Rush ‘n’ Attack
A new wave of Russophobia is sweeping the nation, surely the high-water point for such shenanigans since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s familiar; much of it echoes the anti-communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the closest analogue in presidential history to Donald Trump, only this time our political leadership it its target rather than its practitioner. It’s widespread; everyone from liberals to soft leftists to the editorial boards of our major media outlets are having lots of fun trying to prove that Trump is nothing more than a Kremlin stooge. It’s pervasive; almost every day brings a new, if not especially dramatic, revelation about who knew what and when about the erstwhile Eurasian superpower. It’s popular; the kind of Democrat who is most prone to conspiratorial thinking about why Hillary Clinton lost the election to a TV clown is downright consumed by the idea that it was Russkie authoritarian Vladimir Putin who sold the American electoral system down the river, and everyone from left-liberal stalwarts like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to paranoid loons like Sarah Kendzior are openly wondering if Trump was recruited by Moscow to become a sleeper agent in a long-game operation straight out of ’70s spy fiction. And it’s effective; far more than anything he’s ever done in his wet fart of a presidency thus far, it’s the Russian Question that has dogged the heels of Donald Trump, leading many Democrats to pin their hopes to it as the most likely scandal to bring his administration to its knees.
It’s also pretty much complete nonsense.
No smoking gun has yet to appear in l’affaire russe, and none is likely to, because the evidence that Russia has colluded with Trump to do anything other than the normal under-the-radar influencing that all major powers engage in to the degree that they can get away with it, is almost nonexistent. Where there is some evidence of Russian involvement in the American political process — for example, the likelihood that Russia, officially or not, was the source of the DNC e-mail leaks — it tends to be irrelevant; there was nothing particularly scandalous in those leaks, and anyone who found them so was likely not going to vote for Clinton to begin with. And in the grander claims, the evidence is practically non-existent: every claim makes splashy headlines, and then is walked back as more sober assessments of the material reveals instance after instance of such red-flag phrases as “unconfirmed reports”, “no new evidence”, “unidentified sources”, “intelligence assessments”, and “reiterates claims”. These ass-coverings often even appear in the same places: the New York Times and the Washington Post have both repeatedly run lurid headlines about some new revelation that Trump is a Kremlin puppet, only to follow it with an article fussily explaining that there is no actual proof those headlines are true.
The number of writers and pundits who are pushing back on this narrative, who are doing the most basic journalistic work of asking that such sky-high accusations be backed up with actual evidence, are terrifyingly few. Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota have been constant skeptics of the plot, and for their troubles are usually labeled useful idiots for the Kremlin. Michael Tracey has been doing excellent work pushing back against this largely gossamer construction, and has even prepared a useful timeline of how these media-driven speculations appear, flame up, and fizzle out. But beyond that, it’s a truism in contemporary discourse that Trump is unquestionably in the pocket of Vladimir Putin, and the lack of evidence doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.
That’s too bad, because it’s a frightfully dangerous narrative that’s likely to turn back on its users in a very nasty way before too long. Let’s assume, for a moment, that there really is plenty of evidence that Trump has colluded somehow with Russia, even though there isn’t. Let’s assume that Putin is the beneficiary of intentionality (that is, he somehow manipulated things behind the scenes to ensure Trump’s election) rather than functionality (that is, he is merely the happy recipient of the fact that America happened to elect a soft-headed dullard to the presidency). Let’s assume that everything the papers say is true, and not just bits and pieces of coincidence and commonality that have been crafted into a Manchurian Candidate scenario by people unwilling to accept that their candidate lost a winnable election. There are still many, many reasons not to make this the point of the Democratic spear.
- It promotes Cold War hysteria. We are in a remarkably dangerous geopolitical situation right now, and while we don’t need to coddle Russia, we also don’t need to pointlessly exacerbate global hostilities for the sake of winning political points. Russia is not the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin is not a communist mastermind, and agitated Kremlin-bashing is going to do exactly nothing to help either America or Russia.
- It’s hypocritical in the extreme. Anything that leads a New York Times columnist to dare us to “imagine what it would be like if America interfered in a foreign election” isn’t something we should waste any time on. It’s an insult to the people of countries in whose elections we have interfered in for the last 75 years, including Russia’s. Our hands being bloody doesn’t mean Russia’s are clean, but this kind of dowager oh-my-goodness act is repulsive in the extreme.
