Trussiagate is a Neo-McCarthyite Distraction

by Benjamin Studebaker

During President Trump’s first few months in office, media coverage has tended to vacillate between covering Trump’s substantive political agenda–his Supreme Court nominee, his healthcare reform, his budget, etc.–and the alleged connection between members of the Trump administration and the Russian government. Trump opponents had a politically great news cycle last week about the Republican healthcare bill. Jimmy Kimmel offered some brilliant pathos about ensuring that all families have access to healthcare, and House Republicans made it clear that they don’t share his priority by passing a healthcare bill which has been projected by the CBO to deny coverage to 24 million Americans, many of whom are poor and working people who voted for Trump. This is a moment of profound contrast in moral and political values and it’s a brilliant opportunity to expose the con that was Trump’s promise of universal healthcare, a con underlined by the subsequent praise he offered to the Australian healthcare system when that system looks nothing like the bill he’s championed in the House. But instead of staying with this issue, the press and the commentariat have quickly jumped back over to the Trump/Russia scandal (let’s call it “Trussiagate”) in response to the firing of FBI Director James Comey. A lot of people get excited about this scandal’s political potential because they’d like to use it to someday impeach Trump. But it’s not nearly as politically useful as it appears to be, and it’s dumbing down our foreign policy debate.

Trussiagate presumes that because the Russians intervened in a bid to help Trump win the election, Trump and/or members of his administration must be Russian agents who put Russia’s interests ahead of America’s. This belief rests on a reductive foreign policy binary in which all policy is either pro-American and anti-Russian or it’s anti-American and pro-Russian. But this misses a crucial possibility–it’s entirely possible to genuinely believe that it’s in America’s interest to be friendlier to Russia, at least in some respects. Many Trussiagate proponents think that if Trump were to reduce or remove the sanctions against Russia, this would be clear evidence that his administration is compromised and is putting Russian interests first. But there are many international relations theorists who think those sanctions were bad policy and thought so when they were first implemented. Here are a couple possible pro-American arguments against those sanctions:

1. The sanctions hurt ordinary Russians and help Putin, because they enable him to blame the west for Russia’s economic stagnation and strengthen his position in Russia. 

There’s good evidence for this. If you look at Putin’s approval rating, it went up when he defied the west and went into Crimea, and sanctions have enabled Putin to perpetuate the perception of a major foreign policy crisis which requires strong and stable leadership.

Sanctions relief and friendlier policy undermines Putin’s rationalizations for Russia’s horrifying economic performance. Putin has allowed the economy to become dependent on oil and natural gas. Fracking has increased the supply of these fossil fuels, lowering prices and damaging the Russian economy. Russia would not turn into some prosperous utopia if we lifted sanctions–it would continue to face many the economic problems faced by other states which depend too heavily on petroleum, like Venezuela (or even Canada or Norway, which have struggled a bit recently because of this).

2. We need Russian cooperation to handle major geopolitical problems–everything from climate change to the rise of China to the crises in Syria and Ukraine.

Lifting the sanctions and coming to terms with the Russians on the issue of NATO and EU eastward expansion could help us secure Russian cooperation in other areas and help us prevent the Russians from aligning with the Chinese in Asia. This argument has long been made by John Mearsheimer, a leading international relations theorist at the University of Chicago:

Regardless of whether or not you agree with these arguments, the important thing is that a reasonable person could have these views without being a Russian agent. Now if you’re the Russian government and you want a friendlier American policy, and you see that one presidential candidate seems to espouse that policy while the other opposes it, and you have access to information which, if publicised, might give the friendly candidate some political advantage, wouldn’t you want to help out? Of course you would.

