The 2016 election is what actually broke the left—and the entire country, really—but the Russia investigation has served as something of a referendum as to what it means in lieu of an actual referendum on the left. We should be delving into how we could lose the presidency to a racist meat-filled bottle of spray tanner, instead we’re kind of arguing that through the prism of the Russia investigation. The divisions on the left truly began in 2008 after percolating for decades under Clintonian capitalism, and a disastrous Bush administration which set so many fires that we didn’t have time to concentrate on what divides us. Hillary Clinton was the establishment pick in both 2008 and 2016, and both times she was seriously challenged by a populist candidate running to her left. These two elections proved it indisputable that the bulk of the political enthusiasm exists on what is deemed the “far left” by the MSNBC’s of the world.
That’s not to say that those with more moderate liberal views are not politically involved—nor passionate about finding a way forward for liberalism—but when milquetoast Clintonian capitalism loses twice in a decade, it’s clear that constituency alone does not have the numbers necessary to drive the agenda on the left.
Yet they still do. In the race for DNC Chair, stablishment pick Tom Perez defeated the second Congressman to endorse Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison. Ellison has said all the right things in the wake of his defeat, but it’s clear that the same people who lost to Donald Trump still make most of the important decisions on the left. The DNC has learned from some of its mistakes and has financially empowered its grassroots, but it’s hard to trust the same people who couldn’t defeat a man caught on tape saying he “grabs her by the pussy” a month prior to the election.
And this is where the Trump-Russia discord begins on the left. It’s not really about Trump-Russia. It’s about what liberalism will be in a country now run by a party who openly cheers authoritarianism, and aids in the murder of our children in schools every week so that a sliver of their voters can treat weapons of war like toys. The future of the United States of America will be decided on the left, so this is not a trivial battle. Trump-Russia is both a red herring and a vitally important story, and this dichotomy, combined with the existing fights on the left, has resulted in a situation where everyone’s brain comes off as broken, and the entirety of liberal conversation (on the internet) is wholly reactionary to the other side’s position.
I ranted about this on Twitter after Friday’s indictments of Russian Facebook trolls, and as one of my followers highlighted, generalizing the beliefs of each “side” on this topic is more of a fool’s errand than the echo chambers of the internet would suggest, but let’s do just that in order to make a point.
This cohort is roughly defined as people who supported Hillary Clinton and still enthusiastically do. There is an actual centrist ideology which was enacted by Bill Clinton and less so by his wife, and the lesson of the 2016 election is that constituency is very small, and should be nowhere near the levers of power within the Democratic Party. They’re the ones who sowed the seeds that helped create Trump and implemented the strategy which ultimately lost to him. There’s a lot of justified anger at this group of neoliberals whose policies are basically just watered down trickle-down economics.
But not everyone who still supports Hillary Clinton supports her policies. Whatever her foibles (and there are many), she is an extremely powerful symbol. She represents the dream of a level playing field, and on a platform that goes deeper than politics, her story makes her a very effective politician. The entirety of the United States of America is a (white) boys club, and politics is an even more extreme representation of it. That symbol losing to its diametric opposite is extremely painful—far more than my male brain can comprehend—and much of the Trump-Russia outcry from these so-called “centrists” seems to be a primal scream in reaction to this country failing on its promises yet again. Belittling that emotion just makes you look like a dick.
However, this emotion has exploded into a venue which demands reason, and it has painted a particularly unhinged view of the Hillary coalition. This is how Louise Mensch happened. And Seth Abramson. And MSNBC turning one of the best TV journalists of our time, Rachel Maddow, into one of the biggest Russia truthers on the planet. There seems to be something of a religious belief behind Russia’s provenance in our election. Trump is POTUSSR, and that’s just an unadulterated fact. Anyone who doesn’t adhere to this belief is a Russian spy.
