Trump and Russia: Would It Matter If There Actually is a There There?

When Donald Trump’s tweets turn more than usually bat shit crazy, the question arises: is it because he is a master strategist, adept at controlling the news cycle to suit his purposes, or is it just because he is bat shit crazy?

The brouhaha he got going by claiming that Barack Obama had Trump Tower “bugged,” following the Nixon-Watergate model, plainly suggests that the man is non compos mentis.

That was, after all, only the latest in a long line of ludicrous and demonstrably false claims that include the contention that Obama was born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to be President, and that Hillary Clinton got several million more votes than he did because “illegal” immigrants voted for her in droves.

But this cannot be the whole story because Trump did manage to get himself elected President — despite the best efforts of “liberal” media, the “intelligence community” and the rest of the so-called “deep state,” the entire political class, the unions (what remains of them), and the leaders of nearly all strata of civil society.  He must have something going for him.

Therefore, one has to think that there must be something to the idea that, with questions about his connections with the Russian government closing in on him, he conjured up a Watergate story to deflect the heat.

If that was indeed his idea, his strategy worked – for a day or two.  It could start working again later in the month when Congress investigates his claim.

But nothing Trump can do seems capable of impeding growing public acceptance of the idea that Russian meddling in the 2016 election, in Trump’s behalf, somehow accounted, at least in part, for Trump’s victory.

Democrats and their media flunkies – not just the increasingly unbearable Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (=MSDNC) – have a lot invested in the story.  And whether or not there is any there there, it does have promise – for bringing Trump down long before the electorate gets the chance.

What a welcome turn of events that would be!  What promoters of the Russian connection story are up to is unseemly and reckless.  But I, for one, would forgive them many times over if their shenanigans were to lead to Trump’s imminent demise.

The sooner Trump is out, the better – even though that means turning the White House over to Mike Pence, a bona fide reactionary who, like Paul Ryan and other leading Republicans, wants nothing more than to turn the clock back a hundred years.

Trump is worse by many orders of magnitude — not because his views are more reactionary than theirs, but because his presidency threatens what we still have in the way of democratic norms, along with common sense and ordinary human decency.

For now, Hispanics and Muslims are bearing the brunt.  This is reason enough to get rid of him ASAP.

But that is not all.  The man is a thin-skinned septuagenarian adolescent who has surrounded himself with white supremacists, billionaires, incompetent nincompoops, and Islamophobic generals who proclaim their fondness for killing.  With miscreants like them calling the shots, everybody is vulnerable, and anything could happen.

The Republican Party is home to some of the most execrable politicians in creation; but, sad to say, only they can stop Trump now.  The Democratic Party is useless.

The large and growing anti-Trump resistance outside the Democratic Party’s purview is something else altogether.  But because it has no organized political leadership and no significant institutional presence, it can only go so far.  Trump can survive demonstrations and strikes; what he cannot survive is Republican defections.

Those defections will come when enough Republicans come around to the view that their Leader is no longer useful to them.   They are not there yet; they still think that he can help them get their agendas through.  The evidence of Trump’s first month and a half in office supports that belief; so does the realization that, if Trump wants to govern, he needs to keep them on board.

This will change when the untenability of the Trump presidency becomes impossible to deny – thanks to the inevitable disillusionment of many of the voters Trump conned; and, from the other end of spectrum, when the resistance movement matures to a point that it is able to impede the Republicans’ designs and to disrupt their sense of being in control.

This is bound to happen, but it probably won’t happen right away.

However, the Russia connection story could, like a magic bullet, change everything overnight.  I say “could” because, at this point, it is far from clear that there actually is enough of a Russia connection to keep the story from falling apart, even in our post-truth world.

But if it turns out that there is – if there is something genuinely scandalous there beyond the fabrications of the Democratic Party’s propaganda machine — Republicans might find themselves with no choice but to jump ship.

If and when it comes to that, they wouldn’t be all that reluctant — they hate Trump too, and Pence is once of their own.

At this point, there is no predicting how the Russia connection story will bear up under scrutiny or what its consequences will be.  Trump’s victory has put the world so far out of joint that it no longer seems even worth trying to estimate probabilities.

How ironic it would be for anything good to come out of the Russophobic nonsense that Team Hillary introduced into the contest for the presidency and that they still promote.  What sore losers they are!  It could happen, though, and however pointless it may be to speculate on the odds, I like to think that the chances are no worse than fair to good.


At this point, all we know for sure about Russian meddling is that the intelligence community says it took place.

Should we take them at their word?   They have been known, after all, to cook their analyses to serve political ends, and they have a proven record of unreliability.  Thanks to Wikileaks, we also now know that they are not nearly as competent or, with regard to privacy rights, as upstanding as they purport to be.

But, when it comes to meddling, they surely know, or ought to know, whereof they speak.  The CIA practically invented interfering in the elections of other countries.

In any case, getting Americans to think that the Russians are up to something is child’s play, no matter how reliable, or not, the evidence may be.

