Professor Mark Danner delivers the UC Berkeley Class of 1961 Lecture, “The Slow-Motion Coup, the War in Ukraine and How to Cover it All” on August 22, 2022.
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The Slow-Motion Coup, the War in Ukraine and How to Cover It All
Class of 1961 Chair Lecture
August 22, 2022
The Slow-Motion Coup
We find ourselves in an unusual moment of peril. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books I compared the coming midterm election to the critical ballot of 1860. It may seem a great exaggeration: for that election led the country into the Civil War, the bloodiest war in our history.
And yet I believe we stand at a moment of comparable gravity. In my title I have tried to suggest this peril faces us on both sides of the traditional news divide: that is, foreign and domestic.
Nearly half of all Americans tell polltakers they believe the last election was stolen and that President Biden is not a legitimate president. In this they follow the leadership of the former president, Donald John Trump.
The other half of Americans, roughly, not only believe President Biden is legitimate but fear former President Trump tried to orchestrate a coup to stay in office – and they fear, further, that next time he will try to steal the election outright.
Thus the slogan Stop the Steal has, as the linguists say, “multi-valence.” For Trump followers Stop the Steal means Don’t respect or follow President Biden, who is in office as the result of “The Steal.” For Biden supporters, it means we prevented the former President’s coup – his Steal – in 2020 and now we must prevent his next Steal, which will come in the election of 2024.
All of this means not only that we have lost a common language. It means that our entire electoral system – which means our political system – has lost the one thing that distinguished it in this world of coups and revolutions: its legitimacy. This legitimacy is what made our political transfers of power, unlike in many countries of the world, overwhelmingly peaceful.
Perhaps it would help to put this more concretely. Whatever the extreme differences between our political parties, the one shared belief was in the legitimacy of our electoral and political system. Because of this when one party lost power in an election, it was willing to relinquish power and work to achieve it again in the next election. Because the universal belief was elections were fair.
We have lost this and though it hurts me to say so the predictable result is increasing violence in politics. Now our country is no stranger to this. All of us remember, for example, 1968. Then, too, there were doubts about legitimacy provoked by the Vietnam war.
But this is doubts on all sides and it concerns our very system of choosing leaders. We have really not seen such a pervasive loss of political legitimacy since 1860. That is why I have written that this is the most critical election since that one.
To what do we owe this almost unprecedented moment of instability in the United States? My answer would be populism. By that I do not mean Donald John Trump but by the currents in our politics that brought him to power, and I am talking here mainly about the concentration of wealth, the hollowing out of the Middle Class, the loss of good upper working class and lower middle class jobs, particularly in the Midwest and in rural areas, the financial rot and corruption exposed by the economic collapse of 2008, and so on.
Populist politicians – and there have been many, as far back as Catiline in first century BC Rome – rise out of political and economic grievance and former President Trump is a genius of grievance. He also is a master at using the commercial press, for he is an immensely lucrative figure for the press: He guarantees “eyeballs” and he knows it. That is why he is inescapable even on supposedly “Democratic” media.
The War in Ukraine
I will return to this theme in my comments on “how to cover it all.” But before that I will continue in my efforts to depress you, my benefactors, by looking briefly at our other source of danger, the war in Ukraine – which turned exactly six months old… yesterday. It is effectively a stalemate, killing hundreds of people a week in grinding artillery sieges. And with the death of Daria Dugina yesterday, the daughter of Putin’s favorite philosopher and ideologist, in an explosion near Moscow, the war is now acquiring an increasingly violent terrorist component.
My principal point here is that thirty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the world has now returned to a Cold War type stand-off. Yes, it is a Hot War, yes the frontline has moved several hundred miles to the East – but the outline of the conflict is the same. East versus West, alliance versus alliance, all of it backed with nuclear weapons.
It means our post-Cold War foreign policy has largely failed. I asked, in a debate on NATO enlargement at the Council on Foreign Relations in the mid-1990s I asked: Do we want to win the Cold War – or end it? I’d argue that we decided, by enlarging NATO right up to Russia’s borders, that we wanted to win it. Which in my view was a grave mistake. One can disagree on this – Senator Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, whom I was debating, certainly did – but the facts at the moment are clear:
We find ourselves in a dangerous hot war in which the states with the two largest nuclear arsenals are fighting: one (Russia) directly, one (the United States and NATO) through proxy. Though the number of total nuclear weapons has diminished significantly from the height of the Cold War – today that number is about 12,000, during the eighties it was 60,000 – I would venture, reluctantly, that the odds of a nuclear conflict are much greater today.
