it will begin to spiral out of control. Try to imagine what the world will look like starting in the middle of this century if we fail to arrest this process. Coastal cities around the world will be flooded. Agriculture will collapse, fisheries will die off. Regular extreme heat waves will roast tens of millions of people, causing thousands of deaths per year. Desert and tropical areas will become uninhabitable and semi-arid regions will become deserts. Drought will be near-constant in some areas. Other areas will be ravaged by super storms and floods. The earth will be aflame with massive wildfires every year. Countries will go to war over water access. Some rebellions will overthrow governments and others will be brutally crushed. Famine and disease will run rampant. All told, there will be more human beings fleeing some cataclysm than at any time in history.

Humans have been burning carbon into the atmosphere for about a quarter of a millennium. In that time, the earth has warmed by one degree Celsius. So it may seem like we have time to figure this out. But, in fact, half of all the carbon dioxide that humanity has ever burned was consumed in the last 25 years. Americans consume the most per capita, followed by Europeans. The industrial growth in China and India is also contributing to this sudden output. Just 100 companies account for over 70% of all carbon exhaust. These companies are fossil fuels giants like Exxon Mobil, Saudi Aramco and Russia’s Gazprom.

If we ignore this problem and leave it for leaders to figure out in future decades, the earth could warm by as much as three or even four degrees Celsius by the end of this century. New York Magazine spells out that nightmare scenario,

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months and in the Caribbean 21 months. In northern Africa, the figure is 60 months — five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the United States. Beyond the sea-level rise, which will already be swallowing cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta, damages just from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India, and as much as 60-fold in the U.K. This is three degrees — better than we’d do if all the nations of the world honored their Paris commitments, which none of them are. Practically speaking, barring those dramatic tech deus ex machinas, this seems to me about as positive a realistic outcome as it is rational to expect.

At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields could fall by as much as 50 percent, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would be more than 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today. Possibly more. Our current trajectory, remember, takes us higher still, and while there are many reasons to think we will bend that curve soon — the plummeting cost of renewable energy, the growing global consensus about phasing out coal — it is worth remembering that, whatever you may have heard about the green revolution and the price of solar, at present, global carbon emissions are still growing.

A New World Order

The UNHCR estimates that there are currently 68.5 million refugees in the world today. That’s the highest number since the aftermath of World War II. And that uptick of refugees has caused normal political paradigms to go haywire across the globe, ushering in a generation of demagogues onto the world stage. But if we allow the globe to warm, we’re not going to get more wise, rational and stable when there are hundreds of millions of refugees around the world. We will go mad. Governments will collapse in a heap of rubble in a shockwave felt across the planet in only a few decades.

So, for the past 70 years, selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and buying its oil has been a linchpin of America’s national security. But soon it won’t be, because one of two things is going to happen. Either, we are going to dramatically decrease how much oil we consume and transition to clean energy economy. Or we are going to continue consuming oil at an accelerating rate, and there will be so many refugees on the move in the world that human civilization will begin to collapse. Those are our choices. There is no way around this choice.

Any definition of American national security that ignores these facts is dangerously shortsighted.

So, I propose this. We begin planning for a post-oil future. The US should begin divesting from fossil fuels and investing in alternative energy innovation on a scale at least as great as its World War II mobilization. This would accomplish several things at once. It would create good jobs in the United States. It would reduce America’s carbon footprint. It would show the world that America can be a leader of ideas and innovation again. The US should then use the clean energy technology it develops and sell it to foreign countries the way it currently sells weapons. In a world rapidly warming, clean energy contracts should soon be a way to lock in trade deals and develop alliances.

I realize that this is not going to happen with our current government. But that’s why we need everyone to vote in every election from now on. The survival of our democracy, our planet, and human civilization all depend on it.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is a warning to the world. The rulers in Riyadh and Washington are both engaging in brutal and corrupt tactics to buttress the system that America has relied on for 70 years. But that system needs to die. If it doesn’t, Khashoggi’s untimely death will be only one of hundreds of millions before the end of this century.

This website is funded entirely by the generosity of patrons. Please click here to support Marc Belisle’s honest ad-free analysis of the threats against American democracy.

Featured image via White House photo 

Why Did Susan Collins’s Husband Set Up Pro Bono Lobbying in Such a Remote Place?

Susan Collins, Thomas Daffron, Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church

A Hoax Vote?

Donald Trump is awfully fond of calling things a “hoax.” From labeling climate change a “hoax” concocted by the Chinese to telling reporters that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s wrenching testimony was a Democratic “hoax,” all sans evidence, nothing  that happens is real unless el Presidente says so, capisce?

