A Game of Russian Roulette

Couching opposition to Trump in anti-Russia language will only end up benefiting the Right.

A Russian telecom company's switchboard, which included a direct line to Vladimir Putin, in 2007. Dmitry Komarovsky / Flickr

With many still puzzling over how Donald Trump could have won the election — and grasping at ways to resist his agenda — the claim that the president is an agent of Russian influence has grown popular in liberal circles.

Some blame Trump’s victory on Russian interference. Others question who Trump really takes orders from, implying that it is Russian president Vladimir Putin, not Trump, who will be calling the shots in the White House. Still others decry Trump’s praise for Putin, going so far as to label it “treasonous.”

While Trump is the target of most of these accusations, many of the most vociferous hunters of Russian influence are now casting their nets much wider, ensnaring elements of the Left. Writing at the Daily Beast earlier this month, Casey Michel informed readers that the Kremlin plot to elect Trump included not just the “alt-right,” but “Bernie bros, Greens, and anti-imperialists.” For good measure, he reminded us that the now-defunct Soviet Union once funded the Communist Party, USA.

Over the weekend USA Today devolved into outright red-baiting, published a column excoriating organizers of the Women’s March for their inclusion of black liberation activist Angela Davis — “a proud tool . . . of Putin’s former employer, the Soviet Union.”

The convergence of anti-Russia rhetoric and Cold War style red-baiting has trickled down to some grassroots activists as well. Last week in Washington, DC, as an act of street theater, a number of anti-Trump protesters, wearing Soviet flags as if they were capes, carried signs labeling the new president the “KGB employee of the month.” At protests across the country, signs decrying Trump’s ties to Russia at times veered not just into homophobia, but red-baiting tropes (references to “Comrade Trump,” signs adorned with hammers and sickles).

As Trump pushes through a nightmarish whirlwind of executive orders, the urge to undermine his presidency is more than understandable — it’s absolutely essential. But organizing against Trump in an anti-Russia idiom ignores the xenophobic right-winger’s most serious problems — and it makes it easier for the state to crack down on left dissent and ideas.

Delegitimizing Dissent

Accusations of Russian meddling may seem like a throwback to the days of McCarthyism. But although the red-baiting may be, such charges are also the culmination of a much more recent trend of repression, one that has gone largely unnoted.

In 2014, then–NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen leveled the charge that opposition to fracking was part of a disinformation campaign funded by Russia. Hillary Clinton, in her secret speeches to Goldman Sachs, similarly asserted that Russia was fostering anti-fracking sentiment by funding “phony environmental groups.”

The claim then found its way into the heavily publicized Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) report on Russian interference in the presidential election. In a two-page annex on RT, the Kremlin-funded English language news channel, the ODNI noted that RT reported on the environmental and health impacts of fracking, attributing the coverage to Putin’s desire to defend Russian oil interests.

Given that the FBI has repeatedly spied on environmental groups, from Greenpeace to opponents of the Keystone Pipeline, as part of “counterterrorism” investigations, the insistence that the anti-fracking movement is connected to a perceived foreign adversary opens the door for all kinds of repressive and disruptive actions.

The ODNI report’s annex on RT is particularly alarming, not because of what it says about Russian propaganda efforts inside the US, but because of what it says about the propaganda efforts of the US intelligence community inside the US. Put bluntly, the intelligence community is actively working to equate domestic dissent with nefarious machinations from the Kremlin.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of RT and the way it covers the actions of the Russian state, just as it is right to regard Putin as a reactionary, authoritarian leader.

Putin uses social conservatism and nationalist rhetoric to deepen his authoritarian rule — hence his support for anti-LGBT legislation that criminalizes “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and statements that jailed members of the feminist, anticapitalist punk band Pussy Riot “got what they asked for.”

In addition, while Putin is clearly is no fan of US hegemony, his objections spring from a desire to build a strong Russian state that projects its influence globally. This is evident in his brutal repression of Chechen independence groups and his denunciations of parts of the opposition as “Bolsheviks” (whom he considers traitors for opposing Russian participation in World War I). While there’s much to oppose about the US’s policy in Syria — as well as its regional allies funneling money into armed Salafist groups — a government that is willing to go to such lengths to prop up a murderous dictator like Bashar al-Assad is not a bulwark against imperialism or an alternative to the prevailing capitalist order.

But the report didn’t focus on Putin’s anti-democratic tendencies. It mostly assailed RT for giving a platform to left-wing movements in the US. By way of evidence, the government agency cited RT’s repeated airing of a documentary about Occupy Wall Street, which depicted the movement as opposed to the “ruling class” (quotations in the report). RT, the report further lamented, covered infringements on civil liberties in the US and “alleged” Wall Street greed. Of additional concern was that RT had hosted a third-party presidential debate and claimed that the US’s two-party system did not represent “29%” of the population. Lies only the Kremlin could tell, indeed.

Before the ODNI tried its hand at media criticism, PropOrNot sounded the alarm about Russian propaganda. The organization — which regards itself as an expert outfit but about which little is known since its members are anonymous — released a McCarthyite blacklist of news sites it deems “propaganda.”

PropOrNot included outlets that do receive Russian funding, but it also flagged a broad range of other sites and institutions — right-wing websites, the Ron Paul Institute, even one website that appears to be about UFOs. More troublingly, the original list also named a number of venerable progressive media outlets (at least one of which has since been removed) and reputable blogs like Naked Capitalism.

