Bret Stephens Warns of the “Ukrainianization” of American Politics

He raises a very real problem.

Here’s something I don’t write very often: Bret Stephen’s column, The United States Is Starting to Look Like Ukraine, is very much worth your time. And his thesis, I fear, will start to look more and more accurate the more we find out about Giuliani’s dealings in Ukaine (as well as whatever it was the Devin Nunes was up to).

The whole column is worth a read, but the basics are summed up as follows:

we’ve been living in a country undergoing its own dismal process of Ukrainianization: of treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism; and fellow citizens as “human scum”; and mortal enemies as long-lost friends — and then acting as if all this is perfectly normal. This is more than a high crime. It’s a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene.

Indeed.

Some key elements of this that need serious understanding include the willingness of the Republican Party (both Trump and members of Congress) to use unfounded, debunked theories (see, e.g., the whole Crowdstrike business) to further short-term political gains.

The subordination of truth to short-term political gain, especially of this nature, is profoundly disturbing. This is not an issue of interpretation nor of a reasonable disagreement about a set of facts. This is directly avoiding concrete knowledge and engaging in the purposeful creation of confusion along with the promoting of a combination of demonstrably false statements and outright lies.

I recognize that in a court of law one possible strategy is to give the jury a series of alternative theories so that they have a hard time coming to a conclusion about the guilt of the accused. I think that this is the basic strategy the GOP is employing, especially as it pertains to their elected members of Congress and their base voters. But, to Stephens’ point, this is using, as Fiona Hill called them, “politically driven falsehoods” purposefully and deliberately simply to give cover to corrupt actions by the president. This is not a defense attorney doing her ethical duty to provide the best defense for her client. No, this is a concerted effort by members of the Republican Party to use these falsehoods to deceive their own voters.

Let me emphasize that last sentence: GOP leaders are actively seeking to deceive GOP voters so that they will keep the GOP rank-and-file in Congress in line.

Hill, it is worth pointing out, went on to say:

These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes. President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a Super PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.

And to allow this to succeed is, dare I say, a type of collusion with the Russians to subvert our political process and the 2020 elections.

I recognize that politics is, to some degree, a short term game. But how it is played matters. Spin is one thing. I can live with fights over meaning and debates about interpretation. But when politicians are willing to knowingly traffic in falsehoods because it helps score points in the moment, we have a problem. It is dirty play and it should not be accepted and rewarded.

A second element that we are seeing from the Republicans is the denigration of civil service professionals. It has been a hallmark of Trump and his allies to decry “the deep state” as enemies (because, let’s face facts, professionals trying to do their jobs using known facts about the world are a challenge to Trump’s approach to, well, everything). Now we are seeing experts with decades of experience (Taylor, Clark, Yovanovitch, Hill, etc.) being dismissed as partisan (or, like Senator Kennedy, just someone with an “opinion” with no more weight than anyone else’s).

If made up stories can be substituted for truth, and experts are ignored, we are in very serious trouble. And it is incontrovertibly the case that the Republican Party is operating in this fashion.

I would note, too, that the issue of Burisma and the Bidens is clearly about smear tactics and innuendo far more than it is about an evidence-based concern on the part of Trump and his allies. This is just more the kinds of political games one sees in the oligarchic politics of places like Ukraine.

To requote Stephens, we are seeing “treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism.”

This should be unacceptable.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Europe, Impeachment, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting.

    If you are, say, an investor, and you lose sight of what the facts are, you lose money. This is why the Wall Street Journal had a very right wing, loose-with-the-truth editorial page, but very, very solid and accurate news reporting.

    And if you are a military organization, you cannot succeed if you are driven by slogans and cheerleading. You have to act on very solid appraisals of your strengths and weaknesses.

    I worked here in Silicon Valley at a company that sold full computers that weren’t Intel based. Things were looking grim, and an executive gave an impromptu speech to the engineering staff where he cited the joke “We don’t have to run faster than the bear, we just have to run faster from the other guy running from the bear”. This was wrong. That company is no longer a force.

    I could go on. Any enterprise that ignores the facts long enough fails, sometimes they just sort of fade away, sometimes it’s spectacular. So is that enterprise that fails going to be the United States of America, or is it going to be the Republican Party? Left-wing media wants to throw stuff at me, too. As best I can tell, the worst of it is speculative or irrelevant, but basically factual. I don’t know that this will continue, though, in the face of what appears to be a winning strategy.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I am sorry, but I do not consider the failure of the US to be merely a self-correction.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    I think it was John McCain who said “Politics isn’t beanbag”, meaning that to win you must be aggressive. But for too many Republicans “aggressive” has become synonymous with lying and cheating. So legitimate tactics, like making Obama own unpopular opinions by scheduling well timed votes, are indistinguishable in their minds from spreading lies about his birthplace, his parentage, his education.

