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The Question of Russia and the Left

Making political hay from attacking Donald Trump as Vladimir Putin’s puppet is both wrong and dangerous.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin make press statements during their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. Kremlin / Wikimedia

For the past week, there’s been a lot of discussion on Russia, Putin, Trump, and how leftists are responding to the issue. I’ve been participating in these conversations on social media. This past weekend, the conversation got a little crazy, when Columbia Law lecturer and Harper’s contributor Scott Horton engaged in some wild and irresponsible speculation about how the Russians may be backing certain Democratic primary candidates in the current elections.

This morning, Ryan Cooper weighed in on the issue at the Week. I disagree with where he comes out on the issue.

I want to say at the outset that I consider Cooper an ally. I don’t know him personally, but I very much admire his work. We follow each other on social media, and frequently retweet each other’s articles and posts. We are engaged in the same project: we’re both in the Sanders wing of the Left; we want to focus the political conversation on the economy, racial injustice, a less imperial foreign policy, and so on; we’re interested in the electoral possibilities for the Left right now. As Ryan makes clear, he’s been pretty skeptical of parts of the Russia story, and though he’s reconsidered his position on that story, he does not want to make Russia the central item in the public conversation. He’s not a foaming-at-the-mouth, treason-talk kind of guy.

So, this is the comment of one lefty to another, who mostly agree with each other.

Ryan thinks the Left needs to get serious about Russia and the interference in the election. It’s that move — the call to get serious (the phrases Ryan uses are “wise up” and “paying attention”) — that I don’t like. It’s so suffused with ambient noise — on the one hand, it’s a free-floating signifier of something more; on the other hand, it’s so free of specifics as to make it difficult to know precisely how to engage in it as a useful or practical discussion from the Left — that it’s bound to generate more confusion, maybe acrimony, than to help us move forward.

The Left needing to get serious is the equivalent of the pink spot in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back: every time you try to wash it away, the spot just jumps on to whatever material you’re using to wash it away with. Every time you try “to get serious,” the need to get serious moves on to some other surface.

A fair amount of what Ryan writes here is unobjectionable and I don’t disagree with. I accept the story that the Russians hacked the election (by which I mean that they made attempts to hack into voter-registration systems in the states, that they hacked the DNC and Podesta emails, and that they funded social media bots and the like); that they wanted Trump to win (not for any reasons of building an ethnonationalist alliance but simply because Clinton was clear throughout the campaign that she intended to break with Obama’s efforts to accommodate Russia and the Russians believed they’d be better off with Trump than with Clinton), and that their efforts were mounted in that direction. I don’t have a hard time accepting that account, at all.

The question is what follows from that. To my mind, it simply means beefing up cybersecurity efforts. I’ve pointed out on social media that money has already been allocated to the states to that effect, yet a lot of that money has not been spent. But there have been other bills and measures taken, which as Seth Ackerman has pointed out, have gotten almost no attention in these discussions (aside from one brief mention, Ryan gives them no attention at all).

The Left’s position on all this should simply be that prudential measures should be taken to ensure democratic elections — while always pointing out that if democratic elections is truly your big concern, there are many other more concrete threats to democratic elections in this country, starting with the Electoral College.

Moreover, the Left should hold not only the Republicans but also the Democrats accountable for those measures (some of these state legislatures where balloting systems are vulnerable are controlled by Democrats, and they’ve done very little about it).

But that’s not really where Ryan goes in this piece. Instead, he takes two different tacks.

One is to emphasize the political hay that can be made from attacking Trump as Putin’s puppet.

Putin has dirt on Trump, and is using it to manipulate him. The way Trump behaves around Putin — quietly bowing and scraping, taking his word over America’s own chief of intelligence, and thus inciting backlash even from Republicans (not much of it, but more than usual) — is simply wildly out of character. It just does not add up. That’s the kind of simple, alarming narrative that might break through the noise. [Ryan is addressing those folks who say that the public doesn’t care about Russia. He’s saying they could care soon, particularly if we focus attention on it.] I strongly suspect that over the next six months to year, Russiagate will become a greater source of public attention, and therefore a decent potential vulnerability for Trump. If so, it would be senseless to avoid bringing that attack, in addition to a strong traditional policy program. You don’t have to be a frothing nationalist to be concerned that the president is taking dictation from some ruthless dictator.

I think this route is both wrong and dangerous. It’s wrong because as I have been posting over the week, close watchers of Russia and the US have pointed out all the multiple ways in which the US is currently pursuing a very anti-Russia foreign policy, more aggressive than anything pursued by Obama (especially Obama), Bush, or Clinton.

Last week, NPR of all places did a story on precisely this, citing this comment from a foreign policy expert at the Atlantic Council:

When you actually look at the substance of what this administration has done, not the rhetoric but the substance, this administration has been much tougher on Russia than any in the post-Cold War era.

So the idea that Trump — by which I mean his administration (I’ll talk about him in a minute) — is simply taking dictation is empirically wrong.

It’s dangerous for two reasons. First, it fans the flames of nationalism and treason talk, resulting in the kind of rhetoric we saw over the weekend, where Scott Horton was essentially seeing any left candidacy as a manifestation of a potential Russian op (more on this in a second).

I hate to invoke authority here, but I did write a book on the politics of fear, focusing specifically on cases where domestic politics and international politics intertwine, and this is dangerous terrain. You think you can control the rhetoric; it controls you.

Second, while I’m perfectly prepared to believe the Russians have something on Trump, my concern is that we get into a dynamic whereby politically to prove that they are not in hock to the Russians, the GOP, or the administration, are pushed to take increasingly hostile measures, foreign policy measures, that could get the US into worse shape and generate more tension with Russia.

