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Blaming Putin


Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the way that disagreements among liberals and leftists over the meaning and significance of the Russia scandal reflected a deeper ideological divide. To oversimplify a bit, the question of Vladimir Putin’s influence on the 2016 presidential election has become a litmus test for where one stands in the faction fight between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wings of the American left. (Yes, I’m using “American left” as a exceedingly broad term of art, and Bernie and Hillary as signifiers. But let’s not get stuck!)

Has the farcical and spectacular implosion of the Trump White House over the last week, with all the overlapping revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s previously undisclosed June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer who was supposedly peddling damaging information about Clinton, rendered that ideological division moot for the moment? I don’t think so. It has only clouded the picture a little.

I’ve already discussed the unlikely cast of supporting characters in the Trump Jr. fiasco, which taken as a whole suggests an early draft for a Coen brothers comedy that never made it out of Microsoft Word. We have the amazing, shameless and almost lovable Rob Goldstone, the English publicist with the silly hats who set up Don Jr. with Natalia Veselnitskaya in the first place. (He’s played by Jonah Hill in the movie, or for a bit more pathos by John C. Reilly.) We have the semi-handsome and thoroughly forgettable one-named Azerbaijani “pop star” Emin (Channing Tatum? Ryan Reynolds?) and his shadowy zillionaire dad (Robert De Niro, all the way). For that matter, we have Donald Trump Jr., revealed to be a more glorious and more dubious personality than any of us expected — and this week’s news cycle also coughed up the perfect actor to play DJTJ, if only he can avoid incarceration: Shia LaBeouf.

But even as we howl with laughter or weep with terror or simply try to figure out whether all this is a computer simulation designed by malicious aliens, it’s worth keeping a couple of caveats in mind. One of them is the journalistic imprecation tediously if correctly invoked by New Yorker editor David Remnick in a recent column: Don’t get ahead of the reporting. All that means is that you can’t assume things for which there is no actual evidence, and then plunge onward as if you’re sure they were true.

Clearly the Trump Jr. saga only thickens the cloud of suspicion surrounding the 2016 Trump campaign, not to mention the odor of mendacity (in Tennessee Williams’ immortal phrase) that emanates from everything that family touches. Collusion or conspiracy, or at least the willingness and intention to engage in those things, could indeed lie behind that June 2016 meeting. But the most parsimonious explanation remains that the then-candidate’s eldest son had no idea how blatantly stupid it was to hold a meeting, in his Trump Tower office and in front of multiple witnesses, with a Russian emissary said to be connected to the Kremlin. One wonders whether Veselnitskaya concluded, partway into this encounter, that her mistake had been to assume that this guy possessed something approaching a clue about how to handle this sort of transaction.

But beyond the question of what actually happened at that meeting (and subsequently), and how many laws or ethical norms may have been violated, lies a bigger question that is also the second caveat: How much does it matter? As I have suggested several times, the fundamental divide when it comes to understanding the rise of Donald Trump and the outcome of the 2016 election is about political worldview or even epistemology, meaning how we decide what is most important. Is President Donald Trump a fluke, created by Jim Comey and the Russians and a weird eruption of racial and sexual bigotry among a subset of white Americans? Or is he a symptom of a deeper long-term disorder, a phenomenon that was overdetermined by multiple factors and in some sense a product of America’s historical karma?

Beyond those questions, of course, lie the unquenchable questions that threaten to devour the electoral coalition of the American center and left: What is the path forward for the so-called resistance? Is the Democratic Party, which believed it represented a clear and growing American majority and was about to elect our first female president, in need of a major ideological overhaul or just some tweaks to the messaging? Does the road back to power for progressives (another term of art) require a strategic alliance with Wall Street finance and corporate capitalism — or something closer to open conflict with those forces?

My opinion columns over the past couple of years no doubt suggest that I’ve picked a side in this conflict, but that’s only partly true. I think the Bernie-Hillary dispute was a long time coming and urgently needed to come out into the open, and I believe that the Democratic Party’s lack of ideological and moral clarity was pretty close to a fatal flaw, one that caused the party’s national implosion over the last decade and was brutally laid bare by the Trumpocalypse.

