Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0


The orange-tinted freakshow that is Donald Trump should be removed from the White House and sent to some filthy, rat-infested dungeon with a sentence of Life Without Twitter. The same goes for the rest of his racist, eco-cidal, arch-plutocratic, and shockingly Christian Fascist administration. They should be forced to work sunup to sundown in a solar panel-making work camp in the Arizona desert.

But Trump and his team should be defenestrated for what offenses and with what higher purpose? To put another dismal dollar Democrat like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama in power?  God no. The neoliberal “free market” ideology that Democrats have been advancing every bit as much as (and more effectively than) Republicans over the last generation and more is how we got to this horrific Trumpian moment.  Corporate power long ago turned the Democratic Party into a democratically useless lap-dog of the leading financial institutions, top multinational corporations, and the vast U.S. military empire.  This depresses and demobilizes much of the nation’s poor and working class citizenry (or ex-citizenry), turning millions into non-voters and millions more into supporters of the ever more rightward, white-nationalist Republican Party.

At the same time, the reigning neoliberal doctrine shared by top Democrats and Republicans – “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904) – has stripped American government of its capacity and willpower to carry out positive social and democratic functions. Neoliberalism starves what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority.  At the same time, it feeds the regressive and repressive “right hand of the state,” the parts of government that distribute wealth and power upward while punishing the working and lower classes and all who resist the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

It’s a deadly process on numerous levels. The less the ruling class relies on the velvet welfare-statist glove of cooptation to maintain hierarchy, the more it relies on the iron police-state fist of brute-force repression. With government famished when it comes to meeting the needs of any but the wealthy few, moreover, the way is open for a demagogue to seize upon popular resentments and come in claiming that he and he alone can fix the nation’s problems and make it “great again.” When the “normal” bourgeois institutions and liberal elites are perceived (all too accurately in many cases) as pathetic and nefarious, a charismatic, populism-manipulating bully steps into the vacuum to promise a restoration of lost national greatness.

That was Hitler’s gambit in Germany in the 1930s.  It is one of the big Trump cards Herr Donald played last year.

Now Trump and the nation’s 34 Republican governors get to wield the ever-expanding powers of the police state in a nation whose populace has lost faith in nearly every major U.S. institution but two: the military and the police. It’s a militarized police-state the Democrats helped create.

Here’s where a “progressive Democrat” often steps in in to argue that it doesn’t have to be like this because the Democratic Party can be turned in a winning left and social-democratic direction.. I’ve been hearing this from them all my politically cognizant life. It is a naive and unduly trusting fantasy.

Left-leaning progressives have long been held in disdainful contempt by Democratic Party elites (I’ve been writing about this for years) who understand very well that their first job above all others is to prevent the emergence of any serious left opposition to ruling class power in the United States. The foremost duty of the “Inauthentic Opposition Party” [IOP] (as the late left political scientist Sheldon Wolin called the Democrats) is to keep real popular resistance at bay.

The contempt continues to this very day, undaunted by the electoral collapse of the neoliberal Democrats. The mildly social-democratic progressivism of war “socialist” Bernie Sanders must be marginalized at all costs as far as top Democrats are concerned. So what if Sanders’ brand of progressivism might be a road to revival and victory for a party that became even less popular than the widely loathed Republicans and Trump? As The Guardian’s Trevor Trimm recently reported:

If you look at the numbers, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America – and it’s not even close. Yet bizarrely, the Democratic party – out of power across the country and increasingly irrelevant – still refuses to embrace him and his message…instead ,… the establishment wing of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent that they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swaths of the country….Politico ran a story just this week featuring Democratic officials fretting over the fact that Sanders supporters may upend their efforts to retake governorships in southern states by insisting those candidates adopt Sanders’ populist policies – seemingly oblivious to the fact that Sanders plays well in some of those states too…The establishment wing of the party aggressively ran another opponent against Keith Ellison, Sanders’ choice to run the Democratic National Committee, seemingly with the primary motivation to keep the party away from Sanders’ influence…They’ve steadfastly refused to take giant corporations head on in the public sphere and wouldn’t even return to an Obama-era rule that banned lobbyist money from funding the DNC that was rescinded last year. And despite the broad popularity of the government guaranteeing health care for everyone, they still have not made any push for a Medicare-for-all plan that Sanders has long called for as a rebuttal to Republicans’ attempt to dismantle Obamacare” (emphasis added).

