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Clash of Civilizations
The key point about the Mar-A-Lago raid is not whether the former President will face charges, jail time, or even the death penalty for treason. Nor is the key point that the seized documents might reveal that the former President sold US nuclear technology in exchange for personal financial backing for his business ventures. The key point is that America is split. It is split along the lines Samuel P Huntingdon predicted in his 1993 work, The Clash of Civilizations. He predicted that wars would no longer be between countries but between cultures. This idea was always thought to apply to The Middle East, which was fractious with conflict. Ironically now it looks like America’s efforts to bring peace to that region have exposed and amplified a fractious culture clash within the US. The nukes for cash story is splitting America.
On one side, there are those who are horrified because they believe that America is an occupied country, headed by someone who was not elected and therefore the former President is a patriot hero no matter who he has to do a deal with, even a deal potentially involving the sale of nuclear technology in exchange for funding the President’s private businesses. This camp views the FBI and the Department of Justice as enforcement arms of an illegal occupation, which is why individuals are literally throwing themselves at the buildings that house these organizations and threatening their employees. As one observer put it, “The MAGA legions darkly suggest that tyranny looms if FBI agents can treat a former president like a normal criminal suspect.”
Then there are those who are horrified that the former President blatantly flouts the law, threatens to overthrow the Capital and the Constitution, and might even have sold nuclear technology in exchange for personal financial gain, which would make him not just a criminal but a traitor. For them it is terrifying that the justice system in America is incapable of dealing with Mr. Trump at any level.
For the former, no amount of proof will dampen their allegiance. For the latter, no amount of proof ever seems to be sufficient to lock the former President up or remove him from power. The situation is quantum. Both can be true at the same time. So far, the focus is on the legality of the document handling and not on the contents. But, the question is coming: Did Trump sell the atom bomb to a sovereign (or sovereigns) in exchange for cash? This has yet to be seen. But it looks like it might be a real possibility.
Let’s remember that President Trump and his team never expected to win. They wanted to lift his ratings. They wanted to build a media empire which was jokingly called TNN (Trump News Network in which he’d be the new Ted Turner who founded CNN)) which morphed into what is now known as Truth Social. Once he had won office, it was assumed he would win again. But then a threat pitched up. Jeff Bezos. He never had a chance to announce his intention to run but for those with astute antennae, one picture was worth a thousand words. It was the image of Bezos looking like a construction worker, perched 300 feet high atop a wind rotor with double the wingspan of a 747, one of 1000 on a 1m megawatt hour wind farm that he had built. It screamed – I am a practical person who can fix America’s big problems. Word at the time was that he was assembling a team of advisors on politics and policy, not that he needed them given that he already owned one of the best open intelligence machines in the world - The Washington Post. He had the official intelligence agencies onside, having struck a radically novel deal with all 17 US intelligence agencies back in 2014. Amazon Web Services created a $600m government computing cloud that would allow much faster and deeper interagency data sharing and thus much faster and deeper intelligence capabilities. The idea was that another September 11th could be avoided with this technology. Plus, Bezos had founded a space company, Blue Origin, two years before Elon Musk launched Space X. To insiders, Bezos looked like a formidable not yet announced Presidential candidate. Americans clearly wanted a commercially successful political outsider. Trump and Bezos were similar in this respect, and Trump rightly saw Bezos as a serious threat.
The Bezos plan deflated fast when in February 2019, certain private “below-the-belt” selfie photos of the then-married Bezos and his girlfriend ended up in the hands of The National Enquirer. The interesting thing is that the publisher behind the Enquirer, AMI, was headed by someone that Trump had long said was the person he wanted to work with most when it came to creating a media empire, David Pecker. He was apparently known as the guardian of the “catch and kill” strategy that protected Donald Trump from negative publicity. At the time, Trump and his team assumed that AMI would be a natural partner to TNN. But, someone would need to fund the venture. Given that President Trump was creating a media frenzy with every single tweet and had some 75m supporters, it seemed an easy bet that a serious investor would be found to seed the enterprise.
There was a brief period when Trump considered not running for the second term so that he could focus on launching his post-Presidency media empire. Such a media machine would allow him to both mint cash and control the narrative. He started criticizing both CNN and Fox News, thinking he’d displace both in his quest to be the new Ted Turner. It was tempting. But it’s really hard to turn down the Oval Office. Soon the Trump team came up with the solution. Do both. Keep the Oval Office and launch TNN at the same time. After all, some family members were not officially part of the government and could undertake the negotiations without overt conflicts. Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, then a Special Assistant to The President, had both been part of The New York Observer, a New York newspaper. They both understood the value of a media company. They were also both at the center of the Abraham Accord negotiations. This matters.
The Abraham Accords effectively brought a truce to the fractious Middle East. Everybody was a winner. The US recognized the movement of the Israeli capital to Jerusalem. The Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris all agreed to recognize Israel to some extent or another. The Israelis and Saudis could now work together in ways that had been impossible before. All were greatly interested in Pegasus, the Israeli spyware that allowed a government to keep tabs on citizens and targets without anyone knowing, and many other technologies. The Israelis seemed willing to share tech in exchange for recognition and de-escalation of regional tensions.
This brings us back to Bezos. In a weird turn of events, investigations into the source of the infamous Bezos photos initially blamed Bezos’s girlfriend’s brother (who was a Trumper). But later, the net is filled with stories about regional sovereigns that might have been the source of the photos via potentially Israeli spyware. The question remains, how did the infamous intimate Bezos pictures get into the hands of AMI and Trump’s best friend? The Guardian, The New York Times and others had some ideas about how it really happened. But, what matters now is whether any of this had anything to do with the $2b that Jared Kushner raised for his fund and the $5b President Trump raised in the vehicle he created to fund his media empire, the DWAC SPAC.
