If the media and the political establishment are to be believed, Vladimir Putin is behind more or less everything. He is striving for eventual world domination; his machinations are all-encompassing; his power and ability to wreak havoc is endless; his bots and spies are everywhere. Russia is the boogeyman hiding under everyone’s bed, crouched in everyone’s closet, and menacingly lurking in everyone’s Facebook feeds.
So much has been made of Russian interference in the 2016 election that it’s almost impossible to separate what actually happened from the swarm of breathlessly alarmist rhetoric that surrounds it. On closer examination, the “Russia scandal” shows its true colors: an elite charade, a convenient explanation of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, an endless propaganda shill for the national security apparatus, a facade on the part of the Democratic establishment to mask their lack of real opposition to Trump’s policies, and an ready-made slander to be deployed against any person who the establishment determines to be a threat.
It’s a common misconception that anyone who challenges the establishment Russia narrative is some sort of Trumpite. For me, as a socialist, this would be something of a stretch. For me and others like me on the political left, the Russia narrative is not flawed because it is an attempt to malign an innocent president, but because of the baseless fear it creates--fear cultivated by the ruling classes and their lackeys, fear designed to preserve the interests of elites, fear intended to obscure and distract from the unique disfunction afflicting this country in countless insidious ways.
Talk of “interference,” “meddling,” “attacks on our elections,” “attacks on our democracy,” etc. are so drastically out of proportion to what actually occurred that it is almost comical: Russian troll farms bought some Facebook ads, made some posts, created and spread false information. Russian hackers got into the DNC’s email server and released some pretty embarrassing email exchanges between Democratic apparatchiks, pettily squabbling with each other or expressing their deep-seated hatred of Bernie Sanders. That’s all.
Russian hackers did not get into voting machines in Wisconsin and Michigan and change people’s votes from Hillary to Trump. The Russian government did not send a wave of intelligence operatives to polling stations in swing states, posing as Americans and casting falsified ballots. They made some ads, and released some real emails. The ads, which were often so poorly made and in such broken English that they scarcely made any sense, would really only be useful if you were inclined to already believe what they said--it’s difficult to imagine a person deciding to go out and vote for Trump based on a bad meme if they weren’t already going to do so. The sort of mass mind manipulation necessary to change enough people’s voting preferences, and thereby change the outcome of the election, simply wasn’t there.
Of course, Russian interference occurred--no one with their head screwed on straight will deny that. Nor will anyone deny that it was designed to benefit Trump (except Trump, and the people who take his word as gospel). But consider this: are a few ads on social media and a few leaked emails worth branding as an “attack on our democracy,” and relentlessly investigating and obsessing over for nigh on two years?
For some perspective about what real, severe election interference looks like, have a look at what the US did to Russia--not the other way around.
In 1996, Russian president Boris Yeltsin was up for reelection--and it was not looking good. Yeltsin was a drunk, who was so perpetually plastered that he often had trouble walking in a straight line on a good day. On a bad day, he would throw women off piers or, while in Washington on a state visit, try to slip out of the house in his underwear to go and buy pizza (Yeltsin was almost shot by the guards, who thought he was a burglar). Yeltsin had more problems than his drunken escapades, of course: Russia’s transition to more-or-less unregulated capitalism had resulted in a bungled kleptocracy. Prison populations ballooned, there was a tuberculosis epidemic, poverty went through the roof--as foreign investment money poured in, and private ownership replaced the state, a small number of well-connected oligarchs assumed near-total control of the economy. Understandably, people did not like this.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which had distanced itself from the Soviet Union’s Stalinist past, began gaining popularity. Its presidential candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, led Yeltsin in the opinion polls by a substantial margin. The Clinton Administration was alarmed by the possibility of Russia lapsing into communism, and the accompanying end of the strategic and economic ties that the US had forged with the post-Soviet kleptocracy. President Clinton and Yeltsin got along well--Bill used to dismiss Boris’ drunken outbursts, saying “at least he’s not a mean drunk”--and more importantly, a compliant leader like Yeltsin was important to US strategic interests. Preventing a communist victory in Russia became a priority.
