We’re Off to Deceive the Wizard!

August 13, 2019 Comics Comments (1) 43

The Wizard of Oz gang meets Donald Trump along the Yellow Brick Road

My mother has always been a massive fan of The Wizard of Oz, and while I was home a couple of weeks ago asked me why I’d never done a cartoon mashing that with Donald Trump. I then got to brainstorm ideas with my parents, which resulted in this cartoon.

I’ve been trying to challenge myself artistically, and experiment with some approaches–line widths and colors, for instance–so I tried to make this one a bit more ornate than in the past. There are some bits I really like, and some bits I’m less happy about, but overall I thought this came out well.

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Freedom Caucasus

July 20, 2018 Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 97

It was March of 2015 when Maria Butina emailed David Keene to say the time was right for Russia to build constructive relationships with the Republican Party. This was three months before Donald Trump entered the race for President, a year before he won a primary and became a political contender. Antonin Scalia had eleven months to live, and Bernie Sanders had been in the race almost a month. Gallup and CNN both put the Democrats and Hillary Clinton slightly ahead in early election polls–but Butina informed Keene that the Republicans would likely control the U.S. government after the 2016 Election.

Butina is the Russian spy indicted on Monday by Robert Mueller. Her mentor and handler, Aleksandr Torshin, is a Russian politician with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Keene is an American, a highly influential Republican political operative who worked on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney. When Butina and Keene first met, in 2013, he was President of the NRA, and that is how the two agreed to build Russian influence: The NRA plays a central place and influence in the Republican Party, Butina wrote in March of 2015.

Photo of David Keene speaking at podium

David Keene, former NRA President, believed to be “Person 1” in the Butina filing (Image from Wikimedia)

By October of 2016, Keene bragged to a friend that he had established a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key Republican leaders through, of all conduits, the NRA.”

These are among the most remarkable revelations in the affidavit unsealed on Monday, when Butina was arrested. The affidavit itself anonymizes the names of Keene, the Republican Party, and the NRA, but it’s not hard for anyone with Google — or even a basic knowledge of American politics — to connect the dots. While the prevailing narrative among left-leaning Americans today is “Trump is in bed with Russia,” the truth is much more troubling: Russian influence on the Republican Party far predates Trump.

The secret hand of Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin did not rise to power through open conquest. In his youth, he was known for keeping a low profile, staying in the background and navigating relationships. His first presidency was a surprise to the world, as Boris Yeltsin resigned without warning and made Putin — appointed by Yeltsin as Prime Minister only four months prior, after one year heading the FSB — President. Then he pardoned Yeltsin, grating the former President immunity from any investigation.

In the two decades since, Putin has moved from elected official to autocrat, and shifted Russia from democracy to dictatorship, not through blunt force but through subterfuge and influence. He built close relationships with Russia’s powerful oligarchs, eliminated critics through assassination and imprisonment, secured electoral victories through fraud, and built what’s been described as a “death cult” of Russian identity, playing on nationalism and white supremacy.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, they did not send armies marching across the border in uniform. Instead, Russian soldiers disguised themselves as Ukrainian separatists, and even as the world saw through the ruse, Putin insisted the conflict in Crimea was a civil war, not an invasion. A few months later, Russian hackers would have handed the Ukrainian presidency to far-right candidate Dmytro Yarosh (who actually received 1% of the vote) if election observers had not noticed the hack in time.

Russian soldiers, bearing no official markings, guarding a seized Ukrainian base in Crimea in March of 2014. Image via Wikimedia.

Russian soldiers, bearing no official markings, guarding a seized Ukrainian base in Crimea in March of 2014. Image via Wikimedia.

In short, Putin might be a sort of 21st century Littlefinger, seeking power through back-channels and recognizing the opportunities presented by corporatism, wealth consolidation, technology, and worldwide white nationalism. In the US, these ingredients opened an opportunity for partnership with the Republican Party, which even Butina recognized had long been antagonistic toward Russia.