I’m not being dramatic here. Myself and Roger Sollenberger have lived this story. We have both written extensively about this Russian investigation here at Paste, and we are both convinced that there was some sort of central plan that blew up in Team Trump’s faces. We don’t claim to know what that is, but our general argument comes down to pointing at the Trump camp and saying, “this is not how innocent people act.” Roger wrote a takedown of Louise Mensch, and the next day, one big #TrumpTreason account with tens of thousands of followers published a tweetstorm centered around a five-year-old agreement (which spanned two months) with a PR firm connected to a guy who was connected to some Kremlin outlet as proof that Paste is a Kremlin disinformation outlet, and thus, Roger’s story was ordered from down on high.
After CNN changed their “OMG we may have found a smoking gun!!!” story to “someone sent Trump an e-mail” that capped a week with a few high-profile mistakes, I wrote a piece about how the mainstream media is giving Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” missives credibility with each screw up. Hours after it posted, my mentions were filled with people accusing me of being paid off by the Kremlin. I was apparently followed on Twitter by a supposed Russian bot, and this was enough evidence to indict me in a court of tweet.
It’s not just the Twitterati who peddle this kind of hyperbolic nonsense. It goes straight to the top of the Democratic Party. Representative Jerry Nadler has echoed what many others on the left have said about the Russian campaign to meddle in our 2016 election: it’s an equivalent to Pearl Harbor. The other analogy many make is to 9/11. This is nuts, folks. Both attacks drew us into historically bloody conflicts. That’s really the analogy we want to go with?
Robert Mueller’s Friday indictment makes clear that there was a coordinated attack on our democracy through social media, but it is most certainly not similar to an event that killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178—or one that murdered 2,996 civilians and injured another 6,000. A bunch of 20-something shitposters in an office in St. Petersburg publishing memes comparing Trump to Jesus and Hillary to Satan is not a declaration of war. Please listen to the New Yorker’s Adrian Chen bring some rationality into this debate.
OMG, a sober/informed Russia take on MSNBC! @AdrianChen , who profiled indicted Russian troll farm in 2015, tells @chrislhayes that what other MSNBC guests have compared to Pearl Harbor "is essentially a social media marketing campaign" and maybe not worthy of a national freakout pic.twitter.com/UkUaK2XRPe— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) February 20, 2018
I am not a Kremlin troll. Roger isn't either. Just because someone writes something you disagree with doesn't mean they are being paid to do it. Disagreement is democracy. Disagreement is also not a direct attack on the United States. It is something more amorphous than that, and if “centrists” could moderate their tone, they would have far more credibility on this topic, because Russia's activity was certainly an intrusion on our sovereignty. Which brings me to the other side of the liberal coin.
The central issue with the “far left” right now (at least as to how it appears online), is that they don't seem to realize how much they've already won. Hillary basically adopted Bernie's messaging platform after the primary. Medicare for All is a central plank of the Democratic platform now. Anyone who wants to run in 2020 is supporting it. That's a massive shift in a very short amount of time. Should we implement single payer, that opens the door to push all other kinds of socialist reforms. I am not a socialist (nor am I a capitalist, as I wrote a few months ago, I'm something of a man without a country right now), but I will take any avenue out of the status quo so long as it moves us to the left. I tend to have what the “far left” would call more “centrist” views (especially on foreign policy, which is where I experience a sharp divide on this Russia mess), although I have certainly moved left in the past few years, with it accelerating a bit during my first year writing for Paste's very pro-Bernie Sanders politics section. Ironically, I have been called a centrist by those on the “far left” as well as a “Bernie Bro” by supposed “centrists,” which demonstrates the relative uselessness of both labels.
Bernie Sanders' candidacy was not an original insurrection. It was a continuation of the 2008 Obama coalition, but this time without the establishment switching sides the moment the tea leaves shifted. It was smaller, but not by a whole lot. Obama captivated the entire Democratic Party with promises of upending the crony capitalist status quo of Washington, and Bernie took that strategy and hyper-focused it on economics. His sermons on the evils of modern America attracted Hillary voters like me, but ultimately I could not support him because I felt his platform was not realistic (a public health expert at Emory found that his health care plan would actually increase the costs on the poor, and Sanders' policy director did not push back against this assertion, but said that those costs were more than offset by raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, with no explanation as to what would happen should one policy get implemented without the other, simply saying “we would never allow that to happen”).
