Russian interference in U.S. politics during the elections of 2016 and beyond is one big, fat, ugly squirrel. It commands attention but distracts from the related but more important matter of rising, Russian-supported far-right movements throughout the world, which support has now come home to the U.S.A. The hacks (or leaks) are not the issue. Russia is not the issue. Reaction is the issue. Russia didn’t give us Trump, but Russia is tied up with Trump, and Trump is going to give us hell. If you think he is no worse than Hillary, you haven’t been paying attention.
Sponsorship of ultra-right movements by moneyed interests would not ordinarily surprise anyone on the left. What confounds the debate is the perception that such sponsorship is seen—by both believers and skeptics—as originating in a self-seeking nation-state and its autocratic ruler, one with a communist history. But today, kleptocratic, capitalist Russia is among the moneyed interests in the world. It’s tempting but simplistic to see Russian leaders as a fairly narrow species of nationalist interlopers in U.S. domestic politics. More to the point, they are allied with germinating, reactionary forces internationally, if only lately inside the United States.
Right-wing movements in France, Great Britain, Hungary, and elsewhere do not lack domestic political support, and there is no reason to think they would not exist without Russian backing. In the same vein, Trump’s victory here is owed first and foremost to the Republican Party and its sponsors, to all the usual suspects we have been observing with revulsion for decades. In the context of domestic U.S. politics, Putin is not the dog; he’s the tail.
The possibility that the Russians’ meddling could provide them some geopolitical advantage looks huge but should be a secondary concern. Let the neo-cons worry about it.
The possibility that the Russians’ meddling could provide them some geopolitical advantage, such as breaking up the EU and NATO or discrediting the U.S. electoral system (like we needed any help with that) looks huge but should be a secondary concern. Let the neo-cons worry about it. After all, for the left, great power rivalries are usually a distraction from the class struggle. Putin’s goals may be difficult to fathom, but his attempts to establish a presence in our politics are clear and unwelcome.
Assorted parties each have their own motives for exaggerating the Russian impact on the election. Clintons’ supporters want to blame somebody else for their candidate’s defeat; their stance fosters apoplexy among my friends on the left, to the point where nothing else matters. Neo-cons and superannuated Cold Warriors elevate the Russian threat to ramp up national security paranoia. Defense contractors want to ramp up military spending.
The source of hacks of the Democratic Party and the transmission path of hacked material are hard to demonstrate. Proof offered by the Obama administration is far from convincing. The real salience of the exposed material is the politics of how it was exploited, which is plain for all to see: it was deployed in concert by the Trump-led Republican Party, by official Russian outlets, by shadowy internet entities, and by WikiLeaks, with the obvious aim of supporting the GOP and undermining Democrats. Our dopey mainstream media played along, evidently to cash in on ratings; the counter-revolution was profitably televised.
The truth of a Russian alliance with rightists does not appear to be controversial, but it suffers from a lack of deserved attention. These movements, need we be reminded, are viciously, violently racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and homophobic. Similar groups run amok in Russia itself with the apparent indulgence of the authorities. The Trump campaign has brought like-minded creatures out from under the rocks of the U.S. right.
The truth of a Russian alliance with rightists does not appear to be controversial, but it suffers from a lack of deserved attention.
The least sensible response on Russian hijinks from some on the left is that the United States also meddles in other countries’ politics. Of course it does, in spades, but that will be little consolation to prospective victims of Republican assaults on the U.S. welfare state. Anyone who thinks the same would have been forthcoming from a Clinton administration is just dead wrong. Obama’s proposal to change the cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security benefits is not comparable to current Republican ambitions, just for starters, to dismantle Obamacare, privatize the Veterans Administration, block-grant Medicaid and food stamps, abolish the corporate income tax, outlaw abortion, and provide Medicare benefits through vouchers.
The real upshot of the Russian intervention is not that it was decisive for the outcome. We can’t really know that. The awful outcome is what matters—one in which Putin is at least complicit, and one that appears to be replicating in other countries. (The late Tony Judt was prescient on this.)
So why bring up Russia at all? Three reasons.
1. Russia is a new, obnoxious, right-wing participant in domestic U.S. politics, devoted at once to propping up Trump and to dividing his opposition. One form this division takes is support for forces and voices that refuse to distinguish between policies of the two major parties. We have always had such viewpoints, and I’ve been guilty of purveying them myself. Hell, I voted Nader in ’96 and ’00. I can’t attack someone for maintaining that both parties stink and we need a third alternative. But in this case, I do think it’s a mistake. More important, it’s horribly misguided to contend that a Clinton administration would have been just as bad as the incoming one. We can agree to disagree on political strategy, but we ought to agree that opposing Trump & Co. is the priority now.
2. Russia supports rightist formations in other countries. International solidarity, including with immigrants, women, and gays, demands opposition, not least to any Trump administration collaboration with such reactionary forces.
3. Pointing out Trump’s Russophilia and the kleptocratic ties between Trump, his supporters, and Russian oligarchs is a costless way to undercut Trump’s ability to do us harm. Of course, the Clinton people do it to wretched excess, when they are not digging up Keith Ellison’s old traffic tickets or accusing Glenn Greenwald of being a veritable KGB agent, but that’s their problem.
The Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party lives on and has proven its incapacity to deal with the threat posed by the GOP and the Trump movement. In Europe, social-democratic parties are floundering in the face of anti-immigrant politics. In our rigged political system, there is no viable substitute for operating within the constraints of two-party competition. Now, as Michael Walzer asserts, we need to join the center in resisting the right. Does anybody think the Sanders movement in the current constellation of left groups could go it alone?
We also need progressive mobilization founded on programmatically oriented criticism of the Democratic establishment as well as of Republican attacks on the welfare state. So I am not suggesting we temporize on criticism of centrist neo-liberalism on the level of program; quite the contrary.
The U.S. welfare/regulatory state with all its flaws contains many seeds for a better system. Trump, with an assist from a cavalcade of shady backers, including Putin’s Russian oligarchy, threatens to uproot these seeds. It’s possible to exaggerate Putin’s role, but it would be wrong to discount it altogether. Any complete survey of the forces colluding against progressive goals must now include the Russian state.