It is U.S. election season, 2016, and the extremely dumb baseline for presidential-year rhetoric has already been exceeded with gusto thanks to a fake-tanned reality TV blowhard now leading a white nationalist movement as the Republican Party’s nominee. “Could it get even more dangerously silly, though — the discourse?” asks a visitor from a planet yet to be discovered by terrestrial science. Well, this is America, my little green partner: you’re damned right it will.
The how, however, in “how this election will increase the urgency of our desire for an early demise” has come out of far left field. The banal idiocy of the liberal, centrist, and now alt-right debate has been answered by contrarian-left columnists and their invocation of the Cold War witch hunt against allegedly-traitorous alleged communists, except this time it is not right-wing anti-communists being called out for baiting anyone to the left of Joe McCarthy as a red. No, the Soviet Union having collapsed 25 years ago, the roles of left and right have been inverted, and so it is the left-of-center critics of a proto-fascist who risk being outed as rank McCarthyites for criticizing a billionaire’s ties to and fondness for a right-wing authoritarian (one on the verge of a formal partnership with the U.S. war machine).
And with that, the alien craft exits the solar system.
Donald J. Trump, the candidate citing the Cold War as the basis for a new, “ideological screening test” to be imposed on immigrants: a victim of anti-communism? The mere thought of the argument may dull the senses, but it’s an argument that, unlike the USSR, just will not die in the alt-reality of punditry. That matters, not just because bad arguments are bad (certainly they are, but not all are worth rebutting), but because world peace literally depends on it. If the left’s so singularly focused on the worst claim a liberal personality has to offer that it spends more time rebutting than proposing—explaining that Vladimir Putin is not the head of the Illuminati—we’ll never get around to building a genuinely internationalist movement that rejects conspiracy for a consistent opposition to greedy capitalists and vicious imperialists wherever they may be.
In the meantime; instead: “Democrats Are Redbaiting Like It’s 1956,” informs the online magazine Current Affairs, for example, the article to which the headline is attached arguing that 2016 Democrats “have revived a long-dormant practice: accusing those to their left of being Kremlin operatives, and discrediting their political opponents with allegations of grand KGB conspiracies.”
But Russia isn’t red and neither is the Republican nominee for president. Still, though, we persist as if the KGB still exists, not because those engaging in the discourse are dumb, necessarily, but rather: we’re distracted by the dumbest arguments of the moment, and opposing them, to the point that we’re not making better arguments of our own. To wit: By suggesting, for instance, that Russian hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee and leaked unflattering emails to harm a candidate the Russian government has reason to hate — conflated, for purposes of knocking a straw-argument out the park, with the decidedly less common belief that Trump is literally a Russian secret agent — liberal Democrats are “conspiratorially positing that those who disagree with them are either intentionally or unintentionally serving the interests of the Kremlin.”
That argument requires no conspiracy, though: Trump has proposed policies that would serve the interests of the Kremlin — which, like the United States, seeks to promote its interests abroad — just as he and others, like Hillary Clinton, have proposed policies that would serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain and other repressive governments. And, just as the U.S. notices when certain factions abroad are perceived as more amenable to its interests, Russia does as well. This isn’t chemtrails.
‘Red-Baiting’ Apologists for a Reactionary Russia
“It’s totally wrong to explain Trump’s success by externalizing him as a simple instrument of the Kremlin,” Ilya Budraitskis, an activist in Moscow with the opposition Russian Socialist Movement, told me. That’s not the dominant charge, but insofar as there are people making it the irony is it’s essentially the same line Putin and his allies use in Russia, “where the opposition is proclaimed to be ‘foreign agents’ and ‘national traitors.’”
Still, there’s no doubt who the Kremlin favors. “Of course Russia, for the moment, would prefer Trump as the next U.S. president,” he said. “The mainstream media inside our country glorify him as a ‘realistic thinking politician.” So while talk of secret agents is to be discouraged, the mainstream debate on Trump’s connections to and policies toward Russia would seem to be a legitimate one.
But the U.S. and Russia have historically been adversaries, something that those calling out McCarthyism, on the left, highlight as a distinguishing feature.
The history “of linking your political opponents to Russia,” The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald said in a recent interview with Slate, “is a really dangerous and ugly one in the U.S.” In The New York Daily News, columnist Michael Tracey likewise argues that, “business dealings with sketchy Moscow oligarchs” aside, the linking of Trump to Putin “harkens back to the old days when McCarthyite slurs were regularly heaped on anyone who dared deviate from foreign policy orthodoxy.”
But McCarthyite slurs were not “heaped on anyone”: they were heaped on liberals and leftists by conservatives and fascists who believed the foreign policy establishment, not the fringe, was too soft on the Soviets. It was a right-wing movement that carelessly slung baseless charges of disloyalty and likened liberal domestic reforms to what at the time was the least appealing version of “the left” on the international stage, just as conservatives today link any left-of-center agenda to the economic crisis in Venezuela—or, still, democratic socialism with Stalinism.