This is because Russia is fighting directly at its border and it is, albeit slowly, losing. Post-Cold War Russia also has a policy of “escalate, to de-escalate,” using tactical nuclear weapons. These are so-called battlefield nukes – small weapons that can be fired from artillery tubes or on missiles and carry about the same or less than the explosive charge of the Hiroshima bomb – and Russia might use them to attack a Ukrainian battlefield formation, with the expectation that that would lead the Ukrainians and their Western backers, including the United States, to back down and sue for peace.
It’s an immensely dangerous strategy, and it would bring us to a moment of nuclear danger unmatched since the Cuban Missile Crisis the year after you graduated. There is no way to predict the outcome of such a confrontation but it is worth remembering we are now fighting in the Russians’ “back yard” — just the way they, by placing missiles in Cuba, were playing in ours. I leave you to draw the implications of that.
That this war may end in nuclear confrontation is of course the worst of worst-case scenarios. An alternative is that the war grinds on, tens and then hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian lives are lost, the US and its allies continue to expend billions of dollars to support the Ukrainians – and relations between the Russians and the Europeans steadily worsen, NATO is brought back into a central role of US-European solidarity against Russia, and the Russians and the Chinese, the two great autocratic powers are increasingly allied against the Western Democracies, with much of what used to be called the “non-aligned world” of Asia, Africa and Latin America standing on the sidelines.
This alignment of the Russians and Chinese of course was what Nixon and Kissinger strove to prevent with their “triangular diplomacy” with Beijing during the last years of the Vietnam War. Fifty years later we have reached that dangerous point exactly. The nightmare scenario here – or I should say the second nightmare scenario – is a confrontation with China over Taiwan which would result in the United States fighting a two-front war. We saw in the tensions and wargames during House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan a foreshadowing of what such a crisis could look like. It probably won’t be the last such foreshadowing.
Now of course we face this perilous international situation at a moment of grave domestic political weakness. Two parties with two diametrically opposed philosophies of “Stop the Steal” are clashing. A few months from now we will see how many “Stop the Steal” candidates are elected in the midterms. Will an election denier become Arizona’s secretary of state, entrusted with running that vital purple state’s election in 2024? Will an election denier be elected governor of Pennsylvania, who has the power to appoint the secretary of state?
We will see. If it does happen, the 2024 elections could well culminate in a violent Constitutional crisis. This may well happen whether or not former President Trump is the Republican candidate. And in my view President Trump may well be the candidate even if, as seems increasingly likely, he is indicted. Prosecutors in Atlanta, New York and Washington are developing cases against the former president and all evidence suggests he will use these cases to further de-legitimize the legal system, as he did in his response to the FBI’s search of his home at Mar-a-Lago, and distill in his supporters ever greater distrust in the politics of our country.
How Do We Cover It All?
I am aware, oh Class of 1961, that I am describing a distinctly unsettled time – perhaps the most unsettled since you were graduated from this noble institution. And worsening this is the fact that we view this roiling landscape through a media lens unlike any in American history. I am tempted to begin my description with two famous lines of Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I am afraid this betrays my bias – and above all my generation. I come from a world in which two terms – objectivity and authority – were pretty much taken for granted. Both today are pretty much gone and this is makes our position as news consumers ever more bewildering and fraught.
The idea of objectivity arose at a particular time and place, namely, in the new mass commercial press at the beginning of the 20th Century. How do you make papers appealing to everyone of varying politics, so you can deliver to them mass-market advertisements like those from, say, supermarkets and department stores? You create the idea of non-partisanship, which transformed what had been a highly partisan American press. A newspaper like The New York Times, with a slightly liberal editorial bent, could still become America’s “newspaper of record.”