- It valorizes our intelligence services. The way some liberals are cheering on the CIA, as if they were not one of the most malignant sources of violence, untruth, and anti-democratic behavior in the post-war world, is pretty nauseating. No country with aspirations to fair and just rule should leave it to their army, police, or spy networks to decide who gets to run the government and who doesn’t; that’s a sure path to even worse authoritarian rule.
- It makes heroes out of heels. So determined are the Democrats to make ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ a thing that they are pinning their hopes to spineless partisan sellouts like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Darryl Issa, a crawling amphibian grotesquerie who should be in a jail cell, got cheers from liberals for saying the Russians are “bad people”. Surely this election has taught us that the Republican Party will never, ever save us.
- It lets the wrong people off the hook. Even if Trump is brought down by the Russia ‘scandal’ — indeed, especially if he is brought down by the Russia ‘scandal’ — Democrats will learn nothing from their failures. They will contentedly smile in the belief that only foreign interference can beat them, and pat themselves on the back for their patriotic fervor right until America elects Donald Trump 2.0 because they still haven’t figured out why people hate them.
- It makes the Trump Administration look bad for the wrong reasons. Donald Trump is a disgraceful president; every single nominee he has put forward for his candidate is a miserable piece of garbage who has no place in government. But collusion with Russia isn’t the reason any of them are bad. It’s not even in the top ten. If the Democrats make this about conspiracy instead of about politics, maybe no one will ask why so many of them approved his picks.
- It exoticizes the normal. Many of the things Donald Trump and his people are accused of doing are perfectly normal activities that only seem scandalous if you think any contact with a Russian is evidence of wrongdoing. This is something that will likely bite the Democrats really hard on the ass if they ever get the White House back and remember that dealing with other major powers is a big part of running the country.
- It makes the Democrats remarkably vulnerable. Relatedly, this Russian witch hunt is just handing log after long that Republicans will throw on the fire once they’re in a position to shit on the opposition again. Democrats have turned Russia into their own Benghazi, a mild and largely meaningless scandal they’re using a cudgel to batter their political opponents. If they thin that cudgel can’t be taken away from them and swung harder, they’ve been asleep for decades.
- It’s furthering the idea that partisan politics is about sides and not about issues. Most Americans don’t give a shit about Russia. They care about jobs, about the environment, about being able to pay their bills and raise their kids. They don’t care any more about whether Jeff Sessions lied about meeting a Russian ambassador than they did about whether Bill Clinton lied about getting a blowjob. It’s a pure inside-baseball conflict that turns people off politics.
- It’s eating up news coverage that should be focused elsewhere. Ecological destruction, economic inequality, threats to Medicare and Social Security, the rise of racism and nationalism, immigrants and minorities under threat, the rollback of financial security and civil rights: all huge and vital issues the Democrats should be focused on, but which are getting minimal attention because every headline is Russia day after day.
I could go on and on, and I haven’t even touched on the idea that it’s likely to lead to war, or at least to a revival of the proxy wars that made the ’70s and ’80s so fucking dismal. And I suppose it could be argued from a practical perspective, if it’s Russia that gets Trump out of the White House, who cares if it’s largely a lie? There’s something to that, I guess, as long as you want to never again have the moral authority to argue against whatever bullshit scandal the G.O.P. cooks up next time there’s a Democrat in the White House, but then don’t go around claiming you value the facts, or making frowny faces at me when I suggest just confiscating the wealth of all these billionaire fucks and sticking them in front of the nearest convenient firing squad. Besides, we’re not a monarchy; getting rid of Trump just gets you President Pence, in name as well as in deed.
I understand how powerful the urge is to pull any lever that seems likely to open a trap door under Trump’s chair in the Oval Office. But the Russia card is too flimsy to work, but just sturdy enough to hurt the Democrats if they overplay it. (Imagine how heavily they’d have gone after President Hillary Clinton over Saudi Arabia if they knew this shit would fly.) I’m not arguing that we should be polite and respectable and play by the rules against creeps like Trump and Sessions; I’m all for hitting them and hitting them hard at all times. But, as has happened too often with the Democrats in the last few decades, they’re using the weapons of their enemies, and they’ll never be as good as the Republicans are at wielding them.