Russiagate Can’t End Well for the Left

Liberals are using Russiagate to gin up nationalist fervor and anti-Russian paranoia. It'll only backfire.

Kremlin / Wikimedia Commons

Bulletin is a chronicle of socialist comment and analysis from Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman. 

At the height of the sensational 1948 HUAC hearings on the Alger Hiss case, a reporter asked Harry Truman if the “spy scare” was a “red herring” meant to distract public opinion. Truman agreed that it was. The Republicans were “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it.”

Even as credible evidence mounted that Hiss, the polished diplomat and uber-Establishment WASP, had worked for years as a covert Soviet agent, a defiant Dean Acheson refused to accept it. Hiss was a “man of character,” he told Congress, and “we remain friends.”

But it turned out that Hiss was a Soviet spy, and so were many other New Dealers. By 1934, dozens of them, divided into cells, had been working at the highest levels of government, including the State Department, Treasury Department, and the Manhattan Project. Hiss was even reportedly awarded secret Soviet decorations in honor of his service to Moscow. And nothing less than the global balance of military power was at stake: in 1949 the Soviets shocked the world by successfully testing a nuclear weapon that they had learned how to build with critical help from Communist spies working at the heart of the US. government.

All of this, ostensibly, is why so many voices at the time were loudly insisting that liberals and the left “take the Russia issue seriously.” But a strange thing kept happening. Every time the Truman administration took concrete steps to prove that it was, in fact, taking the issue seriously — the Draconian Federal Loyalty Program, the appalling Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations — the paranoid chorus only got louder: Sure, Truman’s fired a handful of Communists. But when will he really start taking Russia seriously? Maybe he has something to hide.

That perverse dynamic was aptly diagnosed in a 1966 study of the postwar Red Scare sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Summing up what was, by then, more or less the conventional wisdom of Cold War liberals, its author, political scientist Earl Latham, concluded that two separate but intertwined phenomena had been at play in the Communist controversy:

At the center of the storm of recrimination which blew so violently for so long there was a Communist problem, and there was a Communist issue.

The Communist problem was a matter of fact and law, and was dealt with (not inadequately) by the official agencies of the government — the removal of security and loyalty risks (however painfully and awkwardly accomplished) from employment, the prosecution of leaders of the Communist Party by the Department of Justice under the Smith Act of 1940, the prosecution and conviction of defendants charged with espionage activity, the discipline of recusant witnesses in the courts, and the conviction of defendants accused of perjury. These were, to repeat, matters of fact and law.

The Communist issue, however, was a complex clash of attitudes and predilections, of dispositions and predispositions, of views about what should be and what should not be. It was a disagreement about the basic values of the American political system, in the course of which disclosures concerning Communists were used by partisans of various fealties to serve sectarian ends.

The purpose of advancing the Communist issue was not to fix the Communist problem — it was to exploit that problem for political and ideological advantage. That is how the Republican Party could produce its unhinged 1952 platform, which charged that the Democrats “have shielded traitors to the Nation in high places,” “work unceasingly to achieve their goal of national socialism,” and “by a long succession of vicious acts, so undermined the foundations of our Republic as to threaten its existence.” (Does that kind of talk strike you as overheated? Then you, too, are failing to take the Russia issue seriously.)

And just as 1950s Republicans exploited the existence of foreign espionage for domestic political gain, some on the Left are saying quite openly that that’s a good reason to pound the Putin pulpit today.

Ryan Cooper of the Week made this case recently (and Corey Robin responded to him here yesterday), urging Russiagate skeptics on the Left to “wise up,” partly because, according to his prediction, “over the next six months to year, Russiagate will become a greater source of public attention, and therefore a decent potential vulnerability for Trump.”

No one would be happier than me if some smoking gun were to appear proving that Trump and Pence colluded with Moscow and forcing their ignominious resignations. But the notion that that slim prospect could make it strategically wise for the Left to gin up an atmosphere of nationalist fervor and anti-Russian paranoia — and let’s be clear, that is what’s happening — is unbelievably foolish.

If you doubt that, just consider the widely circulated and utterly scurrilous statement by the prominent human rights lawyer Scott Horton, who claimed on social media last weekend that “European intelligence analysts” had told him they had “picked up clear data suggesting that Putin has authorized and put in play a major active measures campaign designed to split and disable the Democratic Party.”

Citing as precedent the “general demonization of Hillary Clinton and other candidates as ‘establishment’” in 2016, Horton alleged that

the Russian operation will also aim, in the classic fashion, to pick Democratic candidates in the primary period who, for whatever reason, are seen as likely not electable. Some evidence of this is clearly at play now. The key thing to look for is not positive messaging supporting any particular policy program, but negative messaging attacking other Democrats.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this horseshit. There’s the idea that Russian intelligence agencies can “pick candidates” and get them nominated in Democratic primaries by force majeure, a feat that even the Queens County Democratic machine has shown itself incapable of.

And there’s the fact that if Russian intelligence were taking steps to influence the mass Democratic electorate, then the products of its work would by definition have to exist in the public record: tweets, Facebook posts, flyers, or whatever. Where are they?

But most importantly, if anything is liable to “split and disable the Democratic party,” it’s spreading breathless rumors that certain Democratic primary candidates, along with their supporters, are currently serving as unwitting agents of Putin, but I won’t tell you which ones, except they’re definitely the ones “demonizing” other Democrats as “establishment.” You know, those candidates. Be on the lookout for them.

Ironically, any foreign intelligence agency seeking to “split the Democrats” would get a lot further by spreading that sort of rumor than by attempting the impossible task of getting  millions of Democrats across the country to change how they vote.

It takes no great clairvoyance to see where all this is headed. How anyone can think it could benefit the Left is beyond me.