Nixonland

With another impeachment in prospect, I have had my nose in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s highly readable account of the 37th president’s life and times through his landslide reelection in 1972. It is a reminder that, climate change, Donald Trump and the eruption of populism notwithstanding, we live now in relatively halcyon times.

I still have a trophy from my blooding as a journalist — a CS gas canister I scored covering the Republican convention at which Richard Nixon was nominated for his second term. The late Connie Lawn, for many years the voice of America for morning drive time listeners in SA, had lent me one of her clients, a chain of radio stations on the New Jersey shore.

Never since have conventions, Republican or Democratic, been as vivid, and that was a pretty tame one for the time, there being no doubt about the outcome. Street battles apart, the big news, a scoop for the BBC’s legendary Charles Wheeler, father of Boris Johnson’s soon-to-be ex, was that the whole shebang inside the hall was entirely scripted for TV. A novelty then. Wheeler, chief of the Beeb’s Washington bureau, so loathed Nixon that he spoke of demanding reassignment if the man was reelected.

We wring our hands these days about the polarization of American politics as if there was some golden past in which everyone linked arms and sang kumbaya. We forget that fifty years ago this country was ripping itself apart even as it was doing amazing things like landing a man on the moon.

The baby boom generation, today seen as a blight on the planet, was busy baffling and enraging its parents, getting high and laid to the accompaniment of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and being obstreperous about the monstrously stupid war in Viet Nam.

It wasn’t all flower power and bell bottoms. The universities were on fire. At Kent State in Ohio, students were mown down by the National Guard. Weathermen and other home grown terrorists were blowing people up. Martin Luther King’s dream talk had been supplanted by ostentatiously armed Black Panthers threatening to kill whitey. Well-intentioned efforts to desegregate public schools by busing white pupils to non-white neighbourhoods brought out the inner Klansman in countless northerners.

Prophecies of doom abounded. The Population Bomb, a smash best seller by Stanford professor Paul Erlich, predicted cataclysmic global famine within a decade of so. Pollution, pollution, sang satirist Tom Lehrer, wear a gas mask and a veil, then you can breathe long as you don’t inhale.

Enter Nixon, a man from a hardscrabble background who had long since traded his soul to wreak revenge on the Ivy League bastards who constantly slighted him for not being one of them. His seething inner demons and skill in channelling them to political advantage made him useful to President Eisehhower whom he served as vice, acting as the general’s heavy much as Essop Pahad did for Thabo Mbeki.

Nixon was a smoother liar than Donald Trump but no less driven by resentment and like Trump he played on and fueled the fear and rage of what he dubbed the Silent Majority. His politics, like Trump’s, were unmoored to any principle other than the need to win and do down his enemies, not least the press.

Milton Friedman loved him until, having failed to bully his Federal Reserve chairman into keeping interests low amid rising inflation, and hoping to steady the economy ahead of his reelection bid, he imposed wage and price controls. Not that absence of principle is always incompatible with statesmanship. His fellow Republicans were flabbergasted by his opening to Mao’s China but it did wonders for him in the polls, helping him win every state but one in November 1972.

Pray that Trump doesn’t pull off an equivalent coup.

Feuds

Were I to tell my neighbour that his land was not really his, he might pull a gun. But I would nonetheless be correct. My one and a half wooded hectares aren’t fully mine either though I hold the title free and clear.

What I and my neighbour do possess are certain rights to the land we like to think of as ours. We can sell the rights, or lease them to someone else, or bequeath them to our heirs. But we cannot do anything we please on the land itself. I am having some Amish around next week to raise me a man cave but before I could do that I had to get planning permission, install concrete footers at prescribed intervals and have an inspector approve them.

More importantly, my tenure is contingent. If I fail to pay the tax the state assesses on “my” acres, the state will take them back. Back? Yes back, because in the wonderfully archaic language of property law, the state is the “donor” or the “allodial owner”.

The state in my case is Maryland which inherited my and every other patch within its borders from the British Crown when the US won its independence. Before that they belonged to George III and his antecedents under a system dating back to the 12th Century. The colonists were the king’s subjects, and, as the jurist William Blackstone put it in 1765, “the king…hath absolutum et directum dominum” over his subjects’ lands in America, stolen though they were from the indigenes.

