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The Road to Unfreedom

During self-inflicted catastrophes of this kind, a certain kind of man always finds a way to blame a woman. In Vladimir Putin’s case, that woman was Hillary Clinton.
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The only escape from the alternatives of inevitability and eternity was history: understanding it or making it.
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To think historically is not to trade one national myth for another,
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No other land attracted as much colonial attention within Europe. This reveals the rule: European history turns on colonization and decolonization.
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This was an important moment in Ukrainian history; it confirmed democracy as a succession principle. So long as the rule of law functioned at the heights of politics, there was always hope that it might one day extend to everyday life.
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The reflex of protecting the future, triggered in the minds of students by the fear of losing Europe, was triggered in others by the fear of losing the one generation raised in an independent Ukraine.
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Once again the word went out, and Kyivans of all walks of life decided to put their bodies in front of batons. A young businesswoman recalled that her friends “were shaving and putting on clean clothes in case they should die that night.”
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The history of the Maidan between November 2013 and February 2014, the work of more than a million people presenting their bodies to the cold stone, is not the same thing as the history of the failed attempts to put it down. Bloodshed had been unthinkable for protestors within Ukraine; only bloodshed made Americans and Europeans notice the country; bloodshed served Moscow as an argument to send the Russian army to bring much more. And so the temptation is strong to recall Ukraine as it was seen from the outside, the arc of narrative following the arc of bullets.
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For those who took part in the Maidan, their protest was about defending what was still thought to be possible: a decent future for their own country.
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The violence mattered to them as a marker of the intolerable.
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Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves.
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Hrytsak and others recalled the French philosopher Albert Camus and his idea of a revolt as the moment when death is chosen over submission.
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Poland and Lithuania were not in fact enemies of Russia in the Great Northern War. Getting one’s own history wrong is essential to eternity politics.
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On January 9, 2014, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine informed Yanukovych that Ukrainian riot policemen would be given Russian citizenship after the coming operation to crush the Maidan. This was a very important assurance, since it meant that these policemen did not need to fear the consequences of their actions. If the opposition won in the end, they would still be safe.
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Russian military intelligence created fictitious personae on the internet to spread these stories.
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She claimed that Western objections to the Russian invasion of Ukraine were a matter of “double standards.” This common Russian argument made of law not a general principle but a cultural artifact located among non-Russian peoples. Because Western states do not always follow every law, it ran, law had no validity. Russia, too, might violate laws; but since Russia did not accept the rule of law, this was not hypocritical. Since Russia was not hypocritical, it was innocent. If there are no standards, went the reasoning, then there are no double standards.
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This was Ilyin’s politics of eternity: a cycle back to the past replaces the forward movement of time; law means what Russia’s leader says it means; Russia is repairing God’s failed world with violence. Putin was the redeemer from beyond history who emerged to alter time.
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This was a new variety of fascism, which could be called schizofascism: actual fascists calling their opponents “fascists,” blaming the Holocaust on the Jews, treating the Second World War as an argument for more violence. It was a natural next step in a Russian politics of eternity, in which Russia was innocent and thus no Russian could ever be a fascist. During the Second World War, Soviet propaganda identified the enemy as the “fascists.” According to Soviet ideology, fascism arose from capitalism.
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Russians, Europeans, and Americans were meant to forget the students who were beaten on a cold November night because they wanted a future.
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Putin returned to the office of president with a parliamentary majority in violation of the laws of his own country. The leader who came to power by such means had to divert attention, blame, and responsibility to external enemies.
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A coup involves the military or the police or some combination of the two.
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Yanukovych’s flight to Russia placed Ukrainian citizens and lawmakers in an unusual situation: a head of state, during an invasion of his country, sought permanent refuge in the invading country. This was a situation without legal precedent. The agent of transition was a legally elected parliament.
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It makes a difference whether young people go to the streets to defend a future or arrive in tanks to suppress one.
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At the crucial junctures, an innocent Russia is always repelling a sinful West.
