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In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington gave a pointed admonition about the dangers of factionalism and excessive allegiance to political parties: “Let me…warn you in the most solemn manner,” he said, “against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”
As a new president begins making his mark on our nation and the world, the farewell address offered by our very first president is both timeless and uncannily relevant. One passage, in particular, is worth quoting at length as Americans consider the future of this country:
[The spirit of party] agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There are two sides to partisanship, but this does not mean that partisanship is symmetric. Already in 2012, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two non-partisan analysts who have each observed Congress for more than 40 years, noted that partisanship had become particularly acute on the American Right. Fast forward to 2016, former Republican and independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin more bluntly observed, “The reality is that the vast majority of Republican leaders are putting party ahead of principle and putting power over the interests of their own country.”
Washington warned that amid factionalism and excessive allegiance to political parties, foreign interests would take advantage of weakened national unity to undermine our government and democratic institutions, leveraging “the channels of party passions” here in the U.S. to their own advantage. Washington’s warning is now upon us as the American Right has provided the opening for foreign influence. Step back and consider what is now known:
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s first campaign manager, is defined by his Russian connections. “He spent many years working on behalf of the thuggish Russian-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled his own country. Manafort maintains links to pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. His name appeared on a list of people who took large chunks of cash from Yanukovych,” notes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum. Manafort was not a normal campaign manager. Fixated on a partisan opponent, Republicans managed to look past this.
- During the Republican convention, Trump operatives changed the Republican Party platform to soften the language on Ukraine in a way beneficial to Russia. This was one of the few substantive changes made to the entire party platform. No explanation for the change was offered.
- Despite the fact that Donald Trump Jr. stated in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia”, Republicans overall have ceded to Trump’s vague assertions that he has “nothing to do with Russia.” Trump’s tax returns would tell us a lot about his financial ties to Russia. Objectively, there has never been a modern presidential candidate with more reasons to disclose a tax return. Not by coincidence perhaps, Trump first said he would wait until after the election to release his tax returns (citing an audit as a red herring) and then declined to release his tax returns entirely once elected. Overall, Republicans have let this important failed promise slide.
- With the specter of political and financial ties to Russia front and center, Putin interfered with the U.S. election through electronic espionage stealing communications from both political parties. Through WikiLeaks, Russia then selectively released documents to help Trump and hurt Clinton. Amazingly, Trump publicly welcomed the election interference at the time. Moreover, without any basis, he dismissed U.S. intelligence reports concluding that Putin directed this election meddling in order help him win (a conclusion now confirmed with “high confidence”). During this time, the Trump campaign was also employing slogans and conspiracy theories — “Obama invented ISIS,” “Hillary will start World War III” — lifted from Sputnik, the Russian propaganda website.
- Finally, all this was taking place while Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin and while at least three of Trump’s campaign associates were in frequent communication with senior Russian intelligence officials. At this point, most do not know exactly what was being discussed between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence in the midst of election interference. What is known is this: One of Trump’s central foreign policy goals from the start of his campaign has been to upend NATO, our most important and longstanding military alliance, a development that would be beneficial to an expansive and ever more repressive Russia. It is also clear that Roger Stone, one of Trump’s campaign confidants, a former name collaborate with Manafort in a Washington lobbying firm, and a man of such partisan zeal he has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, accurately predicted the Podesta email dump that was damaging to Clinton tweeting “Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. #WikiLeaks.” Either Stone gained advanced knowledge of the election interference – or he is psychic? With three parallel investigations focusing on Trump and Russia, Americans will surely learn more, but at this point, some of the dots have nearly connected themselves.
Now more than ever Americans must recognize the eerie parallels with George Washington’s presage. Perhaps more foreboding yet than Russia’s interference with domestic U.S. politics is the broader context Washington’s farewell address provided for such interference:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. However, this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Consider this a forewarning.
By Christopher Arndt
New York Times: Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence
eTurbo News: Executive Talk: Donald Trump Jr. bullish on Russia and few emerging markets
Washington Post: Stop obsessing over ‘secrets’ about Trump and Russia. What we already know is bad enough.
Christopher Arndt, author of The Right’s Road to Serfdom: The Danger of Conservatism Unbound From Hayek to Trump, is a former partner at Select Equity Group, Inc. He has served as Director of the New York Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and is currently on the board of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund.
Top Image Courtesy of Christopher Arndt
Inline Image Courtesy of Patrick Ashley– Flickr License
Featured Image Courtesy of Peter Miller – Flickr License