OK, I knew I was going to be tired until I adjusted to the switch from overnights to early morning shifts. I didn’t know I was going to be this tired. The day side of retail is less physically taxing, but maintaining a perpetually cheerful helpfulness for eight hours takes a different kind of toll.
I am gradually adjusting. And I’m finally feeling awake enough to operate heavy machinery and/or post here. I apologize for the lag.
Even if I’d been fully awake last week, I’m not sure I could have kept up with or made sense of the dizzying news as the Trump administration picked up speed on its impending rendezvous with the fan.
It has been a week of huge revelations regarding multiple ties between America’s ruling party and the stew of “oligarchs,” mobsters, and former-KGB spymasters who make up the right-wing gangster-capitalist ruling party of 21st-century Russia. Remarkably, the bulk of these revelations were not the result of the special counsel’s investigation. Some of them came, rather, from a separate Department of Justice prosecution involving an apparent infiltration-and-influence operation led by a crony of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
And the most damning evidence of GOP/Russian collusion came from Donald Trump himself, from his fawning obsequiousness in the presence of Russia’s strongman dictator, Vladimir Putin, and from his refusal to contradict Putin on any point, even when doing so means siding with a foreign leader against his own executive branch, his own intelligence agencies, and his own country.
As damaging as Trump’s own performance was — forcing him to make a humiliating, disingenuous “clarification” that was unbelievable in every sense — the repercussions from the Maria Butina scandal may prove to be longer-lasting and more widely disastrous for the Party of Trump. And perhaps especially for the white evangelical cult of Trump.
Andrew Prokop has a nice introductory summary for those who, like me, were half-asleep for the past week: “Maria Butina, explained: the accused Russian spy who tried to sway US politics through the NRA.”
It’s long been known that Butina and Russian central bank official Alexander Torshin have spent years cozying up to the NRA. For instance, they’ve hosted NRA bigwigs in Moscow, and Butina was a conspicuous fixture on the conservative conference circuit.
Now, the government alleges that Butina was carrying out a plan to influence American politics on behalf of a Russian government official (Torshin). The plan, they say, was to try to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier to Russia, by way of the NRA. But Butina didn’t inform the US government she was acting as a foreign agent on American soil, which would be illegal.
Much of Butina’s alleged conduct seems to have involved socializing and attending US political events, which may not seem all that dastardly. But we’ve gotten hints that there’s much more to come. On Wednesday, the government alleged for the first time that Butina used sex — she dated and lived with a much older Republican political consultant, and purportedly offered another person “sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.”
This story has led many to compare Butina to Kerri Russell’s character in The Americans, but I think that’s misleading. The fictional Elizabeth Jennings was a true believer in Soviet Communism — an ideology the 29-year-old Butina is too young to remember. Yes, she’s accused of being a “Russian spy,” but that does not at all mean the same thing in the 21st century that it meant in the 20th. She and her handlers have nothing to do with Communism, they’re working instead for a kleptocratic regime that combines fossil-fuel oligarchs, ethno-nationalists, and old-school organized crime — with plenty of overlap between all of those indistinct categories.
This is why it’s misleading and kind of dumb that Politico uses the former Soviet symbol of the hammer and sickle to illustrate Blake Hounshell’s “Why I’m No Longer a Russiagate Skeptic” mea culpa. And why it’s misleading and kind of dumb to compare any of this to McCarthy-era “Red scare” stuff. This ain’t about Commies. It’s about oil-soaked billionaires, organized crime, and white nationalist movements all across the northern hemisphere.
Consider, for example, Butina’s apparent handler, Torshin. Officially, he works for the Russian central bank. Among Russian mobsters and money launderers operating in Spain, however, he’s referred to as “El Padrino” — godfather. Spanish police have been chasing this guy for years for reasons that have nothing to do with international politics or espionage. They just say he’s a mobster, a key figure in international organized crime.
That’s why Torshin — and his protege, Butina — have repeatedly been guests at the National Prayer Breakfast, the annual orgy of civil religion and politics organized by the indescribably creepy, nominally religious group that calls itself The Family. Their creed, essentially, is that God is Power and Power is God. So if someone is a key figure in international organized crime, the only words those folks care about are “key figure.” They like “key figures,” regardless of what they’re key figures in.
Jeff Sharlet — author of the definitive history and must-read The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power — explains why Torshin is just exactly the kind of key figure the National Prayer Breakfast was always intended to embrace. In “Why the Christian Right has embraced Putin,” Sharlet writes:
Why would they not only allow their big event to be co-opted for Russian influence-peddling but actively facilitate such “back channels” with the government of Vladimir Putin, an autocratic American adversary?
Because Putin is their kind of guy. The Fellowship dates back to 1935, when founder Abraham Vereide believed God told him that Christianity had been getting it wrong for nearly 2,000 years by focusing on the “down and out.” God, Vereide said, wanted him to build a movement for the “up and out,” “key men” with the power to shape whole societies for Jesus.
Democracy, Vereide concluded, would only get in the way.