Clinton worked to secure a 10.2 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund for Yeltsin’s government. While the shadowy nature of Russian finance obscured exactly what happened, millions (or even billions in some estimates) were laundered through Russian government-connected corporations, foreign banks, and oligarch’s funds, and went into Yeltsin’s campaign coffers. The IMF loan had actually been, in large part, an enormous campaign contribution.
It didn’t stop there. Three American political consultants, one with ties to the Clinton campaign, went to Russia to work for Yeltsin’s campaign. They advised Yeltsin on exactly how to beat Zyuganov: run negative advertising, gin up “anti-communist psychosis,” plant hecklers at Zyuganov rallies. There were widespread allegations of pro-Yeltsin electoral fraud on election day: regions that had previously opposed Yeltsin by wide margins suddenly voted overwhelmingly in his favor; allegations of ballot-stuffing and voter coercion were widespread. In the end, with the help of heavy American influence and a likely dash of fraud, Yeltsin beat Zyuganov, 54.4% to 40.7%.
Imagine, for example, if what the US had done in Russia in 1996 was done to the US in 2016. Imagine if the Russians provided massive loans of foreign money, which ended up being funneled into funding for Trump’s campaign; imagine if Russian consultants had been hired to work on Trump’s campaign. I think it’s important to discuss the 1996 example, since it involves the same two countries and indicates that what happened in 2016 is hardly earth-shattering by comparison. Instead of millions of dollars of dark money and foreign campaign operatives, we’re talking about a few Facebook ads and leaked emails. I do not mention this to minimize or commit an act of whataboutism--rather, I think it’s important to expose the hypocrisy of those in the media and the intelligence community who sound alarms regarding Russian interference, all while remaining silent on America’s more severe misdeeds. This is a clear sign that those who drum up Russia hysteria are not doing it out of righteous fears about an “attack on democracy,” but instead that they are doing it to serve their own selfish interests.
An Establishment Narrative
The reason why myself, and many other people on the left, are sceptical of the Russia narrative is not that we doubt whether the events actually happened, but who is promoting it and why.
The exaggerated version of the Russia story--in which it is an “attack on our democracy” or some similarly out-of-proportion piece of fear mongering--has found the most currency among the Democratic establishment: MSNBC pundits, former intelligence operatives, members of Congress, New York Times op-ed writers, and their ilk. Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC anchor, dedicated at least part of almost every show she did to some facet of the Russia scandal. Former intelligence apparatchiks like Malcolm Nance and Clint Watts gained lucrative contributor positions with the TV networks, and wrote best-selling books (the title of Nance’s book about Putin and Russia, The Plot to Destroy Democracy, is disturbing in its apocalyptic verbiage). Democrats in Congress spent considerable time holding hearings, conducting investigations, and generally hemming and hawing about the Russian threat and Trump’s relation to it. The political discourse for two entire 2 years, from 2017 to 2019, was devoted in large part to the breathless following of every morsel of detail coming out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Everything else lagged far behind.
The so-called intelligence community, lionized in the sea of enthusiastic press coverage, are hardly paragons of virtue. The FBI has long been dedicated to the suppression of internal dissent; the CIA operates a chain of illegal secret prisons around the world; the NSA pursues mass data collection and surveillance against Americans for no particular reason. This is not your friendly neighborhood constable telling you about the ruffian who’s been stealing gumballs from the machine at the general store. These are power-hungry organizations with agendas of their own that are difficult for us to understand or clearly define. If the American people aren’t thinking about how to CIA illegally tortures people or how the FBI tried to infiltrate Occupy Wall Street, then it’s a win for those organizations--better to have people thinking about the national security state being the defenders of democracy, keeping us safe from the Russian boogeyman, than the operators of secret prisons and mass surveillance.
Everyone who peddles the Russia narrative stands to profit from it--be they foreign policy hacks who can sell their books, pundits who can boost their ratings, or intelligence operatives who can further build up their reputation as the last line of defense against the Big Bad Orange Man.
No Soul-Searching Required
In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton lost an election that basically everyone, including herself, expected that she would win. In a contest between a former first lady/senator/secretary of state and a rambling orange billionaire with a distaste for minorities, it should have been obvious who would come out victorious. The problem, of course, is that Hillary didn’t win.
