On Thursday, President Obama retaliated against Russia for interfering with the United States’ election. He removed from the US nine entities and two people, all of whom were, per the White House’s press release, involved in Russian attempts to undermine the United States’ election. Obama further claimed that there may be more sanctions on the way, although they would be covert.
In turn, Russia has promised that it will strike back with its own sanctions against the United States. If Russia’s sanctions are similar to Obama’s, then they will be more symbolic than harmful, at least in the moment. Russia and the United States throwing sanctions back and forth, even sanctions that are not particularly potent, could have destabilizing effects, however, and this is a development that should worry everyone. The United States is probably the most powerful player on the world stage; while Russia is not as sturdy as it once was, it still holds a fair bit of international capital; these two countries feuding would have terrible effects not just for the citizens of both countries, but also for—perhaps especially for—the citizens of smaller countries that are manipulated by the two powers.
Most worrying is that the cause of the sanctions is still opaque. Obama has claimed that intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and FBI, have assured him Russia was intent on interfering in the United States’ election, yet there is precious little hard evidence on the table. This has not stopped war mongering politicians, like the ever bloodthirsty John McCain and Lindsay Graham, a duo of destruction, from calling for Obama to increase sanctions against Russia.
Make no mistake: if Russia used cyber warfare to attack the United States’ elections then that is a crime and a direct threat to democracy. But right now there is scant proof of it and one could be forgiven for walking away from today’s new stories feeling uncertain as to whether Russia directly hacked voting machines (there is no proof of this) or merely helped leaked emails (there is some proof of this, but calling it “election interference,” while perhaps technically accurate, certainly sounds over the top). Curiously, Obama’s press release gives no hard details on what Russia did, which makes it rather difficult to figure out whether the sanctions are appropriately strong and whether the Democrats should be up in arms. But up in arms they are.
The Democrats have latched onto the narrative that Putin personally installed Donald Trump as president after Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss in November. It’s an attractive narrative, in a way. It makes Trump out to be a Manchurian candidate, it means that Hillary Clinton did not really lose, and it means that the Democrats do not need to reevaluate the way they run their campaigns. There’s comfort in this, because it means they did nothing wrong and are simply victims of an evil foreign power out to manipulate the United States.
As attractive as this narrative may be, it is also incredibly dangerous for the Democrats’, and thus the United States’, future. Since 2008, Democrats have suffered humiliating losses down ticket despite Obama’s 2012 win. As far as I can tell, none of the House and Senate races have been influenced by Russian sleeper cells, which means even if Putin himself pulled levers for Trump in Wisconsin, the Democrats need to overhaul their way of campaigning and develop a consistent message that is attractive to the American people so that Trump does not have a stranglehold on the country for the next eight years. By focusing on Russia, the Democrats are losing precious time; the 2018 midterm elections are not far away and, considering how many Democratic senators are up for re-election, it is imperative that the Democrats begin preparations.
Additionally, the Democrats need to decide just how far they want to push the Russia narrative to undermine Trump. Undermining Trump is a worthwhile goal—he is a disgusting capitalist fat cat whose presidency will, if given a blank check, rob millions of Americans of needed health care and financial benefits—but undermining Trump by making difficult to substantiate claims about Russia is a questionable approach.
For one, it’s unclear how many American voters care about this as opposed to, say, whether Trump will allow Paul Ryan to end Medicare and cackle as senior citizens die. Two, Russia is a key player in the Middle East, an area from which America cannot seem to extricate itself. This means that America and Russia are sure to come in contact in a place where bombs are dropping daily. It would be preferable if the two countries were not once again in a Cold War. I don’t think it’s a radical statement to say that losing one questionable avenue of attack against Trump is worth avoiding a second Cold War with Russia; the first one didn’t yield great results for the world.
