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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Book review: Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn (2018)

Donald Trump doesn’t care what someone like me thinks of him. He communicates directly with a narrow base of support in the electorate that is shrinking but he ignores what people on the progressive side of politics say, except to rubbish any claims of skulduggery they might make. This book will be treated in the same way.

The books looks in detail at the Russian hack of the Democratic National Convention that resulted in a trove of incriminating emails being published by Wikileaks. Trump and his camp knew about the hack a long time before it was even admitted to publicly by the White House. Trump had been involved in Putin’s arc of influence for many years dating from his time staging the Miss World competition in Moscow, and his admiration of Putin, who had long controlled business ties between Russian firms and foreign nationals, dates from that time, around 2013. The links with Trump are manifold and Isikoff and Corn document them in detail.

When you see Trump on the newscasts walking from his helicopter and shouting to reporters “There was no collusion!” this book is what he is talking about. The FBI has set up a team to find cooperation in the Trump election camp prior to the November 2016 result and the Russian government.

The book is a bit boring however, full of insider gossip and Beltway intrigue that has nothing to do with middle America where elections are decided. While the authors suggest that Russian interference in the election process gravely influenced the outcome in 2016, it’s not conclusive (and how could it be?). It’s true that Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump had more carefully scripted his appearances to coincide with the type of disaffection of the middle required to get him over the line. He also had the advantage that he was coming at the contest from the Republican side, after eight years of Obama in leadership.

But there’s no doubt Trump has been soft on Putin, one of the world’s most dangerous demagogues, and the supremo of a blind kleptocracy where money and revanchist sentiment aimed at the West can achieve almost anything. Then again, Trump is a businessman, so Putin would naturally be the type of leader he would gravitate to. They both share the same interests, and the well-being of liberal democracy is not one of them. Trump is more concerned about his private businesses than supporting progressives – noisy, troublesome nonentities – in eastern Europe. The Ukraine? Trump absolutely supports Putin’s political moves in that sphere of influence. Putin is a man Trump can understand and relate to: money talks.

While illuminating, the book is a bit tiresome for the reasons already outlined. I made it just over halfway through before giving up out of boredom.  You wonder when the penny will drop with Americans that their narrow concerns are not shared with populations in other countries in the world. With this kind of political reporting, it’s no wonder they have so many wicked problems in the States: a gerrymandered electoral system, an inefficient healthcare system (it costs the country 50 percent more than the OECD average but mortality strikes Americans on average three years earlier than the OECD average), a chronically-underpaid class of working poor, a criminal lack of concern about the wellbeing of young people, who live all the time with the threat of being shot at school. With problems like these, the influence of the Russian president in the 2016 US federal election shows up on your radar as something like a minor scandal.

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