Getting Past Trump, Part 2: The Russia Connection
March 14, 2018
In Part 1 of this essay we surveyed the historical, economic, and cultural context for the upset victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. I did not mention Russian interference in that election. That’s because it is a subject that deserves to be treated on its own. It is, of course, a source of heated controversy: leaders of the national security agencies and the FBI are unanimous in saying that Russia made a concerted effort to impact the election, while denial that such interference took place has emanated from the White House, Fox News, and some Republicans in Congress. The latter’s motivation is fairly transparent: questioning the legitimacy of the election shines an unfavorable light on the Trump administration and the Republican Party. Interestingly, however, voices on the far left have likewise argued that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” that should be shut down. This peculiar state of affairs deserves attention, and I’ll be discussing it at some length. Even though we will be focusing on a very small subsection of the U.S. population, the shifts there are illustrative of trends with wide impacts.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald and ex-CIA analyst/political activist Ray McGovern, both favorites of the left, have penned articles arguing there is no direct evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia; they also suggest that the Mueller investigation is in effect an effort by the Deep State to expel an irritant (Trump) from the body politic—an effort that runs roughshod over the Constitution and thereby imperils American democracy. Several of my leftist acquaintances are of the same opinion. Why would vociferous critics of Trump and the Republican Party be singing from the same song sheet as Trump in this instance?
Once again, a little background helps. The American left is permanently and understandably enraged at the U.S. national security apparatus (the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, FBI, and State Department) following decades of military invasions and bombings in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, etc.; the overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Chile; and support for dictators in the Philippines, Haiti, Guatemala, and elsewhere. By extension, many on the far left also hold the centrist, Clinton-led dominant wing of the Democratic Party in utter contempt. In the view of some leftists, the United States is pursuing a global plan for war that will never cease until all rivals to Washington are under heel. Accordingly, they have viewed the rise of Russia on the world stage as a necessary counterbalance to Washington’s imperial overreach. Meanwhile Russia (through RT and other outlets) has provided exposure for far-left intellectuals in the West whom the U.S. mainstream media often shuts out.
Leftist commentators frequently point out that Russia has a genuine gripe against America: after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. treated Russia miserably by expanding NATO (which Western leaders had promised they would not do). Further, the U.S. has routinely interfered in other nations’ elections, including (reputedly) the 1996 Russian presidential election. For these reasons complaints about Russia tipping the scales in the 2016 American election ring somewhat hollow.
For most far-leftists, it is not just the U.S. intelligence community that is to be distrusted, but the mainstream media as well: the New York Times and other prominent outlets were wrong about Afghanistan, wrong about Iraq, wrong about Libya, wrong about Syria. So why should we now believe them with regard to Trump and Russia? Hence at least some far-leftists seem as likely to link and tweet articles by Russian apologists like Alexander Mercouris and Moon Of Alabama as those by Noam Chomsky or Cornel West.
The problem with all this is that, however useful Russia may be as a check on U.S. warmongering foreign policy, it is nevertheless a fairly ruthless dictatorship. Russia is clearly promoting far-right and far-left political voices in Europe in an effort to destabilize the West, and appears to be doing the same in the United States. Evidence cited in one Mueller indictment suggests that Moscow’s agents worked not just on behalf of Trump, but Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein as well—though no one has claimed so far that either of these candidates actively conspired with Russia. Even if understandable or somehow justifiable, Russia’s efforts to influence elections in the U.S. and elsewhere won’t result in any advantage to the people of the countries targeted—any more than America’s longstanding similar efforts have done.
I won’t go into great detail summarizing the evidence that Russia did in fact interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf, and that the Trump campaign encouraged and likely conspired in those efforts. James Risen, Luke Harding, and Michael Isikoff have already done a good job in this regard. Russia and the Trump campaign had motive, means, and opportunity, and there is direct and indirect evidence for both interference and conspiracy. That evidence is increasingly contained in indictments, confessions, and guilty pleas. Yes, it is surely possible that U.S. intelligence agencies have doctored or even fabricated evidence of Russian election tampering. In that regard, there are remaining questions about the DNC email hack and the Steele dossier. But remove the hack and the dossier from discussion, and there’s still an impressive pile of evidence that virtually no one (other than clear Russia apologists) disputes.
