Is America Becoming a Third World Country?
“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
If the allegations about Russia holding a “sex tape” on President-elect Trump were to be proved true, he would of course have to resign or be impeached. Quite apart from the moral issues involved, a man guilty of such appalling recklessness, stupidity and irresponsibility should not be employed as a janitor or window-cleaner by any government in the world.
But although these allegations have been around behind the scenes ever since Trump first emerged as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, not one shred of verifiable evidence for them has yet been produced. All we have is the word of a conveniently vanished former British intelligence officer (and if anyone thinks that is a reliable source, then there is a dodgy dossier that I would like to sell them) that he had the information from unnamed Russian intelligence sources, backed by suggestions by unnamed US intelligence sources that this information is credible.
In any other context, such a story would be dismissed out of hand as a plot by sections of Western intelligence determined to wreck any attempt at reconciliation with Russia. And indeed, the lack of any actual evidence for the story was why for the best part of a year the media refused to publish it, until BuzzFeed did so a few days ago.
By its very nature, this story cannot be proved or disproved except by the Russian intelligence services, who cannot do so; because if they have such a tape they cannot reveal it without destroying a US president with whom they hope to co-operate and doing appalling permanent damage to US-Russian relations, and when they say that they don’t have it they are automatically disbelieved by all those people in the West determined to think the worst of Trump and of Russia.
So this rancid story will almost certainly never be ended one way or another – as was doubtless the expectation of its manufacturers if, in fact, it was manufactured. It will simply lurk around for years, weakening the Trump administration and blocking attempts at better relations with Russia, until the Trump administration comes to an end, when – like the Whitewater stories about the Clintons - it will retire again to its natural home on the wilder shores of the internet.
But the damage will have been done, and American democracy further poisoned, as it has been over the years by equally irresponsible and unproven conspiracy theories about Democratic presidents assiduously peddled by Republican extremists. Breitbart – to take only one example - should pay attention to this, and learn that all sides can play this miserable game.
The dangers of this for the US political system are especially vivid for me because of my work in Pakistan and other countries where the entire national intellect and public debate is addled and rotted by conspiracy theories which act as a substitute for serious thought about politics and essential but painful reforms. In this way, such conspiracy theories also serve the interests of the political and economic elites, which have the strongest interest in making sure that such reforms never take place. The result is to help hold in place a system of oligarchical rule in which different factions of the oligarchy periodically stir up the population with empty populist rhetoric while adamantly resisting any serious change.
This may be the awful prospect for the USA if present trends continue – a global superpower with the domestic politics of the Philippines or Argentina. As part of the struggle against such a future, all responsible members of the US political system should reach a sort of cultural and ethical agreement to shun unsubstantiated stories of this kind, unless they have been actually proved.
Another dangerous aspect of such political systems is that they are acutely vulnerable to manipulation from outside. This brings me to the other main allegations against Russia, that of helping to fund Trump’s campaign and more importantly hacking the emails of the Democratic Party. The latter accusation does seem to have real evidence behind it. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out however that this was not “misinformation” as it has been called. No one has denied that the information about Hilary Clinton and her campaign was accurate; or that if a US journalist had revealed it, he or she would have been regarded as simply doing their job to give the electorate information that it did in fact have a right to know.
Above all, we need to remember that if the Russian government did in fact engage in these attempts to influence the US election, it was after all only imitating repeated and systematic US attempts to influence elections and undermine governments not just in the former USSR but in many other parts of the world. We need to remember this not just as a matter of fairness, and because we now know that we are vulnerable to retaliation in kind, but because this question goes to the heart of an old and fundamental issue in international relations: that of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a range of different state forms in the international community. This issue is of crucial importance to the future of US relations with a range of states around the world, chief among them China.