This week HBO premiered Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the documentary on the infamous Russian feminist art-punk group imprisoned for “hooliganism” after staging a protest in a Moscow Orthodox church. The film manages one surprise: almost all of those involved, on each side of the issue, come off more sympathetic than intended–except for Vladimir Putin, though in Putin’s brief appearance on screen he outwits a clearly uncomfortable British reporter.
With Putin as the villain, the girls are the intended heroines of the story, but the documentary does them a favor by humanizing them and spending much time with the girls’ families. Despite their juvenile politics, outsized egos, and at times strange choices of targets for their “art,” it becomes difficult not to at least admire their willingness to challenge an authoritarian regime that punishes dissent. Additionally, their jail sentences were far out of proportion to their crimes, their trial is rigged and unfair, and the state’s veiled threats to take away the young child of one of the girls is nothing less than inhumane. And yet despite the seeming simplicity of the stunts and the reactions they provoke, the controversy actually brings to the surface some complex and important questions about Russian society and the state.
In Conor O’Clery’s book on the last day of the Soviet Union, he writes of a Moscow Catholic church service attended by 82-year-old Yulia Massarskaya, who has come to her first such service since she was eight years old when the 1917 October Revolution took place. “I have never felt this good,” Massarskaya says. “It is like coming back home.”
Massarskaya was far from alone. There is a scene in A Punk Prayer of a pro-Orthodox protest, in which we hear from those the girls offended–among them women old enough to have lived through decades of Soviet religious repression. “For 70 years, we couldn’t practice,” one of them says. “We drank our faith in with our mother’s milk. For us, this place is sacred. In 1812, people collected coins to build it. And look what they’ve done.” The documentary, to its credit, then reviews the anti-religious policies instituted after the Bolshevik revolution.
That is not to excuse the punishing of “blasphemy”–something the Russian state will do explicitly when two new laws take effect next month. Indeed, outside of the United States the spread of such thought police is truly depressing, especially in Canada and the European Union, which should know better. It is simply to point out that many of those offended by the Riot girls are far from Putinists; some of them make it clear they don’t want the girls spending years behind bars but are pained to have been targeted by the state for virtually their entire lives and now feel targeted by so-called liberals in Moscow. They, the believers would like the girls to acknowledge, are not the enemy.
But that brings us to the most destructive part of the girls’ show trial and imprisonment, and it is easily the most misunderstood aspect to the controversy. Putin is not meting out such punishment to defend or to glorify the church. He is taking a wrecking ball to the church once again, even if only metaphorically. By tying the Russian Orthodox Church to his regime’s repression, he is ruining it in the public consciousness.
Khrushchev promised to “take God by the beard”; Putin wants to enlist God in his crimes and his politics. Communists sought to erase and replace God; Putin wants you to think of God as his prime minister. In A Long Walk to Church, Nathaniel Davis’s essential study of religion in Russia, the author explains the root and logic of the Communists’ assault on the church:
Think of a “City of God” in the Soviet Union, which the communists assaulted in their days of militant atheism. The city’s “temples” might represent the various religious bodies, each one rooted in the earth, where the city could be attacked and where its dimensions on the ground could be measured. Each of the temples also had–and has–a vertical dimension in the realm of the spirit, and no one who stood on the earth could clearly see to the tops of the columns, domes, and towers, as they were shrouded in mist. That is the realm of philosophers and theologians, who are not earthbound. This study will describe the situation on the ground; it is at this level that the communists made their assault, because they too were earthbound. …
The image of an earthbound “temple” is intended only to distinguish the inquiries of the historian and the philosopher, not to describe the churches as inert or the historian’s task as a simple measurement of dimensions and unchanging forms. At its heart a church consists of people; it might better be described as “an army on the march.”
And that army had to be defeated by the conquering power. But it turns out there were two obstacles standing in the Communists’ way: first, that an army of God is not so easily defeated or demoralized; and second, sometimes it is more convenient to allow its uneasy coexistence with the state. Soviet leaders soon figured out an ingenious way to fight both the earthbound manifestations of the church and its spiritual sustenance: infiltrate and co-opt it.
The rest is history, and it explains why Russians felt they were “coming back home” when the Soviet Union fell and they returned to church. They were permitted to practice before the dissolution of the empire, but there was something impure about the church’s unholy alliance with the state. The controversy over Pussy Riot is so difficult for Russia’s Christian believers precisely because Putin is co-opting their church once again.