But as far as the political calculus goes — as in, what strategies and tactics are most likely to win elections in the short term, and most likely to restore some semblance of a functioning democracy in the longer term — I don’t claim to have answers, and I think it’s fair to say the evidence is limited and mixed. I mean, Hillary Clinton really did get a lot more votes than Donald Trump; bad luck, bad decisions, white-dude backlash and Russian meddling may all have been implicated in her defeat. Which does not mean the hand of fate didn’t tip the scales in the end.

In an attempt to sort out some of these questions in my own head, I had an email exchange recently with writer and activist Norman Solomon, a longtime acquaintance from the left-liberal media sphere. Norman is the author of numerous books, including the still all-too-relevant 2005 “War Made Easy,” which became the basis for a documentary. He’s the founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, an informal lefty think thank, and the co-founder of RootsAction.org, an activist network with more than 1.5 million active supporters.

I approached Norman in particular because I knew he would forcefully represent the “Russia skeptic” view, which holds that a conspiracy-theory obsession with the Russia story is preventing the left from addressing more urgent issues, and is not the right frame for understanding or resisting the rise of Trump. But I also knew he would be scrupulous and fair-minded, and would not hurl gratuitous insults at mainstream Democrats or accuse them of being soulless capitalist lackeys a thousand times worse than Trump. (At least not in those terms.) I have edited our exchange lightly for clarity and context, to make it feel more like an interview.

Norman, I have this thesis that the dispute within the broader left coalition over the Russia scandal has become a proxy war in the Democratic Party’s internal struggle, or a continuation of the unresolved Bernie-Hillary conflict. Do you think that’s fair?

I’d call it a diversionary barrage — now a protracted siege – more than a proxy war. The big donkey in the room for the Democratic Party on Nov. 9 was the question “Why did Clinton lose?” Of course there are a lot of partial answers, but many of the most plausible major factors revolve around her close chronic ties with Wall Street, big banks and the like — exactly the kind of ties that are the opposite of what Bernie Sanders and his supporters advocate. So the Clinton wing hadn’t only blown the election, it also suddenly faced the prospect of no longer dominating the party. On the near horizon, it might lose control of the Democratic National Committee, unable to install as new chair someone in sync with the corporate-friendly sensibilities of the likes of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile.

As I mentioned in an article a couple of months ago (“How the Russia Spin Got So Much Torque”), the book “Shattered” reports that the top operatives of the Clinton campaign convened a meeting scarcely 24 hours after election night and decided to blame Russia for Clinton’s loss. Whatever you want to say about people like John Podesta and Robby Mook, they’re astute about pushing to change the subject — far away from the subject they dread. A subject the Clinton wing doesn’t like is whether the party should directly challenge the huge power of Wall Street – a subject that should have gained tremendous tactical political force after the election in addition to its grassroots moral force. The Clinton wing adores talking about how bad Russia is – it fits in snugly with Hillary Clinton’s “liberal interventionist” (de facto neocon) views on foreign policy, and it also casts a lot of blame for her election loss on the Russian government. Much nicer for the corporate Democratic Party forces to blame the Kremlin than Wall Street.

 No wonder Jennifer Palmieri wrote in the Washington Post when spring began: “If we make plain that what Russia has done is nothing less than an attack on our republic, the public will be with us. And the more we talk about it, the more they’ll be with us.” That assessment now looks incorrect on its own tactical terms, but it’s an approach that has well served the Clinton wing of the party since the election. Bernie Sanders put it succinctly four months ago when he said: “Certainly there are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo. They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

 Overall, I think it has been dawning on more and more progressives in recent weeks that the Democratic Party’s anti-Bernie elites have a huge stake in blaming Russia.

 So there’s a multi-layered context for saying that the Clinton forces — from the top and from the outset of the post-election period — have seen the “Russia Russia Russia” mantra as extremely useful for retaining control of the party and beating back the Bernie insurgency. In that sense, it’s a proxy war.

