Democratic Subversion - Part 1



Newsletter #245 — June 17, 2024



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Every once in awhile we read an article that is so important that we feel a need to give it more attention than a short blurb in our MPP Links Newsletters.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali's June 4 article in the Free Press "We Have Been Subverted," is one such article, and it reminded Heidi of an earlier similar article she had read by Andy Atwood entitled "Is this Russia's 4-Step Long-Game to Destabilize the U.S.A.? in Medium.  Atwood draws heavily on yet another article by Gil Duran and George Lakoff which appeared February 29 in Framelab, entitled Putin failed to conquer Navalny or Ukraine. He's had better luck with Trump’s GOP.

Readers should note that the process of subversion described here isn't just something that geopolitical rivals like Russia, Iran, or China use to advance their interests. It is also a process that is being used within democracies by unscrupulous actors seeking to expand their power base. Readers may remember that, in earlier newsletters (42, 43, 162 and 165), we started to describe our evolving theory of the "bad-faith actor" problem. One of the reasons that we have yet to finish this series is that we keep reading articles like these that are forcing us to adapt our thinking in ways that better account for the presence of even more sinister forces than we originally imagined. If we are going to save democracy, we have to do more than learn how to more constructively handle our own internal conflicts. We are going to have to defend the whole system from the kind of subversive attacks outlined here. 


Defining the Problem

All three articles focus on the notion of "subversion" of democracy and Western values, as initially presented by Yuri Bezmenov, a former KGB1 agent, who became disillusioned with the Soviet system and defected to the west. In a 1983 lecture, Bezmenov explained how the Soviet Union had a very long-term four-step program for destroying America from the inside out. Hirsi Ali, Atwood, Duran and Lakoff all assert that this subversive plan has, to a large degree, succeeded without Americans even noticing (which is a key component of the plan itself because it minimizes pushback.) Each of these authors/articles have a somewhat different interpretation of how this has happened, who is involved, and what might be done about it. But all have different insights of value, so we want to weave the three together here, first focusing on what the problem is, and then what we can do about it.  

Hirsi Ali has the best succinct explanation of Bezmenov's basic concept.

Subversion refers to a process by which the values and principles of an established system are contradicted or reversed in an attempt to sabotage the existing social order and its structures of power, authority, tradition, hierarchy, and social norms. It involves a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system, often carried out by persons working secretly from within. Subversion is used as a tool to achieve political goals because it generally carries less risk, cost, and difficulty as opposed to open belligerency. The act of subversion can lead to the destruction or damage of an established system or government. In the context of ideological subversion, subversion aims to gradually change the perception and values of a society, ultimately leading to the undermining of its existing systems and beliefs.

Hersi Ali then lays out Bezmenov's four steps, demoralization, destabilization, crisis, and normalization, as does Atwood, who quotes directly from Dunam/Lakoff. We agree that the Dunam/Lakoff description is particularly insightful for events of today, so we will quote them too. They explain the four stages as follows:

1. Demoralization: This phase involves the long-term process of demoralizing the target nation. Tactics include the infiltration of, and influence on, the target nation’s educational system, media, politics, and culture. The aim: to alter the population’s perceptions of reality, creating a generation of citizens who are unable to recognize or resist the subverter’s ideology or objectives.

2.Destabilization: In this stage, the focus shifts to creating instability. This can be done through the manipulation of the target nation’s economy, politics, and society. Strategies include sowing discord, social unrest and polarization, usually by exploiting existing divisions. This phase might involve supporting radical groups, spreading disinformation, and undermining trust in the government and institutions.

3.Crisis: This stage is characterized by a significant upheaval or crisis that leads to a state of emergency or a situation that destabilizes society to a critical point. The crisis could take various forms, including economic collapses, riots, or significant political upheavals, leading to a high uncertainty and fear among the population.

4. Normalization: After the crisis, the stage of normalization begins, where the subverter seeks to establish a new status quo. This often involves the implementation of policies and measures that solidify the subverter’s control or influence over society, supposedly to restore order. The subverter’s power and the oppressive new conditions become “normal.”

The overarching objective of these tactics, they say,

is to weaken a society from within, making it vulnerable to influence or control without a direct military confrontation. Bezmenov emphasized that success depends on the subverter's ability to keep the society in the dark about the manipulation process until it’s too late.

When Heidi originally read this list in Atwood's article, her reaction was "my gosh! We're done with steps one and two; three will likely come about in November after the Presidential election (no matter who wins), and then it is but a quick hop, skip, and jump into stage four and then American democracy is totally done."  