Most depressing is that the fear of Russia’s influence on U.s. elections have resulted in Democratic pundits making some extreme leaps of logic and, in some cases, outright lying. For example, MSNBC’s Joy Reid has claimed that Russia is still a communist nation. This has not been true for over two decades. She also hosted Malcolm Nance on her show; Nance claimed that Jill Stein had a show on the news network Russia Today. This was a complete fabrication. Still, Reid continued to claim Stein was a “Putinite,” a disgusting reminder of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Not to be outdone, Keith Olbermann, now doing reports for GQ out of what I can only assume is his mother’s basement, has been claiming that America is the victim of a Russian coup and only traitors will insist otherwise. He offers little proof for this claim other than a loud voice and a hint of a sob in his voice; Glenn Beck wants his shtick back. So, too, does Richard Nixon.
Even the usually reliable Guardian is not immune to this lack of journalistic integrity when it comes to this issue. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out , Ben Jacobs’ article on an interview with Julian Assange contained, at best, total misrepresentation about Assange’s positions and Russia’s influence. One does not need to be a fan of Assange to find this outrageous (indeed, I rather dislike the man); this sets up a dangerous status quo when it comes to reporting, and Democrats should not accept it.
Sadly, the Clinton loss has blinded many and pundits are eagerly coming up with increasingly ridiculous theories involving Trump and Russia. On Twitter, writer Sarah Kendzior tried to claim that Trump was a KGB sleeper cell operative going back to the late 1980s. She then went onto Joy Reid’s MSNBC show to make the same claims with a panel of likeminded individuals. That any of this can be taken as serious is a true detriment to left wing discourse in America. No solutions to the rampant problems in America, income inequality, global warming, racism, sexism, capitalism, are addressed by clinging to these conspiracy theories. And, surely, they will not stop Trump. All they do is try to soothe the egos of those who refuse to admit that the Democratic Party needs to adapt to an electorate that is tired of its centrist rhetoric and is unwilling to come out to vote.
There is one last danger to holding onto Russian conspiracies. Should the Russians have massively influenced the election, it is only fair for the United States to be outraged. But it would also require the United States to admit that it has been involved in an almost countless amount of election rigging itself. Including in Russia. The Washington Post has a solid rundown of just some of the United States’ interferences over the past decade, including its installation of the Shah in Iran, a decision that still haunts the United States to this day. The architect of many of these American coups was the CIA, the very organization that is now claiming it has definitive proof Russia interfered in American elections (although they refuse to release the proof).
Trump naturally lashed out against the CIA, calling into question its integrity. Trump was accidentally correct. The CIA should not be trusted. In their haste to attack Trump and continue the Russian conspiracy narrative, Democrats said Trump was impugning the United States’ intelligence communities. To most people outside of the United States, certainly to the people who live in countries affected by American coups, this is not an unattractive quality. Yet the Democrats seemed blind to how silly they looked going to bat for the CIA. Perhaps it should not be surprising considering Hillary Clinton herself was regretful that America did not interfere in Palestine’s 2006 elections. Still, it would be nice if the Democrats, nominally the anti-war party in the late ‘00s, managed not to turn into a PR firm for the CIA.
Much clouds what exactly happened with Russia. It is not at all improbable that it interfered in the United States’ election to some degree. However, it is to the detriment of the Democrats to harp on Obama to start some sort of cyber war with Russia to retaliate for Clinton’s loss. Short of a revelation that Russia hacked the election results, of which, again, there is zero proof, the biggest concern of Democrats should not be whether Russia leaked some DNC emails. It should, instead, be about voter suppression, a much more influential factor in elections, and how to turn out the vote better in the years ahead should we want to prevent Trump, Pence, and Ryan from enacting their awful policies.
Update: After this article was published, Sarah Kendzior took to Twitter to complain about the claims made above, going so far as to call them “lies” and demand a retraction. However, the original string of tweets being referenced, which you can read here, along with a series of private texts she released, heavily imply that Trump was compromised in the late ‘80s and became a Russian sleeper agent. The implication that this happened, before the fall of the Soviet Union, contains the additional implication that the KGB was involved, whether Kendzior explicitly mentioned that organization or not. In a mid-December appearance on MSNBC with Joy Reid, also referred to above, she reiterated the claim that he “became compromised.” Whether there is any merit to Kendzior’s claims is up for debate—the fact that she made them is not.