He followed instead what the organization calls to this day “the man method” — bringing “key men” — and, more recently, a few “key women,” such as Butina — together in private to work things out “beyond the din of the vox populi” — the voice of the people.
It’s not just the means that are antidemocratic. God, the Fellowship believes, can be understood through a study of strongmen. “You know Jesus said, ‘You got to put Him before mother-father-brother-sister’?” the late Doug Coe was fond of preaching. “Hitler, Lenin, Mao, that’s what they taught the kids.”
This isn’t just rhetoric: throughout its history, the Fellowship has provided “back channels” to American power for a long list of dictators, from the genocidal Suharto of Indonesia to Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, where the Fellowship’s men in parliament not long ago developed legislation known, accurately, as the “Kill the Gays” bill.
(Doug Coe reportedly “died” last year, but as I wrote almost 10 years ago in my original review of Sharlet’s book, that’s impossible, because Coe is undead.)
Sharlet explains more of the religious ideology behind the National Prayer Breakfast’s role in all of this in an interview with Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton.
It’s possible that “The NRA Got Played by Russia” — meaning the gun-seller’s lobby was duped, tricked, or suckered — which is the most charitable explanation for the NRA’s eagerness to launder money for money launderers. But I don’t think the National Prayer Breakfast “got played.” I think they knew exactly what they were doing and jumped at the chance to be a “player.”
Jack Jenkins writes that the Butina case “shows how the fusion of the foundation’s influence and dedication to anonymity may have allowed it to become a target for political exploitation and potential international espionage.” But we can’t say they “became a target” when they’ve been advertising their willingness and eagerness to serve this role for decades. The National Prayer Breakfast has always billed itself as a forum for “political exploitation and international espionage.” They wouldn’t use such a crass term as “espionage,” of course, but facilitating the exchange of information through unofficial, anonymous back-channels has always been their thing.
The key factor in all of this, though, is what Brian Beutler argues here: “The Trump GOP-Russia Alliance Is a Natural Alliance.”
Mitt Romney called Russia America’s greatest geopolitical foe, but he also sought out and received Trump’s endorsement for the Republican nomination in 2012, because pandering to birthers had become a signal to more ordinary GOP constituencies like gun owners, evangelicals, and movement conservatives.
It is no coincidence at all that these are the same constituencies the Russian spy Mariia Butina infiltrated, and infiltrated easily—the NRA, the National Prayer Breakfast, CPAC. Butina stands accused of operating as an unregistered foreign agent, but her indictment also paints a damning portrait of a political movement overrun with grifters, its doors wide open to unscrupulous operators who would happily cheat their way into power. Butina didn’t hide her pro-Russian aims, she broadcasted them proudly, and seemingly none of the people she courted with appeals to gun rights and religion objected. One of them, a Republican political operative nearly twice her age, literally fell in love. The two of them lived together and conspired on Moscow’s behalf in partnership, through his access to Republican officials and conservative leaders across the country.
Butina almost certainly did not know when she began her work that Trump would run for, let alone win, the presidency. Her efforts to influence GOP politics thus ran around the party’s official organs, through its grassroots mobilizing institutions. Trump’s rise merely represented a shortening of the way. His campaign teemed with grifters and crooks just like the ones she had already charmed, and many of them were unsurprisingly eager to partner with Russian spies to help Trump win the presidency.
That collusive relationship paid tremendous dividends, and Trump is reciprocating enthusiastically. His pro-Russia policies have exposed the party’s old, official posture of antipathy toward Moscow as reflexive rather than principled.
NOTE: Scott Lemieux recently used the Warren Zevon lyric in the title of this post over at his blog, and I totally grant that he has the greater claim to it. But it still seemed unavoidable here due to our mention of Franklin Graham, a corrupt failson every bit as reckless and feckless as the first-person narrator of Zevon’s song.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never attended the National Prayer Breakfast, but Dwight Ozard and I did get invited back in the early ’90s when we were still regarded as prospective potential future “key figures.” Neither of us had either the $300 those tickets cost back then, nor any inclination to hobnob with the goober smoochers who did. (Not going was also part of our ongoing argument with our boss, whose impact and influence, we tactfully tried to suggest, was greatly hampered by his desperate desire to be perceived as a key figure. We lost that argument.)
Yet while I may not have the framed photos that many “key figures” in white evangelicalism are now regretting posing for, I’m afraid I can still play Six Degrees of Maria Butina. You see, a few years ago, the nice couple who originally founded Patheos sold the company to the business that used to operate BeliefNet. My main reaction at the time was to think, “Hold on … BeliefNet is still a thing? Isn’t this like getting bought out by GeoCities?”
But it turns out that the chairman of the board of “BN Media” is a guy named Joe Gregory, a mega-donor to the NRA and founder of its “Ring of Freedom” program courting 1-percenters who don’t mind a little blood in their money. Gregory apparently also accompanied Maria Butina on a 2015 trip to Moscow, as noted on Warren Throckmorton’s no-longer-on-Patheos-and-no-one-will-explain-why blog.