While many of us are focused on the internal threats created by actors within one of the two major parties in our country, developments overseas may create long and short term threats to our national interests. The chaos created by an ex-president ranting about stolen elections and defending insurrections, coupled with Members of Congress that threaten other Members with death, and the general unrest fomented by self-declared revolutionaries, draws attention away from other developments.
In the long term, China provides a real threat to many of our established interests. In the short term, Russia is under increasing internal pressure to improve the quality of life for its citizens, a challenge that President Vladimir Putin may not be able to meet. Thus, he increasingly turns his focus outward. In both cases, a tried and true tactic of autocrats is to quell internal unrest by creating outside enemies that focus citizens’ attention outward.
Looking long term first, China is vying to be the biggest economic, political, and military competitor to the U.S. Chinese legislators recently removed term limits for their presidency, making President Xi Jinping the de-facto President-for-Life. He has now amassed power on the scale of the late Mao Zedong. Indeed, in December 2019 the Chinese Politburo gave him the official title of the “People’s Leader.” That title was only used once before — for Mao. Since assuming power, President Xi has taken a hard line nationalist position on national security and foreign affairs. As part of this strengthened position, Xi has consolidated Chinese control of Macau and Hong Kong. Especially in the case of Hong Kong, this enhanced control led to the loss of most of the freedoms its residents previously took for granted. The Hong Kong of pre-2019 is no more.
All of which leads to the long term threat. China seems to be intent on gaining control of Taiwan, much as it did with Hong Kong. The U.S. walks a fine line in its relationship with Taiwan. In adhering to the “One China Policy” the U.S. recognizes the government in Beijing as the “true” government for China, rather than any government in Taiwan. The Chinese view is that Taiwan is a break-away province of China and must be reunited with the rest of the country. In order to have diplomatic relations with Beijing, there can be no official recognition or official relations with the Taiwanese government. Complicating the issue is that Taiwan considers itself to be the Republic of China — an independent country. The U.S. encourages the re-unification of the two, but only under peaceful, negotiated conditions and has vowed to support Taiwan against any coercion or military actions to force the situation.
The threat is one of war in the Pacific. Over the last few weeks, China has become increasingly bellicose in its statements concerning Taiwan and has sent ships and aircraft in the direction of the island nation — drills according to the Chinese, tests of Taiwanese defenses according to the view of those on the island. As many as 56 aircraft at a time have flown into Taiwan’s ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone — airspace controlled by a particular nation to enhance national security but outside its territorial boundaries). The United States and Australia in particular, but including other countries with interests in the Pacific, have warned China about its provocative actions and that they will respond to any Chinese military attack or other coercive measures against Taiwan.
Stay tuned as this crisis will continue to build. It is unlikely in the near term that China will directly attack Taiwan or any other forces in the region, but we can expect China to continue to ratchet up the pressure and to increase the level of provocations. There is always the danger in such conditions for an error or inadvertent action that results in shots fired. More ominously, it is likely that China is taking the long view — as in years. They will continue to enhance their economic and military strength to the point that their threats and provocations will have real teeth. They are probably not there yet, but under Xi, they clearly intend for Taiwan (formerly Formosa) to rejoin mainland China for the first time since 1949.
Russia is a different case. Since 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, an uneasy truce prevails along the border, even as active fighting occasionally occurs in some areas. In recent weeks, Russia moved 80-100,000 troops to the Ukraine border region. U.S. and NATO officials are worried that such movements may be a precursor to an invasion to reassert the Russian control that they lost with the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part.
Western sanctions against Russia are having an economic impact, as well as the fact that Russia is experiencing a devastating fourth wave of COVID infections. Things are not good in Russia these days. Additionally, it is believed that President Putin believes the West is in disarray and that this may be his best opportunity to enact his vision of a “Greater Russia.” Mr. Putin never accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union and once said that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century.” He sees that the U.S. is focused on internal dissent and domestic turmoil as well as China and Asia in general. Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany is stepping down. The French have elections in a few months. Ukraine appears weak and fractious. The U.S. is absent its ambassadors pretty much throughout the world, including to the E.U. and NATO and is missing high level political appointees in the Department of Defense (DOD) and State Department weakening our diplomatic clout. (Senator Ted Cruz (Tr-TX) primarily, with an assist from Senator Josh Hawley (Tr-MO) are holding the nominations hostage for their own purposes. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for some reason is not playing hard ball and is letting them get away with it. How about keeping the Senate in session day and night right through Thanksgiving until all nominations are approved? But I digress.)