Trump himself won’t do much of anything beyond what he does already. But his administration and his party (which, remember, voted for heavy sanctions against Russia), will. And Trump’s shown almost no ability to stop them from doing so. It’s a bad dynamic.

So, that’s one tack Ryan takes with which I disagree. The other tack he takes is to say that as the Democrats ascend, they’ll have to confront the threat of Russian hacking.

And whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary — say Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders — is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence. Email hacking will be attempted, any compromising past history dug up, and third-party candidates boosted up — all in an attempt to throw the election to Trump. It probably won’t move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It’s a threat that needs to be reckoned with.

Now, if all Ryan means is: let’s beef up cybersecurity and the like, fine. But he doesn’t really say that. Instead, by seeding the discussion of the 2020 election with all this talk of Russian intelligence and ops, by fanning the political flames rather than settling for quieter, more prudential calls for better cybersecurity, I fear that he underestimates, and perhaps contributes to, the paranoia this kind of argument can generate.

In any campaign, whether the Russians are involved or not, a candidate’s compromising history will be churned up. (Remember the role Jeremiah Wright played in Obama’s campaign in 2008? Or the swift-boating of John Kerry?). In any campaign, there is the possibility of third-party candidates getting boosted by writers, activists, and the like. Once you introduce the Russia question into all this, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between someone bringing up a candidate’s compromising history as part of normal politics and someone doing that as a Russian op.

Do we seriously want an American politics where good old-fashioned dirty pool — exposing someone’s embarrassing past — is suddenly cast as one element in the potential plot of a foreign power? That seems like not a good way to go.

Just to give you a historical parallel. During the McCarthy years, the security apparatus and anticommunists and well-meaning liberals obsessed over the question of how to detect who was a Communist and who wasn’t. The problem was that the Communist Party backed, indeed was in the forefront of, many progressive causes: desegregating the baseball league, desegregating the blood supply of the Red Cross, and so on.

The more cynical of the red hunters came up with the Duck Test: if it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. In other words, if you were white and supported an array of progressive causes, odds are, you were a Communist, and in league with the Russians.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the most logical strategy was to avoid those causes. Which many people did. (Those causes were also helped by the Cold War, but that’s another story.)

Up until now, I’ve mostly resisted the McCarthyism parallels, in part because the term gets so misused for something like “unfair accusations,” and McCarthyism was considerably more than that, as I discuss in my book on fear. But now that the aura of Putin and his operations is hovering over wider and wider sectors of the Left, and people like Horton are using that aura as a way of thinking about challenges to mainstream Democrats from the last, and we’re getting into this terrain of the duck test — where perfectly legitimate political activity (supporting third parties, digging up dirt on your opponent, supporting left candidates in primaries [this was Horton’s point]) comes to be tainted as foreign and a covert op of the Russians — I’m bringing it up because it seems relevant.

My approach to this, as I’ve said, is simply to have better security measures, and whatever you do, not to fan the flames of the discussion. So by all means, I strongly recommend that Ryan and others who are legitimately concerned about this use their platforms, every day, every week, to push both the Republicans and the Democrats (because, again, at the state level there is evidence that both parties are not taking care of this issue) to protect balloting systems, to beef up the cybersecurity, and all the rest.

But I also think it’s imperative to avoid all this talk of third-party candidates, of attacking candidates for their compromising history, and the like, as somehow a Russian op.

Because again, there’s no way to distinguish a candidate digging up dirt on another candidate, as part of the course of normal politics, from a Russian op. The only result will be more paranoia, more anxiety, and more delegitimation of perfectly legitimate political and electoral efforts, and as a result, a winnowing of the political space.

In the end, I’m really not sure what it is that Ryan would have us do and who in fact his audience is in this piece. I suspect it’s people like me (I don’t mean me literally, just people like me): While I’ve been very clear from the start that I think the Mueller investigation should go forward, while I’ve been perfectly open to the Russian interference story, it has certainly not been my passion, I do tend to think of it mostly as a distraction, and I’ve been hostile to and critical of the treason talk (both because I think it’s not true and because I hate nationalism).

But what would Ryan have me (or people like me) do? He’s not asking those of us on the Left who have not joined in the Russia sky-is-falling chorus to support more aggressive cybersecurity measures. He’s not asking us to push for a more confrontational approach with Russia (I don’t believe he supports that approach himself.)

It feels more as if we’re supposed to signal something in our rhetoric. Personally, I don’t like this kind of move in political arguments. It gets too close to: you need to show your bona fides, and I dislike that kind of politics. It’s a bit too much like virtue signaling.

But even if that weren’t true, what would Ryan have us say? That we also think Trump is Putin’s puppet? That we think this is part of an alliance of oligarchs (a claim I can’t make given the actual US foreign policy against Russia and the oligarchs right now.) I’ve said I believe there is evidence for the interference, and I think that the answer is beefed up cybersecurity. Beyond that, I’m not willing to go or join in, for the reasons I’ve outlined. I think that should be enough.

And if there are some fundamental doubters or skeptics on the Left about the interference story, I think that’s fine: either their doubt and skepticism will turn out to be useful (somehow we’ve all forgotten our John Stuart Mill here) or it won’t.

I suspect the real issue for some people on the Left — not Ryan, but others I frequently read on this topic — is that they fear that that doubt and skepticism will make the Left look bad. I’ll come clean on that: I have zero tolerance for people who take their political positions from a feared perception of how they might look otherwise, whose sense of politics is essentially a high-school version of not wanting to seem uncool. I left high school more than thirty years ago. I’m not going back.

I saw a lot of this after 9/11, particularly on the Left: with people trying to prove their bona fides on their antipathy to terrorism and Islamism, just to show they could be as tough as the next guy. I have nothing but contempt for that kind of posturing. It’s craven — and embarrassing.