Prior to the election campaign, Trump had financial relationships with shady Russians and did business in Moscow. During the campaign, he surrounded himself with advisers who had similar contacts and entanglements. On the campaign stump, he repeatedly praised Putin. During the campaign, Trump’s surrogates traveled to Moscow, exchanged frequent telephone calls with Russian officials and agents, and responded “I love it!” when illegally offered compromising information about Clinton by Russian sources. Trump publicly called for the Russians to “find” Clinton’s “lost” emails (one of his many profoundly unfunny “jokes”).
Meanwhile, we now know that Russia employed organizations to hack secure websites; organized scores of social media trolls and ad buys; paid teams to gather sensitive voter information at the state level; and even organized pro- and anti-Trump public rallies. Facebook has estimated that about 10 million people saw Russian ads targeting users in Michigan and Wisconsin—states Trump won by roughly 10,000 votes and 22,000 votes, respectively.
Once in office, Trump promptly divulged classified information to the Russian ambassador. He met with or telephoned Vladimir Putin repeatedly with no American present to record the conversation (which was utterly unprecedented). He appointed a Secretary of State with close ties to Moscow. And he has refused to implement sanctions on Russia that were passed overwhelmingly by Republican-dominated Congress and that he was more or less forced to sign.
In response to this litany, far-right and far-left commentators insist there is no definitive proof of collusion yet. But we should not expect to have such evidence in the public record at this stage. That’s the point of an investigation: to find what culprits seek to hide. The process involves subpoenaing witnesses and getting little fish to flip on big fish until the truth is revealed in sworn testimony. Recall Watergate: clear evidence of Nixon’s personal involvement wasn’t forthcoming until late in the two-year investigation, after the release of tapes of Oval Office conversations. Also, it’s entirely possible that many charges ultimately brought against Trump’s innermost circle will relate to financial crimes rather than conspiracy against the United States or obstruction of justice.
In my view, the Russian effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election was likely the most successful low-budget covert operation in history. At least one of its aims (if not the primary one) was to disrupt the internal political system of the U.S., and in this it succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. The operation probably couldn’t have worked so well without Facebook, but it probably could have worked just fine without direct help from the Trump campaign. Yet perhaps that was itself a crucial part of the plan: Moscow’s intelligence operatives may have been careful to get some of the Trump team’s fingerprints on the election interference process so that, when an investigation eventually uncovered those clues, the entire American political system would erupt in recriminations, with charges of treason and counter-charges of “deep-state coup” leading to system meltdown.
I probably won’t change many minds about Trump/Russia in what I’ve written above. Some will probably conclude that I’ve sold my soul to the Clintonites (for the record, I did not support Clinton in the election), or that I’ve bought into anti-Russian propaganda emanating from the neoconservative foreign policy establishment. But that’s also part of the story: we are entering a post-truth era in which tribal alignment matters far more than mere facts, which are becoming ever harder to establish to everyone’s agreement. Jennifer Kavanagh calls this “truth decay,” and notes that it makes the job of informing and mobilizing the public much harder—not just with regard to Trump-Russia or politics in general, but also when it comes to climate change and the other collective survival threats.
Some caveats: I’m not suggesting that war brinkmanship with Russia would be a good idea. And I’m not in favor of demonizing anyone in the U.S. who has connections with, or good things to say about Russia (as Matt Taibbi argues is happening). Nor am I arguing that Russia was entirely or even primarily responsible for the Trump victory. It was a close race due to the factors unpacked in Part 1 of this essay. Russian interference may have played a crucial role in tipping the scales, but that would never have been possible if Americans were not already turning against their perceived political elites due to perceived failures.
Again, the real point here is that this is how democracies die. The rot begins within, but there are often external players who take advantage of the situation, or hasten the decay (as occurred also in the case in ancient Rome).
Even if Trump himself were gone tomorrow, the nation still faces simmering crises (falling energy return on investment, increasing economic inequality, over-reliance on debt, climate change) that appear to be leading toward collapse of government and the economy; meanwhile, as a result of political polarization, social fragmentation, plain old corruption (see NRA), and truth decay we are losing whatever ability we ever had to address those crises.
In Part 3 of this essay we will explore the implications of all this for environmental activism.
Teaser photo credit: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons