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The Double Russia Conspiracy Trap

Photo by Book Catalog | CC BY 2.0

The RussiaGate conspiracy drama is a double-edged damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t trap for people on the portside. The perils of signing on to the storyline are clear as day to any self-respecting Leftist. Five come to mind off the top of my head:

1. Neo-McCarthyite distraction from numerous terrible things that the racist, nativist, sexist, white-nationalist, and eco-cidal, planet-cooking Trump administration and the Republican Party are doing with scant serious opposition from the dismal dollar Democrats. The media and the Democrats have the political culture mired in the Russia-Trump conspiracy while the in-power right-wing has worked all-too behind the scenes to: slash taxes for the already absurdly wealthy Few; reduce poor people’s access to health care; hand the federal bench over to religious and free-market fundamentalists; attack women’s reproductive and other rights; deport and harass immigrants; attack minority voting rights; criminalize protest and dissent; rollback labor and collective bargaining rights; rollback civil rights; increase the insanely gigantic Pentagon budget; make desperately poor people perform underpaid work in order to receive health insurance and public housing assistance; shred environmental protections; weaken financial regulations; decrease workplace safety; murder thousands of innocents across the Middle East; deepen Washington’s alliance with murderous regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel; speed-up the fossil-fueled Greenhouse Gassing-to-Death of Life on Earth (a problem that receives astonishingly slight attention from the Russia-mad media).

2. Letting the Inauthentic Opposition Party – the Democrats – off the hook for the demobilizing nothingness of their Wall Street-captive neoliberal politics by blaming their minority status on an external power (Russia) whose impact on U.S. elections is tiny compared to the influence exercised by the United States’ own corporate and financial oligarchs.

3. Aligning oneself with the false notion that the United States possessed a functioning “democracy” for Russia to interfere with in the first place in 2016. US.-Americans enjoyed no such thing: they were living in a clear and richly bipartisan corporate and financial oligarchy, subject to an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman) long before Russian intelligence operatives first allegedly hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computers in late 2015.

4. Deadly and ironic alignment with a National Security State (including the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA) that has long worked to destroy the Left and crush democracy and social justice at home and abroad

5. Deadly and ironic alignment with the U.S.-led New Cold War against Russia – a reckless, expensive, and provocative imperial policy that no peace-loving progressive should remotely support.

That’s the damned-if-you-do part of the trap. It’s no small matter. Warnings about some of this (especially what I mentioned under the first point above) came early in a March 2017 New York Review of Books essay penned by Masha Gessen under the title “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap.” Gessen worried with good reason that the Russia obsession was a deadly diversion from issues that ought to matter more to those claiming to oppose Trump in the name of democracy and the common good: racism, voter suppression (which may well have elected Trump, by the way), health care, plutocracy, police- and prison-state-ism, immigrant rights, economic exploitation and inequality, sexism and environmental ruination—you know, stuff like that.

The fact that this advice warning came from Gessen was important.  As a longtime anti-Putin Russian dissident, she could not credibly be accused of undue (or any) allegiance to the Kremlin.

The other side – the damned-if-you-don’t side – of the Russia conspiracy trap is trickier.  The danger here is that leftists will end up looking stupid – head-in-the-sand stupid – when they take their understanding of points 1 through 5 to mean that they should reflexively dismiss the entire RussiaGate narrative.  That, too, is a mistake. Grasping the five dark downsides mentioned above does not mean that one has to automatically pretend to know that there is nothing whatsoever to claims that the Kremlin got involved in the 2016 election cycle on behalf of Trump– a candidate who, after all, had a long and strange relationship with Russia, and who promised to stand down from the reckless NATO-expansionist New Cold War that the “lying neoliberal warmonger” and arch-imperial “queen of chaos” Hillary Clinton had long championed.

Are we really supposed to pretend, as good leftists, that Trump’s campaign didn’t contain highly placed and significantly Russia-compromised players (e.g., Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn)? That the Trump campaign didn’t exhibit a creepy willingness to accept whatever dirt Russia may have possessed on Hillary Clinton?  That Trump hasn’t behaved in odd ways for a U.S. president regarding Putin and Russia? That we know for a fact that Russia doesn’t have anything on Trump? That U.S. and Western NATO-expansionist imperialism, Hillary’s aggressive imperialism, and Washington’s long history of intervening in other nation’s internal affairs all over the world – Russia included – didn’t give Putin practical realpolitik motives for at least trying to have some say in the 2016 US election? Seriously?

I’ve been consistently suspicious and critical of the “Russia conspiracy trap” since well before Gessen’s essay came.  At the same time, I am an historian and a journalist who always wants to know what happened, and who has, I hope, the decency not to close my mind in advance of the facts.  “The truth,” a Russian named Lenin is supposed to have said, “is always revolutionary.” It never serves the people’s cause for a Left commentator to get ahead of one’s empirical skis – or to pretend to know stuff one doesn’t know.

Do I think Bashar al-Assad chemical bombed civilians in Douma? I have my doubts, but I don’t pretend to possess a definitive understanding of what happened. How could I have such God-like comprehension given the empirical difficulties involved?

It’s not about giving the vicious neoliberal Democrats or the National Security State or U.S. imperialism or the underlying U.S.-American system of class rule, racial oppression, patriarchy, and ecocide a free pass.  Nothing Robert Mueller (a one purveyor of the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction scam) or anyone else could find (or claim to find) on Russia (or on the Syrian regime or Raul Castro or Frederick Engels) is going to make me stop being an anti-capitalist and anti-racist and anti-sexist eco-socialist who writes, speaks, and marches against the many-sided and (I repeat) richly bipartisan crimes of the American Empire.

But, comrades, do your due diligence and cover your ass. You don’t want to look like a doctrinally dug-in fool and a silly Russian tool when the full investigatory shit (with all its flaws and biases and all the self-interested and noxious “deep state” agendas of those promoting the Russia story understood) hits the fan. (And, yes, that due diligence includes considering the institutional position and ideological biases of those conducting official investigations like Mueller’s.) Don’t fall into either of the two Russia conspiracy traps. Chew gum and walk at the same time. Don’t pretend you know stuff you don’t know. Play it cool and maintain your credibility as you fight to fix and keep U.S.-Americans’ eyes on the real prize, which is the fight to build a great people’s movement for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called  near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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