But Trump does break with the U.S. establishment on foreign policy, and on Russia in particular, yes? Because that’s where the meat of this is supposed to lie: Whether the allegations are true or not that are ostensibly tainted due to the fact Trump is not being attacked due to the factual merits of his ties to Russia, like $12.7 million in secret payments from Ukraine’s deposed pro-Russia ruling party to Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort, according to The New York Times, and Russian elites making up “a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” according to Trump’s son, Donald Jr. No, it’s his alleged break from the “orthodoxy” — his adherence to a “coherent philosophy that is non-interventionist,” as Greenwald told Slate — that sullies the discussion.
Does he really break from the Washington consensus in a meaningful, coherent manner, though? Trump is a critic of his opponent’s foreign policy, as one would expect of an opponent, but he is an avowed interventionist in his own right, calling for stepped up airstrikes in Libya and tens of thousands of combat troops in Iraq and Syria. But this is where tackling the dumbest version of an argument from a Clinton surrogate leads: a myopic compulsion to rebut the week’s most inane talking point very often compels absurdity and the hasty abandonment of one argument for the next.
Just over a week after telling Slate that Trump is an unorthodox isolationist, for instance, Greenwald was back with a column that argued the Republican nominee is, actually, in step with Washington’s foreign policy elite. Among other things, Trump has been “attacked by Democrats” over “his desire to cooperate with Putin in Syria,” Greenwald noted, but — and this will make the libs feel silly — “there’s another politician who advocates many of these exact same policies. His name is… Barack Obama.” And Barack Obama, the president of the U.S. empire, “wants to work in cooperation with, not opposition to, Russia, and has proposed a partnership to achieve that.”
A remarkable own, but of who? I venture: The Discourse just owned the columnist. Instead of writing a piece condemning a U.S. plan to escalate its air war in Syria — 5,000 airstrikes and 1,000 dead civilians — by sharing intelligence with and bombing Syria alongside Russia in a formal war partnership, Greenwald and other lefty anti-imperialists are preoccupied with scoring debate points in the game we call “the hegemonic binary discourse.” Escalating a war is accepted as mere “cooperation,” with opposition to that escalation confined to an aside on social media, if that — a distraction from the main point, which is: Trump is a victim of liberal McCarthyism because he breaks from the militarist status quo of the new Cold Warriors, but, also, he advocates the exact same policies being actively pursued by the most powerful people in the world.
An Allergy to Complexity
But vertigo-inducing Trump contrarianism is a symptom of a broader problem on the left, particularly its name-brand pundits. Rather than challenge the consensus on what the debate is with an independent, left-wing perspective, the parameters of debate are abided by those who think they’re breaking down walls by pointing out the room has four of them, not only two.
Instead of pointing out, front and center, that dropping bombs alongside Russia and dropping bombs on it are both undesirable, it accepts, for purposes of the discourse, a logic that an Intercept writer might well call Orwellian, with going to war billed as the opposite of going to war. Covered in the filth of the media trenches, the pundit slays talking points with talking points until the connection to reality is almost completely severed.
This speaks to the lack of a real, left-wing vision. On foreign policy, which is what the “McCarthyism” debate is all about, there is only reaction, with ahistorical references to anti-communist hysteria acting as what libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin described as “a form of McCarthyism in reverse”; a means of shutting down an intelligent conversation about U.S. policy and the left’s stance toward Russia. This leads to stasis: Talking points haven’t been updated since 2006, popular uprisings are conflated with externally imposed regime change and ongoing U.S. interventions — including ones planned with Russia — are omitted in favor of a Simplified Anti-Imperialism for the choir that hits all the familiar notes.
Adam Johnson uses his platform at The Nation, for instance, to slam the liberal media’s warmongering on Syria. Some ugly souls want to “do something” about kids being slaughtered there—they want another Libya!—and this media analyst is here to check the media’s push for a “humanitarian” war. Curiously, or not, two years of U.S. airstrikes, or the war that is actually happening, make it through the column without even passing condemnation. It is the threat of Nicholas Kristof that preoccupies, and usefully so: a year before Johnson was warning of “radical, medieval wahhabists” taking over the country, adopting the rhetoric of the neoconservative right in order to score a debate point against the do-something liberals. Thousands of U.S. airstrikes later and it might be awkward to acknowledge the target is actually the “wahhabists,” not the regime whose viral victims Johnson suggests could help escalate a war.
That the actual escalation with a chance of happening is being mapped out by John Kerry and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, and has nothing to do with saving the victims of the latter and its Syrian ally? If it’s not described as “cooperation,” it’s not described at all. The narrative insists. The media war demands.
This is a problem. A left that doesn’t wish to confront the hard questions posed by reality retreats to lazy “media analysis” and the comfort of its tried and true talking points, winning social media debates in the eyes of the like-minded while losing the war for hearts and minds outside the internet subculture. Incapable or unwilling to provide an alternative to a dichotomy — neoconservativism or isolationism; Russia as a partner in war or the target of one — it rebuts arguments made of straw for purposes of self-satisfaction, not social change.
In an age of right-wing revanchism, left-wing pundits are providing too few answers to real world questions, preferring the smarmy certainty of stale cliches to developing a genuine alternative to dumbed-down binaries, with war framed as peace — or the framing at least accepted for purposes of the all-important argumentation — while actually existing airstrikes are omitted in arguments against war. If this is all the left has to offer, less and less people are going to sign up for its lectures and the genuinely left, genuinely antiwar movement we need to upend 21st century capitalist imperialism will continue to be an afterthought, on the left and among those in power.