There are many reasons why.

For one, it gives Trump’s opponents something besides all the obvious things to use against him.  The idea that Russian meddling helped Trump win diminishes the legitimacy of his victory and therefore of the Trump presidency itself.

Moreover, Americans have been taught for generations to think the worst of Russians; their leaders especially.  It was that way even before the Bolshevik Revolution caused the hackles of capitalists everywhere to rise; the Czars were, as Trump would say, “bad dudes” too.  With the onset of the Cold War, anti-Russian hysteria became, for all practical purposes, a tenet of America’s civil religion.

There was a partial respite in the campaign to make Americans wary of Russians and their leaders when the United States and the Soviet Union were on the same side during World War II.  That brief interlude is of no consequence now: views never changed all that much anyway, and hardly anyone who was politically aware then is still alive.

It matters slightly more that the generation of Americans that came of age politically in the nineties escaped the intense indoctrination of earlier periods.  That happened because post-Communist Russia, led on by the United States and other Western powers, was down and out and falling into the clutches of global capitalists and homegrown kleptocrats.  With that going on, Russia no longer seemed worth vilifying.  The moment was short lived, however; and those days too are now long gone.

In any case, even if younger Americans are not quite as Russophobic as Clinton and her cohort, the historical memory is there, waiting to be exploited.

Getting the public on board is an easy sell.  After all, in view of the state of U.S.- Russia relations, it is only common sense that the Russians would do what they could to affect the outcome of the 2016 election.

It is not just the Russians.  Because it affects them too, people all over the world felt the same way – for compelling reasons of their own.

But there was little people who could not vote in the United States could do.  There was certainly nothing their governments could do.  Thanks to the asymmetrical power relations that have existed between the United States and other countries since the end of World War II, foreign governments are not able to impose their will on the American government in the way that the American government can, and regularly does, impose its will on them.

There is only one exception to the rule: Israel.  Nine times out of ten, for reasons having to do mainly with the vagaries of American domestic politics, the Israeli tail is able to wag the American dog with impunity.

It is no secret that, at least since the 2008 election, the Israeli government, and its lobby, favored Republicans in presidential contests.  This was plainly the case in 2016 as well.

For doing what the Israel lobby wishes, few American politicians have been more biddable over the years than Bill and Hillary Clinton.  But when it came down to a contest between Hillary and the Donald, the Netanyahu government’s position was clear: the Bibster preferred Trump.

It hardly matters to him and his co-thinkers that Trump “pals around,” as Sarah Palin would say, with anti-Semites.  What matters is that Trump’s son-in-law – and advisor — Jared Kushner, is a rabidly rightwing Zionist who, like his felonious billionaire father, supports the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank and Gaza.  It matters too that the Kushners are personal friends of the Netanyahus.

Yet no American politician, certainly no Clintonite Democrat, has objected to Israeli meddling in the election for President.  No surprise there — Israel and Russia are held to very different standards.

But is Putin really worse than Netanyahu or, for that matter, any American President in living memory?   Even if he did order the deaths of a handful of political opponents, a charge that has never been established, Netanyahu and, to take just the most recent example, Barack Obama are implicated in many more violent deaths.

Yet Netanyahu is held in high regard in the United States – not because he speaks English with an American accent, though this doesn’t hurt, but because the Israel lobby sees to it.

Putin, meanwhile, is the devil incarnate. The American military-industrial-media complex sees to that.  Russia, after all, has no lobby.  What it does have, however, are geopolitical interests that sometimes conflict with those of the United States; and, now that the nineties are ancient history, the means to demand the respect it deserves.

It also has a government whose leader is no paragon, but who is no more demonic than most other world leaders, including our own – not just since November 8, but from time immemorial.

Americans are disposed to think the worst of Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies.  Perhaps they really are as bad as most (uninformed or disinformed) Americans assume.  Media insinuations aside, however, Putin is indisputably more adept diplomatically, and more respectful of international law, than any American President in living memory.

In any case, his merits and shortcomings are beside the point.  Faced with provocations too flagrant to ignore, no self-respecting Russian government could fail to play tit for tat with the United States whenever the opportunity arises.

After 1989, when Communism ended, and especially after 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, the United States ramped up its level of meddling into the political affairs of formerly Communist countries – by supporting anti-Russian governments and political movements in former Soviet “satellites” and then in former Soviet Republics.  By fair means or (mostly) foul, they did all they could to humiliate and weaken Russia, and to bring NATO right up to Russia’s borders.  Boris Yeltsin was a willing collaborator; Putin never was — not even at first, when George W. Bush looked into his eyes and saw, or said he saw, that he was good.

American meddling in Ukraine has been especially egregious.  The conventional wisdom, of course, is that it is Putin’s meddling – it would be more honest to say his reactions and countermeasures – that justify vilifying him and making an enemy of the country he leads.