But the “far left” did make myself and some “centrists” reconsider a lot of our base assumptions. My “Am I Still A Capitalist?” essay linked to above doesn't happen without socialists sparking a serious debate about the efficacy of capitalism. Half of millennials don't believe in capitalism anymore. There is a serious sea change happening on the left, and it is decidedly in the direction of the “far left” and away from “centrists.” I've accepted that my remaining pro-free market views are likely in the minority, and have adjusted my policy expectations thusly. Other “centrists” should do so too. Times are a changing.
I share the “far left's” frustration with “centrists” who refuse to accept any blame for the worst loss in political history, and instead decry that Russia somehow installed a president through Facebook. It's maddening. No matter what you believe about Russia's influence, it's indisputable that Hillary Clinton was her own worst enemy. Hell, her campaign said that was why she didn't campaign in Michigan. Hillary Clinton lost this election more than Donald Trump or Russia won it. Paid trolls in St. Petersburg didn't keep her from campaigning in Wisconsin. All discussion of the Russia investigation begins with the indisputable fact that the 2016 election was a repudiation of the last few decades of Democratic politics. The Era of Clinton is dead. It's time to move left.
But just because “centrists” paint this Trump-Russia madness as something unreasonable doesn't mean it actually is. Every single time a big development occurs in the Trump-Russia investigation (I'm talking about serious moments—like indictments or Don Jr.'s “I love crime with the Crown Prosecutor of Russia!” e-mails, not news reports), the exact same refrain appears on the left: “That's it? This is what swung the election? Who cares? We have real problems to fix! Dark money from American companies do the same thing Russia did, but on a larger scale! Where's that outrage!?!?!”
Putting aside that the “far left” is 100% correct about dark money for a moment (we'll return to that later), this argument comes off as inherently biased towards Russian interests and away from American ones. There's a genuine frustration on the left that the center isn't learning the right lessons from the 2016 election, and they are correct when complaining that many are using Trump-Russia as a distraction to avoid the larger reconciliation needed on the center-left, but these arguments come off as completely uncaring that America's sovereignty was violated by a foreign government. That's a big deal.
There is, to my mind, a big distinction between the severity and impact of the troll farm stuff (which is hard to measure) and the email hacks, which had an enormous impact that we all saw play out in real time.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) February 20, 2018
The “far-left” should know how big a deal this is, since they point out how horrific it is when the United States does to other countries what Russia did to us. There is something karmic about this entire saga, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. If you care more about other countries’ sovereignty than America’s, then you’re letting your very legitimate anger at the American government get in the way of an assault on our fellow citizens. This Russia thing is almost certainly not a Pearl Harbor-style event (the only thing that I can think of that may put it on that scale is if voting machines were hacked and actual vote totals were changed), but just because MSNBC spends all day every day hyping rumors doesn’t mean that’s what this thing actually is.
The president’s campaign manager, his campaign manager’s chief deputy, and national security adviser were all indicted. One e-mail unearthed in the low-level national security adviser’s indictment that was sent from the campaign manager to the deputy reads “Let[‘]s discuss. We need someone to communicate DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.” Donald Trump Jr. published his own e-mails that reflected a very enthusiastic effort to meet with what he understood was a Russian government official in order to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. It simply requires more mental gymnastics to assert that nothing happened than something happened here.
Not only does saying something to the effect of “this is it?” every time an indictment gets handed down make you look foolish with each subsequent indictment, but given the realities of the previous paragraph, you look like you want this Russia thing to go away without a resolution. It’s a position that gets more difficult to defend by the day—as our president’s unhinged weekend tweetstorm demonstrated—and if you don’t want to be called out as a Russian troll, stop acting like one. You can criticize individual events and portions of this opaque process without discrediting the whole that gets more convincing by the day.