The American Insurgency

The idea of an conservative alliance between Russia and the United States predates Trump and Butina. Pat Buchanan, whose hard-right nationalism has barely marginalized him within his party, has long advocated a strong partnership between the two nations, and has long admired Putin. In 2008, with Russian forces occupying the independent nation of Georgia, Buchanan suggested the US join the conflict on Russia’s side. In 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Buchanan said that “God is on Russia’s side,” referring to Putin’s Russia as the “third Rome,” defending Christian values against the “Gomorrah” of Western culture.

This theory comes not only from Buchanan, but often from far-right white nationalists, who view “European culture” as something that must be protected against “invasion” from the outside. Such views, always a factor in Republican rhetoric, came to the fore following the election of Barack Obama.

The reaction of many white conservatives following the election of America’s first Black President was less that of a minority party, and more like that of an insurgency against a hostile occupation. Sales of firearms skyrocketed, as NRA President Wayne LaPierre stood at podium after podium claiming Obama, who took no action to limit gun sales, was a secret tyrant. Conspiracy theories abounded, to the point where Texas Governor Greg Abbott mobilized the state’s national guard against a simple military training exercise. Far-right Americans were further mobilized by expanded rights for LGBTQ Americans, and by grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter.

One could argue the rage and fear from America’s far-right walked us right into Putin’s hands. A Reuters poll in March of 2015, around the same time Maria Butina emailed David Keene about a Russian-Republican alliance, showed that a third of Republicans viewed Barack Obama as a greater threat to the United States than Vladimir Putin.

And so Putin set about courting Republicans. In March of 2015, in an email titled “Your Path Forward,” Keene provided her with a list of officials, media personalities, and politicians with whom she should meet. This list was not included in the affidavit, so the names on it are unknown. In February of 2016, Butina and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, an important event attended by many elected officials, including — usually — the U.S. President, and organized by The Fellowship, AKA “The Family,” a secretive Christian organization active in international politics.

In March of that year, Butina exchanged emails with Keene and another American, named in the affidavit as “Person 2” about setting up dinners in Washington later that year with high-level officials. Though also anonymized, Person 2 is believed to be Paul Erickson, a long-time Republican activist who worked on the campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Mitt Romney, and who claimed after Donald Trump’s election to be on his transition team. In an email between Butina and this person in March of 2016, Butina refers to Torshin’s “desire in our Russian-American project,” and that “all we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side.”

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby speaking into a microphone

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) who arranged and led the July 2018 visit by eight US Senators to Russia, was a top recipient of NRA dollars toward the 2016 Election. (DoD Image, Public Domain)

GOP: Grand Old Party? Or Generous Oligarch Putin?

In August of 2016, Butina entered the U.S. on a student visa, apparently to pursue the strategy developed in cooperation with Keene, Torshin, and other US and Russian officials. We do not know all the details of Russian entanglements with the Republican party; we don’t know the list of people Keene provided for Butina to meet, and we don’t know who she met. We don’t know who attended the dinners she arranged, and we don’t know the identity of the anonymous “Political Candidate” with whom she had a private meeting at the NRA’s annual members meeting in 2015.

We know that Congressman Dana Rohrabacher set up an August 2015 visit to Russia, where he met with an unnamed Russian official generally believed to be Torshin. Rohrabacher has long shown an affinity for Russia, such that Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy once privately joked, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”

We know that eight Republican Senators spent their Fourth of July break on a strange trip to Russia, where they met with the foreign minister and parliamentarians, and hoped to meet with Putin himself. The Senators claimed they were there to deliver a message that the U.S. would take a hard line with Russia, but this newly revealed information should call that claim into question.

The NRA spent an unprecedented amount in the 2016 election, and not all of it on Donald Trump. Even before the revelations of the Butina affidavit, many suspected the Kremlin was using the NRA to launder contributions to American political candidates. This makes anyone who received cash from the NRA suspect — Donald Trump, yes, but also people like North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, Marco Rubio, and Roy Blunt.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who organized and led that July 4 Republican field trip to Russia, received nearly $280,000 from the NRA in February of 2016, roughly a year after Butina and Keene conspired to use the NRA as a back-channel between Russia and Republicans. All combined, those eight Republicans who visited Russia in July — and hoped to meet with Putin himself — received half a million dollars ($483,589, to be precise) in NRA donations in 2016. Were they visiting to send a tough message, or to shake the hand of their campaign donor?