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It became official Russian policy, as it had been official Soviet policy, to recall the Second World War as having begun in 1941 rather than in 1939. The year 1941 is a moment of Russian innocence only if it is forgotten that the Soviet Union had begun the war in 1939 as Germany’s ally, and that between 1939 and 1941 had undertaken policies in occupied lands that were not so very different from Germany’s own.
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The Russian supreme court later confirmed that a Russian citizen could be convicted of a crime for a re-posting of elementary facts about Russian history on social media.
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The future held only more ignorance about the more distant future. As he wrote in Almost Zero: “Knowledge only gives knowledge, but uncertainty gives hope.”
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As Ilyin had done, Surkov invoked familiar biblical verses in order to invert their meanings. In his novel, he has a nun refer to First Corinthians 13: 13: “Uncertainty gives hope. Faith. Love.” If citizens can be kept uncertain by the regular manufacture of crisis, their emotions can be managed and directed. This is the opposite of the plain meaning of the biblical passage Surkov was citing: hope, faith, and love are the trinity of virtues that articulate themselves as we learn to see the world as it is.
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The first thing we learn when we see from the perspective of another is that we are not innocent.
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Its employees and those of other Russian state networks were taught that power was real but that the facts of the world were not.
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RT, Russia’s television propaganda sender for foreign audiences, had the same purpose: the suppression of knowledge that might inspire action, and the coaxing of emotion into inaction.
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The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis.
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In the Russian invasion, the strong used the weapons of the weak—partisan and terrorist tactics—in order to pretend to be the weak.
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Seeing violent death made people vulnerable to stories that imparted to these deaths some larger sense. These stories were provided by Russian television. It was impossible to know who had launched the shell that landed in your neighborhood;
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Once separatists had brought about the same kind of death that they had seen, the stories of innocence became unimpeachable truth. It is hard to resist lies for which one has already killed.
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Armies usually evacuate civilians from an artillery range so that they will not be killed by the enemy’s return fire. Russian authorities gave no such orders, presumably because they were confident no counterstrike was coming.
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Some local Russians felt ill at ease about this one-way war, in which their farmsteads were used to rain down death on people not so different from themselves.
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Russia needed a monopoly on martyrdom. In order to preserve it, Russia would make war on a nation with a far greater record of suffering (the Ukrainians), while abusing the memory of a people with a still greater record of victimhood (the Jews).
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Anton Tumanov’s family received a report: the place of death was listed as “location of unit”; the time of death as “time of performing military service”; the cause of death as “blood loss after having lost his legs.” His mother learned more about how her son died because one of his comrades took the risk of telling her. “What I don’t understand,” Tumanov’s mother said, “is what he died for. Why couldn’t we let people in Ukraine sort things out for themselves?” It pained her that her son was killed in a war that was not officially taking place. “If they sent our soldiers there, let them admit it.” When she posted the facts of her son’s death on social media, she was attacked as a traitor.
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Despite promises of safe passage, Ukrainian soldiers attempting to exit the pocket were killed.
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He meant that factuality was the enemy. This was the case made by the Izborsk Club in its manifesto and by the Russian commander Antyufeyev before the summer invasion: facts were “information technologies” from the West, and to destroy factuality was to destroy the West. Opinion polls suggest that the denial of factuality did suppress a sense of responsibility among Russians.
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The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however
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What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skillful player will lose less than everyone else.
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Russia would bomb Syria to generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic. This would help the AfD, and thus make Europe more like Russia.
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In her decision to accept Syrian refugees, Merkel was motivated by the history of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany made its own Jewish citizens into refugees. The Russian response was in effect to say: If Merkel wants refugees, we will provide them, and use the issue to destroy her government and German democracy.
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The undesired exposure of private conversations was incipient totalitarianism, in a country that had been a focal point of Nazi and Soviet aspirations during the twentieth century. This point was rarely made. Polish memories of German and Soviet aggression tended to congeal around heroism and villainy. What got lost was the memory of how totalitarianism endured into the 1970s and 1980s: not by atrocities where the distinction between the perpetrator and victim is clear, but by an erosion of the line between private and public life that demolishes the rule of law and invites the population to participate in the demolition. Poles returned to a world of bugged conversations, unexpected denunciations, and constant suspicion.