The Democratic establishment could have looked inwardly after this moment. They could have realized that Hillary’s aura of being the consummate establishment candidate did not play well with people who were tired of the establishment. Or that her message of “America is already great” (aka “Everything is fine”) did not play well with people who were suffering in America’s unforgiving economy. Or that her decision not to campaign in the upper Midwest was a bad one. Or that people were tired of having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Or that her campaign lacked concrete ideas that really convinced working people that their lives would improve under a Clinton presidency.
In the end, it wasn’t that large numbers of people felt that Trump was preferable (after all, he lost by 3 million votes), but rather that enough people could not be persuaded to come out and vote for Clinton--they simply did not see her as a compelling-enough alternative. It was more that Hillary lost the election than that Trump won it.
Barely half of eligible voters actually cast ballots. In Detroit, the number of people who turned out to vote for Barack Obama in 2012 but did not vote for Hillary in 2016 was actually greater than the vote difference between Trump and Clinton in the entire swing state of Michigan--had Hillary been able to simply get those people to come out and vote Democratic like they had four years before, she would’ve won a crucial victory. The same is true of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania--both states that Obama won, and would have delivered Hillary an electoral college victory if she had done the same.
Democrats could have done some soul-searching after the 2016 fiasco. They could have realized that running bland, centrist, pro-corporate candidates did not work, and that mass number of voters did not turn out if they felt like they were choosing between the lesser of two evils. They could have realized that Hillary Clinton appealed strongly to no one, and that running a candidate with policies people actually wanted and believed in, who voters liked and who did not have decades worth of political baggage, would probably have been a much better decision. But since this would challenge Democratic orthodoxy--that the way to beat Republicans is to run candidates who are essentially Republican-lite--the real reasons Hillary lost are not discussed.
Instead, it is much easier to pin it on the Russians. Create an external reason for Hillary losing a winnable election--those malevolent Russian bots and hackers--and the real, internal ones are drowned out in the noise. The Democratic establishment does not have to confront how its refusal to accept change led to a campaign which ultimately failed to provide a compelling alternative to Donald Trump. If all anyone remembers is the Russian affair, the Democratic Party is not forced to change.
The Failure of Democratic Opposition
A further reason why the Russia charade is so indispensable to the Democratic establishment is not that they perceive it to be a genuine threat, but rather that it conveniently masks the complete failure of Democratic opposition to Trump’s agenda.
Democrats voted for Trump’s massive military budgets, voted to create the Space Force, voted for his trade deals which shafted American workers and allowed continued exploitation of those abroad, and applauded when he brought Juan Guiado--the Venezuelan opposition leader who tried, and failed, to overthrow the country’s socialist government in a US-backed coup--to his State of the Union address. Democrats voted to renew the draconian Patriot Act, which laid the groundwork for the post-9/11 surveillance state. Many Democrats joined Republicans in passing Senate Bill 2155, which reversed even the minimal regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis and wholly deregulated 25 of the 38 largest banks in America--a move which the Congressional Budget Office warned might put the country on a path towards another financial crisis. When it comes to the Trump administration’s agenda--mass deregulation, militarism, exploitation of workers by international finance, foreign regime change--the Democrats were often more than happy to follow along. But that wouldn’t be very seemly, would it? If the Democrats appeared to not be doing enough to resist a deeply unpopular president, it would reflect poorly on them and cost them votes. So how do they appear to be fighting Trump, while voting for much of the legislation he and his party push for? They try to shift focus to the Russia scandal, a manufactured controversy designed to obscure the lack of substantive Democratic opposition--a cynical ploy to gain the support of the millions of Americans who hate Trump and everything he stands for, playing off popular contempt for Trump in the least substantive way possible.
