The Siberian Candidate, The Tupelo King, and The Ultimate Cringe
This Week: You Can’t Make This Sh*t Up so we turned to people who do it for a living — Robert Baer, Olen Steinhauer, Richard Lourie, Dan Fesperman, Adam Brookes and David Filipov. Listen today at 2pm or anytime on our website.
MM: We couldn’t bear the punditry on this one, even to re-route the conversation or correct the record. We don’t buy the Russia hype, but hype can be fun and good radio. As the man said, “when fact becomes legend, print the legend.” And speaking of men, apologies for the all male show. Valerie Plame was in the bullpen but bagged at the last minute.
Chris teed up the show with a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, the Hollywood classic that can look like a preview of the Trump movie we’re watching today — a brainwashed stooge of Russian spymasters takes US presidential politics hostage.
Our guests added their own spy-fi twists to the Helsinki plot. Robert Baer follows Trump’s Russia money and tracks his KGB contacts; Richard Lourie reads Putin’s view; Adam Brookes has the China take; Dan Fesperman introduces a special fashionista double agent; Olen Steinhauer and our journo friend and Russia watcher David Filipov add to the espionage fun.
ZG: Outside of spy-fi world, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about the media’s obsession with the Russia story and the jingoistic sentiment it’s inspired among dems.
For some, the degree to which you care about the Russia story is determined by the same old generational / left-liberal divides which we’ve been talking about since 2015:
David Klion, a freelance writer and Russia watcher, has suggested that this issue should be a point of unity for progressive, including establishment Democrats as well as the post-Bernie left . After all, he argues, the real issue here is oligarchy—both in the U.S. and in Russia:
The United States has little standing to condemn Russia’s oligarchs while the Trump administration openly loots the public with a tax-reform bill designed to benefit the wealthiest Americans and with taxpayer dollars constantly funneled through Trump Organization properties. The next administration should make the case that the transnational oligarchy stretching from New York to London to Moscow poses a national-security threat by undermining the integrity of our political process. It should expand FARA and end foreign lobbying, both legal and illegal, on K Street. It should crack down on money laundering through banks and real estate, as well as offshore tax havens.
Contrary to what some writers on the left have argued, the American public is legitimately interested in the Trump-Russia scandal and isn’t going to stop paying attention. But rather than singling out Russia, the next president should pledge to take on kleptocrats everywhere, using Trump’s outrageous corruption (including but certainly not limited to his Russia ties) to make the case for a more just economic order.
On the other hand, Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman argues that no one is actually interested in solving the issues that led to Russiagate:
The question is what accounts for the curious divergence between form and substance. Why beat your breast about the mortal threat to the republic if, in practice, you don’t actually care very much about defusing it? Think of it as “the expressive function of the Russia freakout.” Just as there is what Cass Sunstein called “the expressive function of law” — “the function of law in ‘making statements’ as opposed to controlling behavior” — there’s a purpose served by the constant keening over Putin. It conveys liberals’ sense of bewilderment and disorientation at a country they no longer recognize — a feeling not so different from that which motivated the Right’s manifold freakouts in the Obama era.
At a certain point, these arguments can start to feel redundant and predictable. Regular readers of this newsletter are probably tired of reading about left-liberal generational divides—and I’m tired of writing about them!
My own essentially non-ideological question about Helsinki is this: what did people think was going to happen? In what possible world did people imagine Trump saying yes, I trust the FBI and the Mueller investigation; yes, I think Putin may have helped me win this election? His non-answers to reporter’s questions seemed less like admissions of kompromat and more like the typical, semi-automated responses of a narcissist unable to accept any form of self-critique. If the summit is viewed as a Rorschach test — with Trump’s essentially formless ramblings provoking breathless declarations of treason — the media response tell us more about the national psyche than about anything of real political substance.
Watch: The King
Elvis died 40 years ago last August. The tragic arc of his career now has now been reimagined as a metaphor for American decline in Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary. The filmmaker spent the previous year driving Presley’s refurbished 1963 Rolls-Royce across the country and visiting the towns and cities which defined The King’s career: Tupelo, Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. It’s a bizarre, meandering film that hints at something deeply sick in the heart of our country’s cult of celebrity. Watch it and keep an eye out for all the cameos from past OS guests, including Greil Marcus, Steve Fraser, and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson—they kinda steal the show.
(Cringe) Watch: Eighth Grade
MM: Mean girls with phones and social media. Is there anything worse? It’s not exactly a horror movie, but close. Beau Burnham nails it, but I needed a tranquilizer by the end.
I’m new to Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, but totally smitten by her modernist novelistic take on recent history. What a writer. Pop art, Brexit, puns galore. I finished it in a day and then read it again. On to Winter.
Finish: The Noise of Time
Read this lovely short novel to prep fo the Shosty hour Conor and Chris are working up. There’s still time to polish off Elizabeth Wilson’s bio, too.
Listen: Remembering Philip Roth
The New Yorker Radio Hour this week was devoted to Philip Roth. The middle section with Judith Thurman, Claudia Roth Pierpont and specially our new crush Lisa Halliday on Roth and his portrayal of women is very good.
Long-ish reads for a Rainy Sunday
…after the end of this fantastic British Open. David Remnick tries to wrap his head around DSA politics and the now notorious AOC.
In the same New Yorker issue: I didn’t think I cared that much about equal pay at the BBC, but Carrie Gracie is a hero! Maggie Haberman quits twitter. And from last week’s Times, what you need to know about Brett Kavanaugh.
Til next week,
The Open Source Spies