It’s become common, following a school shooting, for activists to respond to Republican thoughts and prayers with the amount that official accepted in NRA donations. Now those numbers may serve another metric: Just how much is that official under the influence of Vladimir Putin?

Because it’s almost certainly true that Donald Trump and the Trump family owe some allegiance to Putin. We’ve seen all the evidence, from his idiot sons bragging about Russian funding for their real estate ventures, to the President’s lying denials about Putin’s direct influence on our election. I won’t list them all here. What’s important to recognize, though, is that Putin’s influence did not begin with Trump, and it will not end with Trump.

As we learned from the Butina filing, and will likely continue to learn from Robert Mueller’s investigation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has infiltrated the Republican Party.

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Don’t sacrifice your humanity to win an election.

June 26, 2018 Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 85

I had this exchange on Twitter yesterday, not for the first time and almost certainly not for the last: I decried the policies of our racist President and his bigoted, Nazi-adjacent Administration, and was chastised by a Trump supporter because my words wouldn’t “resonate with a lot of people to help me win in November.”

Not long after, I read this thread from WaPo columnist Megan McArdle, in which she asserts that anyone opposed to Trump should be “laser focused” on winning the 2018 midterm elections, and the 2020 Presidential Election. And listen, I fully recognize the importance of those two elections. Of course I want Trump out of power.

But if getting there requires me to reframe my reality in a way that least offends Trump supporters — in hope, I guess, of carving off some sliver that will put Democrats over the top — then no, I’m not willing to go that far.

There is such thing as objective reality. Words like “fascist,” “Nazi,” and “white supremacist” are not merely insults, they have specific definitions and, when those definitions are met, become appropriate descriptors. Yes, I recognize that fascists, Nazis, and white supremacists rarely appreciate being labeled as such, but my life is not tailored to appeal to the maximum number of demographics.

Perhaps its a consequence of the social media age, in which every individual is a brand, that so many people find this premise reasonable. The United States is building concentration camps,yanking children away from breast-feeding mothers, and putting babies in detention centers. The President takes to Twitter to refer to immigrants “infesting” the US, and frets about immigrants “changing the culture” in Europe; he stands at a podium beside so-called “angel families,” victims of “illegal immigrant crime.” These are tactics taken directly from 1930s-era Nazis, but I’m not supposed to say so because the people who support those policies might be offended?

Maybe they should be more offended by the policies.

I’m not running for office. I’m not a brand. Yes, I want the Democrats to win in 2018 and 2020 — more because we need to strip aspiring fascists of authority, than because I’m a great lover of the Democrats — but I’m not so devoted to my political team that I’ll keep quiet as my country violates human rights and slides toward totalitarianism.

The owners of the Red Hen in Virginia aren’t running for office, either. Yes, they have a brand, but they also have employees, actual human beings to whom they are accountable. When faced with a decision, owner Stephanie Wilkinson took action. She later told reporters, “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”

Uphold their morals. Not win more votes for the Democrats. Not “appeal to the white working class.” Uphold morals.

Because it’s easy to abandon morals in deference to political strategy. It’s easy to stop viewing people — like, say, indigent people arriving at your border seeking a better life — as actual human beings, and treat them as the abstract consequence of political controversy. To think another vote for Nancy Pelosi is more important than the crying children who might never see their parents again.

You might, for instance, forget how much courage it takes to walk up to a White House spokesperson and her family, and tell her she isn’t welcome in your establishment. You might focus solely on the political implications, and the strategy of it all — and argue that a family business, and a staff of immigrants, should keep quiet and serve dinner to a villain threatening their safety, rather than risk a victory in November.

We aren’t just cogs in some political machine, we are human beings with morals and beliefs. It should be the politicians trying to appeal to us, not us trying to tailor our message to boost our politicians. Not everything serves the damn political machine. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that such tactics would even work — and if we give up our beliefs and still lose, what do we have left then?

So I’m not going to be courteous or civil to people violating human rights, and I hope you won’t either. I’m not going to stop pointing out when US policy is taking pages from Hitler’s Germany, and I’m not sacrificing my humanity or my morals in the interest of winning an election.

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