Land was an obsession for George Washington long before he became a Founding Father. He acquired tens of thousands of hectares, all of which ultimately belonged to the Crown. His lust for land in today’s western Pennsylvania and Ohio, territory then claimed by France, helped trigger the Seven Years War, the first truly global conflict fought from North America through Europe to India and the Philippines. After the war, the British, victorious but exhausted, called a halt to their colonists’ westward expansion and asked them to ante up for defending lands already acquired, precipitating America’s UDI and the transfer of ownership.

I hold my land in “free socage” or “fee simple”. Fee derives from the word feud, as in feudalism, which in turn derives from the Latin foedus, meaning pact or agreement. In feudal England, the king ceded his vassals land rights in return for their agreeing to support him financially, administratively and militarily. Said vassals would use that land to enter into “feuds” with their vassals and so on down the food chain. Today, thanks in no small part to G. Washington, not to mention Edward I and the statute Quia Emptores Terrarum of 1290, I have a happy “feud” with Maryland.

The state authorities could make it unhappy. They could decide they need my land for something else.  It would not even have to be a public use. Under the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Kelo vs City of New London, they could decree that the public interest would be best served by handing my plot to a private developer. Under unanimously decided Hawaii Housing Authority vs. Midkiff (1984), they could theoretically do it in the name of land reform.

They would have to pay compensation, of course, but there are plenty of steps they could take to destroy the value of my property beforehand through zoning or licensing construction of a pollution-spewing chemical plant next door. My neighbours and I would presumably fight like hell  in the courts and through the ballot box. If we didn’t move away first. But none of this, I trust, is going to happen.

The people of Maryland, the allodial owners of my property, are too sensible for that.

No joke

I withdraw my suggestion that the way to deal with Donald Trump is to laugh at him. No sooner than I had pushed send on that feckless insight than the clown turned Stephen-King-scary. He got up in front of the National Rifle Association — the Taliban of the American AR-15 cult — and said the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election was “a coup” and “an attempted overthrow of the United States government”.

That is the language of an autocrat looking for grounds to detain or shoot his enemies. It is how a wouldbe dictator speaks when he wants to suspend his country’s constitution  or overturn an election. And it’s the sort of thing that inspires the nut jobs of whom we have a bottomless supply to go out and kill. Remember Cesar Sayoc and the pipe bombs he sent to journalists, Democratic party leaders and donors?  

There has been no repudiation of Trump’s coup talk from his lickspittle Republican party. Indeed it seems to have become embedded in the GOP’s talking points, parrotted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and, of course, by Trump’s propaganda arm, Fox News.

Unnerving too is the religious ultra-right’s Trump idolatry. On National Prayer Day, Paula White-Cain, the abominably wealthy megachurch pastor, spoke at the White House where she declared Trump God’s annointed. “Now lift we up our president,” she said, before addressing herself to the Almighty: “You declared in Jeremiah 1:5 that before he was ever formed in his mother’s womb you had set him apart and ordained him”. God had Jeremiah foretell the coming of a prophet called Trump? What is this? A theocracy?

White-Cain went on: “We are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities, wickedness and darkness, so we declare every demonic network to be scattered right now”. Demonic network is an interesting way of describing the FBI, the intelligence community, the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, all of whom, along with the Democrats, Trump now insists were part of a fiendish plot to oust him.

Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University, boot camp for jihadist evangelicals, chimed in on Sunday that “Trump should have 2 yrs added to 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this failed corrupt coup” — which Trump immediately retweeted. Obviously, they were trying to get a rise from the Democrats, and they succeeded. But the joke was sinister, nonetheless.

Creepy too was this from Senator Josh Hawley, freshman Republican from Missouri: “You want to know why the FBI spied on @RealDonaldTrump & launched multi-year investigations? It’s about @RealDonaldTrump VOTERS. Unelected progressive elites in our government have nothing but contempt for them. Total, complete contempt.”

Let’s put it all together. Trump is quite deliberately triggering a constitutional crisis, challenging the Democrats to impeach him,  fully confident that the Republican majority in the Senate will save him and reinforce his claim to be the victim of an attempted coup. He and his creatures are stonewalling all attempts by the Democratic majority in the House to follow up on Mueller’s report, whose contents they are flagrantly misrepresenting. Mueller very specifically did not exonerate Trump of obstruction and did — unequivocally —  find that the Putin regime worked to get him elected with his knowledge and without his objection.

