I remember when a number of journalists and government transparency activists said that Obama’s zealous prosecution of whistle blowers was setting a terrible precedent, and dangerous to the concept of press freedoms. The whole of the Democratic Party responded that whistleblowers should be prosecuted. The law was broken by giving the public the information that the government was breaking the law, so the government had the right to prosecute, to the fullest extent. Always to the fullest extent. The party faithful went right along with it, and parroted the same refrain. Those who didn’t were considered “radical,” as usual.
With Trump in the White House, it’s the exact kind of scenario many of those same academics, journalists and activists warned about when the level of invasiveness of government surveillance was revealed by Ed Snowden. That exposure has only led to the Democratic Party faithfuls collective shrug and annoyed response, “If you didn’t do anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.” I wonder how people would react if those programs were revealed today, and they hadn’t been through years of court challenges and investigation already. I’m going to hazard a guess that with the exception of some of the journalists and military contractors whose beat this has been for a long time, the majority of people droning on about the current whistleblower of note have very little clue what changed and what didn’t as a result of the Snowden’s disclosures. Snowden is still a wanted man. That Snowden’s actions were a benefit to the rights of Americans who don’t hold office or have security clearances was waved away, because the revelations which came from his leaks were inconvenient for the people in power, at the time.
Even as it’s becoming more common to see questions being raised about what will happen if Trump decides to not participate in a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the next election or what can be done if he just refuses to accept the results of impeachment proceedings and revelations of criminal behavior, it’s extremely rare to see it mentioned that this same man has been given control of the agencies which have created the most vast and invasive surveillance apparatus in human history. Faith has to fall to the technocrats who have not only allowed for, but have overseen and already been exposed for using it’s capabilities to over reach anything like a Constitutionally allowable use of that power. Forgive me if Trump’s distaste for American intelligence services doesn’t seem like enough of a barrier.
The same Justice Department which is refusing to cooperate with subpoenas resulting from this whistleblower, has spent the last two years periodically holding Chelsea Manning in custody because she refuses to answer their questions about who she believes she sent confidential information to, a “crime” for which she has already faced prosecution and served time for.
Reality Winner is responsible for the majority of the country having anything like solid information about Russian interference in the 2016 election, including many of the state election boards that were targeted. They weren’t notified by the federal government, and only learned about it as the result of the reporting that came about from her leak. Hers is the longest sentence ever imposed for a leak of classified information, and what she leaked was the extent of Russian attempts to interfere in US elections, a thing now an obsession of Democratic Party operatives, consultants and the journalists who enable them. She’s sitting in a prison cell as the media outlets most favorable to the Democratic Party have now spent three years obsessively hunting for a red under every bed, and collecting the ad revenue that results from the highest ratings in their histories.
In 2016, during the campaign, Hilary Clinton asserted Ed Snowden should face the full weight of federal law, and defended the Obama administration’s campaign of whistleblower prosecutions. For those who might not know, his administration carried out more of them than any preceding administration. Sanders, on the other hand, said Snowden did the country a great service and should be allowed to come home. Despite popular opinion, not all of the loud distaste for Clinton was related to her being a woman, though it’s definitely clear her gender was a factor. For some of us, her default to siding with power where transparency in government is concerned, was not an insignificant issue.
The Venn diagram of columnists, party consultants and politicians who’ve now been on record as supporting the prosecution of whistle blowers, and have also bemoaned the strategy to deplatform fascists on the grounds of a supposed chilling effect on free speech is almost a single circle. Mind you, a large constituency of journalists, academics and activists have consistently warned the campaign against whistleblowers is a direct threat to press freedoms. Whatever my personal feelings toward Julian Assange and his decision to help explicit fascists win an election because of his personal enmity toward their autocrat opponent might be (spoiler alert: he should have just been left in that embassy with no internet access, forever), I’m not unsympathetic to many of those same academics and activists who were vocal during the Obama administration and are now saying the case the government is bringing against him is dangerous for the future of press freedoms because of the precedent it will set. Given the way the majority is swayed by the purely political context in how we’ve treated whistleblowers, more than being sensible, it’s imperative to take their concerns seriously.
It’s too much to hope the American public takes this current whistleblower situation as a way to look more broadly at whistleblowers and transparency. For their part, Republicans have only changed their tune on whistleblowers with this latest set of revelations. They were at least consistent in their bottomless fervor for prosecution, even going so far as to be one of the few things they did praise the Obama administration for. An appetite for overzealous prosecution of everything (except credible rape or rape cover up allegations or any possible crime or moral infraction by an elected or appointed Republican) seems to have been central to Republican identity since Reagan.
