How to Properly Criticize RussiaGate

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Reflecting on actor John Lithgow and Hollywood director Rob Reiner’s laughable efforts to “popularize” the Mueller Report on stage and video, a West Coast comrade wrote las week to ask me, “Is anyone still taking this WMD Mueller crap seriously?”

Five Things That Really Happened and One That Might Have Happened

Well, yes, I am, at least to some degree. I am of course aware that Mueller was a key player in selling the WMD ruse to justify the criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq, but I don’t really buy the Iraqi WMD analogy. The WMD thing was transparently made up. It was true warmongering fake news, as in “the Gulf of Tonkin incident.” The Mueller Report and the RussiaGate story are not in the same category as that. Let’s be serious for a moment.

There’s no serious empirical doubt that Donald Trump has been all tangled up in Russia going way back.

There’s no doubt Russia that tried various things (hacking, dumping, social media-campaigning and more) to help Trump win in 2016. (And, contrary to Trump in Helsinki, why wouldn’t it have? Given Hillary Clinton and Trump’s divergent positions on Russia, it would have been Russian-nationalist realpolitik malpractice for Moscow not to have tried. The operation also matched the Kremlin’s project of advancing the neo-fascistic right across the West)

The report is not lying when it says that “the investigation established multiple links between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government.”

There’s no doubt that Trump welcomed Russian assistance. He recently said he’d pretty much do it all over again.

Given the narrowness of Trump’s electoral victory in key contested states (it came down to 77,744 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) in 2016, nobody can say definitively that Russian interference – far less potent than other factors including the neoliberal awfulness of the corporate Democratic Hillary campaign and Republican suppression of the minority vote, to be sure – had no impact at all on the election’s outcome. (My sense is that Russian intervention was a relevant factor within a broader context shaped by much larger factors.)

There’s no serious doubt that Trump obstructed justice. (Read the executive summary of the report’s second volume at least. It’s not controversial or at least it shouldn’t be.)

Pretending those things didn’t happen is just plain stupid.

Seven Ways RussiaGate Still Stinks

That said, the whole big RussiaGate drama and narrative – the dominant U.S. media obsession for two and a half years until its current displacement by the Democratic presidential electoral extravaganza (though Russia-Trump is scheduled for a new boost with Mueller’s forthcoming appearance before Congress) – still stinks for seven basic reasons:

First, there was no great US “democracy” for Russia to “undermine” in the first place. Domestic wealth and power structures, home-grown-oligarchy and plutocracy is what most significantly installed Trump in the White House (even if Hillary was most of the ruling-class’s preferred winner). The United States’ not-so democratic elections are “still unprotected” against the nation’s own capitalist ruling class – and against absurdly anti-democratic partisan gerrymandering (held up as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last week) and racist voter suppression).

Second, other nations like Israel and Saudi Arabia have far more say in US politics and policy than Russia, to say the least.

Third, Superpower Uncle Sam (with more than 800 military bases spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations) continues to regularly intervene in and otherwise impact the internal affairs of other nations (Russian included) all over the world, with more and more terrible impact than any nation ever.

Fourth, RussiaGate has been a great diversion and “the bear ate our homework” excuse for the awfulness of the dismal, dollar-drenched Dems, the Inauthentic Opposition party. It has helped (as certainly intended) the corporate and imperial establishment atop that party continue to marginalize progressive forces both within and beyond the party – forces who properly note that the Democrats lost the election because of their corporate-neoliberal politics and policies. It has helped the Dem-neoliberal establishment avoid blame for demobilizing the nation’s progressive and social-democratic majority and putting a creeping fascist in the White House.

Fifth, RussiaGate has also helped (also as certainly intended) fuel the continuation of the dangerous New Cold War.

Sixth, RussiaGate has been used to confer fake-democratic and fake-progressive legitimacy on the repressive and imperial National Security State and its vast intelligence apparatus.

Seventh, RussiaGate has distracted and diverted the nation away not only from the dreadfulness of the neoliberal Democrats but also from Trump’s most horrific crimes. The orange-tinted beast has done far worse things than welcome help (of whatever significance) from Russia and obstruct the investigation of his creepy relationship with that nation: sadistic family separations at the border; concentration camps for migrant children and families; pushing to the brink of war on Iran; Eco-cidal energy deregulation to speed the planet’s transition into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber (the worst sin of all); burying federal scientific findings on the coming climate collapse; assaulting and degrading women; demonizing immigrants; shutting down the asylum process for Central Americans and Mexicans; declaring fake emergencies in order to do fiscal end-runs around Congress to fund a widely hated Nativist Wall and to sell arms to help Saudi Arabia murder more Yemeni civilians; trying to kick millions off of heath insurance; denying Congress’s power to investigate and oversee the executive branch; suggesting that he won’t accept the results of the 2020 election and that he should get more than two terms in the White House; whitewashing Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists; catering to the fascist National Rifle Association and its mass-shooting terror campaign; and…the list goes on and on.