Backed by his well-lunched Attorney General William Barr and, he hopes, the Supreme Court which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ravaged precedent and decency to help him pack, Trump will assert the presidency gives him well-nigh king-like powers and protections. And all the while he will whip his base into a frenzied crusade against Washington’s “unelected progressive elites” for dissing them and their champion, God’s chosen one

Will he go quietly if not re-elected? I always thought that a needlessly paranoid question. Now I am not entirely sure.

Prick up his ego

“Kneel before Zod”, Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ chief Trumpslainer, tweeted on Tuesday, quoting Terence Stamp’s immortal line in the first Superman movie. She was reacting to that morning’s presidential tweetstorm at her colleague, columnist Paul Krugman.

Under the headline “The Great Republican Abdication — a party that no longer believes in American values”, Krugman summarised the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released the previous Thursday, in three crisply accurate sentences: “A hostile power intervened in the presidential election, hoping to install Donald Trump in the White House. The Trump campaign was aware of the intervention and welcomed it. And once in power, Trump tried to block any inquiry into what happened.”

Trump, evidently feeling his majesté deeply lèse by this, demanded an apology. “They (the Times) will have to get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness — they are truly the Enemy of the People”.

Seriously?

Democrats are now debating whether to impeach Zod. We must, says Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a top tier contender for her party’s presidential nomination. “To ignore a President’s repeated disloyalty would inflict great and lasting damage on this country.” Not so fast, says Congressman Steny Hoyer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s number two:  better to leave it to the voters 18 months hence. Pelosi herself has said “he’s just not worth it.”

Before reading the Mueller report I agreed with Pelosi. Then, gorge rising, I thought Warren was right. Now, Zod has brought me back to the Speaker’s view. This president deserves to be mocked, not impeached; treated as a source of hilarity, not taken seriously. That will be easier on our blood pressure and harder on his.

He hates to be laughed at as we saw when President Obama roasted him at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner, perhaps precipitating his run for the White House as an act of revenge. But to be laughed at is what he deserves — and what he invites. The absurd hair, the painted-on orange glow, the attempt to hide his gut behind crotch-length ties, the tackiness of his taste in home decor and porn actresses, the shamelessness of his cheating on the golf course,  his buffoonish bombast with its limited vocabulary, his cataract of preposterous mendacity. Trevor Noah and his fellow late night comedians never lack for material. All they have to do for a laugh is read out his tweets.

Trump’s defenders themselves tell us not to take him seriously. They try to explain away his more egregious utterances by insisting he  just joking, as in he really didn’t mean it when he asked the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s emails for him (a request with which they promptly tried to comply). Alternatively he may only be “venting”, as he was, we are assured, when the other day he told his acting secretary of homeland security to break the law and not to worry because there’d be a presidential pardon waiting if it got him into trouble.

The biggest joke of all is that Trump tried to shut down Mueller’s enquiry into Russia’s meddling not because he was guilty of anything — collusion really was a delusion — but because he could not stand the idea of anyone attributing his victory to anything other than his own genius. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine, “in the contest between (Trump’s) own diseased ego and the rule of law, there has never been any contest.”

The pricking of insufferable egos has always been a staple of great comedy, and there shall surely be much more merriment to be had at Trump’s expense before he is ushered into history as a bizarre sideshow. We must just hope that there are still enough good people around him to stop Zod from doing anything actually dangerous in the interim that might wipe the smile from our faces.

Golf cheat

“The Freudians tell us to beware of recounting our dreams lest we betray our hidden infamies,” wrote Presbyterian minister J.A. MacCallum in the October 1923 North American Review. “Golf is, however, a much simpler key to character than dreams for it requires no technique to interpret the telltale facts it brings out into the light of common day.”

The infamies of Donald Trump have been a boon to the American publishing industry. Scarcely a month goes by without some fresh expose hitting the shelves. But no one, so far, has shed more light on the president’s character than Rick Reilly in his new book “Commander in Cheat — How Golf Explains Trump”.

Reilly is a respected chronicler of the game. Not only has he played with Trump himself, he has spoken to dozens of pros, celebrities and others who have shared, and continue to share, that dubious honour, as well as their caddies. Even the enabling golf buddies who profess to like The Donald concede that his behaviour is every bit as egregious on the course as off. But he amuses them.

