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What’s Missing When We Talk about Russiagate

Heightened concerns over alleged Russian interference in the US election say more about the United States than its foreign enemy du jour.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies before Senate Committee hearing Russian hacking.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies before Senate Committee hearing Russian hacking. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I view recent reports of Russian election meddling with intense skepticism. I have my doubts because I keep watching the government move the goal posts, distort stories, and provide vague statements instead of absolute certainty and hard proof. I view it all with skepticism because we as a nation have been here before. From false reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and COINTELPRO’s spying on activists to coups orchestrated in other nations, lies and deception have defined our relationship with our government and, by extension, the access-hungry mainstream press that repeatedly covers up its misdeeds. In short, a great deal of suspicion regarding the allegations made against Russia is justified. Whether they had a hand in the 2016 election, however, is not my focus here. I am concerned instead about what the panic over Russia says about us as a nation and what is at stake moving forward.

Russia and Putin likely do not appear on the long list of the average American’s daily concerns. More specifically, I would confidently bet that if I were to go back in time before November 8th to poll hundreds of thousands of people about their RT viewing habits and the number of hours they spent reading Wikileak-ed DNC emails, the common response from my interviewees would likely be “what is RT?” followed by laughs at the suggestion that they had hours of free time to spend reading anything, much less the daily exchanges of campaign staffers. They might share something they heard about Clinton in the news, but I have a feeling that most responses would be based on homegrown stories from right here in the United States, no Russian influence necessary.  

In fact, long before anyone heard about alleged election interference or leaked emails, voters held reservations about Clinton due in large part to her own missteps. After all, the Russian hackers did not make her maintain a private email server, nor did they force her to run a racist presidential campaign in 2008. They did not encourage her to reject the Central American refugee children who had risked death to reach the United States for safety or compel her to support expanding the very wall that coldly met them at the border. Neither the Russian government nor its population pushed her to support hawkish foreign policy or to exploit Haitian suffering. And shortly before the election, it was not the Russians – much less James Comey, Wikileaks, Bernie Sanders, or the white working class – that made her defend NAFTA and the TPP against Trump’s faux economic populism or reduce Muslim Americans to the “eyes and ears” on the “frontlines” of the war on terror. To suggest that foreign actors had more of an influence on voters than their lived experiences or their perceptions of the events that had transpired before the election day is about as insulting as the jabs lobbed at us by the candidate herself for not doing our own research or, via surrogates, for wanting a “free lunch.”

The assertion that the Russian government had the omnipotence to influence our election to such a degree goes beyond insinuating that voters cannot come to their own conclusions. The implications surrounding Russia perform a double disservice to people marginalized based on their race and class. Focusing only on the specter of Russian interference as the primary cause of Trump’s win glosses over the deep-seated racial anxieties that motivated the most ardent of his supporters to the polls. Sure, Trump earned fewer votes than Clinton in the popular vote – as the mainstream press so eagerly and regularly reminds us – but that Trump was able to get so far, much less become president, is a testament to the power of racist and xenophobic rhetoric in a time of economic instability. By focusing on the Russians, the Democrats do not have to come to terms with the reality that during the primaries Republican Party voters were not only motivated by economic concerns but by hatred and fear of immigrants, people of color, and Muslims. This hatred was something Clinton herself skirted around during the election, Robert Reich argues, as she preferred “focusing on Mr. Trump’s character flaws instead of the flawed Republican agenda” to not alienate potential Republican crossover voters. Establishment Democrats have followed suit, channeling their energies into the so-called election hack and ultimately abdicating their responsibilities as members of a party that claims to represent so many of the groups Trump and the Republicans antagonize.

Furthermore, the unhealthy obsession with Russia among Democratic party leadership and their allies in the mainstream press disregards real concerns held by people who did not turn out for Clinton. Those who did not make it to the polls to vote were, as with other U.S. elections, more likely to be young, poor, and disproportionately non-white – in other words, the Democrats’ target demographic groups. Tabling for a moment the issue of voter suppression (though, to be sure, most Democrats are reluctant to engage this problem as well), some chose not to vote for Clinton to lodge a grievance: the little hope in her potential to reverse or even mildly alleviate the problems in their communities. By blaming Russia for the votes cast in favor of Trump instead of more closely assessing where Clinton failed, Democrats can obscure the justifiable lack of faith in government leaders and institutions many people possess, particularly those who are hit the hardest by debt, job loss, a lack of resources, and poverty.