Of course, the Internet is filled with cranks, and an obscure report by a shadowy organization isn’t necessarily cause for concern. However, a few weeks after the election, the Washington Post cited PropOrNot’s research in a widely circulated story, giving the previously unknown organization both newfound attention and the illusion of credibility.

That opposition to the election of a far-right populist has given rise to an attempt to conflate left-wing dissent with treason may cause some to scratch their heads.

So what is going on here?

The “Russian Menace”

Writing in the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, Serge Halimi has observed that an ill wind is blowing across the nations of the West (“Un vent mauvais souffle sur l’Occident”). Almost every election is observed through the prism of Russian influence.

While Halimi notes the bizarre ideological diversity of those branded pro-Putin, the attacks on the Left are illustrative of how the “Russian menace” is used. Across the world — from Jeremy Corbyn in the UK to Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France to pre-austerity Syriza in Greece — left voices have been branded as Putin sympathizers.

It’s a clever rhetorical move. Denouncing opponents as fellow travelers of Putin allows political and media elites to delegitimize critics of the neoliberal order, scrubbing public debate of any mention of the root causes plaguing the advanced capitalist world. It is not austerity that drives opposition to the European Union, but a Russian plot to weaken Western European institutions. It is not the legacy of colonialism that is re-emerging in the program of the European far right, but bad thoughts the Kremlin has put into people’s minds.

This is particularly dangerous in the US. Trump enters the White House after running a campaign infused with bigotry and fear mongering, while promising to bring back torture, surveil Muslims, and undermine what little progress has been made in restraining police brutality. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they want defund Planned Parenthood, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and go after Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. All of these are very pressing dangers.

Yet earlier this month, at Donald Trump’s first press conference in six months, he was not asked a single question about Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.

Worse yet, in some cases it appears the Russia fixation is not merely a distraction, but a deliberate cudgel to use against those who oppose attacks on the welfare state or civil liberties.

Eric Garland, the Twitter game theorist who dazzled some in the media, praised Sanders’s opposition to “economic inequality, ” but argued that such a problem would take years to fix. In the immediate future, he insisted, Sanders needed to weigh in on the “greatest crisis”: Russian interference.

In a similar vein, after Trump came under fire for nominating former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin to his cabinet, the neoconservative David Frum took to Twitter to complain that many “patriotic” people worked at Goldman Sachs and it was “[w]eird to be more alarmed by [Goldman Sach’s] influence than, say, Vladimir Putin’s.”

Thus, not only are wide sectors of the media and political class focusing on Russia to the exclusion of actual issues, those who do focus on actual issues are chastised for not forming a popular front with people like Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham — two men who have yet to locate a country on a map they didn’t wish to bomb.

For the “never Trump” conservative crowd, Russia plays a convenient role. It lets them cling to the delusion that Trump is somehow not truly conservative or the outgrowth of the Republican Party’s decades-long strategy of exploiting racism. Castigating Trump as tantamount to a foreign adversary is one way they can argue Trump isn’t one of them.

It is less clear what liberal Democrats have to gain from hopping on this bandwagon, other than a talking point against Trump. One possibility: as Doug Henwood has pointed out, fixating on Russia allows establishment Democrats to avoid asking any hard questions about why Hillary Clinton lost. Not only can they ascribe Clinton’s loss to Russian hacking — instead of her ties to Wall Street or her tone deafness to populist outrage — they can argue that focusing on anything but Russia distracts us from the most pressing issue: the Kremlin’s hijacking of our democracy.

The Russia framing helps them justify staying the course rather than finding fault with the party. Sanders, though now formally independent, is currently leading the only meaningful opposition to Trump among federally elected Democrats. He is doing so by hitting Trump on the same themes that drew millions to his campaign in the first place.

But while defending the most popular pillars of the actually existing US welfare state is one of the best ways for the Democrats to attack Trump, the party is fundamentally a capitalist one with deep ties to Wall Street. Populist mobilizations are anathema to its class interest.

So expect more histrionics about Russia.

A Perilous Game

Trump’s election has helped normalize white supremacy. He has nominated noted bigots like Jeff Sessions to his cabinet after campaigning on policies like mass deportation, a Muslim registry, and restoring “law and order.” He has aligned himself with forces that wish to restrict women’s access to health care and are deeply hostile to LGBTQ rights. Populist flourishes notwithstanding, his program will accelerate the upward redistribution of wealth.

None of these policies or prejudices are foreign ideas — racist and right-wing movements have a long history in the US. Clinging to the view that it is Trump’s alleged Russian backing that makes him beyond the pale fails to counter his noxious agenda.

This is to say nothing, of course, about the way that accusations of Putin sympathies are used to impugn left criticism of the neoliberal order or US militarism or the intelligence community. RT’s partiality toward an Occupy Wall Street documentary doesn’t negate people’s real grievances. There are legitimate reasons to question NATO’s role in the world and oppose the increasingly confrontational and bellicose attitude towards Russia. The CIA is not a force for democracy, has a history of lying, and has given very little public evidence to support the claim that Russia “hacked” the election.

Yet when anyone points out these facts, or calls for the CIA to present more evidence, they run the risk of being tarred as pro-Putin. Thus, we have a conspiracy where little evidence is given, but merely asking for more evidence makes one party to the conspiracy in question.

Left-leaning people who choose to participate in this game do so at their own peril. While charges of Russian inference are still largely being used to excoriate Trump, the Left is quickly becoming a target. If we decide to play into it, we’ll not only fail to score any meaningful victories against Trump and the GOP’s reactionary agenda — we’ll fashion the very tools by which we’ll ultimately be repressed.