He’s no duffer. Ernie Els says his handicap should be between 8 and 9; Annika Sorenstam thinks 9 or 10. Both have played with him. Most 72-year-olds would be happy with those numbers.  But Trump himself, on the basis of the scores and slopes (course difficulty ratings) he selectively submits to the US Golf Association’s online handicapping computer, claims to be a 2.8.

The same system gives Jack Nicklaus a 3.4. As Reilly puts it, “If Trump is a 2.8, Queen Elizabeth is a pole vaulter.”

It’s not just that he routinely improves his lie — at Wingfoot the caddies call him Pele out of respect for his footwork — or awards himself mulligans on every shot to the flag or gives himself gimmes on the green with a couple of metres still to go. That’s petty larceny next to the other stunts he pulls.

He likes to escape the gaze of his foursome, so insists, whether or not it’s his honour, on teeing off first on every hole then racing down the fairway in his cart with caddy in tow before the rest have swung their drivers. This, according to a regular partner, allows him to drop his ball into the cup  when he thinks no one is is looking, then pull it out and shout delightedly to his trailing companions that he has chipped in for birdie.

He requires his caddy to play Oddjob to his Goldfinger, “finding” balls that would in reality only be retrievable with snorkel and flippers. LPGA player Suzann Petterson, a Trump friend, told Reilly Trump must pay his caddy well. “No matter how far he hits his ball into the woods it’s always in the middle of the fairway when we get there.”

An ESPN sportscaster,  Mike Tirico, told Reilly how on a blind par 5 he hit the shot of his life, a 210 metre 3-wood, onto the green, only to find it in the bunker when he arrived to putt.  “Lousy break,” Trump told him. Tirico ended up with a 7 rather than a possible 4. Trump’s caddy later told him his ball had been 3 metres from the pin and that Trump had picked it up and thrown it into the sand.

Trump is not the first president to prevaricate on the links. Bob Woodward records how Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton in 1993 carded an 80 in a round with Gerald Ford and Nicklaus, enraging both men. Nicklaus whispered to Ford, “80 with 50 floating mulligans.” Richard Nixon was also said to improve a lie or two. But Trump’s cheating is in a pathological class of its own. Who knew?

Don’t be fooled

On Sunday, James Comey, the former FBI director, tweeted a picture of himself staring up at a stand of towering redwoods. His message: don’t get too engrossed in the trees lest you lose sight of the forest.

Comey was commenting on Attorney General William Barr’s letter to Congress summarising the “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller the previous Friday. Recall that it was President Trump’s May 2017 dismissal of Comey that precipitated Mueller’s appointment.

Barr, newly Senate-confirmed to replace Jeff Sessions who incurred Trump’s wrath for letting the Russia enquiry proceed, wrote that Mueller had found no evidence Trump or his campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”.

As to whether Trump had obstructed justice, Barr quoted Mueller as failing to exonerate the president. Nonetheless, Barr wrote, he and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, determined that the evidence was “not sufficient” for them to mount a prosecution.

On cue, Trump and his cult-like followers proclaimed complete vindication and attacked the press, the Democrats and the “Deep State” for cooking up the entire “Russia hoax”. The White House demanded apologies, even sent television networks a list of Trump traducers it felt should be banned from the airwaves. In the face of this howling, if fatuous, chorus, some in the mainstream media lost their nerve and started blaming colleagues for having rushed to judgement.

Perhaps a little self-examination was in order, both in the Fourth Estate and among the self-styled Resistance. Collusion was a delusion. On the other hand, Trump Derangement Syndrome is a real thing. It is, after all, hard to preserve an open mind in the face of the man’s cosmic mendacity, his cynical appeals to America’s worst angels, his clinically-diagnosable narcissism, his incessant grifting. He invites anyone not in his thrall to put the worst interpretation on everything he does, even on those rare occasions such an interpretation may not be fully justified.

His critics, Scott Adams, Dilbert creator and — bizarrely — Trump mbongi, argues, run the risk of being gaslighted as much by Trump himself as by their own confirmation bias. Does he really think as highly of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and other thugs, as he says he does or is this part of his dictator “persuasion” technique? When, on the campaign trail, he asked the Russians for Hillary Clinton’s emails was he issuing a serious request or simply being flip? I’ve wondered that myself.

But back to Comey’s trees and the forest he does not want us to miss.