The Riot girls fanned such flames, but in the minds of the Orthodox the girls were not blameless either. Their atheistic attack reminded churchgoers of the Red atheism that destroyed the church in their youth. It’s not for nothing that in A Punk Prayer one Riot girl’s father tells us that “until the age of four, Nadia was raised by her grandmother, who was a strong-willed Communist, and maybe that’s why we brought up such a little Bolshevik.”
Russia’s Orthodox thus feel under attack from all sides. The Riot girls self-consciously target “conformists,” but do not come off as openly hostile to religion itself. And they will not bring down the church, nor commit acts of violence against its adherents. At the same time, we can understand why this is such a touchy subject for everyone involved. The wound is not yet healed, and Putin intends to keep it that way.
God and Man in Russia
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Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.
Quid pro quo?
Until now, the notion that Donald Trump was providing Russia and Vladimir Putin with concessions at the expense of U.S. interests was poorly supported. That all changed on Wednesday afternoon when the Washington Post revealed that Donald Trump ordered his national security advisor and CIA director to scrap a program that provided covert aid to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.
The president made that decision on July 7, within 24 hours of his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sources who spoke to the Washington Post accurately characterize it as a reflection of “Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.” That is a fool’s errand but, more important, this move demonstrates that the United States is willing to cede ground to adversaries and bad actors as long as they are persistent enough.
I endeavored to demonstrate as thoroughly as I could why American interests in Syria and those of Russia not only do not align but often conflict violently. The president appears convinced, like his predecessor, that his personal political interests are better served by allowing Moscow to be the power broker in Syria—even if that makes America and its allies less safe.
Moscow has made it a priority to execute airstrikes on American and British covert facilities in Syria, and Donald Trump has just rewarded those air strikes on U.S. targets. Trump has sacrificed the goodwill he garnered from Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern governments when he executed strikes on Assad’s assets and, as recently as June, the U.S. downed a Syrian warplane for attacking anti-ISIS rebels laying siege to the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
America will continue to provide support to indigenous anti-ISIS rebels, despite the fact that those forces are often under assault from both Russian and Syrian forces. It should be noted, however, that the CIA suspended aid to Free Syrian Army elements when it came under attack from Islamist in February. The agency said it didn’t want cash and weapons falling into Islamist hands, but this move exposes that claim as a mere pretext.
This concession to Russia is significant not just because it removes some pressure on Moscow’s vassal in Damascus. It sends a series of signals to the world’s bad actors, who will inevitably react.
The phasing out of aid for anti-Assad rebels (presumably the indigenous Sunni-dominated factions) gives Russia and Syria the only thing they’ve ever wanted: the ability to frame the conflict in Syria as one between the regime and a handful of radicals and pariahs. A cessation of aid will squeeze the remaining moderate, secular rebel factions in Syria and compel them to seek whatever assistance they can—even at the risk of augmenting the ranks of Islamist insurgents. How that advances America’s interests is entirely unclear.
This move will only further embolden not just Russia and Syria but their mutual ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will convince the region’s Sunni actors that the United States is not on their side—a matter of increasing urgency in Iraq. The insurgency in Syria is unlikely to end so long as regional fighters have a means of getting into the country. America will simply sacrifice its leverage over those groups.
This move will confirm, finally, that the use of weapons of mass destruction in the battlefield is survivable. A truly resolute American administration might fire off a handful of Tomahawk missiles at an abandoned airfield, but regime change is not in the offing. That will only beget other bad actors who will test the parameters of America’s willingness to defend the international norms prohibiting the use of WMDs. Because American servicemen and women are stationed around the world in unstable theaters, the likelihood that they will one day be fighting on chemical battlefields just became a lot more likely.
American covert involvement in Syria also filled a vacuum that the Obama administration allowed to expand in 2011 and 2012. “One big potential risk of shutting down the CIA program is that the United States may lose its ability to block other countries, such as Turkey and Persian Gulf allies, from funneling more sophisticated weapons—including man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS—to anti-Assad rebels, including more radical groups,” the Washington Post speculated. Ironically, American withdrawal from the anti-Assad effort could actually fuel the fire, but in a way that we can neither control nor effectively influence. We’ve seen that movie before. We know how it ends.
And all of this is for what? To garner goodwill with the bloody regime in Damascus? To court Moscow or Tehran? There is nothing to gain from cozying up to these regimes that is not offset by the sacrifice of American national interests and moral authority associated with rapprochement. For all of the Trump administration’s criticisms of Barack Obama’s policy with regard to those regimes, this decision suggests he’s willing to double down on Obama’s mistakes.
