In a recent interview, journalist Luke Harding failed to substantiate the central thesis – indeed, the title – of his bestselling book, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. That Putin “helped Trump win” is prima facie plausible, but what is the empirical evidence? Aaron Maté subjected Harding’s lurid argument – that the Kremlin began cultivating Trump decades ago in order to “hack” an election – to incisive scrutiny. The result, as Harding’s reddening cheeks revealed, was embarrassing.
It would be unfair to single Harding out for asserting without much evidence that Russia catapulted a Putin stooge into the White House. Maté is, in fact, an outlier for maintaining a healthy skepticism about this story (a “collusion rejectionist,” in Harding’s phrase). Indeed, the specter of collusion has been so consuming a journalistic obsession it has distracted from the GOP’s assaults on the environment, the working poor, and global peace.
The Democratic Party too has become captivated by the fantasy that collusion will someday be not only proven but somehow sufficient to oust the President from the Oval Office. It is not obvious how this Russian cloud – increasingly black, but persistently insubstantial – might produce enough rain to wash the Trump era away, nor whether President Pence is a ray of sunshine worth hoping for. Journalists, Democrats, and concerned Americans would be prudent to reconsider not only the evidence, but the politics of such wishful thinking.
Try, if you can, to enter into the perspective of an ordinary Michigander who voted for Trump, but is persuadable that he should not do so again. Voters of this sort are relatively rare – but decisive. Joe Michigan likely worries deeply about ballooning health care costs and stagnant wages, but very little about Vladimir Putin. Joe is understandably unlikely to be convinced that foreign agents clandestinely caused him to vote for Trump. Nevertheless, suppose he is open to the collusion narrative, and that a latent patriotism gives him pause when he ponders it. Though sporadically attentive to politics, he can plainly sense that the Democrats and media hold Trump in palpable disdain, that they are confidently issuing disturbing accusations against the President, and that they expect this story will finally – and gloriously – bring down our Twitter Tyrant.
Now consider this: What if Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation concludes that Trump was not directly implicated in misconduct? What if Mueller announces that collusion never occurred? What will Joe from Michigan – and millions like him – think then?
If that is how things play out, Trump will not only appear vindicated, but victorious over partisan opponents and “Fake News.” It will inflate his brand as a populist strongman defying liberal elites who do not respect the will of Red America. Many will view him as a fearless leader weathering a tempest conjured by “globalist” forces to sink him and his movement.
He will seem what he desperately wishes to be: a winner. His ego and reelection chances will swell. Blindsided Democrats will be left directionless. The news industry’s credibility will collapse, perhaps irreversibly. And should Trump commit impeachable offenses later, it will be profoundly challenging to persuade conservatives and moderates that this time the case against him is real.
It is not merely strategically ill-advised – it is politically harrowing – for Democrats to put all their eggs in one Russian basket. Fortunately, there are many better baskets to choose from.
Donald Trump is deeply unpopular. Congressional Republicans are even more widely loathed. On important issues – taxation, entitlements, the minimum wage, climate change – progressive policies are vastly more popular than conservative ones. The GOP is utterly dominant at all levels of politics, but in many ways it is weak. If the Democratic Party is remotely competent, it should be able to take power easily in this environment. But competence requires keeping it together under pressure.
In 2016, the Democrats lost to the guy from The Apprentice. To the extent that the collusion narrative displaces blame for that embarrassment to a foreign adversary, it also inhibits the left’s ability to correct past mistakes and seize present opportunities. Fortunately, the resistance need not make its political fortunes dependent on the findings of an unpredictable investigation, nor on the claims of hyperventilating reporters.
We must wait to see what Mueller’s team comes up with. In the meantime, Democrats should present a bold, progressive vision to the American people that addresses the working class’s material concerns and offers an optimistic alternative to the GOP’s dark politics.