Even without seeing Mueller’s full report, from the indictments he obtained last year against Russian military intelligence officers and the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency we know that official Russian efforts to hack the 2016 election in Trump’s favour were no hoax. We also know that Trump and his creatures knew the Russians were trying to help them. Mueller, Barr wrote, identified “multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist”. Yet Team Trump did nothing to discourage these efforts, let alone alert the authorities. To the contrary, they pooh-poohed the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia was meddling.

By his own account, Donald Trump Jr. gladly sat down with a Kremlin lawyer offering dirt on Clinton. When that become known, his father dictated lies to cover it up — but not under oath or to an FBI agent, just to his own staff to have them deceive the public, and so committed no prosecutable crime. Politicians, like marketers, are given legal leeway to con.

Some think Mueller has rescued Trump’s presidency. That’s the message of the trees. The forest says otherwise: not only did Trump win with 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, he did so with the help of a regime that wishes America to be anything but “Great Again”. The arm of the universe is long but it tends towards denying Trump a second term.

Don’t impeach him

The glue that holds together Donald Trump’s base is not ideology. It is visceral, tribal resentment of the Democratic Party and Never-Trump Republicans which he stokes relentlessly via his tweets and with the help of Fox, the cable news channel that acts, on instructions from its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, as Trump’s Pravda.

If you need to con people into voting for you against their interests and values and in the face of overwhelming evidence of your moral squalour, the most effective tactic is to get them fearing and loathing your opponent. Of course, you may rip your country apart in the process, but if you are Trump, that is not a concern (any more than it seems to be for Julius Malema and his gang in the SA context).

It is, though, a worry for Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Democrats’ leader until they settle on a presidential nominee next year. Her job is to figure out the best way to fight the cancer on the presidency that is Trump without inadvertently feeding it.

Hence her declaration to the Washington Post that she is not for impeachment unless Trump’s own Republicans are themselves ready to turn on him. That they will only do if stench of his crimes becomes so noisome that hate-mongering will no longer work its magic for him.

Impeachments are political, not criminal, proceedings. The House identifies the grounds. The Senate judges whether they are solid. If a two-thirds supermajority decides they are, the president is removed. As long as Trump can rely on 34 Republican senators sticking by him, he’s safe whatever the Democrat-controlled House decides.  At this point, any Republican up for reelection in 2020 would likely face a primary challenge if he or she were to vote to fire him.

There are plenty of House Democrats straining to get started with impeachment hearings right away. They think they have the goods — and the constitutional duty.  After all, isn’t Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, already going to jail for crimes — campaign finance violations and perjury — which the president himself pretty clearly ordered (and which are a good deal more weighty than the lies about sex for which a Republican congress impeached Bill Clinton)?

Were Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to deliver a report conclusively showing that Trump knowingly sought and received Russian assistance to win in 2016 and then fired FBI director James Comey as part of an attempted cover up, then, yes, one could conceivably see Republican senators going to the White House to tell Trump, as they earlier told Richard Nixon, that the jig was up.

But it is far more likely that Mueller’s report will contain no smoking gun indisputably implicating the president as a witting Russian asset. At which point, expect Trump and his bodyguard of lies and liars to go into full counterattack mode. Asserting complete vindication in the Russia matter, they will declare all other investigations into the cesspit of Trumpworld to be part of the same political hit job by an anti-Semitic party and its allies in the lying press, intent on turning America into Venezuela.

Impeachment proceedings they will call a coup, an attempt by a power hungry mob of unpatriotic leftists to overturn the will of the people, some will even say of God.

Since a sitting president cannot, per present Justice Department guidelines, be indicted and prosecuted in the normal way, the only alternative to impeachment is to vote Trump out at the next election. That, Pelosi rightly believes, is what the Democrats must focus on, building a case as much for themselves as against the villain in the White House. But while she can stop them impeaching, she will probably have her hands full restraining them from playing into Trump’s hands in other ways. They would not be Democrats otherwise.

Slave Trade

Listed among the “key decisions” of the African Union’s latest Assembly was a request that the AU Commission “work with well-organised and well-meaning initiatives to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Transatlantic Slave Trade in 2019”.

Member states were “urged…to consider immigration, economic, cultural and social policies that allow Africans descended from the victims and survivors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to reconnect and re-engage with their brethren in the African continent.”

