Before we get to Russia, indulge me in a personal journey—one that will feel familiar to many, and that began last November.
It’s taken me a good long while—it’s been eight months since the election, which ushered in what is, by far, the most anxious era of my political life—but I’m starting to understand why so many people in America, and so many people I know, voted for Donald Trump. It was not easy to get past the initial stages of anger, and the sense that we were throwing something important away, but I’ve mostly overcome my sense of catastrophe. I’ve also fought back against the visceral anger against his voters that consumed me in the aftermath—to demonize so many Americans as purely destructive, tempting as it was, is unhealthy, and also inaccurate.
Here’s what I think I’ve learned: Nobody, anywhere, should expect anyone to vote for anything beyond his or her self-interest. Left, right, center, we all do it. It’s wonderful when a collective impulse motivates a large chunk of the voting public, but that’s not the current American ethos, and it will take time and generational change before we see that kind of transformation. (Though I hope and believe it’s coming.) Even a vote for the greater good, or a vote for socialist principles, is based in self-interest, to the extent that we believe a high tide will raise all ships, ours included. Others will vote from a more purely self-interested perspective, and that is a point of deep contention, but it’s not insurmountable. If overcoming this political reality were impossible, Obama would not have won two presidential elections.
It’s offensive to everyone to be told to vote for the lesser of two evils. It was offensive to me in the primary, and it shouldn’t surprise me that it was offensive to many Trump voters in the election. Sometimes we’ll do it anyway, but to prop up a candidate like Hillary Clinton because she’s not as bad as the other candidate, no matter how logical it seems, is not an effective political tactic. It’s uninspiring, it’s condescending, and a certain type of voter will always reject it.
Another revelation, this one even harder to come by: As ugly as Trump’s rhetoric was during the campaign, I think the majority of his voters were not considering these ugliest moments—or what they said about his xenophobia, racism, and sexism—when they cast their ballots. (Whether they should have is not a question I’m asking right now, because it’s irrelevant in this context—the reality is that they did not, and therefore we can expect that they will not in the near future. I hate it as much as you, but we have to live within political realities.) For the most part, they were not voting with hatred in mind. It’s easy to overestimate the size of America’s specifically ethno-nationalist movements, both because of how visible they are and the platform they get from the media, but true vitriol and the politics of hatred are, I believe, confined to a relatively small number of Americans.
That said, there is much that voters will ignore or rationalize away if they’re not given a strong alternative that appeals to their passion and self-interest. You cannot beat a man like Trump simply by saying that Trump is bad. Again, it’s a sign of weakness and a lack of vision. A retort like Clinton’s “America is already great!”, for example, is too tepid and moronic for words—it reacts to Trump rather than presenting a more compelling plan. Why? Because there was no more compelling plan. It did not exist.
And in an election that presents those two choices, people will gravitate toward the candidate who seems more authentic, who seems less like a product. They will retaliate against a carefully crafted image, because they understand this type of candidate is the result of a party that has abandoned its core principles, and has nothing to offer them. Movement politics capture the imagination, period. Trump offered a kind of movement based on an audacious style and a rhetoric that recognized our national sense of insecurity. He read the temperature of the room correctly, and though he didn’t offer anything that I would find appealing, his intuition mattered. In a time of flux and decline, the status quo had nothing to offer in response—it never will.
You’ll notice, incidentally, that polls out this week show Hillary Clinton is still more unpopular than Donald Trump. His failures as president have done nothing to elevate HRC in the national esteem. Nor, polls show, do most Trump voters regret their choice.
So let’s get to Russia, as the title promised.
As a corollary to everything I said above, I believe the obsessive emphasis on the Russia investigation is dangerous for the left. The worst conclusion the investigators will draw is that Trump personally colluded with Putin and the Russians to help him win, and guess what? Most people won’t care. Politics is dirty. The past cannot be re-written. The prayer for an intervening miracle in the form of collusion charges that take down the president is clung to by liberals who are desperate to hit the reset button and boot Trump out of office, and that’s very understandable. But even if that happened, it would only deepen the sense of grievance on the right, and continue to frame politics as a partisan sporting event. There will be no outrage directed at Trump from the right. Nor should anyone be surprised by polls that show that “Trump country” is totally disinterested in Russia. Even in the worst case scenario—proof of collusion—the anger will be confined to the liberal political establishment and the mainstream media, two entities who have already lost most of their power. Absent any evidence that the actual vote count was tampered with, my personal belief is that this will end with a whimper.
Now, I’m not advocating for this to be forgotten. Of course Mueller’s investigation should go forward, and of course Trump should suffer the consequences of any laws he broke. If it makes it more difficult for him to enact his legislative agenda, so much the better. But don’t assume that this is some kind of cure-all. The way to curb the phenomenon of Trumpism is to beat it at the polls with a progressive agenda—this is the real victory, because it will gut the ethos at the center of the movement. There’s no arguing with a decisive electoral victory. Eject him from office on a technicality, and it will only foment deeper unrest. Your relief, believe me, will be short-lived. Which is why your focus, even as the investigation moves forward, should be on achieving that bigger victory.
Why? Because what we’re witnessing in the liberal obsession with Russia are the politics of “this guy is bad, make him leave!” It’s also why we embarrass ourselves by lending credence to wild-eyed conspiracy theorists like Louise Mensch, Sarah Kendzior, and Eric Garland. They tell us what we want to hear, and we let them assuage our anxiety—even if it’s all nonsense. There’s no plan for a better future, just a child’s desire to revert to how things were. But guess what? That will never happen, because if there was any desire to keep chugging along as before, Trump would never have been elected in the first place. The rage that placed him in office will not vanish when the man himself is gone.
You defeat Trump, and you reinvigorate the country, by showing people that you care, and by introducing an agenda that will actually help them. Bernie Sanders hinted at the path to victory in the primaries, and Jeremy Corbyn has shown the way in the UK. The Trump presidency is a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare marked by failure, and he’ll continue to fail because he and his team cannot govern, and have no loyalty to one another. It will be incredibly easy to defeat him in 2020, but only if the new Democratic leaders can convince Americans that they can improve their lives through government. Should they fail to do that, and pursue the path of centrism while screeching about Trump instead, they’ll leave Americans cold again. And they’ll lose again.
It’s taken seven agonizing months, but I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that Trump voters made a logical choice, the abstainers made a logical choice, and the third-party voters made a logical choice. And without a good reason to make a different choice in 2020, they’ll do it again.