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Public life cannot be sustained without private life. It is impossible to govern, even for the best of democrats, without the possibility for discreet conversations. The only politicians who are invulnerable to exposure are those who control the secrets of others, or those whose avowed behavior is so shameless that they are invulnerable to blackmail.
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By accepting that the private lives of public figures are the same thing as politics, citizens cooperate in the destruction of a public sphere.
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If Russians believed that all leaders and all media lied, then they would learn to dismiss Western models for themselves. If the citizens of Europe and the United States joined in the general distrust of one another and their institutions, then Europe and America could be expected to disintegrate. Journalists cannot function amidst total skepticism; civil societies wane when citizens cannot count on one another; the rule of law depends upon the beliefs that people will follow law without its being enforced and that enforcement when it comes will be impartial. The very idea of impartiality assumes that there are truths that can be understood regardless of perspective.
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A few weeks earlier, on Russian state television, a Russian anchor had claimed that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves; and her interlocutor, Alexander Prokhanov, had agreed. Putin’s government paid the anchorwoman, and Putin himself made media appearances with Prokhanov (who also took a joyride in a Russian bomber, a rather clear expression of official support). These people were not condemned.
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Pilger wrote his article under the influence of a text he found on the internet, purportedly written by a physician, detailing supposed Ukrainian atrocities in Odessa—but the doctor did not exist and the event did not take place.
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None of these influential American and British writers visited Ukraine, which would have been the normal journalistic practice. Those who spoke so freely of conspiracies, coups, juntas, camps, fascists, and genocides shied from contact with the real world. From a distance, they used their talents to drown a country in unreality; in so doing, they submerged their own countries and themselves.
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When Moscow brought to bear in the United States the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. And so the United States was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.
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Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. —OLIVER GOLDSMITH, 1770
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“Donald Trump, successful businessman” was not a person. It was a fantasy born in the strange climate where the downdraft of the American politics of eternity, its unfettered capitalism, met the rising hydrocarbon fumes of the Russian politics of eternity, its kleptocratic authoritarianism. Russians raised “a creature of their own” to the presidency of the United States. Trump was the payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as in fact he has done.
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Russia is not a wealthy country, but its wealth is highly concentrated. It is thus common practice for Russians to place someone in their debt by providing easy money and naming the price later.
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In June 2017, after Russia’s victory, Putin spoke for himself, saying that he had never denied that Russian volunteers had made cyberwar against the United States. This was the precise formulation he had used to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine: that he had never denied that there were volunteers. Putin was admitting, with a wink, that Russia had defeated the United States in a cyberwar.
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American exceptionalism proved to be an enormous American vulnerability.
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Unlike Ukrainians, Americans were unaccustomed to the idea that the internet might be used against them.
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In 2016, about a million sites on Facebook were using a tool that allowed them to artificially generate tens of millions of “likes,” thereby pushing certain items, often fictions, into the newsfeeds of unwitting Americans.
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An important scholarly study published the day before the polls opened warned that bots could “endanger the integrity of the presidential election.” It cited three main problems: “first, influence can be redistributed across suspicious accounts that may be operated with malicious purposes; second, the political conversation can be further polarized; third, spreading of misinformation and unverified information can be enhanced.”
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Having used its Twitter bots to encourage a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, Russia now turned them loose in the United States.
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As in Poland in 2015, so in the United States in 2016: no one considered the totalitarian implications of the selective public release of private communications. Totalitarianism effaces the boundary between the private and public, so that it is normal for us all to be transparent to power all of the time.
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More fundamentally, it was a foretaste of what modern totalitarianism is like: no one can act in politics without fear, since anything done now can be revealed later, with personal consequences.
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Of course, citizens play their part in creating a totalitarian atmosphere. Those who chose to call and threaten were in the avant-garde of American totalitarianism.
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If they take as knowledge only what is revealed by foreign hackers, citizens become beholden to hostile powers.
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The drama of revelation of one thing makes us forget that other things are hidden.
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This was a telling omission, since no American presidential campaign was ever so closely bound to a foreign power. The connections were perfectly clear from the open sources.
