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A Left Critique of Russiagate

Donald J. Trump’s election to the presidency in November of 2016 is undoubtedly a disaster on multiple fronts for anyone who craves progressive social change.  Thus, anything that can pose a potential legal challenge to his legitimacy and hasten his downfall may be seen as meriting support.  The list of Trump’s reactionary and frightening positions is legendary.  Briefly, they include: Trump’s virulent misogyny, racism, false equivalency of anti-fascist protesters with neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, and other fascist organizations, uninterrupted mendacity, attacks on Medicare and social security, the absurd suggestion to arm teachers and bring more guns in schools, threats of nuclear war, serious conflicts of interests, and massive tax cuts for the superrich.

As Democrats seek to shift blame away from the discontent with our economic system, their party and their chosen neo-liberal candidate, we are told that Trump came to power almost solely due to Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 election.  Yet, many are not convinced.  As Julian Assange of Wikileaks and Brian Murray cast doubt over the veracity of Russia’s involvement in hacking Clinton’s emails, [1] an investigative reporter, Masha Gessen, pondered that even if Russia spent up to $15 million on the U.S. election, how could this figure or Russia’s clumsy Facebook ads be able to sway a presidential election in which “one side spent a billion dollars”. [2]

Thus, there are several reasons that I (and others) would suggest that focusing on Russia’s interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election is misplaced.  Instead, we should concentrate on the underlying causes of the rise of a lying demagogue using fascistic forms of appeal, past and present U.S. imperialism, and the danger of breathing new life into a modified form of McCarthyism.

 

Prime causes

Central to Trump’s rise is the growing acknowledgement that something is profoundly wrong with the U.S. political system.  This reflects what sociologists refer to as legal cynicism, or a complete lack of faith in the legitimacy of a country’s political, social and economic institutions.  Since the U.S. claims to be a bastion of democracy, a divergence between real political action and popular will poses a fundamental problem to U.S. political identity.  A country that claims to be democratic should have little divergence between popular opinion and public policy.

Thus, if there is truth to the claim that the U.S. political system is democratic, then there should not exist a large gap between the policies pursued by the United States and the policies that the population supports, as reflected in polls that use random and representative sampling strategies.  Nevertheless, a considerable gap exists. [3] Here, Chomsky identifies a gap between the public will and U.S. policy in regards to the minimum wage, health policy, and corporate taxes. For example, according to a 2016 telephone Gallop poll of 1,549 adults, 58% of the population supported replacing the Affordable Care Act with a ‘federally funded healthcare program providing insurance for all Americans”. [4] This suggests that the persistence of our highly commodified healthcare system is largely undemocratic.

Further trouble arises when reviewing results from polls regarding the U.S. public’s view of corporate lobbying.  A 2015 CBS News poll published in The New York Times stated that 84% of those polled thought that money has too much influence in political campaigns in the U.S. and that 85% of those polled thought either that the financing of political campaigns requires fundamental changes (39%) or needs a complete overhaul (45%). [5]

Some may raise skepticism on the gap, pointing to instances in which public opinion and policy appear to converge.  For example, a 2008 Pew Research Center poll tracked views on the second U.S. invasion of Iraq from 2003 to 2008 found that a full 72% supported the initial invasion. [6] While this support fell to 38% by 2008, defenders of the idea that U.S. policy reflects the will of the public may point to the former statistic in support of their argument.  The problem with this argument, of course, is that the public is continually manipulated and fed disinformation to manufacture consent for U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

The U.S. media provided relentless support for the second Iraq invasion.  The U.S. corporate media was careful to obtain its information directly from the Pentagon, emphasizing that they had the best picture of events, because they were “embedded” with the troops.  Views that were too critical of the war were seen as “unpatriotic” and were systematically sidelined or silenced. [7] Thus, there was a notable lack of coverage of civilians whose homes were destroyed by U.S. bombings, or whose family members were kidnapped in the middle of the night in raids.  One salient example of the silencing of antiwar voices was when Phil Donahue was removed from MSNBC for hosting antiwar guests and expressing antiwar views. [7] Hence, it is doubtful that many Americans were informed about the nature of this war, which can be characterized as a crime of aggression according to the principles of the Nuremburg Tribunal. [8]

The dishonesty regarding this invasion was salient for those paying attention to the shifting claims and to the notable omission of critical facts.  There was little or no discussion in the media of Saddam’s rise to power, the assassination of Abd al-Kareem Qasim, the torture in Abu Ghraib, or the immense human toll of U.S. sanctions and invasions.  Furthermore, once the false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction had been exposed, the rationale for the invasion shifted to ‘bringing democracy to Iraq’. [8] Another tool used by US war promoters was to highlight Saddam’s history of cruelty but omitting that the majority of these atrocities were committed with U.S. direct or tacit support. [8]

A recent study in American Sociological Review highlights how voters may support and view a lying demagogue as authentic in spite of being perfectly aware that the candidate is telling blatant lies.  Individuals may see the lie as a form of symbolic protest, particularly when there is a crisis of legitimacy [9].  This is particularly relevant in light of the growing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income inequality has risen steadily from a GINI coefficient of .397 in 1967 to .481 in 2016. [10]  (A GINI coefficient of 0 reflects a situation were all income is evenly distributed and a GINI coefficient of 1 a situation where a single individual has all the income and no one else has any).  According to the conservative Hudson institute, U.S. wealth inequality increased from an astronomical GINI coefficient of .787 in 1988 to an even more extreme value of .838 in 2012. [11] We are a country of divided fortunes.

Other causes for legal cynicism include the U.S.’s astronomical incarceration rate, a product of harsh sentencing legislation and a criminal justice system that systematically targets young African American and Latino men.  This system inflicts enormous harm on their lives and communities.  The U.S. criminal justice system is characterized by unequal laws, police forfeitures, racial profiling and a terrifying agglomeration of harsh sentencing laws, plea bargain arrangements and stigma that ultimately disenfranchise voters with interests directly antagonistic to the capitalist class. [12] The 1994 ALEC written crime bill signed into law by Bill Clinton is not irrelevant here.  Certainly, no one can hold the Russians culpable for the rise in U.S. levels of inequality, the growth of our prison industrial complex, the falling credibility of corporate media or the disparity between U.S. public opinion and U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

 

In light of past and present U.S. imperialism

The hypocrisy of focusing on foreign interference in the U.S. election in light of the history of U.S. intervention is nothing short of astonishing.  While it is beyond the scope of this article to review in detail the historical record of the U.S. empire, one can be well advised to read the works of William Blum, Michael Parenti or Noam Chomsky in this regard.  William Blum documented over 70 C.I.A. and/or U.S. military interventions between 1945 and 1999 alone. [13] [14] More recently, there is the U.S. involvement in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria, threats of nuclear war against North Korea, and the military campaigns of its client states, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The brutality and human costs of these interventions are well documented.  Prominent among the underlying reasons for these interventions are to make the world safe for capital accumulation by ridding the world of alternatives to capitalism and/or by trying to promote their failure, ensuring the obedience of client regimes, securing access to natural resources and cheap labor, asserting U.S. geopolitical supremacy and feeding the insatiable appetites of defense contractors in the military-industrial complex.

U.S. interference in the political systems of other nations also flows from ‘non-governmental’ organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which provides millions of dollars in grant money to programs that encourage “the establishment and growth of democratic development in a manner consistent both with the broad concerns of United States national interests” and support the growth of capitalism by promoting “participation of the private sector in democratic political and policy processes”. [15]  According to the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, between 2015 and 2016 the NED received $333,185,523.00. [16] Opposition groups in Venezuela receive considerable funding [17] and between 2015 and 2016, organizations attempting to “advance political pluralism” and “strengthen democratic rights” in Cuba received $13,613,242.00 [16].