Hirsi Ali has a different take on how these steps have been carried out and by whom, but she see the process as the same. She starts her article by describing herself  as "a woman of color, an African, a former Muslim, a former asylum seeker, and an immigrant"  She applies Bezmenov's stages not to Soviet/Russian/U.S. relations, but to the current Israel/Hamas war, saying that she "look[s] at the antics of today’s anti-Israel, anti-American protesters with fear and trembling." Then she explains why. She was born in Somalia in 1969, just as the Somali armed forces seized power with the help of the Soviet Union. She describes the repression and the brutality that eventually led to a civil war starting in 1990, from which the country has yet to recover. Her father resisted the oppression and was imprisoned — she doesn't say if he was ever released. She then recounts:

I never stopped longing for the kind of freedom my father had taught me about. And at the age of 22, I fled to the Netherlands seeking it. There—and later, in America—I discovered what we’ve come to call “Western” values" . . .  a peculiar confluence of habits and customs that had been practiced for centuries before anyone branded them as “ideas.” But they are principles—radical ones—that have given us the most tolerant, free, and flourishing societies in all of human history. Among these principles are the rule of law, a tradition of liberty, personal responsibility, a system of representative government, a toleration of difference, and a commitment to pluralism.

To her horror (and ours, which is why her article so spoke to us) all of these values and the way of life they have enabled are being subverted and destroyed, from both within America (and other liberal democracies) and without. Rather than identifying the outside perpetrator as Russia, Hirsi Ali points to the twin threats of "cultural Marxism" and "expansionist political Islam." These philosophies, she asserts, are are increasingly causing people in the West, particularly on the political left, to turn against these fundamental Western values, charging that they are "oppressive" or "colonialist."  Although she doesn’t point this out, we would note that this has been going on for some time, forming the basis, for instance, of critical race theory, and the New York Times' 1619 Project which "aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery the very center of our national narrative," thus suggesting that racism is more important in shaping America than are the values Hirsi Ali celebrates. 

Though this weakening of Western liberal values may have been under the radar before, it became particularly obvious after Hamas's October 7 attack, Hirsi Ali asserts, as the attack was seen by many Western liberals  (particularly students at American universities and many of their faculty members) as a brave move by oppressed people to fight back against Western oppression. Gleeful supporters of Hamas cared not about Hamas' unspeakable brutality, but rather lionized it and extended (apparently) their hopes for a repetition in the U.S. when they chanted "Death to America!" in the same breath that they were chanting "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!" (hence Israel will be no more).

Though some (perhaps many) of the protestors apparently do not even know what river and what sea that saying refers to, they are certain that Hamas is bringing "justice" to the Palestinian people. They either do not know, do not care, or do not believe that Hamas has been far more murderous, sadistic, and ultra-oppressive toward Palestinians than Israel has been. (Our readers who are Hamas supporters will likely scoff at that assertion, citing the 35,000 people killed in Gaza compared to the few thousands killed in Israel. Apparently, they ignore the fact that those statistics are published by the Hamas controlled Health Ministry and are distorted by Hamas' efforts to cultivate global sympathy. For example, the statistics do not distinguish between combatant and civilian deaths and count as dead "children" many of the youth and young adult combatants. They also usually ignore the fact that Palestinian deaths are largely caused by Hamas's use of its citizens as human shields and its widespread and successful efforts to divert humanitarian aid in ways that increase Palestinian suffering for propaganda reasons.

Hamas has been working behind the scenes in America in the same way Russia has been doing, to spread disinformation about Hamas's and Israel's behavior, so successfully that many people on the left in America and elsewhere around the world are framing Israel as the perpetrator of genocide, even while it is Hamas and Iran who have never given up or even hidden their goal of wiping Israel off the map and killing as many Jews as possible in the process, just because they are Jews. Israel is not killing Palestinians because they are Palestinians and it has no intention of eliminating the Palestinian people. (And it wasn't occupying Gaza, by the way, on October 6; it had unilaterally given up control of Gaza, ceding it to the Palestinians in 2005.) Also, it should not be forgotten that there was a cease-fire in place on October 5, which was massively violated by Hamas. Why should Israel trust them to uphold another ceasefire?

