Opinion

Why the left needs to wise up to the growing Trump-Russia scandal

It's a story that matters to leftist political goals

Since the start of the Trump-Russia investigation, there has been a vein of skepticism and apathy about it on the American left. I once at least partly agreed, especially a year ago when liberal commentary heavily featured total fruitcakes like Louise Mensch and Eric Garland.

But I'm increasingly convinced that Russiagate (a deeply unfortunate appellation, but one that seems to have stuck) is an important issue that must not be dismissed. The cranks have largely been banished from polite company, and compelling evidence continues to pour in. That does not mean that some liberals are not still driving themselves into hysterics over it, nor does it foreclose the possibility of running a campaign mostly based on concrete issues important to Americans like health care, student debt, and so on. That is still the best strategy for 2018 and 2020, in my view.

But the Russiagate story matters, and the left should be paying attention.

One argument the skeptical left advances is that nobody really cares about the investigation, so it's politically pointless to focus on it. Americans care about health care, the economy, and so on — not the incomprehensible Russia thing. And it is true that in polls, people rarely rank Trump-Russia connections even high enough to make it into the top 10.

But consider Watergate, probably the most relevant comparison (indeed, at this point it seems likely that Russiagate is considerably worse than that scandal). Voters basically didn't care about the Watergate investigation for quite a long time. Two months after the Watergate burglars were caught (the break-in happened in June 1972) a full 68 percent of people said it made no difference to their vote, and Nixon went on to win the election that year in a landslide.

But by mid-1973, a small but consistent plurality said it was "very serious" as opposed to "just politics," and 53 percent said it was an issue of "great importance." Watergate was extremely complicated, and it took a long time for even journalists to sift through the facts as they came out, establish a narrative, and boil it down so that the average harassed working stiff could grasp it in a few minutes while watching the news. But they eventually did, and it became a major issue.

Also, it's worth noting that these sorts of polls can influence public opinion as much as reflect it. Once a clear and compelling scandal narrative is established and begins to be repeated in the media, polls will be conducted including it as one of a smaller number of options. People who are convinced will select it more often, while others who are on the fence will figure it must be important if it's being ranked among the top. The media will then run more stories on the increasing poll results, and the importance narrative will be established and reinforced.

Russiagate is if anything more complicated than Watergate, with over 30 indictments and multiple tangled story threads. But after the astounding press conference with President Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki — and the equally astounding suggestion from Trump that Putin be invited to Washington — one fairly simple argument is beginning to seem more and more plausible: that Putin has dirt on Trump, and is using it to manipulate him. The way Trump behaves around Putin — quietly bowing and scraping, taking his word over America's own chief of intelligence, and thus inciting backlash even from Republicans (not much of it, but more than usual) — is simply wildly out of character. It just does not add up. That's the kind of simple, alarming narrative that might break through the noise.

I strongly suspect that over the next six months to year, Russiagate will become a greater source of public attention, and therefore a decent potential vulnerability for Trump. If so, it would be senseless to avoid bringing that attack, in addition to a strong traditional policy program. You don't have to be a frothing nationalist to be concerned that the president is taking dictation from some ruthless dictator.

As a concrete matter, whatever the reason for Trump's deference to Putin, it is definitely bad for the left. Having an American president (even a feckless, incompetent one like Trump) act as cat's paw for a merciless, reactionary plutocrat is unquestionably terrible. And whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary — say Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders — is highly likely to face a serious campaign of dirty tricks from Russian intelligence. Email hacking will be attempted, any compromising past history dug up, and third-party candidates boosted up — all in an attempt to throw the election to Trump. It probably won't move that many people, but Trump only won by less than 100,000 votes spread across three states. It's a threat that needs to be reckoned with.

Russiagate does not fit neatly into leftist ideological frameworks, which is surely part of why there has been so much skepticism. It's a much better fit for conservatives and cruise missile liberals who want to punish Putin on nationalist grounds. But that is not a necessary conclusion — on the contrary, the most important culprits are all Republicans, who eagerly welcomed foreign assistance. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully stopped President Obama from attacking the electoral espionage by threatening to make it a partisan issue (though to be fair, that was also a massive failure on Obama's part).

The rest of the GOP congressional leadership knew as well, and were "happy to enjoy the benefits of Russian interference and said so openly among themselves," as David Klion writes. Even now the GOP is swatting down attempts from congressional Democrats to secure American electoral machinery from outside interference. In a domestic American context, the main story of Russiagate is that the Republican Party is so corrupt that they will sacrifice democracy to get tax cuts for the rich and reactionary union-busting judges.

So one does not have to support starting nuclear war to be concerned about Russiagate. Indeed, given the rotten state of American democracy, attempting to go really hard at Putin might be a game not worth the candle. Instead the main objective ought to be securing American institutions — purging them of the corruption that allows someone like Putin to waltz in and get what he wants. The American government should be responsible to the American people.

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