 

A New McCarthyism

A final reason for the Left to not be pulled into the strategy of focusing on Russia’s alleged involvement in the U.S. presidential election is the specter of decades of McCarthyist policies used to silence dissent.  The obsession with silencing socialists and communists by alleging that they were collaborating with foreign powers (i.e., the then USSR) remains an ugly stain on U.S. history. A look at the history of the Palmer Raids, the Espionage Act, the Smith Act and the House Committee on Un-American Activities should be enough to remind people of the cost of such a path.

While not to the degree of repression characteristic of McCarthyism, many on the left have been in some fashion accused of being manipulated by the Russians.  Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock and leftwing politician Mexican Andrés Manuel López Obrador leader of MORENA have all been accused of being helped by the Russians [18].  Seeing the Russians (yet again) as lying behind U.S. political dissent does a disservice to the democratic ideal. [19]

In summary, the U.S. political and economic systems are in a period of intense crisis.  Underlying causes of Trump’s election have more to do with the U.S. legitimacy crisis stemming from capitalism’s boom, bust and crisis tendencies, growing inequality, prison and military industrial complexes, commodified healthcare system, stagnant real wages, and the tremendous divide between the interests of the public and policy than with Russian Facebook ads.  Finally, it is beyond the pale to focus on Russian ‘meddling’ in U.S. elections when intervening in the social, political and economic realities of the rest of the globe remains a staple of U.S. foreign policy.

Isaac Christiansen is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX.

NOTES.

[1] Whitney, Mike. 2017. “The Russian Hacking Story Continues to Unravel.” Counterpunch. Retrieved March 16, 2018.

[2] Democracy Now. 2018. “Masha Geesen: Did a Russian Troll Farm’s Inflammatory Posts Really Sway the 2016 Election for Trump?Democracy Now. Retrieved March 16, 2018.

[3] Chomsky, Noam. 2013. “The U.S. Behaves Nothing Like a Democracy, but You’ll Never Hear About It in Our ‘Free Press’.” Alternet. Retrieved March 14, 2018.

[4] Newport, Frank. 2016. “Majority in U.S. Support Idea of Fed Funded Healthcare System.” Gallup News. Retrieved March 14, 2018.

[5] The New York Times/CBS News Poll. 2015. “America’s Views on Money in Politics.” Retrieved March 15, 2018.

[6] Pew Research Center. 2017. “Public Attitudes Towards the War in Iraq.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved March 15, 2018.

[7] Solomon, Norman. (Writer), Alper, L., & Earp, J. (Directors). (2007). War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death [Documentary]

[8] Chomsky, Noam. 2006. Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. New York: Metropolitan Books.

[9] Hahl, Oliver, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan. 2018. “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagougue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy.” American Sociological Review 83(1):1-33.

[10] Semega, Jessica L., Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar. 2017. “Income and Poverty in the United States.” US Census Bureau. Retrieved March 15, 2018. Table A2.

[11] Weicher, John. 2016. “The Distribution of Wealth in America, 1983-2013.” Hudson Institute, Washington D.C.

[12] Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

[13] Blum, William. 1999. “A Brief History of U.S. Interventions: 1945 to Present.” Third World Traveler. 1999. Retrieved March 16, 2018.

[14] Blum, William. 2004. Killing Hope:U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II. Monroe, MA: Common Courage Press.

[15] National Endowment for Democracy. n.d. “Statement of Principles and Objectives.” National Endowment for Democracy. Retrieved March 16, 2018.

[16] Office of Inspector General. 2018. “Audit for the National Endowment of Democracy and Its Core Institutes’ Use of Grant Funds During FYs 2015 and 2016.” Financial Management Division, Office of Inspector General; U.S. Department of State; Broadcasting Board of Governors.

[17] Golinger, Eva. 2014. “The Dirty Hand for the National Endowment of Democracy in Venezuela.” CounterPunch.

[18] Marcetic, Branko. 2018. “Russiagate Targets the Left.Jacobin. Retrieved March 17, 2018.

[19] Carden, James. 2017. “Russiagate is Devolving Into an Effort to Stigmatize Dissent.” The Nation. Retrieved March 17, 2018.

 

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