Israel is now is fighting a war of self-defense on many fronts against an enemy committed to its destruction —  an enemy that continues to attack Israel while still holding (as of June 3, 2024) 124 hostages, most of whom are Israelis. They are hiding ammunition and fighters in civilian areas (schools, hospitals, mosques, children's bedrooms) making it impossible to uproot Hamas without harming numerous civilians. This Orwellian assertion that the perpetrators are the victims and the victims are the perpetrators based on the misinformation supplied by Hamas, its supporters, and perhaps Russia as well, is a classic example of Demoralization and Destabilization.

Looking back at America before October 7, Hirsi Ali notes that "many [Americans] refused to believe that anything was actually wrong." They looked at their individual problems, and attributed them to momentary bad leadership that could be changed.  They saw the sense of hopelessness that so many of their fellow citizens felt as simply a normal manifestation of economic shifts away from industrialism to the digital age.  But, in the wake of pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, anti-American demonstrations at America's most elite institutions that followed Hamas's October 7 attack, she asks "can any serious person believe this now?" The collapse of support for democratic societies that these events reveal was exactly the kind of change that subversives are seeking to promote.

Who is Responsible?

While there is widespread agreement that democracy is in serious trouble, most on the left explain the problem in terms of the political right, which it sees as "subverting democracy," while the right makes the same charge against the left.

Dunam and Lakoff take the left's view of the problem, as is evidenced by their title "Putin failed to conquer Navalny or Ukraine. He's had better luck with Trump’s GOP." They present various events as evidence that it is the Right that is trying to subvert American democracy:

  • On February 7, 2024, Congressional Republicans killed a bipartisan border bill that included aid for Ukraine. 
  • Soon after Sen. Ron Johnson asserted that “Vladimir Putin will not lose this war,” Dunam and Lakoff quote the AP as saying "That argument — that the Russian president cannot be stopped so there’s no point in using American taxpayer dollars against him — marks a new stage in the Republican Party’s growing acceptance of Russian expansionism in the age of Donald Trump"
  • February 10: Trump said he would tell Putin and Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to American NATO allies that don’t spend enough on defense. 
  • February 20: Quoting directly from Dunam/Lakoff: " federal authorities revealed that the man at the heart of scurrilous allegations against the President Biden — Alexander Smirnov — admitted to having lied about Biden at the behest of Russian intelligence. Smirnov’s lies, designed by Russian intelligence agents, became the basis for Republican investigations targeting the president and his son, Hunter Biden.

Though they didn't cite these facts, it is easy to point to many of Donald Trump's boasts about his plans for a second term as bolstering the notion that Trump himself, as well as his Republican supporters, are, indeed, a grave threat to Western liberal values and American democracy.  Quoting from Eric Cortellessa's Time Magazine article on his two April 2024 interviews with Trump, Trump plans:

an imperial presidency that would reshape America and its role in the world. To carry out a deportation operation designed to remove more than 11 million people from the country, Trump told me, he would be willing to build migrant detention camps and deploy the U.S. military, both at the border and inland. He would let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans. He would, at his personal discretion, withhold funds appropriated by Congress, according to top advisers. He would be willing to fire a U.S. Attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone, breaking with a tradition of independent law enforcement that dates from America’s founding. He is weighing pardons for every one of his supporters accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, more than 800 of whom have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury. He might not come to the aid of an attacked ally in Europe or Asia if he felt that country wasn’t paying enough for its own defense. He would gut the U.S. civil service, deploy the National Guard to American cities as he sees fit, close the White House pandemic-preparedness office, and staff his Administration with acolytes who back his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.

But Hirsi Ali points out that the Left is also posing serious threats to Western values and American democracy, which became blatantly clear following Hamas's October 7 attack.

One of the key insights Bezmenov expresses about a subverted society is that, for a while, there is only a passing sense that something is wrong. It’s a mood — a vibe. I believe that’s what many of us have been witnessing for several years now, maybe even as long as a decade or two.

The pressure makes society rumble like a volcano, quiet one minute and flaring the next. Then, finally—and seemingly suddenly—the revolution bursts into view.

When, on October 8, protests erupted across the Western world in support of Hamas—and not the democracy that had been overrun by terrorists—I saw the revolution. When I look at the recent spectacle at Columbia or Yale or UCLA or Harvard or Stanford — students tearing down American flags and raising Palestinian ones; or chanting in Arabic “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—it is hard not to see the fruit of this long process. I hear the same when, week after week, the streets of London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Hamburg ring with cries of “intifada” or open demands for a caliphate or Sharia law in the heart of Europe.

We will continue with a discussion of how we got to this point, and most importantly, how we might get out of it, in our next Newsletter.



1 KGB was the Soviet Union's much feared internal and external security apparatus.

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