So for certain currents within the Democratic Party, maybe the Russia scandal provides a way to avoid the issues raised recently by New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall about the unstable nature of the current Democratic coalition: Affluent cosmopolitan whites and poor people of color may support similar social policies, at least in theory, but their economic interests are in conflict.

Blaming Russia is a way of not blaming the corporate elites of the Democratic Party establishment. Blaming Putin is a way of not blaming Clinton. Of course it’s more complicated than that — but in broad strokes of media spin, a lot of that paradigm has been at work.

 The recent Harvard-Harris poll shows that a lot of voters are tiring of the Russia focus. But as Sanders’ comment about Titanic luxury alludes to, I actually don’t think that Democrats losing elections is the uppermost fear of the Clinton wing. That wing seems more worried about losing dominance of “their” party. They’d rather prevent the triumph of genuine populism within the party, as personified by Sanders, who just happens to be the most popular politician in the country these days, according to polling. The myth that Clinton-style centrism is the best way for Democrats to beat the right wing was crushed on Election Day. But the myth cannot be surrendered by corporate forces that don’t want to give up their chokehold on the party. So, full speed ahead for the RMS Titanic.

Right. Well, there is clearly a constituency for the view that the status quo ante of Nov. 7 (or, let’s say, before the Jim Comey letter of late October), when everyone thought we were headed for President Hillary Clinton, was more or less OK. I’m more agnostic about this than you are, I think, because the evidence can be read in many ways. But if Trump’s election was a fluke event engineered by outside forces, rather than the culmination of a historical process, then there’s no reason to worry about major structural or political change. Is that overly simplistic, or on the money?

I think it’s basically on the money. We’ve been gradually boiled frogs, a degree at a time, now simmering just below 212 degrees in a vat of oligarchy — a word that Bernie Sanders used often, a word that the elite big-money “base” of the national Democratic Party views as worse than intemperate to utter. Roger Morris’ biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton — “Partners in Power,” published in 1996 — masterfully excoriates the corporate corruption of the Democratic Party in that era. Yet that corruption of two decades ago seems mild compared to the realities of 2017. The fact that the Republicans are worse in no way excuses just how badly the Democratic Party has been poisoned by mainlining corporate power.

Some progressives, I think, see a kind of political karma at work here: For generations, mainstream Democrats have largely been supportive of hawkish foreign policy, overseas military intervention and a highly intrusive and secretive national security state. Now they perceive themselves, correctly or otherwise, as the victims of another nation behaving in a similar manner.

What the Clinton administration did to Russia with overt political and economic intervention during the 1990s was, in effect, a large-scale crime against humanity that drove down life expectancy and ravaged the country. For the most part the dominant Democrats in Congress — and Hillary Clinton exemplified this — have been eager embracers of the tacit idea that might makes right, as long as it’s American might. President Clinton’s expansion of NATO toward Russia’s borders has led to huge tensions with Russia. (Imagine the Warsaw Pact expanding to Mexico or Canada.) The U.S. political intervention to get Boris Yeltsin re-elected as Russia’s president in 1996 was boastful rather than clandestine.

Overall, Washington’s message of “Do as we say, not as we do” doesn’t travel well overseas. When CIA and NSA officials denounce Russia for intervening in U.S. internal affairs, it reminds me of Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart condemning illicit sex.

OK — but isn’t it fair, especially after a week of increasingly bizarre revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower, to suggest that these interpretations are not contradictory, and could both be accurate? In other words, Putin may have tried to meddle in the presidential election, and there is mounting evidence that he wanted to. He may even have succeeded in influencing the outcome — at any rate, I’m not prepared to rule that out. But that could only have happened in the context of degraded democratic institutions, a compromised political party and a highly vulnerable candidate.

It’s not hard to believe that Putin tried to affect the 2016 U.S. election, any more than it’s surprising that U.S. presidents have tried to affect the results of elections in other countries. It seems highly farfetched that anything Putin did determined the outcome. The wounds to American democracy are overwhelmingly self-inflicted; we’re suffering from a thousand cuts but it’s much more popular to talk about one that the Kremlin may have inflicted.