But how “bizarre” is this really? The Democrats’ refusal to take the Sanders path is crazy and stupid only if you think the Democratic Party’s main jobs are to win elections and/or advance social justice and democracy.  But that’s a silly thing to believe. The IOP’s most urgent imperative is to serve corporate and financial power, and that means keeping even milquetoast social democrats like the F35 Fighter Jet champion Sanders at bay. Make no mistake: the leadership of the Democratic Party preferred the “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton defeating Sanders (in some very nasty ways) and then losing to Trump over a scenario in which Sanders would have defeated Hillary and then bested (as all the relevant match-up polls suggested he would have) Trump.

To be sure, the reigning Democrats know that they and the system they represent have an interest in their party retaining some electoral relevance and moving beyond their current pathetic status.  Unwilling to embrace the excessively (for them and their big money backers) left Sanders “revolution,” they think they can unseat the orange-haired beast by tying him to the Kremlin with trumped-up charges based on vague reports from hazy intelligence sources. They dream that dubious anti-Trump intelligence missives and liberal corporate media allies can “fuel…a Russia frenzy…that will,” in Masha Gessen’s words, “create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him.”

But it’s likely that the real Russia card trick will be played not on Trump but on progressives and liberals. The Russia charges are unlikely to dethrone Trumpenstein. As Gessen recently noted in the New York Review of Books, “He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president.”

Even if Democrats were to succeed in unseating Trump with the Russia ploy, they would do so at no small democratic cost. They would set a dangerous new precedent of intelligence community (CIA) interference in domestic U.S. politics. They would double down on the dangerous games of fake news and “alternative facts.”

But the biggest democratic price of Russiagate is already being paid.  The Russia Madness focuses public attention on something Trump isn’t, a Kremlin tool, rather than what he really is: an arch-plutocratic pre-fascist racist and sexist and super-militarist enemy of the poor and working-class majority. As Gessen reflects on what she calls “the Russia conspiracy trap”:

“…the Russia allegations will [probably] not bring down Trump. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables… to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’…in his first speech as attorney general[, Jeff Sessions] promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines….Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban…Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him – both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office” (emphasis added).

Gessen gives Trump too much detrimental credit.  The “destr[uction of] American democratic institutions and principles” is a richly bipartisan ruling class project that has been underway since at least the 1970s. (At the same time, Gessen must know that the Trump White House doesn’t wish to dismantle other right-handed state functions beside the military.  Just for one example among many, it will support the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to monitor, infiltrate, harass, and otherwise repress environmental and social justice activists.)

Still, Masha Gessen’s main point is well-taken.  The Russian conspiracy scheme is a nasty snare for left-leaning politicos.  It won’t take Trump down but it distracts people from the real and more substantive crimes and outrages of the Trump administration.

So, it’s a crazy Democratic strategy, right? Not so fast.  Remember that the issues “Russiagate” pushes to the margins, including racism, classism, ecocide, and the undermining of the public sphere, are all problem areas for the corporate and imperial Democrats too.  The dreary, dollar-drenched Dems have been deeply complicit with the Republicans in creating the rightward neoliberal drift of U.S. policy over the last four-plus decades. It is (never forget) their first and foremost function (in service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire) to keep left forces and sentiments marginalized.  Russiagate makes perfect sense for establishment Democrats on numerous levels, including how it absolves them from guilt for blowing the 2016 elections (because “Russia and Comey did it”) by running a horrible campaign with a terrible, highly unpopular and two-faced neoliberal presidential candidate atop their miserable ticket.

But there’s another and dark question to mull over here. What if the Democrats were to take a “winning” progressive and social-democratic path into the 2018 and 2020 elections? It is at the very least questionable that the Trump-era Republicans would consent to removal through election.  What was the Bannon-TrumPence administration’s preposterous claim to have won the 2016 popular vote (by as many as 5 million tallies!) but an advance impeachment of voter repudiations they might face in coming elections? The steep state-level electoral barriers posed by rampant Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression (legal and illegal) are bad enough.  They will be supplemented if necessary by false charges of voter fraud and the very real prospect of violence (legal and extra-legal).  White nationalist fascists don’t consent to being removed from office by mere voters.  It might seem like a shocking thing to say, but I don’t see the current batch of in-power Republicans accepting election results they don’t like. It’s not how they roll. It’s not what they’re about. They can only be brought down through a major popular uprising beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that have long functioned as a potent method for the marginalization of the citizenry qua electorate.

Russiagate and the Democrats are for liberal and progressive chumps.  So, perhaps, are elections now.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).