Is it Trump's posture, or is it simpler than that?
Though it enjoys a level of political dominance unseen since the 1920s, the Republican Party’s agenda is stalled. Yet, despite their failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare, Republicans are damned like Sisyphus to keep trying. Republican office holders must now administer health care’s taxes and subsidies, and the rest of the GOP agenda cannot advance without freeing up the revenue dedicated to the administration of ObamaCare. A dysfunctional, one-party Congress led by an unpopular neophyte in the Oval Office should precipitate a backlash among voters. But that outcome is far from certain. Ubiquitous surveys and studies dedicated to uncovering the mystery that is the curious and contradictory Trump voter suggests that this may indeed be a new political epoch.
Nationally, Trump’s job-approval rating hovers around 40 percent. By contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey of adults in “Trump country” (e.g. the counties that voted for Donald Trump) found the president enjoying a 50 percent job approval rating. Reflecting on these numbers, WSJ columnist Jason Riley observed that the political world may still be operating on a set of assumptions that do not apply to Trump; critically, that voters are transactional and that their support for politicians is contingent upon delivery.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that Trump’s main appeal was validating the fears and concerns of a certain segment of Americans who felt they were being ignored by elites in the media, elites in politics, elite Republicans,” Cato Institute scholar and pollster Emily Ekins told Riley. That assertion is supported by the findings of another survey. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taking the temperature of the potential midterm electorate found that registered voters prefer a Democrat-led Congress over Republicans by a staggering 14 points. Democrats shouldn’t celebrate too soon, however. The survey also showed that those who “strongly support” Trump are more motivated to vote in 2018 than are those who strongly disapprove of the president, and by a whopping 11-point margin.
This should not be. Voters should be discouraged by legislative failure, internecine feuding, and sprawling legal investigations into a nascent presidency. Voters should be repulsed by a party that sends to Congress members who physically assault journalists. They should be disgusted by a president who describes people on television he dislikes as “psycho” and “bleeding badly from a facelift.” They should be unnerved by the fact that this president spent months spinning an erroneous exculpatory tale about his campaign’s links to Russian-affiliated operatives only to pivot to defending those links when the lie was exposed for what it was. But they’re not.
This is politics in the age of affect. As Riley observed, the voters who have received disproportionate scrutiny from the press demonstrate time and again that their support for the president is not contingent upon his achievements but his posture. He speaks to their concerns, even if he is ineffectual in his attempts to address them. His speech is not overburdened with pompous language. He does not moralize; he does not lecture; he clings to his character flaws like a security blanket. He eats poorly and his physique reflects it. Trump is no Olympian figure; he gets down into the mud even when he shouldn’t.
Republican political professionals are starting to build an identity for their party around Trump’s effective affectation. If Republican voters no longer care about the policies that allegedly so vexed them in the Obama years, then they will have to run on the cultural anxiety that Donald Trump so effectively marshals. There may be no better way to accomplish that than to use the political press as a foil.
A striking McClatchy report in June indicated that Republican strategists are preparing to rely heavily on media-bashing to retain control of Congress in 2018. “The press is held with disgust and contempt,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising expert who advises state-and district-level campaigns. “Battling the press isn’t a bad strategy.”
It is, however, possible that political reporters and analysts are reading more into this moment than it deserves. Perhaps Trump’s voters are as transactional as anyone, but we’re reading the receipts wrong. Maybe Trump’s prickly demeanor and bull-headedness is part of his appeal, but not all of it.
The polling suggests that something simpler may be at work here. Only 40 percent approved of Donald Trump’s job performance in the latest Bloomberg survey released on Monday, but it also found that 58 percent of respondents reported feeling closer to realizing their career and financial goals (a record high since the question was introduced in early 2013). On the economy and “creating jobs,” Donald Trump dramatically outperforms his overall job-approval numbers (46 and 47 percent approval, respectively). The Washington Post/ABC News poll confirmed Bloomberg’s findings. Despite his abysmal 36 percent job approval rating in that survey, 43 to 41 percent reported approving of Trump’s handling of the economy.
Surely some of this is perceptional; the Trump administration’s handling of the economy is six months old and characterized not by substantive reforms but by aesthetics and gestures. It is also aspirational. After eight years of recession and a sluggish recovery, Trump-country voters are exhausted by insecurity. The benefits of the Trump years are tangible for Trump voters, even if political journalists see them as illusory. Maybe political analysts are poring over the Trump voter to their own detriment. Maybe it’s still the economy, stupid.