I tried to get at the point in this piece back in early March: 

For months now, our country has endured the tacit denigration of American ingenuity. Countless statements — from elected officials, activist groups, journalists and many others — have ignored our nation’s superb blend of dazzling high-tech capacities and statecraft mendacities.

Fortunately, this week the news about release of illuminating CIA documents by WikiLeaks has begun to give adequate credit where due. And not a moment too soon. For way too long, Russia has been credited with prodigious hacking and undermining of democracy in the United States.

Many Americans have overlooked the U.S. government’s fantastic hacking achievements. This is most unfair and disrespectful to the dedicated men and women of intelligence services like the CIA and NSA. Far from the limelight, they’ve been working diligently to undermine democracy not just overseas but also here at home.

Today, the massive new trove of CIA documents can help to put things in perspective. Maybe now people will grasp that our nation’s undermining of democracy is home-grown and self-actualized. It’s an insult to the ingenious capacities of the United States of America to think that we can’t do it ourselves.

Contrary to all the public relations work that U.S. intelligence agencies have generously done for them, the Russians don’t even rank as peripheral to the obstacles and prospects for American democracy. Rest assured, throughout the long history of the United States, we haven’t needed foreigners to get the job done.

In our current era, can Vladimir Putin take any credit for purging huge numbers of African Americans, Latinos and other minority citizens from the voter rolls? Of course not.

Did Putin create and maintain the barriers that prevented many low-income people from voting on November 8? Only in his dreams.

Can the Kremlin hold a candle to the corporate-owned cable TV channels that gave Donald Trump umpteen free hours of uninterrupted air time for speeches at his campaign rallies? Absolutely not.

Could any Russian operation claim more than a tiny sliver of impact compared to the handiwork of FBI Director James Comey as he boosted Donald Trump’s prospects with a pair of gratuitous announcements about a gratuitously reopened probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the last days of the 2016 campaign? No way.

Is Putin anything but a minuscule lightweight in any efforts to manipulate the U.S. electorate compared to “dark money” American billionaires like the Koch brothers? Give us a break.

And how about the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? The Kremlin can only marvel at the way that the CIA, the NSA and the bipartisan leadership in Washington have shredded the Fourth Amendment while claiming to uphold it.

To sum up: The CIA’s efforts to tout Russia add up to jaw-dropping false modesty! The humility of “deep state” leaders in Langley is truly awesome.

Let’s get a grip. Overwhelmingly, the achievements of thwarting democracy in America have been do-it-yourself operations. It’s about time that we give adequate credit to the forces perpetuating this country’s self-inflicted wounds to American democracy.

To loosely paraphrase the beloved comic-strip character Pogo, when the subject is grievous damage to democracy at home, “We have met the ingenuity and it is U.S.” But we’re having a terrible time recognizing ourselves.

The latest Donald Trump Jr. revelations are supplying more super-dark paint for the portraits that Democratic Party leaders keep putting on political canvases. You could compare it to the painting technique called Chiaroscuro that came to the fore among Dutch painters four centuries ago, with the darkest of black used to punch up the light. That was much of what Clinton tried to do in the closing months of her campaign — contrasting the devil Trump with her angelic offerings.

Drawing those contrasts is easy, given that Donald Trump is so despicable in so many ways and he, in sync with the extended Trump political clan, lies incessantly. But devoting so much time and resources to slathering the darkest tarnish onto Trump didn’t quite do it for the Clinton campaign last year — and while such priorities may help bring down the Trump presidency, they won’t necessarily accomplish much otherwise.

In fact, the Democratic Party’s Russia fixation is so dominant that it leaves messaging on vital economic issues in the lurch. The Russia fixation may be an excellent way of trashing and discrediting Trump, but whether it advances the Democratic Party or progressive alternatives is a whole other matter. Branding itself as the anti-Russia party doesn’t make the Democratic Party seem more compelling for the working people who deserted it in 2016.

Andrew O’Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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