In the months following Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US presidential election, it has become increasingly clear that the Democratic party is unwilling—and perhaps unable—to come to terms with the country’s post-election reality. The party’s inability to accept defeat has since manifested itself through an increasingly hysterical campaign to blame Hillary Clinton’s defeat on alleged Russian interference.
The charge that Russia, in the words of respected Russia expert and longtime Clinton associate Strobe Talbott, breached “the firewall of American democracy” has been repeated so often and by so many that it has taken on the patina of fact. It has become an article of faith, among disappointed Clinton partisans, mainstream political commentators, Democrats on Capitol Hill and Republicans like senator Lindsey Graham, that the election was tainted and that Trump’s legitimacy as president is questionable, at best.
The tendency to blame domestic disappointments on foreign bogeymen is not new and is perhaps better understood as a wave that periodically surfaces, then temporarily subsumes American politics. Indeed, this current reliance on conspiracy theories and accusations of unpatriotic disloyalty has been a feature, not a bug, of discourse regarding Russia since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine in early 2014. Yet this paranoia is, so far, little more than a distraction. By blaming Clinton’s loss on Russia, the political establishment is able to largely ignore the way economic, trade, and foreign policies failed large numbers of Americans. And, by elevating Vladimir Putin to supervillain status, this neo-McCarthyism is hindering debate and undermining legitimate attempts to deescalate tensions with our Russian colleagues.
MSNBC’s house intellectual Rachel Maddow has been among the most vociferous and, at times, most incisive critics of president Trump. Yet she also recently questioned whether Trump is actually under the control of the Kremlin. During her broadcast on March 9, Maddow told viewers that what she finds “particularly unsettling” is that “we are also starting to see what may be signs of continuing [Russian] influence in our country. Not just during the campaign but during the administration. Basically, signs of what could be a continuing operation.” [emphasis mine.]
That Maddow, a popular and respected liberal voice, would indulge in rhetoric of this sort is a worrying sign given the lack of hard evidence it is based on. While many have convinced themselves that Russia tipped the scale of the election toward Trump, the more sinister allegations of Putin infiltrating the White House have not been born out. Even the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd in early March that he has “no knowledge” and “no evidence” of “collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Yet Maddow’s charge recalls some of the worst excesses of the early 1950’s, when our political life was marred by the Red Scare and a climate of paranoia prevailed. Unsubstantiated allegations, not dissimilar to the kind Maddow just levied, were characteristic of that era. Back then, none other than senator Joseph McCarthy himself, wondered: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” Several years later, Robert W. Welch, founder of the far-right John Birch Society, accused president Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
It might be tempting to dismiss the efforts of prominent Democrats to paint Trump as a “Manchurian President” as a temporary overreaction to the (thus far still unsubstantiated) charges that Russia “hacked” the 2016 presidential election. However, to do so would be to miss what has become an ugly and persistent feature of American discourse about Russia over the past several years.
For example, on March 14, 2014, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for New York Magazine entitled “The Pathetic Lives of Putin’s American Dupes.” Chait noted that “a tragically large number of left-wing Westerners in the 20th century deluded themselves about the horrors of Soviet communism. As awful and unforgivable as it was, the process by which they made themselves into dupes was at least explicable.” Not so with the current crop of so-called Russia apologists. “Today’s Russia dupes” wrote Chait, “are a smaller, more pathetic lot. Above all they are just plain weirder, because they lack a clear ideological motive for their stoogery.”
A few months later, on June 17th, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick published an article in which he described a panel discussion on US-Russian relations as “an annual confab of Russia scholars sympathetic to Moscow, businessmen with interests in Russia, and various outcasts on both ends of the American political spectrum.” Event participants—which included, among others, myself; Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock; the Director of the Kennan Institute, Matthew Rojansky; Princeton and NYU Professor Emeritus, Stephen F. Cohen; and Columbia University professor Emeritus, Robert Legvold—were branded by The Daily Beast headline as “Anti-Semites” and “Truthers.” Since when has the study of Russia become synonymous with anti-Americanism and prejudice?
The conservative press is not immune. A piece in the Washington Free Beacon by Alana Goodman entitled “Rand Paul’s Russia Connection” went to great lengths to smear (via anonymous sources) the Washington, DC-based think tank, The Center for the National Interest as agents of Russian influence. Goodman accused think tank chairman Dimitri Simes of providing “a sympathetic platform for the Russian government in the heart of the D.C. policy establishment.” Still worse, according to Goodman, the center’s “ties to Moscow extend throughout the organization.”
This localized outbreak of paranoid Russophobia in 2014, has, in the months following the 2016 election, morphed into a pandemic. Yet a key distinction should be made between what occurred during the 1950s and what is now unfolding. The wave of political resentment and repression that emerged in the era of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn was fueled by a populist rage aimed at the elite. This rage focused in particular on the so-called “pin-stripe set” at the State Department, of whom patrician diplomats like Dean Acheson and the notorious Alger Hiss were representative characters.
The curious thing about the current iteration of Russia hysteria is that the dynamic has now been reversed. Rather than being driven by a wave of popular sentiment, today’s hysteria is a product of elite resentment, suspicion, and anger over Clinton’s loss to the populist Trump. Then, of course, there is the added element of blame shifting. Democrats are clearly seeking to blame Clinton’s loss on Russia, and the Kremlin offers a convenient foreign target. But is it the Russians, or is it the Clinton campaign that is really to blame?
And so there is a sad irony in the fact that in order to delegitimize Trump, Democrats have been busy embracing the tactics of Trump’s longtime mentor, Roy Cohn—relying on xenophobic fear mongering and character assassination to make their case. Yet embracing America’s worst political traditions in pursuit of scoring political points against Trump is not just unwise. In the end, it is bound to backfire.