This idea of objectivity belongs to the past. Our press today is partisan, in some cases – notably, Fox News and MSNBC – is ferociously so. Opinion widely overmatches information. Sometimes I think of the model of our contemporary newsworld as an upside down pyramid, with a vast base of opinion balancing on a smaller and smaller tip of actual reported information.
This process of transformation was already underway during the 1980s, when President Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine. It was immensely accelerated by the advent of social media and the new “algorithms” that nourish it. These algorithms ensure that a consumer’s mildly partisan choice of news becomes ever more ferociously partisan. It is automatic, it is impersonal: it is just business. And its effects are pernicious.
The most important of those effects is the collapse of the authority of information. For a century or more a small group of publications and news corporations carried near universal authority in the United States and much of the world. The three networks, a handful of papers – above all, The Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal – blessed what could be fairly known and what could be reasonably said.
The end of this monopoly could be seen coming with the advent of cable news and, especially, the coming of the internet. Those historians among you will know that the United States has always been a hotbed of conspiracies: the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Council on Foreign Relations – all secretly controlled the world (as Richard Hofstadter detailed so well in his classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, nearly sixty years ago). Never before, though, have conspiracies captured the imagination of so many millions of Americans. Half of them, as I mentioned, believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though 61 court cases, numerous recounts and reports, and many other studies all testify to the opposite.
Those people do not believe that the System – whether it is the government, the Deep State, the swamp, the courts, science – can offer any objective measure of reality that is trustworthy. All is corrupted by conspiracy and self-dealing. And they have enormous resources within the media that offer support to this view. But I do want to be clear: It is not the conspiracy theories that are new. It is their vast acceptance – and that stems, it seems to me, from the collapse of the authority of information, any information, that is, that can be perceived to be non-partisan and objective.
We have seen the very real effects of this collapse on public health during the pandemic. “During this third wave [of the virus] – which continued into early 2021,” when a vaccination was widely available, according to Pew Research, “the coronavirus death rate among … Americans living in counties that supported Trump by the highest margins … was about 170% of the death rate among the … Americans living in counties that supported Biden by the largest margins.” Another way of saying, if you strongly back Trump you are likely to listen to him and to his media, which denigrate wearing masks and getting vaccinated. If you live in these counties, and get your news from these sources, you have almost double the likelihood of dying of Covid.
One can put this in even starker terms: Because of the collapse in the authority of information, hundreds of thousands of Americans died. A slightly subtler and no less important point is that, because of that same collapse in information, our politics has become increasingly detached from any objective standard of truth at all. It doesn’t matter that more than sixty judges, including many Trump appointed judges, found no actionable issues in Trump’s suits claiming fraud in the 2020 election. The courts are rigged, just like the System itself!
Former President Trump may be the first major politician who has in effect made his career on this new reality but he is unlikely to be the last. In politics, he is a path-breaker and many will follow in his footsteps. This is why, as we approach the midterms of 2022, we should remember the stakes: America finds itself in the midst of what I would call A Slow-Motion Coup, one that may have started in a killingly cold day at the US Capitol in January 2021 but one that continues as we gather here today.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this coup – this Steal – is multivalent, it means different things to different people, but for all Americans it places our politics and our Republic on a newly fragile foundation. I see no “solution” to this present moment – I’m afraid you could have seen that coming! – but I know one thing that is vital to meet it: A rock solid humanist education that teaches young Americans to read and watch with an intellect that is honed by the study of history, politics, philosophy and my own beloved literature. As so-called “news sources” proliferate, we must redouble our efforts to help young Americans read and view critically – to expand their range of sources and actively compare one with another.
Our only hope, not only this November but in a November two years to come, is cultured and above all critical intelligence that institutions like Berkeley at their best instill. Let there be light may seem a paltry pale slogan to set against the lurid confabulations of Q-Anon but it has been, in the country’s darkest times, what has saved us. One need only read the words and thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, indeed of Frederick Douglass and so many others.
Nearly a quarter millennium has passed since Benjamin Franklin, asked by a woman outside the Constitutional Convention what kind of government he and his colleagues had made, offered the famous response, “A Republic, madame – if you can keep it.” Franklin meant it as an answer that would remain fresh and powerful, and never, Class of 1961, has it been more powerful and critical than it is today.
Thank you for your attention.