    The Republican Party is the Party of Lies and has been for several decades.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    This is why I hate, with the fury of a million white-hot suns, what has been going on in far too many political parties with politicians and their willingness to lie. A CEO who puts out lies about his corporation can be accused and convicted of fraud and the SEC can go after him as well. But politicians who are too willing to make up stories and indulge in corruption and unethical activities? The only thing we’re told is “well, you can always vote him out.” And what to do when an entire political party seems to have turned into an unethical swamp? We have no recourse at all.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting. If you are, say, an investor, and you lose sight of what the facts are, you lose money.

    I wish I shared your optimism. But is politics the same as finance? 40%+/- of our electorate is convinced that anything Trump says is true. Facts can not penetrate their bubble of fealty. Fox News has spent 1/4 of a century convincing them that down is up, black is white. Hillary Clinton has withstood decades of investigations, but still she is a crook and should be locked up. I think politics is less like finance and more like a circus full of hoaxes and human curiosities. And there is a sucker born every minute.

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Moosebreath:

    I am sorry, but I do not consider the failure of the US to be merely a self-correction.

    This raises an interesting point, I think, and one that’s relevant. I am by profession and temperament an engineer. I think about systems, how they work, and how they fail. With this hat on, the United States of America is a system. It is facing a systemic threat. I don’t know that I’m interested in changing the language I use to talk about it as compared to some other system, because then I would not be speaking as an engineer any more, but as a politician.

    To you it seems bloodless, I think, to talk this way. I sort of agree. That’s why I do it, because I value fact, analysis and understanding highly.

    As it turns out, I also value the United States of America highly. And when organizations fail, what happens next varies widely. Sometimes they disappear completely, sometimes they reinvent themselves, sometimes the ideas they were founded on show up again in a different form. I think that the US was founded on some very, very good ideas, but many have forgotten why those ideas are so important. Failure of some fashion will, perhaps, remind them.

    Just like the outbreaks of measles and mumps and whooping cough we’re now seeing will remind people of the value of infant vaccinations.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Most people are sheep. The limit of their decision-making capability is deciding which goat to follow, which knee to bend. White evangelicals have been raised from infancy to believe lies, to be afraid and to follow con-men who both stoke, and offer security from, various exploitable fears. Ergo: Trump.

    But brainlessness is not confined to the Right, witness the anti-vax movement, fad diets, baseless conspiracy theories etc… on the Left. The difference comes at the underlying emotional level: ‘conservatives’ are driven by fear, liberals are driven by hope. Either can make you stupid, but Leftwing stupid is far less toxic (at this point in our history) than Rightwing stupid.

    I used to imagine that people wanted truth. That itself was not true. Some people care about truth, most people don’t. Most people actively reject truth to one degree or another because they’ve been raised on bullshit and that bullshit forms an essential part of their being. If people are sheep, and if they insist on remaining sheep, then the question becomes how best to shepherd the sheep. I used to undervalue the importance of institutions, that was a mistake.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Any enterprise that ignores the facts long enough fails, sometimes they just sort of fade away, sometimes it’s spectacular. So is that enterprise that fails going to be the United States of America, or is it going to be the Republican Party?

    It took the destruction of much of their nations for fascism to fail last time around.

    I will comment as I did on Stephens column in NYT – wake me up when he realizes it isn’t just Trump, it’s Republicans.

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  9. mattbernius says:

    @gVOR08:
    Dear god, I’m going to have to defend Stephens… I think he did actually (for once) lay the blame at the feet of the Republicans:

    And it’s to the enduring shame of the Republican Party that they have been willing to debase our political standards to the old Ukrainian level just when Ukrainians are trying to rise to our former level.

    I went into it, having seen the previous paragraph excerpted, expecting this to end on a note of “both-side-isms.” After all that’s a textbook move for Stephens. So color me surprised that, at least this one time, he actually managed not to equally blame (or even directly mention) the Democrats.

    Could it have been written more forcefully? Sure. Will he likely reverse himself in future columns? Sure.

    But for this one moment, he put the blame where it belongs.

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting.

    I hope you’re right.

    But even more so, I’m concerned about all the profound damage that is being cause within and outside the US — to flesh and blood people — as a result of this process.

    Thanks to my personal privilege, beyond having a spouse whose a government employee, I’m largely untouched by any of this (things could frankly get a hell of a lot worse before I was ever directly effected). That is very much *not* the case for vulnerable people and populations.