A New McCarthyism
Foreign enemies are very convenient things for a nation’s ruling elites. In times of war, those who oppose pointless slaughter of their fellow human beings are often said to be sympathizing with the enemy. Anyone left of center during the Cold War was liable to being slandered as a Soviet puppet. Senator Joseph McCarthy undertook a crusade against any American he thought was a communist (though “communist” became rapidly synonymous with “someone Joseph McCarthy does not like”). The fact that McCarthy lent his name to this sort of fearmongering doesn’t mean that it went away after the Wisconsin senator drank himself to death. Rather, the spirit of McCarthyism is very much with us, and the Russia narrative is the new vehicle for its delivery.
Look no further than the endless self-pitying grievance-airing that Hillary Clinton inflicts upon the world every time she gives an interview. This frequently takes the form of viciously attacking Bernie Sanders, saying things like “no one likes him” (the American working class would beg to differ) or that “he didn’t do anything in Congress.” However, she soon exhibited a new line of attack, one which she beta-tested on Tulsi Gabbard before hurling it at Bernie Sanders without any evidence whatsoever.
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran of the war in Iraq, has made anti-imperialism a focal point of her campaign--something which led the interventionist elements of the press and the Democratic establishment to suggest that she harbored some repressed admiration for America’s enemies. Hillary Clinton took this to its logical extreme, saying in an interview that Gabbard was a “Russian asset.” The slandering of an anti-war candidate as a Russian plant, without any evidence whatsoever, is both deeply concerning and entirely to be expected. Aaron Mate, a prominent leftist journalist, wrote early on in the Russia scandal that it was only a matter of time before the “Kremlin puppet” smear was used to attack anyone on the left who the establishment of Democratic Party found troublesome--a conclusion which seems inevitable in retrospect.
Bernie Sanders, a far greater threat to establishment power than Gabbard, was soon slandered likewise. Last week, the Washington Post published an article with an eye-catching headline: “Bernie Sanders Briefed that Russia is Trying to Help His Presidential Campaign.” The pundit class seized on it, harping on the story for days until it was eclipsed by Bernie’s landslide victory in Nevada (a good indication that average Americans really do not care at all). It took three paragraphs, well beyond what your average TV pundit would read, for the Post story’s author to admit that it was “unclear what form the Russian assistance has taken.” There are two options here. Either the Russian support for Bernie is real, and the Post’s sources are just aware of it telepathically without having to know any details; or it is made up, a slavish reprinting of government lies by an American paper of record (this has happened before, so it would not be at all surprising). It is not hard to imagine a cadre of bootlicking Post reporters and influence-peddling “intelligence sources” coming together to concoct a baseless libel against Bernie Sanders. All it takes is one or two anti-Bernie zealots in the FBI or CIA to call up their contacts in the Washington Post and say, “Hey, I know that Bernie is receiving support from the Russian government! Don’t know how, though!” The reporter, suffering from a severe case of confirmation bias, would reprint it without question, and the Bernie-loathing pundits would repeat the headline over and over without mentioning that the accusation is made without any evidence whatsoever. When other people do it, it’s called fake news; but when the Post does it, it’s called hard-hitting journalism.
Just like failpundit Chuck Todd comparing Bernie supporters to Nazis, or squawking boomersaurus Chris Matthews saying that Bernie was in league with Fidel Castro, the Russia-Bernie story is a baseless accusation cooked up by an establishment desperately afraid of losing its power. Until they can actually produce any evidence whatsoever to support their claim, it will remain baseless.
I know that, to some of you, I will sound like a tin foil-hatted Alex Jones acolyte. However, it’s no conspiracy theory to say that the government and their allies in the media spread misinformation to achieve their ends--just look at what happened in Iraq. The media and their government sources colluded until Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction became a fact, in spite of the fact that they ended up not being real at all. Just as the establishment stood to profit from a war in Iraq, they stand to benefit from keeping Bernie Sanders out of the White House--and they will do everything they can to make sure that Bernie never becomes president.
The world is full of real, pressing problems. Thousands of Americans die every year because they can’t afford healthcare. Young African American men are liable to be brutalized and murdered by those who are supposed to keep them safe. The vast majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Wars which began decades ago soldier on year after year, claiming more and more lives for no reason at all. A few Facebook ads pale in comparison to all the challenges that we face. We have to keep our eyes on the issues that matter, and not be distracted by the shiny objects dreamed up by the people who don’t give a damn about them.