By focusing on Russia, Democrats not only avoid “a deep critical inquiry into their own screw-ups, and (hopefully) an overhaul of their entire way of doing business,” as Nathan Robinson argues, but they also signal to the population how they will continue to fail us. Just as some people rely on conspiracy theories to make sense of systems and occurrences they cannot understand at the time, the Democrats are leaning on an overhyped, intentionally vague story to explain away Clinton’s election loss. They refuse to come to terms with reality while generating an automatic excuse for what will surely be their inability, if not complete reluctance, to fight against the ills to come under Trump and his administration.

This is not a lazy prediction. Obama’s continuation of George W. Bush’s advocacy for the wealthy and expansion of his military campaigns should serve as foreshadowing of what Democrats will do in the face of growing threats to the communities they are meant to serve. They will not fight a Republican Congress to protect our rights. Instead, they will approach it with the same impotence they have now for almost a decade. When they are not siding with Republicans in order to protect their own interests, we will see a continuation of the empty calls for a “resistance” that thus far has included welcoming well-documented racist Megyn Kelly to NBC, championing a rambling tweet thread of a corporate analyst, defending the CIA, turning Evan McMullin and Glenn Beck into heroes, and attending the inauguration that even the Rockettes have protested.

With Trump’s cabinet appointee hearings taking place this week, the panic over Russia instead of a thorough examination and dissemination of the respective records of the privilege-bloated terrors who will lead our government means they are throwing in the towel before the real fight has even begun. Establishment Democrats and their apologists are just reminding us to continue channeling our frustrations away from them and toward Russia for supposedly giving us Trump as president. Meanwhile, as some try to mobilize against the problems that surely await us, others prove they are stuck on repeat by disparaging those to their left and progressives like Bernie Sanders, who is at least trying to challenge Trump.

Russia serves as a convenient excuse for the Democrats’ past, present, and future paralysis. Much like the phrase we have heard ad nauseam about how they nor Obama could do anything because of Republican obstructionism, Russia’s supposed interference explains their inability to do anything at all to change the course of the election, much less the damage a Trump administration may cause. Obama has played along as well, coming to the fatalistic conclusion that somehow, despite the United States being one of the most powerful nations in the world, its supposed exceptionalism was not enough to protect it from being undermined by a nation with far less wealth, power, and influence. Instead of calling for a new election, which would certainly be warranted if the administration’s claims were true, Obama has merely dismissed Russian diplomats and issued economic sanctions.

Russia operates not only as a distraction, but an explanation as to why Democrats’ (and the CIA’s) recent acts to counter Trump have been less successful. Attempts to lobby electors to vote for Clinton or a “moderate” Republican in place of Donald Trump failed miserably, as did Democrats’ protestation against Trump’s congressional certification. By expanding their concerns to include not only Russian hackers, but also RT, Wikileaks, and any other news sites directly or indirectly (as alleged in false Washington Post reports) associated with Russia, the Democrats and the intelligence community have created preemptive justification for future failures.

Russiagate maintains a perpetual enemy that keeps us from recognizing that our closest and most powerful adversaries are some of the people who comprise our government. They are the people who perpetually cut funding to programs for the poor while giving charity to the rich. They are the people who have looked the other way as we jump from one conflict to another, wasting tax dollars on the destruction of others’ lives. And they are the people who have and will continue to approach threats to the welfare of their constituents with cowardly silence. What Russiagate says about us as a nation is that we are always busier trying to explain what we claim not to understand instead of taking a long, hard look in the mirror to see that our greatest enemy has been ourselves.

Written by Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse is a Writer for Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter @MuseWendi.

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies before Senate Committee hearing Russian hacking.

What’s Missing When We Talk about Russiagate