But if a hoax was perpetrated at all in the past few weeks, it was likely the performance of Trump’s fellow Republican Susan Collins, Senator from Maine. She wasted the whole country’s precious time pretending to seriously consider Dr. Ford’s testimony and weigh the merits of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She did this seemingly to gin up accolades in the media about her supposed centrist bona fides. She was likely also accruing various forms of kickbacks from her colleagues, as she realized that her vote had become the linchpin to whether or not Kavanaugh was seated, and she exploited it for everything it was worth.

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Collins is one of the more centrist Senators, in terms of how the Senate lines up with or against Trump’s policies. Collins votes with the president’s policy preference 80% of the time, which is one of the lowest numbers among Republican Senators. But her opposition consisted mostly of protecting the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights. She was also among those who opposed Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos. Otherwise, she talks a big game, but when the final tally is counted, she clicks her heels and salutes.

Looking back on the whole weeklong will-she?/won’t-she? drama, it seems absurd that there was actual suspense about how she was going to vote. George W. Bush, who cultivated both Collins’s and Kavanaugh’s careers, made several calls lobbying Collins on Kavanaugh’s behalf. Appeals to fealty to the Bush clan apparently worked. Collins was all too willing in the end to throw a sexual assault survivor under the bus, gaslighting her that she must have been confused about who had attacked her. Collins also explained her lockstep with the far right by acting dumb about what Kavanaugh is going to do on the Supreme Court, saying,

“My fervent hope is that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court so we have far fewer 5-4 decisions and so that public confidence in our judiciary and our highest court is restored, …”

That is the opposite of what Kavanaugh will do on the Court and Collins knows that.

As I demonstrated last week in my analysis of Lindsey Graham’s motivations for becoming a rabid Kavanaugh defender and Trump mouthpiece, it seems that those Republicans with Russia connections were the most determined to make sure Kavanaugh gets on the court, likely in the hope that he will act as the judicial getaway driver once Robert Mueller’s report drops.

Related story: This is How the Russians Got to Lindsey Graham

Old Believers and New Believers?

Apart from loyalty to Bush, was there another reason that Collins was already locked in to supporting Kavanaugh? Is Collins linked into Russian influence? Her donor profile shows that she’s quite cozy with General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and financial firms. One of those includes Elliott Management, which has a Cayman Islands operation, which puts her downstream from the global money laundering apparatus. But there’s no blatant Russia link like Graham has.

Let’s look at her husband, Thomas Daffron.

Collins and Daffron married in 2012. The two first met in 1974, when she was an intern. Both worked for Senator William Cohen. Daffron has worked for several members of Congress over the years. He left Capitol Hill and moved down the street to become the Chief Operating Officer of Jefferson Consulting Group, LLC, a powerful lobbying group with a large and diverse portfolio. According to Bloomberg, “Mr. Daffron oversaw Jefferson Consulting Group’s administrative and financial functions as well as the day-to-day operations of the firm.”

Daffron was Senator Fred Thompson’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1998. Prior to becoming a Senator, Thompson had been a lobbyist with Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kah. According to a 2007 report by the Sunlight Foundation, Thompson was lobbying on behalf of Haiti in the early 1990s despite not having properly filed paperwork under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Americans lobbying on behalf of foreign governments without proper FARA registration has been a big part of the Trump-Russia criminal saga. Remember, Mike Flynn, who was patient zero of the FBI’s collusion probe, first got into hot water for failing to register as a lobbyist on behalf of the Turkish government.

What did Daffron learn from Thompson?

Shortly after Daffron took the helm of Jefferson Consulting, the lobbying group did lobbying work for the town of Kenai, Alaska. I looked through lobbying records and saw a lot of typical work for typical business clients. But this stood out. Daffron had previously done lobbying work for Native American tribes (likely in relation to casino and gaming issues) while he was the executive vice president at Chesapeake Enterprises from 2001 to 2004. But Kenai, Alaska was, as of 2009, the only instance of Daffron or the lobbying group he worked for, lobbying on behalf of an individual town.

When you look at Kenai’s lobbying portfolio, the town’s retaining Jefferson Consulting in 2009 is the only instance of it ever retaining a lobbyist. And the work was done pro bono. This is especially weird because Jefferson Consulting strictly handles federal lobbying. Why would a town of 7,000 people that isn’t a sovereign Native tribe, need to lobby the federal government, as opposed to the state government?

Why did a powerful lobbying group under the direction of Daffron work on behalf of a small town on a peninsula in a remote area of Alaska–for free?

On the surface, there isn’t much special about Kenai. The area is famous for salmon-fishing. Employers in the area currently hiring include UPS, Home Depot, a movie theater. Hardly the type of economy that retains powerful lobbyists.