The situation is ripe for Mr. Putin to take action. We may be seeing the early stages of the drama play out in Belarus and Poland. In brief, Belarus is “importing” “refugees” from the Middle East and Africa and sending them to the Lithuanian and Polish borders. The Belarus military is reported to be aiding the refugees in trying to enter those nations, and at the moment, particularly in Poland. Poland refuses to take them. Besides a looming humanitarian crisis, the aim of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (referred to as “Europe’s Last Dictator”) is to create a political crisis and to destabilize the western nations by overwhelming them with poor refugees. President Lukashenko is angry over western sanctions against his country following their imposition in response to a totally corrupt and illegal “election” last fall that allowed him to stay in power. Mr. Lukashenko never would do anything to upset the stability of the region without at least tacit permission from Mr. Putin. Many speculate that it is direct Russian permission and support.
There are two possible reasons to create this crisis. One is to take more attention away from activities along the Ukrainian border. The other is to provide an excuse for Russian western expansion.
Note Kaliningrad. Part of Russia. To get there, Russia needs to cross into Poland, and/or Lithuania. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were once part of the Soviet Union and still have large ethnic Russian populations. As does Ukraine. If Mr. Putin is serious about his Greater Russia, there is no better place to begin his expansion. (I’m sure everyone remembers what happened in the Sudetenland with Germany in 1938.) As those familiar with European wars know, the terrain between Russia’s mainland and the Baltic is mostly flat, open space. In military terms, there is little defense in depth nor are there many geographic features to use to mount a strong defense against armor columns. Indeed, the U.S. keeps a military presence in the Baltic states in order to deter Russian meddling.
Am I predicting another theater-wide war in Europe? No. I do not predict much of anything anymore. It just seems that Mr. Putin may assess that if he is ever going to start building his vision of a restored Russian Empire, the time is now to start somewhere. “Reuniting” Kaliningrad and the Russians in northern Poland and the Baltics with the motherland may be on his mind. A crisis on the border with Ukraine or Belarus may give him the pretext.
The point is that these are dangerous times. There is a lot going on in the world outside of our obsession with an ex-president and his corrupt political party. We must be on guard against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” While we are focused inward, our enemies and competitors will take advantage of it.
These are, indeed, interesting times.
“Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and to get into good trouble, necessary trouble.”
— John Lewis
There is an autocrats play book. History is full of examples of successes and failures. Those that succeed most often follow a step-by-step process that creates an insidious stream of events that lead to a strongman in power. First, condone violence. “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Second, do not accept election results. “Stop the steal!” Then the violence becomes political violence. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Then it becomes political violence to overturn lost elections. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol… because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” In my view, the insurrection on 6 January is only the beginning.
A not so fun fact: Since 1 January 2021 there have been about 70 bomb threats on Capitol Hill. Just another day at the office.
With or without Congress taking action to normalize our elections across all fifty states, there will be more violent political activity. Currently Congress is working to enfranchise all eligible voters, thus overturning the many state voting laws that limit voting and give power to Republican controlled entities to overturn any election that their candidate does not win. With the passage of a national voting law, we will survive the attempted coups and remain a democratic Republic. Without such laws, I fear we will not survive as a democracy.
While voting laws have been the purview of state legislatures, there is ample precedent for national standards. In addition, Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, commonly known as the “elections clause,” and as modified by the 17th and 20th Amendments, gives Congress the power to “at any time by Law make or alter such regulations” passed by individual states.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was passed by the House in 2020 but not by the Senate and has since been reintroduced. It is designed to reinstate provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 to over ride a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the core elements of the VRA.
A second bill called the Freedom to Vote Act was an attempt by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to create a compromise bill, stripped of some its more controversial elements, that could gain ten Republican votes to over ride the filibuster of the For the People Act already passed by the House. After a summer’s worth of work and assurances from Senator Manchin that he could find some moderate Republicans in favor of the bill, not one Republican voted for over riding a filibuster to bring it to the floor for discussion. For discussion. They will not even talk about voting rights in the Senate, much less vote to protect those rights.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R?-KY) is counting on Senator Manchin to effectively do his dirty work as Mr. Manchin vociferously proclaims that he will do nothing to eliminate the filibuster for voting rights. An outdated Senate rule is apparently more important than allowing people to vote and to maintain the integrity of election results.
Thus, phase one of the Republicans’ attack on democracy continues without interruption.
