Confessions of a liberal who was afraid to call out Trump/Russia connections in 2016
A few days before a New York Times poll of expert executive branch watchers collectively rated Donald Trump as the worst president in American history, The Intercept‘s James Risen made an observation that still chills me:
“One year after Trump took office, it is still unclear whether the president of the United States is an agent of a foreign power. Just step back and think about that for a moment.”
To see a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist, who had been targeted for prosecution for his work by both the W. Bush and Obama Administrations, make this observation shivered my spine for two reasons:
- We know that Trump, at the very least, invited help from the Russians who were trying to elect him president and sought to reward them for that help. That’s obvious.
- We know he is an agent of foreign powers — oligarchy and Illiberal democracy.
These conclusions are clear to me and worthy of mockery to many on the left, who see the obsession with Russia as mostly a means of absolving Hillary Clinton and her key supporters for their loss in 2016. This episode of Doomed with Matt Binder does a nice job of laying out many of the objections to a fixation on Russia, which is occasionally branded as a rising neo-McCarthyism by so-called liberals, who are generally accused of ignoring America’s own Illiberalism and hypocrisy.
Like any liberal who admires many of the policies and instincts of true leftists, the idea of buying into anything vaguely red-baiting nauseated me — especially given how the much more destructive domestic forces of the hard right and libertarianism are ascendant in this country.
These pointed concerns shook me during the 2016 election. While a few brave voices like Sarah Kendzior warned of Trump’s Russia ties and autocratic inclinations, I shied away from making the obvious connections between Trump and Russia. And I was cowardly in my defense of those were assailed through targeted attacks disguised as “leaks.”
Instead, I fixated on what is still my biggest fear — not that Putin had “turned” Trump but that Trump wanted to be our Putin.
One thing is true, Vladimir Putin longs for the days of the Soviet Union. But like his fallen empire, Putin has nothing to do with any semblance of the left that I want anything to do with.
He’s looted his people to make himself the richest person on Earth. He’s a party to systemic elimination of his critics and enemies. And he uses blatant racism, sexism and homophobia to rally supporters to his hollow con of an agenda. And he’s given himself all this, along with the presidency for life, with limited economic leverage and even less strategic genius.
In short, he’s everything Donald Trump could ever hope to be.
While experts warn of a rising right-wing populism and nationalism across continents, it’s rarely mentioned that this is an agenda that Putin more than any other individual has pushed wherever true democracy, his fiercest enemy, reins. The idea of finding common cause with people in every country who just happen to be white definitely has a lot to do with an “ism” and it isn’t nationalism.
I often joked “Congratulations to anyone who had ‘one’ for how many black presidents it would take for Republicans to fall in love with Russia,” but it’s important to note how the collapse of “racial liberalism,” as described in this brilliant essay by Nils Gilman, has revealed the chasm between the right and left in stark terms.
Trump’s successful gambit of elevating all the themes of dog whistle racism, which had generally been sublimated by coded language for decades, and pairing it with left-sounding arguments in favor of the working class was in many ways just a cartoon version of that scam Republicans have been using to win over the South and rural areas for decades. But by averring the religious culture war (and using Mike Pence as a walking symbol of his devotion to that old gambit) and focusing on making economics a culture war about immigration, trade and corruption (we all know the swamp is just “them”), he did something Republicans hadn’t been able to do, ever.
He was “elected,” with Putin’s help, to deliver Paul Ryan’s agenda — an agenda that sees freedom as the power to undo the safety net along with environmental and consumer protections to let billionaires get richer as 95 percent of us sink forever into deeper debt and despair. Trump hid is allegiance to the agenda by swearing off Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security cuts.
But the billionaires were not fooled.
“I’m more excited about what we’re doing and about the opportunities than I’ve ever been,” Charles Koch told the members of the mighty donor network he and his brother David have led for a decade at their January 2018 meeting. “We have made more progress in the last 5 years than I had in the previous 50.”
Trump’s agenda of corruption and exploitation is an agenda that only an oligarch could love. That’s what I saw when I saw him praising Putin and that’s what Putin saw, too — a man who despises democracy as much as he does.
And in Trump the right has found someone who had no compunction about finishing their job of hollowing out our democracy.
Remember When Justice Alito mouthed “not true” when President Obama said in his SOTU that Citizens United would open the door to foreign money in our elections? Now it is clear there was a huge sum the NRA put in via dark money— and we will soon learn how much of it was Russian
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) March 2, 2018
I feel like a naive kid when I say that “oligarchy and Illiberal democracy” are distinctly non-American forces. I know it’s easy for me to say as a while male, but it’s a naivety that Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to when he came to cash in on the “promissory note” of our founding and it’s a naivety Shirley Chisholm invoked when she launched her candidacy for the presidency in 1972:
I have always earnestly believed in the great potential of America. Our constitutional democracy will soon celebrate its 200th anniversary, effective testimony, to the longevity to our cherished constitution and its unique bill of rights, which continues to give to the world an inspirational message of freedom and liberty.
We should expect better than Donald Trump’s criminality and we should expect far better than his rejection of our aspirations.
“There were two campaigns to elect Donald Trump: a Russian one and an American one. Collusion is where they overlapped. With more than 50 contacts between the Trump team and Russians, the June 9th meeting with senior campaign staff and Kremlin-linked figures, and Trump’s long-standing financial relationships that could easily provide leverage, the question is not whether they worked together, but how deep it goes.”
“Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia worked together to help elect our current president of the United States, or we are witnessing the greatest coincidence since the Big Bang,” I wrote in USA Today.
I wrote that to make excuses for no one and without any pretensions. I know the failings my country and my party made Donald Trump possible. And I know that my silence and focus on the trivialities of Trump’s ridiculousness helped in the slightest of ways make it happen.
And I know that for 2018, Democrats’ focus shouldn’t be doing Robert Mueller’s job. It’s amazing that despite the rank corruption of this president and his party, a competent investigation is revealing all the things that happened in plain sight. So our job is to stand up up to Trump.
“By close to 2-1, 58%-32%, those surveyed say they want to elect a Congress that mostly stands up to the president, not one that mostly cooperates with him,” a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.
To me, that’s that’s the message of 2018. We need to stand up to Trump for democracy, for health care, for the working class. It’s something we should have done better in 2016. And if we don’t do in 2018, it may be too late.