This Russian troll factory indictment handed out on Friday looks pretty ridiculous on its own. It was a relatively small operation that seemingly just threw as much as it could against the wall to see what would stick. If this is the nefarious plot to take down America, it’s one worthy of Donald Trump’s cognition. However, a cursory reading of the indictment proves that this is but one piece in a larger puzzle that none of us can see, as lines like this demonstrate (emphasis mine):
From in or around 2014 to the present, in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, Defendants, together with others known and unknown to the Grand Jury, knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of State in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.
So to the “this is it?” crowd: no, it literally says in the indictment that the grand jury was informed of other co-conspirators not named, and other conspirators do exist who were not communicated to the grand jury. Paul Manafort’s deputy is nearing a deal with the special counsel to enter a guilty plea and likely cooperate with the investigation. There is more to be written on this ordeal, and anyone acting with any certainty as to the specific importance (or lack thereof) of what happened is talking out of their ass. The only answer that any of us on the left should arrive at with any certainty as to what happened is “I don’t know.”
What If This Is It?
This is a question that doesn’t get asked enough on the left, and it would likely produce two diametrically opposite reactions from the “far left” and “centrists” if given the same information. What if what we know as of right now is all there is? (this is almost surely not the case, as we do not know what will come of Manafort’s deputy talking to Mueller, but this investigation is pointed directly at Trump’s former campaign manager, so this is a significant development)
From those who expect Mueller to uncover a specific plot orchestrated from Trump on down to conspire with Russians to defraud the United States into electing him president would probably be pretty disappointed. For those who look at this entire saga as one big exercise in modern McCarthyism, an “I told you this was a nothingburger” ethos would likely take root. In fact, there is already a great deal that we know. Far more than I ever expected would be uncovered, and I have been convinced of some sort of nefarious activity since last summer.
The president’s son published e-mails that prove his intent to collude with a foreign adversary to commit a crime against a former Secretary of State. The president’s campaign manager, his deputy and national security adviser have been indicted, along with a foreign policy advisor. Another foreign policy advisor was under FISA surveillance for his ties to Russia before joining Trump’s initial team. Buttressing all this intent is the all-out assault from the right on the FBI—an entity almost certainly more responsible for Trump’s victory than Russia. The intent to collude has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by Donald Trump Jr., the only question is whether the Trump camp made good on their wishes and if so, to what degree. This is a historic event that will shape our country for years to come.
Which is where the “centrist” and “far left” narratives diverge, and so I will abandon these internet straw men. The left is far more diverse than the coalitions surrounding one outlier of an election, and we all agree on far more than we think. The American Revolution is the brother to the French Revolution—a revolt famous for literally chopping off the heads of the bourgeoisie. The seemingly overnight victory of Medicare for All after the 2016 election is proof that liberalism is nearly united in its belief that the rich should be taxed to fund a strong social safety net. Over the last few decades, the left has shifted to the right (along with the rest of America), and there is a correction ensuing. The internet fights don’t highlight this dynamic, but the staggering 2017 and 2018 special election victories on the left do. Trump has united us.
Which is why it pains me to see the Russia investigation divide us. Those who argue that dark money has perversely shaped politics far more than Russians are correct, and even though it is frustrating to see people only get upset when it’s a foreign intrusion into our democracy, this is still a tremendous opportunity to dramatically reform our election system with widescale public support. Who cares what the catalyst for that much-needed reform is so long as it happens?
This Russia investigation is a big deal. We have become a bit inured to it thanks to the hyper speed of the news cycle and our age of perpetual outrage. Those of us on the left need to call a truce around this Russia investigation, so we can let our political battles stay in the political realm that they belong in. There’s an ongoing fight for the future of liberalism that’s a fight worth having, but we should not let that seep into a national event such as this. Something happened between the Trump camp and those connected to the Kremlin. That much we know so far. We should stop acting like we know more, and wait for the special counsel to return concrete answers while we pivot to deliberating the policies that will come to define the left in a post-Trump world.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.