Things have changed now that their standard bearer has the temperament, forethought and basic general knowledge of a cheap clown at an 11 year olds birthday party, whose act consists of smoking meth between gulps of Robotussin (while being ignorant of the fact that the active ingredient he’s attempting to imbibe has been removed from the Robotussin), as he lectures the assembled children on how to get by in life. It would be thoroughly hilarious to recognize just how completely the fact that Donald Trump has never faced criminal fraud charges in his many years in the public eye and was able to become president destroys any claims to the existence of meritocracy if the continued adherence to the belief in meritocracy wasn’t a significant contributing factor to a parade of outright fascists sashaying their way into power. Tell me again how neither class or white male privilege exist.
As with everything else, this current whistleblower and their revelations are being overtaken by the worst inclinations of American politics. This is an especially troubling example though, because whistleblowers and what security their afforded, what sense of good will they’re offered as our initial default, goes directly to the heart of our attitudes about power, it’s abuse, our relationship to it, and in a significant way, what mechanisms we have available to hold power to account. These aren’t insignificant issues. That the majority of the nation will fall in line behind either party when neither has any level of consistency where whistleblowers are concerned is itself both an explanation of and revelation of the kind of fascistic underpinnings which have helped a fascistic far right ascend to a place in the more conservative of the two major parties. It’s a demonstration that neither of the political parties perceive themselves as being those power exercises it’s will on, only as part of the shape of the power to be exercised.
This is the most inconvenient exposure that results from the existence of any whistleblower, the exposure of the most dangerous rift in American politics and society. Despite the hard work being put into convincing us that the tribalism of party politics is our most dangerous divide, it’s perfectly clear the Republican Party embraces a philosophy which finds gaining and holding power at all costs is advantageous and acceptable. That self identified Republicans are becoming an increasingly smaller minority is good. That there is a larger percentage of the country which doesn’t identify with that philosophy is good and shows signs of some political and social health.
The most dangerous divide in American politics isn’t Democrat vs. Republican or even left versus right. Considering what passes for Republican or right at this point in history, that divide is what has prevented a complete fascist overhaul of American society. The most dangerous divide is between those who find it acceptable for the Democratic Party to perceive itself only as part of the shape of power and those who find it unacceptable for the Democratic Party to not perceive itself as a body which power is exercised on. This is the central conceit at the heart of what is most often and broadly referred to as “the left vs. center” divide within political bodies and organizations which aren’t part of the American right. The divide within the Democratic Party itself is still playing itself out.
This fight is about rooting out the ways that relationship to power has been responsible for aiding the rise of the fascistic tendencies in American politics to their now central place and explicit expression. It’s about recognizing the attitude which creates blind approval of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers that enables and empowers the fascistic tendency, specifically because it values the needs of power first and minimizes, marginalizes and threatens that which is necessary to hold power accountable. It’s about recognizing how much a role that attitude has played in creating things like mass incarceration, a fascistic result, even if the claim that the aim was not fascistic is accepted.
It’s about recognizing that even now, as one of the central conflicts in American politics is being waged over a whistleblower, that conflict is being waged on a foundation of fascistic tendencies because it is being treated both politically and narratively, as a question of which power it will ultimately end up being an aid to. It’s not being treated as one of the central and necessary pieces of the apparatus to hold power accountable. It’s framed, and perceived as a convenient tool to serve whichever Party happens to be victorious in the conflict.
In this lies the most inconvenient exposure all whistleblowers end up highlighting, the centrality of a fascist tendency to all politics in the United States. The most dangerous divide is the divide between those who recognize this and express/demonstrate the desire to root out the fascistic tendency versus the desire to protect the framework which was built on it and the current system of power which benefits from it.
This isn’t to say that all of American politics is fascist. That’s a gross oversimplification. It’s more to say that the framework to become fascist was written into the Constitution itself, and is only further aided by having a two party system and a capitalist economy, and a social structure which has been built on patriarchal white supremacy. Fascism, as a 20th century political invention, is specifically built to exploit those weaknesses. Plenty of our politics aren’t fascistic, and at their most base level are about consistently undermining the fascistic tendency, but we’re at a place now where it’s becoming more and more central to the ability of that politics to exist that we recognize just how much of our political landscape, environment and “dialog” is built on the foundation of fascist ideas.
Trump is a buffoon, dangerous only in the degree to which he is allowed access to power and it was definitely the fascistic tendency in American politics which gave him that access. What will be either his greatest contribution to American politics or his most damaging assault on the concept of progress toward a free society will be whether or not the fact that he has pulled the hood off of our tendency toward fascist politics is a lesson well learned or whether we allow it to just put the hood back on and try to go back to acting as if it’s not really there. Unfortunately, it seems from our handling of whistleblowers, the preference will be to put the hood back on, and act as if a large minority of the country won’t openly embrace explicit fascism and even among the majority which won’t embrace explicit fascism still have the stomach to accept it’s more implicit and covert foundations, at direct risk to the safety, security and well being of tens of millions of the people around them.