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Russiagate and the Left, Round II

Corey Robin has responded to my article arguing that the left should take the Trump-Russia story more seriously. I do appreciate that he considers me an ally, and I feel the same towards him. However I am not convinced. The points I want to make are somewhat disconnected, so I will just take them one at a time.

What should be done?

Robin complains that I don't give much attention to the question of how we should respond to Russian electoral espionage.

As an initial matter, the question of whether a problem is an important one is logically distinct from what the response should be. There is a sizable vein of skepticism about Russiagate on the left, and the argument of the post was that skepticism was misplaced. Solutions can be worked out later. This point is rather similar to the centrist argument that you can't talk about Medicare for All unless you've got a fully costed-out bill detailing all the necessary taxes and regulation.

However, I have advanced some policy solutions in previous writing, mainly centered around improving internal cybersecurity and regulating radio, TV, and social media platforms to deal with cancerous right-wing agitprop. Here are some more worthwhile suggestions about foreign policy. None of these are remotely close to neocon belligerence.

Putin really is benefiting

Robin asserts that under Trump, "the US is currently pursuing a very anti-Russia foreign policy, more aggressive than anything pursued by Obama (especially Obama), Bush, or Clinton." He notes that Congress has put through even more Russian sanctions. That much is true, and as I said in my article, the US security apparatus remains very hostile to Russia.

What he does not mention is that Trump refused to implement those sanctions for 7 months until political developments forced his hand. More importantly, he does not mention that Trump has caused enormous chaos and panic within NATO and US-EU alliance, and severely damaged the US internationally as well. Putin has by all accounts a fairly zero-sum view of international relations, and views endless NATO expansion (with some accuracy) as Western encroachment on Russia's legitimate sphere of influence. He also likely thinks sanctions were baked in no matter what he did (again probably accurately, American sanctions are notoriously difficult to remove), so they make no difference on way or the other.

Therefore, causing a huge disruption among anti-Russian coalition is thus a giant benefit to Russia by Putin's lights, and he's probably right. Questions about Ukraine and Crimea have moved to the back burner as world politics is consumed by Trump. Meanwhile, the perception that he's got the American president wound around his finger dramatically raises international estimates of his influence. Putin is a much more fearsome figure than he was before 2016.

The plutocratic-ethnonationalist alliance

Robin asserts, this time without any evidence at all, that Putin's electoral espionage was "not for any reasons of building an ethnonationalist alliance but simply because [they] believed they’d be better off with Trump than with Clinton."

I find this a rather incredible suggestion. Putin's base of support is a combination of plutocrats and right-wing nationalists, and he has built up pro-Russian factions in multiple countries by seeding and supporting exactly those sort of people, plus occasional electoral espionage. Hungary has become an ersatz Russian client through this process, and so has the Czech Republic. He tried to do the same thing in France, though with little success. Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, and Austria also suffered apparent cyberattacks over the last decade. Israel has turned towards the Russian camp more on its own, with Benjamin Netanyahu even attending Putin's recent inauguration ceremonies and cozying up to Hungary's Viktor Orban (who recently unleashed a Jew-baiting tirade against George Soros). The politics of apartheid fit quite nicely with European right-wing nationalism, as DF Malan could tell you.

This appears to be the playbook in the U.S. as well. A Russian spy apparently infiltrated the NRA, using bribes to turn the organization in a Russian direction — in addition to God only knows how much else in the forms of "hidden capital inflows." Mitch McConnell ran interference for Putin, threatening Obama that he would make it partisan issue if he spoke out on Russian electoral espionage. The rest of the GOP leadership gleefully chuckled at the idea. As Jugurtha supposedly said of Rome, "Yonder is a city put up for sale, and its days are numbered if it finds a buyer."

And on the ground, the American far right has long admired Putin as the sort of leader they desire. The tiki torch Nazis in Charleston included "Russia is our friend" among their chants, and the League of the South launched a Russian-language page to reach out to Russian nationalists immediately after the Helsinki summit. "We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion," the organization's president wrote.

America is not a Russian client, of course, but this formula plainly did work to some degree.

This isn't a NATO-style overt political alliance, but the covert buildup of similar coalitions of right-wing nationalists, plutocrats, and corrupt political parties across many countries. Robin is just wrong on the facts here.

Broader political questions

Finally, Robin suggests that addressing Russiagate is inevitably going to feed into McCarthyite hysteria. "You think you can control the rhetoric; it controls you." Instead, "The Left’s position on all this should simply be that prudential measures should be taken to ensure democratic elections," while noting that electoral espionage is probably less of a threat to democracy to the Electoral College.

I think this is backwards. First, as noted above, there really is a compelling left-wing narrative about Russiagate, involving how extreme inequality and neoliberalism has subverted democracy and enabled right-wing extremism across the globe. It is a somewhat tricky rhetorical move, but it's certainly possible. Just emphasize that plutocracy and corruption are the internal problems that must be boldly attacked (in addition to election security, a full traditional policy platform, and so on), while diplomacy must always be the first option for foreign policy — especially when it comes to a nuclear superpower.

Because contrary to Robin's rather ungenerous suggestions that this is about appearing "serious" and not looking bad in the eyes of centrist gobshites, I think it would be a grave tactical error to allow neocons and cruise missile liberals to entirely occupy the Russiagate political terrain. The president being somehow compromised by a right-wing dictator basically can't help being a top political issue, and offering nothing but mild bromides about election security will make Max Boot-style hysterics the only option on offer.


  1. "causing a huge disruption among anti-Russian coalition is thus a giant benefit to Russia"

    Sounds incredibly vague..Trump saying he like Putin made it so that NATO can't meet and organize or what?

  2. "Hungary has become an ersatz Russian client" Hungary is a member of NATO and the EU, the end point of whose "everyone around Russia gets to join except Russia" is the Russias dismemeberment in the manner of Yugoslavia (see Strobe Talbott on "Putins Empire"). Its also a member of the "right" center EPP party grouping of the EU, of which Markels CDU is part of. Your definition of "pro-Russia" is "not fuming about it 24/7" yet of course you exclude the center and far left of the EU from this standard.

    "president being somehow compromised by a right-wing dictator" Not only is Russia a democracy, not only did the US oversee the transition to Democracy in Russia (using the West German/Japan models), but Russia is more democratic than the US (a relic of the 18th century with some minor early 20th century modifications) and no amount of nationalist fuming and posturing will change that.

    "will make Max Boot-style hysterics the only option on offer."

    Max Boot has been pretty consistent from Trump to Obama and so on. The hysterical one is going on about "ethnonationalist" (Putins party literally has open borders with Russias poorer neighbors and has imported millions of people) "plutocratic alliance" based on some blog posts youve read about EU countries you dont know much about.

  3. Good Piece. I'd add that Corey's argument that there's "no compelling left-wing narrative" for objecting to Russia political influence shows just how naively dangerous the tendency of leftists towards purely ideological justification can be. A foreign state influencing our politics is dangerous in-itself, for purely pragmatic reasons, independent of ideological narratives. That Putin has chosen a path which includes allying with our society's most illiberal and violence-prone elements in a campaign to undermine the very machinery of democracy and internal civil conflict only adds to and exacerbates these dangers. The lack of even the most basic geopolitical analysis in some leftist quarters is a serious, and grossly impractical, theoretical failing.

    1. bah! "... the very machinery of democracy, and foment internal conflict, only adds..." could have sworn I edited that appropriatedly |:T


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