However, there is one thing that is–unique–about Kenai. The first European settlement at the site was named Fort Nikolaevskaia. It was established by Russian fur traders in 1786. In 1895, the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church was built, and it’s still there today, with its Russian-style onion dome. Today, the fort is gone, and the town of Kenai sits atop the site of where it once stood, surrounding the Russian Orthodox church.

But even more remote than the town, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, is a small settlement called Nikolaevskaia, and it is populated almost entirely by a community of “Old Believers,” members of a sect of Russians who fled Russia in 1666 to escape religious persecution when the Russian state sought to reform the Russian Orthodox Church. The people who live in the settlement are devout puritans of pre-reformed Russian Orthodox.

Now, I don’t want to point fingers at this settlement of fewer than 400 mostly simple people who happen to be the descendants of Russian refugees. The community is very estranged from Russia. However, if you were going to send a discreet message or launder money internationally, you could do worse than a town in a super-remote area where the population speaks Russian, a Russian operative could easily blend in and communicate under the radar of US intelligence. A town where there’s a barely-patrolled port and where Russian-speaking Americans on fishing boats practically bump into Russian fishing boats in mutually fished waters would be an easy place to move someone or something internationally.

After all, there had to have been some sort of cost. A high-powered DC lobbying firm doesn’t actually do lobbying for free. So what was the payment? And why did Susan Collins marry the man she’d known most of her life in 2012, the year when Trump first attempted to run for president?

There are more questions here than answers. But one thing is certain. When you start digging into the personal network of a Republican power-broker, you invariably find a first-degree link to the global money-laundering apparatus. And Russian influence is usually somewhere in the background of the network.

Special thanks to Eric Garland for suggesting this line of inquiry.

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Featured image via Susan Collins / Twitter and Wikimedia Commons

This is How the Russians Got to Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham is on a rampage. A Grahampage?

The senior Republican Senator from South Carolina has swiftly transformed from Robin to the Batman of the late John “conscience of the Senate” McCain into a barking mad defender of Donald Trump’s policy goals. His slide from Trump critic to Trump lackey has been happening quietly for a while. Graham, who once called Trump a “jackass,” has become one of his closest foreign policy advisers. As rumors of war with North Korea began rumbling before the June opening to the Hermit Kingdom, Graham was one of the most hawkish confidants whispering in Trump’s ear, according to Bob Woodward.

But the weird Trump-Graham bromance goes beyond foreign policy. The rumble in the Senate over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has made it unmistakable.

This website is funded entirely by the generosity of patrons. Please click here to support Marc Belisle’s honest ad-free analysis of the threats against American democracy. 

During the September 27th Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to gather testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, Graham went berserk in defending Trump’s nominee and attacking Democratic colleagues.

Then, on October 2nd, Graham really went nuclear, threatening a yawning breach of democratic norms if Kavanaugh’s nomination fails:

“I believe Judge Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court very soon,” Graham said. “However, if his nomination were to fall short, I would encourage President Trump to re-nominate Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It would — in effect — be appealing the Senate’s verdict directly to the American people.”

Of course, Graham knows that Republicans have a good shot of keeping the Senate, despite a forecast “blue wave” in the House, just because of how daunting the Senate map is for Democrats. Forcing the issue again right before the election would electrify the race and likely get more Republicans to come to the polls. So it’s disingenuous to say that this would be putting it to the American people. Up until the Merrick Garland nomination, the norm has been that the American people decided how their representatives nominated judges in the previous election, not the next election.

This power play Graham suggests would be an unprecedented failure of the Constitution’s checks and balances–just so Trump can take another swing with his highly tainted nominee.

Graham’s behavior in the Senate hearings, and this “encouragement” to Trump to attack the Constitution and ramrod his deeply flawed judge through point to the possibility that Graham is not merely an adviser to the White House. He’s acting as Trump’s mouthpiece in the Senate. Both his and Kavanaugh’s angry tones were positively Trumpian. They seemed to be emulating the president in his viciousness of style, tone and substance. And this suggestion to renominate Kavanaugh sounds like something that Trump cooked up. Did Graham offer to put his name on it before floating it as a trial balloon to give Trump cover?

Clearly, Graham is in Trump’s pocket. So how did he get there?

Some have suggested that Russia has kompromat on Graham. I don’t deny that’s possible. But there is information in the public record that shows a blatant financial conduit from the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs to Graham’s coffers.

The single largest donor to Lindsey Graham’s doomed 2016 presidential run was Access Industries. The company paid $800,000 to Graham’s “Security is Strength” PAC and $32,000 to Graham’s campaign. Most of the other donors were conservative groups, banks, hedge funds, and defense contractors, all typical fare. But Access Industries was unique, and it was his number one supporter.