This leads me to the second phase of that plan. The demonstrations — occasionally violent but with violence always as an implied threat — over masks, Covid-19 vaccines, and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Initially, I could not fully grasp what the problem might be. Why such vehement over reaction? So much of our common good derives from mandatory actions — seat belts, smoking, drinking and driving, wearing shirts and shoes in restaurants, and other required vaccines, for example — to protect the individual and the community at large. People do not protest those requirements, so why these? Now I am beginning to get it. The issues are merely excuses for most protesters, not core beliefs. To put it in simple terms, they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. The issues themselves are not relevant. They are just mad. Nearly any issue will do, and in fact the issues do change over time and depend on the circumstance. These issues are merely symbols for pushing back on what they see as a dominant federal government that is mandating change. Be it LGBTQ issues, same sex marriage, immigration, an increasingly diverse nation, and on and on. The white, male, Christian dominated society that they believe is the true essence of our American national identity is changing. And they will not go quietly into that new society.
That is the genius of Trumpism. Tap into the rage, the fear and the sense of loss and turn it into power.
As a result, we are now seeing 6 Januarys across the country at school board meetings, county council meetings and other local seats of community engagement. The threats, intimidation and violence against local elected officials and their families are a manifestation of Trumpism and the autocratic methods of using violence as the means to achieve political ends. If they can remove the officials that are the focus of their ire, or better yet, intimidate them into quitting, then they can replace them with people that will do their bidding. Please do not misinterpret my comments to mean that I object to legitimate protest, I do not. I understand that such protests can get heated at times. What I am talking about is a lot more than that. When people show up at local officials homes, burn slogans into their grass, brandish weapons outside their windows, and conduct other such documented “protests,” then we are in an entirely different world.
Perhaps the people using such tactics are a tiny minority of the population, but the impact that they have is real and significant. History tells us that be it Russia in 1917, Germany in 1933, or nearly any country where autocrats now rule, they were in the minority until they seized control. Autocratic parties generally are a minority party when they seize power. That explains the tactics to suppress the vote, to intimidate those that do not support them, and to use violence to refute and change election results.
I have lost faith in our elected officials in Congress. The Democrats continue with “regular order” and debates within the party that create the appearance that they cannot get their act together. When faced with direct threats to our democracy they act like wimps in the face of these challenges choosing to honor arcane rules of the Senate that do not have a basis in law or the Constitution rather than to support and defend the Constitution. Republicans are the party of “no!” I do not believe that they stand for anything. Their only goal is to march in lock step to use Trump and his followers to regain power. They are using those arcane rules — especially in the Senate — to stop anything and everything put forward by President Biden or his party. They do not just vote against it, they filibuster almost everything, making it nearly impossible in the current environment to do anything, even if as many as nine Republican Senators support it (although most times the total number of Republican votes for something is zero).
We already are a minority rule country. For example, Senators from 21 mostly small or rural states representing less than a quarter of the total population of the country, can stop any legislation of which they do not approve. Put another way, Senators from 15 small states represent 38 million people while the Senators from one state (California) represent 40 million citizens.
We now have an ex-president roaming the country continuing to claim that he is the real president. Recent polls suggest that more and more people believe him. One poll shows that 66 percent of Republican voters and 18 percent of Independent voters believe that the election was “stolen” from the ex-president. 53 percent of Republicans in another recent poll believe that the ex-president is the “true president.” That does not bode well for a democracy. Propaganda works. Tell a lie enough times and people start to believe it. Unfortunately, history provides countless examples.
Most threatening, and appalling, is that the Sedition Caucus (those that voted against certifying Joe Biden as the 46th president) in Congress is growing stronger. New candidates recruited to run as Republicans in the 2022 election are nearly universally required to continue to vociferously support the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by the Democrats.
(Timeout. It continues to baffle me that to date, no one can explain why there is no evidence of any widespread fraud, ballot manipulation, Jewish-Italian lasers from space or any other discrepancy in the voting process despite nearly countless challenges in court, state audits, faux audits and every other endeavor known to mankind to find a problem. The usual answer is to blow off the lack of evidence as evidence itself. In other words, the Democrats and the thousands of poll workers of both parties required to do what is alleged were so clever, that they left no trace of evidence behind. Also unanswered is why on the same ballots, only the presidential votes were allegedly tampered with but not the hundreds or thousands of other offices voted on during the same election?)
In a country where vigilantes are legitimized by the Supreme Court, Congressional subpoenas are routinely ignored without consequence, people actively attempt to overthrow the government and overturn elections, and the evidence continues to mount that a sitting president tried to use the power of the federal government to remain in office after losing an election, there is real evidence that our way of life is being directly challenged. We are in big trouble.
Where does it stop?
The first and most important step is for Congress to pass legislation to standardize national elections and to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast a ballot and that those ballots mean something. The results cannot be overturned by one party that is not happy with the result. Period. Nothing else matters. It is job one and the Democrats need to make it happen. Now. Do your damn jobs and pass the voting rights legislation.
Do not sit by. Get into some good trouble. Elections matter.