As an aside, many believe that Khashoggi came to a bad end because he was not only a Washington Post reporter (Bezos camp) but perhaps also working for American intelligence (many think the Post and US Intel are one in the same these days!) Spies are considered fair game in the dark world of intrigue. But, maybe the real issue was that he was starting to write about the nukes for cash and tech deal? If yes, that would certainly have been a threat to the continuation of the Trump Presidency, a threat to the Abraham Accords and a threat to those who wanted access to America’s nuclear technology. How apt and ironic if Pegasus was used to geolocate Khashoggi’s movements, though no one can prove this.
No doubt a ton of ink will be spilled trying to find the right party to blame. But, you cannot really blame the parties that seek to acquire US nuclear technology. That’s the normal game of geopolitics. You can try and identify who received the nuclear secrets when and how, but it’s hard to prove and useless in a courtroom because so much of the story will be classified. Interestingly, the Russians have already claimed they too had access to the documents and have been “studying them for months”. Did Israel get nuclear secrets? Did Saudi? Did Russia? Did everybody? Who didn’t?
If it comes to it, The President will argue that he was justified in cutting a deal, even one that might have involved trading away nuclear tech in exchange for a more peaceful Middle East. He can say he declassified the documents which, as President, he has the authority to. The bigger question, the nuclear question, is whether the President or anyone on his team, personally financially benefitted from the deal.
Now back to domestic American politics. For the MAGA side, any payment to Trump or his family will be seen as a well-earned “tip” for patriotic services rendered to the nation in its efforts to free America from illegal occupation. The $5b valuation that his SPAC received is just a valuation. You can’t prove that the investors were doing anything but investing in a good idea. Trump can evade it all simply by announcing that he’s running for the Presidency again. There’s nothing to see here folks.
For the other side, every bit of evidence incriminates the former President. Yet, the left never gets their man. Trump sails in and out of the justice system unscathed.
The problem here is that you might want to frame all this in terms of right and wrong or legal and illegal. But something deeper has happened to America, according to Adam Curtis, the genius who brought us Hypernormalization and other films that explain the radical changes in culture over the last few generations. He says the problem is that many lack the conceptual tools to even understand the ideas behind “occupied America” thinking. He likens it to the time when the American Indians were run off their land. They not only lost the land. They also lacked the imaginative tools needed to endure such a massive conceptual onslaught. After all, how can you be displaced and replaced by land owners when land can’t be “owned” as far as American Indians are concerned? Land just “is”. You can use it, stand on it, look at it but no one “owns” it until you understand the concept of land ownership.
So, if you don’t have the imaginal tools to understand MAGA, Q-Anon and the various conspiracy theories that underpin the Pro-Trump view of the world, start with Izabella Kaminska’s (former FT Alphaville Editor), video, which offers a deep dive into what today’s gamified and “game jacked” realpolitik conspiracy theory landscape. She points out that the current situation sounds similar to Poland's inter-war period. Józef Klemens Piłsudski was the leader of Poland’s resistance and opposition. He cut deals with everybody. It didn’t matter who won as far as he was concerned. He got all sides to agree to let Poland come back to life as a nation-state, whoever won. These days incredibly bright, efficient and well-armed former US military members seem to be leaning toward Pilsudski’s position, as Kaminska explains. Geopolitics is dark and messy stuff. Welcome to the realpolitik of our times.
For the other side, for Trump’s ardent opponents, any transaction or payment made in exchange for nuclear secrets is proof of treason and justify a discussion about the death penalty. For them, the drama must play out in a legal domain. Americans loves courtroom drama and believe the law provides justice. But this is not a legal fight. It is a philosophical fight of immense proportions. It may look like a foreign policy issue, but it is really a domestic argument about the nature of power and who is entitled to be in office. The situation is hard to comprehend. Biden is in office but has little power. Trump has power even though he is out of office. All depends on the lens you use.
The core of the argument is going to be about corruption. Is Washington corrupt and Trump is a hero for cleaning it up? Or is Trump corrupt and Washington is a hero for cleaning him up? Both sides believe they have a monopoly on the truth here. Both sides are incredulous that anyone disagrees with them. Both sides can hold their positions at the same time as the other. But, a dangerous transition now occurred. The opposition has morphed into resistance, and the establishment has morphed into the ineffectual.
Is the greatest threat to democracy 1. allowing Trump to escape accountability? or 2. targeting Trump for trying to save America’s democracy? This is the Clash of Civilizations. I am reminded of lyrics from The Clash:
The markets thought that the January 6th risk premium had safely passed. Perhaps this needs revisiting.
Even Henry Kissinger is confused. He writes about the arrival of “disequilibrium” in geopolitics. He says, “In my thinking, equilibrium has two components” “a kind of balance of power, with an acceptance of the legitimacy of sometimes opposing values. Because if you believe that the final outcome of your effort has to be the imposition of your values, then I think equilibrium is not possible. So, one level is a sort of absolute equilibrium.” The other level, he says, is “equilibrium of conduct, meaning there are limitations to the exercise of your own capabilities and power in relation to what is needed for the overall equilibrium.” Achieving this combination takes “an almost artistic skill” he says. Trumpers will insert “The Art of the Deal” here. Kissinger continues, “It’s not very often that statesmen have aimed at it deliberately because power had so many possibilities of being expanded without being disastrous that countries never felt that full obligation.”
If Kissinger cannot make sense of things, how can a regular person make sense of things? And, yet we must, or else this quantum phase in American politics may still split America apart even as it has brought greater cohesion to the Middle East. Could the very thing that brought a new peace to the Middle East now be the very thing that splits America apart? Was the cost of uniting the Middle East the splitting apart of America?
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