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One success of Russia’s cyberwar was that the seductiveness of the secret and the trivial drew Americans away from the obvious and the important: that the sovereignty of the United States was under visible attack.
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In important respects, American media had become like Russian media, and this made Americans vulnerable to Russian tactics.
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The United States once boasted an impressive network of regional newspapers. After the financial crisis of 2008, the American local press, already weakening, was allowed to collapse.
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Where there are local reporters, journalism concerns events that people see and care about. When local reporters disappear, the news becomes abstract. It becomes a kind of entertainment rather than a report about the familiar.
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The internet is an attention economy, which means that profit-seeking platforms are designed to divide the attention of their users into the smallest possible units that can be exploited by advertising messages. If news is to appear on such platforms, it must be tailored to fit a brief attention span and arouse the hunger for reinforcement. News that draws viewers tends to wear a neural path between prejudice and outrage.
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Some Americans wished to believe that what is private must be mysterious, and they were coaxed along by Russia.
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Russians exploited American gullibility.
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Everyone who liked, followed, and supported Heart of Texas was taking part in a Russian intervention in American politics designed to destroy the United States of America. Americans liked the site because it affirmed their own prejudices and pushed them just a bit further. It offered both the thrill of transgression and a sense of legitimacy.
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The internet is a bit like this. It knows much about us, but interacts with us without revealing that this is so. It makes us unfree by arousing our worst tribal impulses and placing them at the service of unseen others.
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Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.
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Democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters. The question is not whether elections are held, but whether they are free and fair. If so, democracy produces a sense of time, an expectation of the future that calms the present. The meaning of each democratic election is promise of the next one. If we anticipate that another meaningful election will take place, we know that the next time around we can correct our mistakes, which in the meantime we blame upon the people whom we elect. In this way, democracy transforms human fallibility into political predictability, and helps us to experience time as movement forward into a future over which we have some influence. If we come to believe that elections are simply a repetitive ritual of support, democracy loses its meaning.
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The essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia. Rather than addressing its problems, Russia exports them; and one of its basic problems is the absence of a succession principle.
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The rule of law requires that the government control violence, and that the population expects that government can do so. The presence of guns in American society, which can feel like strength to some Americans, appeared in Moscow as a national weakness.
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Russia’s support of the NRA resembled its support of right-wing paramilitaries in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
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Democracy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, where “free” means “without the threat of violence.”
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An important sign of the collapse of the rule of law is the rise of a paramilitary and its merger with government power.
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Puerto Rico has more inhabitants than twenty-one of the fifty American states, but its American citizens have no influence on presidential elections.
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As a result of gerrymandering, Democratic voters in Ohio or North Carolina in effect have, respectively, about one-half or one-third as much ability to elect a representative in Congress as do Republican voters. Citizens did not have an equal vote.
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When a minority president and a minority party control the executive and legislative branches of government, they can be tempted into a politics where victory depends not upon policy that pleases majorities but upon further limitation of the franchise.
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In 2016 in Florida, some 23% of African Americans were denied the vote as convicted felons. Felonies in Florida include releasing a helium balloon and harvesting lobsters with short tails.
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The Republican majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, made clear that the Senate would not consider any nominee of Barack Obama. This broke one of the most important conventions of the federal government of the United States, and was commented upon in Moscow.
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Moscow was attacking, and Congress declined to defend the country.
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Even as Kasich and Rubio took a stand on Russian foreign policy, the crucial Republican legislators surrendered in advance to Russian cyberattack. It was more important to humiliate a black president than it was to defend the independence of the United States of America. That is how wars are lost.
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It is easy to see the appeal of eternity to wealthy and corrupt men in control of a lawless state. They cannot offer social advance to their population, and so must find some other form of motion in politics.
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Demoralized by their inability to change their station in life, they must accept that the meaning of politics lies not in institutional reform but in daily emotion.
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Russian oligarchy emerged in the 1990s, but was consolidated as the kleptocratic control of the state by a single oligarchical clan under Putin in the 2000s.
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The appeal of the politics of eternity to such men is all too understandable. Far better to shackle a nation and rattle the world than to risk the loss of so much.
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address. Russians used shell companies to purchase American real estate, often anonymously.