Perhaps more will come of this than of the AU’s previous attempts at outreach to the African diaspora. Perhaps.  Whatever happened to the Sixth Region? What less-than-optimal past experience is implied by the words “well-organised and well-meaning”? What will stop it being repeated?  And does this 400th anniversary thing really work outside the US, to which, if it applies at all, it applies uniquely?

If one had to pick a date to mark the start of the shipment of African slaves across the Atlantic, a more inclusive candidate would be January 22, 1510. That was the day Spain’s King Ferdinand first authorised sending African and other chattels over “the green sea of darkness” (as medieval Arabs described it) to work his mines in Hispaniola, the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Technically, the first slaves to cross went the other way. These were the 30 Caribs Columbus took home with him and sold in 1496. Some ended up in Queen Isabella’s galleys.

Now it is true that towards the end of August 1619, a Dutch/English privateer, the White Lion, anchored off the mouth of the James River in what is now the state of Virginia and traded, in the words of John Rolfe, widower of Pocohontas, “20 or odd Negroes” for provisions.

By that stage, there were already some 500 000 African slaves toiling in Spain’s and Portugal’s American annexations south of the Rio Grande. The “20 or odd” were the first persons of African descent, free or unfree, recorded in then English America, though Sir Francis Drake may have landed others in 1586, and still others were part of a Spanish expedition further down the coast in 1526. The latter group rebelled, putting paid to their owners’ hopes of establishing a settlement.

We know quite a bit about the “20 or odd”. They were part of a cargo of 350 shipped from Luanda aboard a Portuguese frigate, the Sao Joao Bautista, bound for Vera Cruz in modern day Mexico. The White Lion and another raider, Treasurer, intercepted the slaver off the Yucatan hoping to find gold. The pirates had to make do with what slaves they could carry.

Their booty had Christian names. The Portuguese insisted on baptising their human cattle before loading it for shipment. What had brought these 350 to market and the font? From contemporary records and eyewitness accounts, a couple of plausible scenarios present themselves.

The central west African, and thoroughly indigenous, big man at the time, King Alvaro III, aka Mbiki a Mpanzu, of the Kongo, was at odds with various uncles. These disputes are known to have given rise to prisoners both military and political who needed to be disposed of. Selling them for export made more economic sense that killing them and violated no norms.

Then there was Mendes de Vasoncelos, Portuguese governor of Angola (then little more than a coastal enclave) who dreamed of extending Lisbon’s sway right across to its foothold to the east, Mozambique. This he could not accomplish with his own forces.  So he enlisted the eager-for-pillage Imbangala, a spectacularly vicious gang of freebooters next to whom Joseph Kony and Lord’s Resistance Army look like choirboys. The Imbangala harvested more slaves for Portugal than the slavers could handle at the time the Sao Joao Bautista took on its cargo.

Politicise history as you will.

Felix

Recriminations are flying in Washington over the Trump administration’s response to the barefaced theft of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidential election. As so often, the romantics are denouncing the pragmatists — with the former doing most of the talking, both on and off the record.

Romantic officials who lost the internal debate spilled their hearts anonymously to Foreign Policy to protest the State Department’s January 23 statement that “the US welcomes the Congolese Constitutional Court’s certification of Felix Tshisekedi as the next President” of the DRC.

They had endorsed a different, welcome-less, draft that spoke of a “deeply flawed and troubling election” and reiterated earlier vows to “hold accountable those who…undermine democratic processes”. Said one, as quoted by Foreign Policy: “If we said we’ll hold the government accountable…and five days letter we congratulate a bunch of thieves, what good are our threats?”

Riva Levinson, a one time lobbyist for Jonas Savimbi who earned redemption helping Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf into power, wrote in The Hill that she was asking herself the same question as she headed to Nigeria to observe Sunday’s election.

And then there was a post on a Council of Foreign Relations blog by Michelle Gavin, former ambassador to Botswana and Africa director on President Obama’s National Security Council, . Headline: “The Truth About United States Complicity in DRC’s Fraudulent Election”.

“The Congolese people who bravely came out to vote were treated like unwitting extras in a drama staged by elites…There are plenty of forces around the world working to devalue the meaning of ideas like democracy, or even truth, The US ought not to join them.”

For a more phlegmatic view I turned to the Tiresias of US Africa policy — Hank Cohen, the first President Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and author of the “The Mind of the African Strongman — Conversations with Dictators, Statesman and Father Figures”, a wry, wise and highly readable assessment of the many Big Men he dealt with during and after a 38-year career as a State Department Africanist.

