For well over a year-and-a-half now, prominent Democratic politicians and media figures have alleged that, in an unprecedented attack on democracy, “Russia hacked the election” in 2016 to install Vladimir Putin’s “puppet,” Donald Trump, into office. Those pushing this narrative call Trump a “traitor” and accuse him of committing “treason” against the American people.
I have raised objections to the way many Democrats are talking about Russia for two main reasons:
1. Skepticism of our intelligence agencies’ claims is warranted, as history has shown. From overthrowing the democratically elected Allende government in Chile and lying about it to secretly selling weapons to Iran in the 1980s and lying about it to falsely declaring that Iraq had provided al Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction, the CIA’s history doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their credibility. The FBI similarly helped to lead us into Iraq under false pretenses (see this video from 15 years ago of none other than lead Russia investigator Robert Mueller) and has a long history of targeting anti-war and civil rights activists with dishonest smears. And as exposed by Edward Snowden during the Obama Presidency, the NSA has lied repeatedly to Americans about their warrantless spying programs. In each of these and many other instances, our intelligence agencies’ falsehoods have served deeply illiberal goals. Nobody should take their word as gospel, and everyone should be skeptical of what our intelligence agencies’ public pronouncements might be designed to accomplish. Consider the following:
a. Hysteria about Russia could lead to war – or worse. As noted above, inaccurate fearmongering helped lead us into the Iraq War in the early 2000s. The more prominent media and political figures say that “we’re in a 9/11 national emergency” and declare Russia to have “launched a war” against us, the more at risk we are of becoming engaged in an actual war with Russia, a country with a serious stockpile of nuclear weapons. In fact, a former US general and a foreign policy consultant seemed to suggest that military action against Russia might be appropriate in a recent article in Politico, writing: “This is our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11. In the past, we have risen to the defense of our values, our ideologies and our institutions. It’s time for another fight.”
One wouldn’t know it from the media narrative about Trump and Russia, but Trump has already taken a harder line against Russia than Barack Obama did when in office – he has imposed harsh sanctions, bombed a Syrian airfield, pulled out of the Iran deal (which Putin supported), sent lethal weapons to Ukraine, and increased funding for anti-Russian efforts in Europe. Democrats pushing Trump to take more aggressive action would do well to consider why Obama didn’t (and to watch this video of Obama mocking Mitt Romney six years ago for making the same type of claims many Democrats are making today).
b. Unfounded accusations of treason are used to silence dissent. Less than fifteen years ago, the Center for American Progress documented the Bush Administration’s attacks on the patriotism of anyone who opposed their narrative about 9/11 and Iraq and, more broadly, their foreign policy. Beyond Iraq, “the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States” has a name – McCarthyism – and has a long history of being used to persecute social justice advocates.
While it’s true that the allegations of treason today are centered heavily on staunch opponents of social justice – Trump and various Republicans – Establishment Democrats have unsurprisingly also targeted Jill Stein, Glenn Greenwald, and anyone else who has dared to criticize their behavior – we are at best “fucking clueless…idiot[s]” and at worst “agent[s] of Trump and Moscow” (that we are staunch critics of both Trump and Putin doesn’t seem to matter). It is not hard to imagine the current McCarthyite climate persisting after Trump is ousted from office and used primarily once more, as it has been throughout American history, to attack proponents of a more just society.
I’m not an expert on cybersecurity and do not know the entire basis for our intelligence agencies’ claims – nobody outside of those agencies does! What we do know, however, is that the first report they released that purported to show evidence of Russian interference in 2016 contained more anti-social-justice propaganda than evidence. We also know that many widespread claims related to alleged Russian interference over the last two years – Wikileaks doctored Clinton campaign emails, Russia hacked the Vermont power grid, certain American blogs are tools of Russian propaganda, Russia tried to break into and compromise voter systems in various states, Russia interfered in the French election – have turned out to be false.
Mueller’s July 13 indictment is detailed and he may present convincing proof that the Russian government hacked various Democrats’ email accounts (there are also reasonable people who seem to believe the evidence is already convincing on that point). But given our intelligence agencies’ sordid history, we should be careful not to place our trust in them.
2. We should be focusing our time and energy on effective responses to Trump, Republicans in Congress, and the homegrown problems of systemic classism, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that long predate 2016. The only standing concrete charges against the Russian government are that they hacked Democratic emails and poured a very small amount of money into an unsophisticated, inconsequential social media advertising campaign. These activities were neither the primary reason for Trump’s victory nor particularly surprising – the United States government “meddles” in many other foreign countries’ elections much more significantly than Russia is alleged to have done here – and, as polling shows, Americans rightfully care more about issues that will directly impact their lives than about the “situation with Russia.”
To be fair, Establishment Democrats who consider themselves part of the #Resistance have generally been highly critical of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, and enforce draconian immigration policy. But the amount of time spent on these issues – not to mention advancing a proactive agenda for single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, a radical restructuring of our criminal justice system, and more – has paled in comparison to the amount of time spent on speculation about Trump and Russia. In one analysis of a six-week period in 2017, for example, popular MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was found to have spent more time talking about Russia than about every other issue combined. As another illustrative example, CNN Contributor Joan Walsh seemed unhappy with Bernie Sanders for tweeting about a long-scheduled “CEOs vs workers” town hall he was hosting on the day of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki; in Walsh’s mind, presumably, Sanders should have ignored income inequality that day and been exclusively focused on questioning Trump’s patriotism. Every cover story hypothesizing that Trump has been a “Russian-intelligence asset” since 1987 draws attention away from important, reality-based domestic issues that could have had that cover space.
There’s a reason Establishment Democrats find the Russia-successfully-waged-an-unprecedented-attack-on-our-democracy-and-is-to-blame-for-all-our-problems narrative so appealing: it absolves them of responsibility both for losing the 2016 election and for failing to address the needs of millions of Americans who are suffering. They want the public to forget that they ran an undemocratic primary process in 2016 to select the less-electable, less-social-justice-oriented candidate as their nominee, that their model for Democratic politics has resulted in huge losses for the party throughout the entire country, and that Democrats have long condoned some of the policies they now profess to be outraged about. If Democratic elites can convince enough people that the current state of American politics is Putin’s fault rather than something their glaring failures have contributed to, they will have a much easier time staying in power.
None of that means that the Russian government wasn’t behind the phishing emails sent to John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee – they may well have been! It also remains true that Donald Trump lies all the time and has almost certainly done dozens of illegal things. Nobody should take statements from either him or Vladimir Putin at face value, and the Mueller investigation should absolutely proceed.
But Democrats also need to be more careful about how they approach the issue of Russia and the 2016 election. Failing to do so could have very serious consequences.