The United States itself has engaged in the very same policies in many other countries, offering political support to candidates and regimes when it believes those actors align with its own interests. This is normal state behavior–states have no qualms about intervening in the domestic politics of other states when they are confident doing so will confer some advantage upon them. It should be no surprise to anyone that the Russians liked Trump better than Clinton (who only a couple years ago compared Putin to Hitler–not especially good diplomacy from the former Secretary of State) and did what they could to help him. That doesn’t make Trump a Russian agent, and it doesn’t necessarily make members of the Trump administration Russian agents, even if they spoke to Russians, especially if there was no quid pro quo. No one has yet established a quid pro quo. Indeed, the sanctions remain intact–no major foreign policy decisions have been taken which heavily favour the Russians, and none which clearly and obviously favour the Russians at the expense of the United States. And while negotiations by a presidential campaign with a foreign state would violate the Logan Act, the penalties for violating the Logan Act are trivial–it carries a maximum three year sentence. Richard Nixon’s campaign violated the Logan Act in 1968 without consequences. Lyndon Johnson knew about it at the time and did not even go to the public about it, much less make an effort to prosecute the Nixon campaign.

The more serious consequence of Trussiagate is that it’s become impossible for leading politicians to question the US foreign policy consensus on Russia without being accused of being Russian agents. This is precisely what happened in the 50s–anyone who expressed strong left wing convictions or advocated for friendlier relations with the Soviet Union was accused of being a Soviet agent or a communist by Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) and his allies. The purpose of McCarthyism is to silence debate–it’s to align in the public mind a set of policy positions with disloyalty to the nation. The effect of this is propagation a foreign policy consensus which is dogmatic, reductive, and infantile while at the same time eliminating all avenues of dissent. If left unchecked, it de-educates the public.

Today, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and alternative media, it is a little bit harder to do McCarthyism without meeting more resistance. Many Trump supporters can look at Trussiagate and rightly point out that there’s no evidence that Trump has done anything which clearly benefits Russia at America’s expense. They see it as a politically motivated witch hunt, just as the left saw the Benghazi scandal as a witch hunt, just as the left now regards the McCarthyism of the 50s as a prolonged witch hunt.

If we want these people to question their support for Trump, we need to emphasize policies Trump is supporting which are clearly against their interests. Trumpcare was and is an excellent issue to focus on for this reason. It affects real Americans in a clear and blatantly negative way. Trussiagate has never been and will likely never be that kind of issue.

Now many people may look at this and go “well this is all very good, but frankly, impeaching Trump and removing him from office is more important than protecting the integrity of the foreign policy debate”. But this kind of thinking internalizes Trump’s own logic–that he is the great and important man, that he is politically the core of his own movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a global right nationalist movement active across multiple countries, featuring everyone from the British Conservative Party to National Front to Alternative for Germany. This movement is reacting to a set of conditions–the loss of economic prosperity and social status experienced by members of the white working class since the 70s. As long as those conditions remain operative and no alternative political remedy rises which can offer a more compelling response, these right wing movements are not going away. The anti-establishment hard right faction in the Republican Party precedes Donald Trump and would continue to implement its reactionary agenda under a President Pence. Trump is just an accessory to history. He himself is not particularly important. And the impeach Trump movement, while well-intentioned, operates under the delusion that his removal would destroy the ideas and conditions that created him. That’s not how politics works. Real politics is not a superhero movie, there are no “great men”, just great moments in history. Those moments produce the men and women who deliver change, and they will go on producing them no matter how many of them we punch or impeach.

Even if there are further revelations down the line, and Trussiagate destroys Trump, it cannot destroy right nationalism. It’s not an effective vehicle for advancing a left wing alternative. Even if you disagree with everything else I’ve said, this alone makes the scandal a waste of everybody’s time. And if you think that we can do both–that we can focus on policy and scandals all at once–do me a favor and just watch an American TV news program. They always pick the issue that’s most exciting and talk about it over and over ad nausea until something else comes along which draws better ratings. Scandals draw great ratings but they distract from real issues. If we care about helping the people Trump’s policies harm, we cannot be seduced by their siren sound.