Cohen’s DRC experience goes back to the early days of Mobutu Sese Seko’s presidency. He said everyone took it as a given that Mobutu’s latest incarnation, Joseph Kabila, having run out of other other options for retaining power, would try to rig the election in favour of Ramazani Shadary, a puppet.

Kabila was never going to let Martin Fayulu win because he knew Fayulu, the stand-in for his arch enemy, Moise Katumbi, would go after him and his ill-gotten gains. “Kabila really robbed the Congo blind during his sixteen years in power.” In the event, Shadary, “never a heavy hitter in politics”, did so poorly there was no way he could be declared the winner. That left Kabila no choice but to throw the election to Tshisekedi. “He had a discussion with Felix who promised to leave him alone, forget the past and focus on the future.”

The Catholic church’s vote count, corroborated by the count leaked from the electoral commission, complicated things, but once the packed constitutional court had “validated” the rigged numbers and the AU and SADC had backed off their demand for a recount, Trump’s National Security Council “decided that the main objective had been accomplished.” The predatory Kabila was out and his surrogate wasn’t in.  That is what the vast majority of Congolese voted for and they didn’t seem too outraged by the fix.

In a direct riposte to Ambassador Gavin, posted on the same Council on Foreign Relations blog, Cohen said her “severe condemnation” of the US decision “emphasizes useless idealism at the expense of pragmatic progress in the right direction. I am surprised she is insisting on the perfect at the expense of the good. That does a great disservice to diplomacy.”

Duopoly

What presently most endangers a free press in the US is not Donald Trump. The institutions that protect America’s Fourth Estate will most likely survive the assaults of the orange mountebank, his cult and their preference for conspiracy theory over objective realities that do not suit them.

A more immediate worry is the duopoly, as Facebook and Google are increasingly referred to by those who fret about the stifling power these platforms have amassed. It is a power felt not just in the US but globally, not least by Business Day in whichever form you are consuming it.

A thousand or so American journalists got the chop just last week when the owners of Buzzfeed and Verizon, the telephone company that owns the Huffington Post, found the news business insufficiently profitable, at least within the quarterly horizons of Wall Street.

Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, simultaneously announced it was slashing Pulitzer-calibre newsroom muscle at its titles, big and small, around the country. This was either to entice, or, on a more generous interpretation, to raise the company’s share price and so head off,  the hyenas of private equity drawn by the scent of leverageable and strippable assets to be had for a song.

What is giving these assets the carrion aroma? Fingers are pointed in many directions but Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his inhouse grown-up, Sheryl  ”lean in” Sandberg, have become prime suspects. They, Google and, to a lesser extent Amazon, have cornered the advertising revenues that were the lifeblood of the Fourth Estate. Or so it is argued.

Never in history have so many so willingly surrendered so much valuable information about themselves, their tastes, desires and proclivities to so few for so little.

If I have a car to sell in Podunk, why would I pay for an ad in the Podunk Picayune, or on its feeble excuse for a website, on the off chance that a reader in the circulation area might be interested, when Facebook for a fraction of the price can present my car to punters nationwide identified by its algorithm as hot for what I’m selling?

Should then the Podunk Picayune, which keeps its community informed and engaged and its officials honest, be allowed to shrivel and die, or be sold to a New York hedge fund to have the last marrow sucked from its bones, simply because it cannot compete with the behemoth Facebook in selling ads?

Congressman David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, says no. He is now the chairman of the House committee that deals with monopoly policy. Last year, his party out power, he introduced what he dubbed the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. It went nowhere. On Tuesday, he reintroduced his bill to the applause of the News Media Alliance which represents some 2 000 news organisations in the US and beyond.

Facebook and Google attract eyeballs, and generate ad revenues, serving up content  others have produced, either through search results or in newsfeeds. Members of the News Media Alliance would like to be properly compensated by the duopoly for use of their content — and to be able to deny Facebook and Google access to their content absent a more equitable sharing of ad revenues. Under current law, collective action by content producers to force concessions from the platforms would be illegal collusion.To level the field,  Rep. Cicilline proposes giving media safe harbour against antitrust prosecution for four years.

Others such as Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute advocate going further and using antitrust law to block Facebook and Google from selling targeted ads altogether. That would entail a radical shift in their business models, with a potentially huge impact on their market valuations. It’s hard to predict how this will all shake out.