“Handing Trump a Political Gift”

I thought Alan Nairn put it very well in his comments on Democracy Now! last May 23rd:

“If you turn on CNN and MSNBC these days, unless you’re someone who has been following these channels avidly, you’ll find a lot of what they’re talking about is incomprehensible gobbledygook, because they go on and on about Don McGhan and all these [other RussiaGate] figures who most people don’t know who they are, rather than talking about the substantive issues of the atrocities that Trump is committing daily – the abduction and de facto murder of children on the border, the gutting of labor rights, the gutting of environmental protections. And instead, the Democrats are going off on a tangent, and they’re handing Trump a political gift. If you’re going to impeach him, impeach him on substance, not a Russia plot, which Mueller already concluded Trump didn’t criminally participate in… [Go after Trump] on substance. Do it based on his refusal to turn over documents about the crimes he’s committing along the Mexican border, about the way he’s driving the world to possible extinction through his stance on global warming, about his lifting of restrictions on the killing of civilians with the U.S. bombing and droning operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Do it on real issues, not a premise that has already been undercut by the Mueller investigation.”

The Doomed Effort to Sex-Up RussiaGate

“I don’t get it,” another left correspondent wrote me last week: “what are Lithgow and Reiner trying to achieve”?

What’s the mystery? It’s very clear what the actor and the director hope to accomplish. Nobody outside a small cadre of liberal conspiracy geeks has the time, energy, and inclination to follow Oxford political science Ph.D. Rachel Maddow et al. on the inside baseball of RussiaGate. Everyday U.S. workers and citizens have other and bigger priorities than hunkering down to connect all the dots between Trump, Vladimir Putin, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Don McGhan, Michael Flynn, James Comey, Rick Gates. George Papadopolous, “Azra Turk,” Joseph Mifsud, Sergei Millian, Arkady Dvrkovich, Oleg Deripaska, Konstantin Sidorkkov, Anatoli Samochornov, Rinat Akhmetshin, Irakly Kaveladze, Michael Caputo, Henry Greenberg/Henry Oknyansky, Rick Clay, Rick Dearborn, Robert Foresman, Anton Kobyakov, the Roscongress Foundation, Mark Burnett, Olga Polonskaya, Andri Artemenko, Rhona Graff, Felix Sater, Andrei Vladimirovich Rozov, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, Dmitry Chizhikov, Lana Erchova, Dmitry Klokov, Evgeny Shmykov, Mira Duma, Sergei Prikhodko, Dmitry Peskov, Andrey Ryabinskiy, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Sergie Kislyak, Guccifer, J.D. Gordon, Rob Goldstone, the Steele Dossier, the Internet Research Agency, John Podesta, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the DNC, Donald Trump, Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, Emin Agalarov, Aras Agalarov, Trump Tower Moscow, Miss Universe, Deutsche Bank, Hope Hicks, Stormy Daniels, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Marina Butina, Konstanin Nikoaev, Alexsandr Torshin, Paul Erickson, and the NRA. Hello?

The pompous eccentric Lithgow and the draining meat-head Reiner want to Make RussiaGate Great Again (or Great for the First Time Ever): compelling, fun, and easy to follow. Good luck with that! Beyond a maddening roster of hard-to- pronounce-and-remember names, RussiaGate’s celebrity promoters suffer from a shortage of sexy hooks. They don’t have anything quite like those nefarious central-casting Watergate burglars, John Dean’s revelation of secret White House tapes, or Monica’s presidentially stained dress. If Reiner can’t produce verifiable YouTube videos of Trump and Putin making love while dining on Chechnyan children, he can fugghetabout it.

Masha Gessen Called It

The Great Russian diversion and the fact that it could well be what Nairn calls “a great political gift” to Trump was foretold by the sharp Russian dissident (no friend of Trump or Putin!) Masha Gessen early on. As she wrote in a March 2017 New York Review of Books essay titled “The Russia Conspiracy Trap”:

“The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome…. More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. 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. 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—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he 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.”

Gessen has been born out. Two-plus years later, even House Democrats have “conclude[d] that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president” — this after attaining an impeachment-capable majority in the lower body of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Despite her unimpeachable anti-Putin and anti-Trump credentials, Gessen’s warning was not heeded. Running with the Russia-Trump collusion story was just too ideologically, politically, and imperially irresistible to the Democratic Party establishment and its media allies.

Facebook Fiends

This, it strikes me, is the proper left critique of the 2016-2019 Russia Madness led by the Democrats and their many media allies. Why do so many U.S. online lefties I know continue to say that there’s nothing at all to the RussiaGate story? I suspect it has a lot to do with the medium where I encounter these screwball denials: Facebook. The story of Russian interference in U.S.-American political life has been way oversold for reasons explained above but such interference is a sadly real and ongoing phenomenon on the left and right margins of Facebook and other so-called “social media.” Again and again I have encountered online “friends” spouting what often seem very much like Kremlin talking points and Russian nationalist propaganda – Truther nonsense about Seth Rich (the DNC staffer Hillary supposedly ordered killed for allegedly releasing emails to WikiLeaks) and how Trump (currently calling for a top-line 2020 war budget of $750 billion so the U.S. can “remain the preeminent military power in the world” and in order to “ensure balances of power in key regions that remain in America’s favor”) is a peacenik doing anti-war battle with deep state imperialism and identity politics (notwithstanding the fact that Trump is an epitome of identity politics – fascist-style white nationalist identity politics). I hate to say it, but in the online preserves of radical discourse where I have spent too much time in the last few years, Putin, Alex Jones, and FOX News have been whispering in a lot of weak-minded comrades’ ears. Listen and watch for some of these clowns to come out of your “social media” woodwork as the media builds up to Robert Mueller’s July 17th Congressional testimony.

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