Had Hillary won the election, as everyone thought she would, Russia would have had to deal with an American President more bellicose, reckless and Russophobic than Obama or Bush, and with a foreign policy team as hostile towards Russia as any since the early days of the first Cold War.  They could hardly not have wanted to avoid that.

But what could they do?  Even if they did what we are told they did – hack into the servers used by the Democratic National Committee and then turn their findings over to Wikileaks — all they did or could have come up with is documentary evidence of what everybody already knew: that the Democratic Party’s establishment was doing all it could to insure that Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, would be the Democrats’ nominee.

It bears repeating, even so, that the only reason to think that the documents Wikileaks published were fished out by the Russians is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies say so.  Wikileaks says otherwise, and they are infinitely more honest and reliable.

Democrats and the “journalists” who serve them don’t like that.  Therefore, true to form, they vilify Wikileaks too. The chance to go after two birds with one stone evidently proved too tempting for them to resist.

In a slightly less irrational political universe, it would go without saying that the vilification of Wikileaks is both indecent and ridiculous.  Wikileaks serves the purpose of a free press more effectively and responsibly than the free press itself; its latest releases of evidence of CIA hacking prove this, yet again, beyond any reasonable doubt.  Moreover, informing the public in a politically responsible way hardly befouls the electoral process.  It does just the opposite: it improves it.

In any case, in this instance, there is a very pertinent question that politicians and media pundits never ask and seem not even to have noticed:  did any of the DNC documents Wikileaks published affect the electoral outcome even one iota?

This question is central to the entire kerfuffle, and it practically answers itself.   And yet the wrong answer is almost universally assumed.

To hold that the Russians wanted to hack into the DNC server to help Trump win, one would have to ascribe a level of prescience and subtlety to the Russian intelligence services that is almost certainly beyond their ken.

Their purchase on the American electoral scene would have had to have been a lot keener than that of nearly all informed American observers.

Remember: the wronged party here was Bernie Sanders.  Everybody knew that the DNC had rigged the election against him; all Wikileaks did was supply irrefutable documentary evidence for what everybody already believed.   What effect could that possibly have?

For the Russians to think that it would help put Trump over the top, they would have had to believe that Trump actually stood a chance of winning – something almost no one believed until the moment it happened — and that documenting what was already known would be just enough to put him over the line.  How?  Presumably by getting Sanders’ supporters even more pissed off at Hillary than they already were.

In retrospect, this could seem like a plausible speculation; prospectively, only a fortuneteller could see its merits.

More important, even if the Russians were on to something no one else was, where is the crime?

Suppose that journalists from American or foreign newspapers, not foreign or domestic hackers, had been the ones to obtain evidence for what everybody already justifiably believed?   Would Team Hillary still be crying foul?  Perhaps, but the consensus view would surely be that the journalists were only doing their job – acting, perhaps for the first time since Watergate, like a Fourth Estate should.


This ought to settle the matter, but it doesn’t – not just because Democrats and people who think that Democrats can play a constructive role in the anti-Trump resistance movement won’t let it go, but also because Trump and his people won’t.

Again, this could just be because they are bat shit crazy.  It could also be for more nefarious reasons that, paradoxically, give cause for hope.

This would be the case if it turns out that there is something going on that puts Trump in a position so compromising that even his hardcore backers, the folks whose darker natures he validates and energizes, would have a hard time remaining loyal.

That thought that this might indeed be the case is gaining ground.  Even media pundits are now describing the latest goings on, especially with Jeff Sessions, as a cover up without any apparent crime.  They frame no hypotheses, but they plainly do find this disturbing and suspicious.

Perhaps, before long, it will be possible to untangle the “known knowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say, from the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.”  For now, though, there is only smoke – lots of it – but no fire.

Playing the Russia card was, and still is, the last refuge of Clintonite scoundrels and Republican scoundrels too – people like John McCain and his sidekick, Lindsey Graham.

If the third mouseketeer, Democrat, then Independent, Joe Lieberman, running mate of Al Gore, was still in the Senate, he’d be right there with them.  Instead, he is working for one of Trump’s most outrageous cabinet picks, Betsy DeVos, and therefore indirectly for the Donald as well.  Such are the ways of the political class.

It all makes for one sorry spectacle!  But would it not be wonderfully ironic if it turns out, unbeknownst to the politicians and media flacks pushing the line, that there actually is a there there; that Trump’s much celebrated wheeling and dealing has put that hapless bully in thrall to Russian oligarchs and criminal elements in Russia and other former Soviet republics.

There have been rumors to this effect for years.  Investigative journalists are, even now, working on leads; Adam Davidson’s account in the March 13 New Yorker of the building of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan is a case in point.

Revelations along these lines could cause Republican legislators to turn on the Donald a lot sooner than they otherwise would.

This is important because time is of the essence – Trump must go before he and his minions ruin too many more peoples’ lives, “deconstruct” (wreck) a lot more of what has made life in capitalist America bearable for the ninety-nine percent, and, worst of all, before the Trump way, the way of erratic unreason and outright mendacity, becomes the new normal.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).