Access Industries is a multinational conglomerate focused on “natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, technology and e-commerce, and real estate sectors worldwide,” according to Bloomberg. It is privately owned by its founder, Leonard “Len” Blavatnik, who was born a Russian citizen in Soviet Ukraine. He lives in London and his company is based in New York City. According to Forbes, he is worth $17.8 billion, making him the third richest person in the UK and the 27th richest person in the world.

Blavatnik is deeply tied to the Russian oligarchy and top-level power structure in at least two ways that connect to the story of how Russia helped Trump become president.

In 2013, Blavatnik made $7 billion selling his share in Russian-UK joint petroleum company, TNK-BP. The buyer was Rosneft. That was after Russia, under the Vladimir Putin regime, nationalized Rosneft, making it a Russian state-owned asset. When the purchase was completed, Putin essentially became the wealthiest and most powerful oil baron in the world.

So, Blavatnik made Putin super-powerful, Putin paid Blavatnik a cool 7 billion, and Blavatnik paid Lindsey Graham $832,000 while he ran for president against Trump. Were they covering all their bases by funding multiple candidates? Or was Graham merely a foil? Meant to crowd out the field to give Trump breathing room and then bow out once Trump took off? Was the enmity between Trump and Graham during the election all an act?

The second connection is through Blavatnik’s media holdings. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Blavatnik and his fellow billionaire friend Viktor Vekselberg formed an investment group called Renova. Renova then joined with Alfa Group to form a conglomerate called AAR Ventures.

Alfa Group is a holding company privately owned by Russian and Israeli billionaire, Mikhail Fridman. Christopher Steele’s infamous MI6 dossier on Trump featured Fridman prominently. In 2017, Fortune argued that the dossier was believable because,

“The dossier paints a picture of a long-standing symbiotic relationship between Alfa Group and the Russian leader. More recently, the dossier claims, Alfa owners Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven have provided Putin with valuable information through their own network of business contacts in the U.S., valued particularly because of the conflicting signals Putin was getting from his diplomats and spies regarding the success of the alleged operation.”

Fridman’s “business contacts in the U.S.” could include Blavatnik, since Access Industries is based in New York.

In 2016, Slate reported on how investigators looked through Trump’s internet servers to find evidence that he had been hacked by Russia. Instead they found an odd electronic relationship. One server set up by Trump in 2009 would only allow communications from a small number of other servers.

“The irregular pattern of server lookups actually resembled the pattern of human conversation—conversations that began during office hours in New York and continued during office hours in Moscow. It dawned on the researchers that this wasn’t an attack, but a sustained relationship between a server registered to the Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank [owned by Alfa Group].”

So Blavatnik’s support for Graham is a potential conduit of influence that would tie Graham to a Russian Trump-supporter who was possibly carrying on discussions with Trump that were meant to be secret.

Fridman also owns a controlling share of VimpelCom. That Russian telecommunications company has large-scale operations in Ukraine. It was in rapid decline when fighting broke out between Ukraine and Russia. However, VimpelCom survived, because it was bailed out with a huge investment made in 2014 by Renaissance Technologies.

American billionaire Robert Mercer owns Renaissance Technologies. He also owns the company formerly known as Cambridge Analytica. That is the notorious data company that illicitly acquired Facebook data on millions of users and used it to manipulate both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. Mercer is also an owner of Breitbart and suggested to Trump that he hire rabid white nationalist Stephen Bannon in the opening days of his presidency.

To recap, the largest donation that Graham received in 2016 was from Blavatnik, who connects him to the Kremlin. Blavatnik’s money connects him to a Russian oligarch who was apparently pinging Trump’s secret server. It also connects him to the Russian-UK-American illegal data analytics and social media propaganda operation that helped get Trump elected. Far from being a legitimate Trump critic, Graham has been one of the offshoots of this democracy-strangling vine of corrupt influence from the very beginning.

Graham’s ferocious defense of Kavanaugh needs to be viewed in this light. Trump nominated Kavanaugh originally because of Kavanaugh’s history as a partisan hatchet man, and his expansive view of a Republican president’s executive power. But it could be that Trump isn’t the only one who wants a Supreme Court vote in his pocket because he’s worried about what the Mueller investigation might find. Lindsey Graham might have something to hide, too.

It has been speculated that Graham is “angling” to be the next Attorney General of the United States if and when Trump fires Jeff Sessions. In August, Graham seemed to telegraph his blessing for Trump to replace Sessions. He said that any new attorney general would have to let “Mueller … finish his job without political interference.” If Trump moves toward replacing Sessions, we should be very skeptical that this is what Graham actually believes.

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Featured image via CNN YouTube screencapture