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Since the 1980s, the tax rates paid by the top 0.1% of American earners fell from about 65% to about 35%, and for the top 0.01% from about 75% to below 25%.
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In the 2010s, the United States approached the Russian standard of inequality.
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Oligarchy works as a patronage system that dissolves democracy, law, and patriotism. American and Russian oligarchs have far more in common with one another than they do with their own populations.
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The problem was that American leaders took globalization as the solution to its own problems, rather than as an invitation to reform the American state.
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Persistent opioid use makes it harder for people to learn from experience, or to take responsibility for their actions.
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The politics of eternity triumphs when fiction comes to life.
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In the Russian model, investigative reporting must be marginalized so that news can become a daily spectacle.
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His spokesman Sean Spicer claimed that Hitler did not kill “his own people.” The idea that German Jews were not part of the German people is how the Holocaust began.
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The politics of eternity demands that effort be directed against the enemy, which can be the enemy within.
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of eternity takes racial inequality and makes it a source of economic inequality, turning whites against blacks, declaring hatred normal and change impossible.
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Americans living in the countryside tend to believe that their taxes are distributed to people in the cities, although the opposite is the case.
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Trump was a loser since he could only win thanks to Russia; Republicans were greater losers since he had trapped their party; Democrats were still greater losers since they were excluded from power; and the Americans who suffer from deliberately engineered inequality and health crisis were the greatest losers of all.
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Trump was called a “populist.” A populist, however, is someone who proposes policies to increase opportunities for the masses, as opposed to the financial elites. Trump was something else: a sadopopulist, whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate.
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On another level, such a voter is changing the currency of politics from achievement to suffering, from gain to pain, helping a leader of choice establish a regime of sadopopulism.
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Moscow won a negative-sum game in international politics by helping to turn American domestic politics into a negative-sum game.
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Some Americans can be persuaded to live shorter and worse lives, provided that they are under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that blacks (or perhaps immigrants or Muslims) suffer still more.
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If people who support the government expect their reward to be pain, then a democracy based upon policy competition between parties is endangered.
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In the long term, a government that cannot assemble a majority through reforms will destroy the principle of rule by majority.
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The electoral logic of sadopopulism is to limit the vote to those who benefit from inequality and to those who like pain, and take the vote away from those who expect government to endorse equality and reform.
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The temptation Russia offered Trump was the presidency. The temptation Trump offered Republicans was that of a one-party state, government by rigged elections rather than by political competition, a racial oligarchy in which the task of leaders was to bring pain rather than prosperity, to emote for a tribe rather than perform for all. If all the federal government did was maximize inequality and suppress votes, at some point a line would be crossed. Americans, like Russians, would eventually cease to believe in their own elections; then the United States, like the Russian Federation, would be in permanent succession crisis, with no legitimate way to choose leaders. This would be the triumph of the Russian foreign policy of the 2010s: the export of Russia’s problems to its chosen adversaries, the normalization of Russia’s syndromes by way of contagion.
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Politics is international, but repair must be local. The presidential campaign
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To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others.
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To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.
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Inevitability and eternity are not history but ideas within history, ways of experiencing our time that accelerate its trends while slowing our thoughts.
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The virtues of equality, individuality, succession, integration, novelty, and truth depend each upon all the others, and all of them upon human decisions and actions. An assault upon one is an assault upon all; strengthening one means affirming the rest.
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All of the virtues depend upon truth, and truth depends upon them all.
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Authoritarianism begins when we can no longer tell the difference between the true and the appealing. At the same time, the cynic who decides that there is no truth at all is the citizen who welcomes the tyrant.
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To seek the truth means finding a way between conformity and complacency, towards individuality.
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If it is true that we are individuals, and if it is true that we live in a democracy, then each of us should have a single vote, not greater or lesser power in elections as a result of wealth or race or privilege or geography.
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A fascist says “the people” and means “some people,” those he favors at the moment.
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If there is no truth, there can be no trust, and nothing new appears in a human vacuum.
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In conditions of distrust and isolation, creativity and energy veer towards paranoia and conspiracy, a feverish repetition of the oldest mistakes.
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