Anthony DiMaggio is a political scientist at Lehigh University specializing in political communication. He is the author of Selling War, Selling Hope (SUNY Press, 2015) and The Politics of Persuasion (SUNY Press, 2017)
In this interview, Professor DiMaggio discusses how the left can engage in more thoughtful analyses, debate, and legitimate criticism in regards to President Trump and his dealings with Russia. DiMaggio’s insight and commentary help to contextualize Trump’s actions within the realm of progressive politics, while avoiding the common pitfalls of the establishment Democrats and the corporate media in their efforts to focus on Trump at the expense of tackling neoliberalism and harmful bipartisan foreign policy.
Daniel Falcone: Could you share with me your take on the latest news headlines regarding Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, etc.? Are there any parallels to Watergate?
Anthony DiMaggio: Manafort’s conviction is significant, but I don’t see a strong parallel to Watergate at all. His convictions covered various instances of fraud, related to taxes and domestic and foreign banking disclosures. The Manafort trial didn’t directly touch on any alleged connections between Manafort, Trump, and Russia. If Manafort had monetary connections to Russia that were related to an attempted collusion with Russia regarding the 2016 election, certainly none of that was discussed directly in this trial.
In contrast, Watergate was about a conspiracy that involved “the plumbers” or the burglars that broke into the Watergate to spy on the DNC, a conspiracy that went all the way to the top of government. That has been thoroughly documented at this point, with the smoking gun being Nixon himself talking to his aides and administration members about “hush money” to be paid to the burglars.
Daniel Falcone: What are your thoughts on how the left treats the topic of Trump in these regards? Some on the left seem to think it’s usually a waste of time to investigate such political matters since underlying issues and bigger crimes take precedent with US presidents historically. Have you noticed this trend? Certain aspects of Trump’s history being casually dismissed look very serious.
Anthony DiMaggio: I think the “all presidents commit crimes and far bigger ones than this” trope is silly and parochial. I’ve heard many alleged leftists make it. The truth is that there is no prospect of presidents who engage in supreme crimes, such as unlawful use of force, illegal drone strikes, torture, etc. being prosecuted for those crimes. Tragically, both political parties agree that the “imperial presidency” should have these kinds of powers, so there is no accountability and no hopes of impeachment or imprisonment based on these transgressions.
There’s a saying, “kill one you’re a murderer, kill a thousand and it is called foreign policy.” In reality, I’m for [indicting] criminals, and if it takes going after them for lesser crimes, then so be it. Tax fraud, violations of election law, whatever it may be, no one should be above the law, and at least they are being punished for something. And as for the Trump administration, as related to tax fraud and what is essentially embezzling election campaign funds for payoffs, — these aren’t exactly insignificant issues. They are serious felony charges and convictions with real prison time. They speak to a Trump administration that has consistently demonstrated that it has financially corrupt people (with five now, under Trump, convicted of felonies for various financial improprieties).
In my view, the biggest financial transgression is probably the emoluments case going through the courts right now, which says that Trump’s business investments in hotels and the money he takes from foreign leaders is unconstitutional and just one example of financial shenanigans from this administration. That’s not even counting the many stories on Trump’s history of money laundering via real estate investments and his likely mafia ties.
Those who try to claim this is a “witch hunt” haven’t been paying much attention to the shady financial history of this president. His lists of dealings are quite extensive. I don’t know whether the Russia inquiry will find evidence of direct collusion between Trump and Russian agents (certainly it exists for his son, who tried to get “dirt” on HRC through a Russian proxy). But I have little doubt he has many countless and questionable financial connections with Russian mafia, government officials, proxies, and other oligarchs, which would explain why he’s essentially hell bent on shutting down this inquiry.
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to do anything but speculate on the full extent of his financial corruption, until this Russia inquiry, and a forensic IRS/Congressional inquiry, actually look into all his finances to see who he is financially linked to. Such an investigation is imperative because of his extraordinary deceit in hiding these things, which is unprecedented in modern history of the presidency. He withheld his tax returns precisely so no one would look into and discover these things. That seems evident at this point.
Daniel Falcone: What accounts for the lack of nuance? How can one have radical politics and at the same time resist Trump like a “predictable liberal?”
Anthony DiMaggio: There are several reasons why you have people on the left who shill for the right. Some of them may be convinced that dictators like Assad, and authoritarian types like Putin are anti-imperialist. Which is true, only in the case of resisting U.S. imperialism, otherwise, they are problematic leaders who are less than nice to their own people in terms of dealing with dissent. This penchant for apologizing for global authoritarian figures is nothing new. If you talk to Noam Chomsky about it, he’ll likely tell you about how he’s been dealing with that since the Cold War — with all those on the authoritarian American left who blindly defended the Soviets.
Also, the U.S. mass media has fueled the whole “Trump supporters are downtrodden white working class victims” narrative, which I have countered with extensive empirical evidence. This false narrative came directly from Trump himself and the Republican Party’s propaganda, which has long sought to portray the party as fighting for the underdog. That people on the left have fallen into this silliness is not surprising considering how prominent this narrative is in the corporate press, and even among some “leftist” sources.
There’s also a modern movement to link the far left and right, via a “red brown” alliance. It’s being led by media like RT, various pro-Russia political operatives and ideologues, drawing inspiration from their patron saint, Aleksander Dugin, who is more or less a fascist. This has been discussed to some extent on the left, with a number of people warning against such an effort. There are various figures on the American right who think they can normalize their bigotry and prejudices by allying with the anti-racist left. Those who unfortunately fall into this trap are in part fueling the pro-Russia, pro-Trump brown-red alliance trope. There are some good sourceson the condemnationsof the Trump apologeticsand attacks on the brown-red alliance.
On the issue of people attacking the Trump protesters for being liberal, yes there are liberals who participate in the movement. And there are many strongly progressive leftists as well. If you look closely at the national survey data on who attends these protests, which I do in a forthcoming book (next year), it’s clear that most of the protesters are far left in their political orientation. It’s a large movement with many participants of different kinds, ranging from radical left to moderate to centrist liberals.
I don’t find it productive to simply dismiss protests because some of the people involved are liberal, but then again the US is notorious for its long intellectual decline over the decades, so even many self-designated leftists don’t have much perspective or insight these days. It would be much more effective if people were more nuanced and productive in their criticisms. Something like:
“Protesting Trump and creeping fascism is important, but we have to be careful of not falling into the liberal trap of simply protesting Trump, and returning a bankrupt Democratic neoliberal party to power. Our agenda has to be positive and pro-active, not just reactive in terms of simply opposing Trump. We need to build a progressive vision.”
But I don’t hear much nuance like that on the left overall, which seems happy to deal in simplistic rhetoric and in unnecessary binaries.