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  11. steve says:

    “This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting.”

    Reminds me of another saying. Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. IOW, when will it correct and how bad is it before it does? As another famous person said, “in the long run we’re all dead.”

    Steve

  12. DrDaveT says:

    This is directly avoiding concrete knowledge and engaging in the purposeful creation of confusion along with the promoting of a combination of demonstrably false statements and outright lies.

    I believe the correct term is “disinformation”.

    I recognize that in a court of law one possible strategy is to give the jury a series of alternative theories so that they have a hard time coming to a conclusion about the guilt of the accused.

    If the theories are sufficiently incoherent, it’s called “The Chewbacca Defense” (even by lawyers), after an episode of South Park. That’s pretty much where the Republicans are with the Ukraine story: “If a wookie lives on Endor, you must acquit!”

  13. Kathy says:

    The self-correction we’re talking about can take the form of civil war, revolution, collapse, or foreign invasion(*). Note neither of these alternatives excludes any of the others.

    We literally saw all of these in the 1990s when the USSR and its satellites, and Yugoslavia, had their self-correction. While many countries made a peaceful transition via “velvet” revolutions, Yugoslavia went on to full civil war and foreign intervention.

    The USSR collapsed without much violence, but things went downhill for a very long time. and eventually there was fighting in various former Soviet Republics, not to mention foreign interventions by Putin later on in Georgia and Ukraine.

    IMO, one reason things went relatively peacefully was because everyone within the Soviet Bloc knew things weren’t working out. That the system was a failure. Americans don’t yet seem to know this, partly because the system is not a total failure. But things like trickle-down “economics” are a massive failure, at least for the middle class and below, yet there are plenty of defenders of that system yet.

  14. dmichael says:

    @mattbernius: I suppose we should follow the research findings of B.F. Skinner and provide positive reinforcement for behavior we find appropriate even for right wingers like Stephens who have written mostly nonsense for years. I just can’t work up the energy. Stephens will be writing more nonsense as soon as Trump leaves the scene, maybe even before.

  15. Zachriel says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I think about systems, how they work, and how they fail.

    @Jay L Gischer: This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting.

    The root systemic problem is weak feedback. Consider the Iraq War debacle. The primary cost was an increase in national debt, but that had little effect on the average American, just a number on the balance sheet. (ETA: Taxes actually decreased.) America can keep making trillion dollar mistakes — until it can’t.

    The center of a mature empire tends to be largely isolated from the effects of its own bad decisions. This is now compounded by foreign interference in U.S. elections, further diluting the feedback.

  16. Moosebreath says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    “To you it seems bloodless, I think, to talk this way. I sort of agree. That’s why I do it, because I value fact, analysis and understanding highly.”

    My problem is not that your phrasing is bloodless.

    “As it turns out, I also value the United States of America highly. And when organizations fail, what happens next varies widely. Sometimes they disappear completely, sometimes they reinvent themselves, sometimes the ideas they were founded on show up again in a different form. I think that the US was founded on some very, very good ideas, but many have forgotten why those ideas are so important. Failure of some fashion will, perhaps, remind them.”

    My problem is that I suspect that if the US fails, it (and possibly the world as a whole) cannot “self correct”. The failure of the US may cause Western Civilization to fall, and the cost to return to where we are now is likely so great that it may take centuries for an equivalently beneficial civilization to arise.

  17. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Moosebreath: I wouldn´t call it a ¨self-correction” merely a correction. And the fact that we don´t like the name doesn´t change the reality of what it is.

  18. Moosebreath says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker:

    That was @Jay L Gischer‘s choice of words.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Moosebreath: That doesn’t change the fact that my comment is directed toward

    I am sorry, but I do not consider the failure of the US to be merely a self-correction.

  20. Moosebreath says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Again, you should take it up with @Jay L Gischer, who brought the term into the discussion.

  21. Chip Daniels says:

    @Kathy:
    Exactly, and even though the USSR collapsed relatively peacefully, what followed (Putin) was only a modest improvement over Gorbachev, and its entirely reasonable to foresee it going back to being essentially the same.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    This problem, is, in some sense, self-correcting.

    I suspect that our carbon emissions will also be self-correcting.

  23. de stijl says:

    @mattbernius:

    For gosh sakes do not defend Bret Stephens!

    If he was savvy, he’d have been against this since the rise of Gingrich.

    The writing has clearly been on the wall for decades. Stephens chose to ignore it.

    Bully for him for eventually getting it right, I guess. But not signifying a seriously minded person that was paying the least bit of attention.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I think you guys are confusing “self” with “auto.”

  25. de stijl says: