By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.
Photo by Kristoffer Trolle | CC BY 2.0
Donald Trump is guilty of something, guilty as sin. Nobody outside his innermost circle knows yet what he is guilty of, and all the evidence is circumstantial. But guilty he surely is.
Is it that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton? That is the story line that corporate media take for gospel truth. It is not out of the question that some Russians, some of whom had some connection with the Russian government, hacked into something. Even if they did, however, the Russian meddling story is ridiculously overblown – for reasons that are politically self-serving and irresponsibly, if not criminally, dangerous.
If catastrophic outcomes can somehow be avoided, that story will eventually go the way of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Before that happens, however, count on Vladimir Putin’s affront to the “integrity” of American democracy being used to justify devastating, potentially catastrophic, diplomatic and military adventures — in much the way that Saddam Hussein’s WMDs once were.
By the time the dust settles, it will likely become clear that either there never was any reason to accept the party line on Russian meddling or that, even if there was something to it, there was never any reason to get all worked up about it.
This is not to say that “Russiagate” investigations should be opposed; quite to the contrary, there is every reason to support them fully.
If nothing else, investigations like Robert Mueller’s and the ones underway in the House and Senate help keep Trump and the people he has brought into his administration from executing their nefarious agendas. Better yet, they are likely, before long, to bring Trump himself down – in ways that would make it harder for Trump’s appointees and, when the times comes, for Mike Pence to turn many of the progressive gains of the past hundred or so years around.
But the fact remains: the election meddling furor is, at best, a red herring – about which all one can honestly say, for now, is: Who knows? Who cares?
Who knows – because the only reason to think that there was Russian meddling is that “the intelligence community” says there was. But, as everybody knows or ought to know, they are inveterate liars. Lying is in their genes and in their job descriptions.
Moreover, if history is a guide, they are just as likely to be wrong as to be right, even when they aren’t deliberately telling lies.
Everybody also knows that the CIA in particular is not above politicizing intelligence when it serves some institutional purpose.
Who knows too – because liberal and not-so-liberal media have been pressing the case for Russian election meddling so vigorously for such a long time that the idea has become almost second nature to all but the most circumspect consumers of news. In cases like this, the wisest course of action usually is to become more, not less, skeptical.
It is hard to say which media outlet is the most at fault; the competition is so intense. The Washington Post and The New York Times are serious contenders, though it must be said, in fairness, that the Trump menace seems to have reignited a taste for real investigative reporting – about Trump — in both of them. For that, one could forgive a great deal.
But they are still, on the whole, a servile lot. My vote for the worst of them all is MSNBC, with Joy Reid leading the way and Rachel (take twenty minutes to make a twenty second point) Maddow close behind.
A character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” advised believing only half of what one sees and nothing that one hears. Inasmuch as most of what one sees and hears about Russian meddling in the 2016 election are breathless repetitions of claims originating in the intelligence services, this is good advice in the case at hand.
The problem is not “fake news,” news reports that are deliberately deceptive. Trump blathers on endlessly about that – in his usual, self-serving, bullying way – using the term so loosely as to void it of meaning. On this as on so much else, what comes out of Trump’s mouth and what one reads in his tweets is sheer nonsense.
It is true, of course, that, under his aegis and inspiration, there has been an up-tick in deliberately false news stories, mainly in “alt-right” media outlets. But there is little, if any, genuinely fake (deliberately false) news in mainstream media. This side of Fox News, and sometimes even there, most journalists do try to maintain journalistic standards. They are not pathological liars, little Donald Trumps.
What they are, wittingly or not, are propagandists – in the sense discussed long ago by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in Manufacturing Consent (reprint edition, Pantheon, 2002). Ï
Through the workings of the several mechanisms described in that book, they fashion and reinforce narratives, story lines, that accord with the interests of the owners of the corporations they work for and, when the need arises, with the interests of the entirety of what C. Wright Mills called the “power structure.” At the same time, they derogate and marginalize counter-narratives that have, or could have, effects detrimental to the interests of the people and institutions they serve.
Their express intention, of course, is to report the news, not to maintain the status quo; they don’t set out to deceive. More often than not, they believe the stories they tell. Why would they not? The system they are part of incentivizes compliance with the power structure’s interests; and, when tensions arise, it is generally easier to go along than to be a stickler for plausibility.
For getting mainstream media to sign on to the election meddling narrative, it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of the role played by a key component of the power structure in the United States today, the Democratic Party.
That is how desperate Democrats are to make sure that Clinton’s stunning, self-inflicted defeat last November will not be Clintonism’s (neoliberalism’s, liberal imperialism’s) last hurrah. To that end, they have been willing, even eager, to revive Cold War demons that had lain dormant for decades — bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse.
Ostensibly the less noxious of the two neoliberal parties that dominate our politics, Democrats today have sunk so low that were Republicans still no worse than they were, say, when they fell into line behind George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, or even before Obama’s 2008 electoral victory made many rank-and-file Republicans bat shit crazy, it would now be an open question which party actually is the greater evil of the two.
The consensus view in mainstream media lately, in the Democratic Party, and increasingly in the Republican Party as well, is that Trump is doing grave harm to the office of the Presidency and to many of the institutions, both domestic and international, through which the United States has dominated the world since 1945.
This is certainly the case. But, contrary to what is assumed throughout the power structure, it is at least debatable whether Trump’s effect on these institutions – and the negative effect his presidency is having on the GOP itself – is, on balance, a good or bad thing.
Instead of rallying around the Democratic Party, a genuine Left would itself be taking aim at the bastions of empire and class rule that Trump is mindlessly but inexorably undoing. Trump’s way is nihilistic and thuggish; and the only alternatives he or his cabinet secretaries and agency heads have in mind are odious even by Republican standards.
This is why the Trump presidency is, and will continue to be, an unmitigated disaster – no matter how much damage Trump does to the old world order or to some of the more disabling institutional arrangements afflicting the political scene.
Democrats can be and, for the most part, actually are, monumentally awful, but Republicans who support Trump are worse. This would not be so plainly the case, if the comparison was with pre-9/11 Republicans or even with the Republican Party before the 2008 election.
After all, if the appropriate metric is damage to world peace, geopolitical stability, and the wellbeing of humankind, Bush is still the worst President ever. Of course, if Trump mentally decomposes more than he already has, or if he starts acting out in exceptionally lethal ways, he could surpass even the standard Bush has set. For now, though, six months into the Trump era, W remains Number One How revealing, therefore, that the very media that, to their credit, have nothing good to say about the billionaire buffoon, are now welcoming Bush, and his underlings, back into the fold.
In polite society nowadays, Obamaphiles, including Obama himself and his First Lady, even seem to regard Bush the Younger as one of the good guys; and miscreants from his administration are featured in all the leading media outlets. How pathetic is that!
To his credit, however, Bush, unlike Trump, was not blatantly racist or nativist in his public pronouncements; and notwithstanding the fact that he and Cheney waged war on the Muslim world, he wasn’t overtly Islamophobic either. The party he led generally followed suit.
However, once he was gone, Tea Partiers and Tea Party fellow travelers didn’t have anything holding them back. With Obama at the helm of the empire, it didn’t take long for them to make the Party over in their image.
For appearance sake, the Republican Party became the Party of No, but what they really were was the anti-Obama-for-all-the wrong-reasons Party. Republicans had no principled reason to turn Obama into Public Enemy Number One; his political views, which he did little to advance in any case, were more or less in line with those of pre-2001, or even pre-2008, Republicans.
Obama’s rival in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, was essentially a pre-2008 Republican; politically, he and Obama were cut from the same cloth. Tea Partiers didn’t like that one bit, but even the most “deplorable” of them never hated Romney the way they hated Obama. What set their hatred off was the color of Obama’s skin.
How else to account for eight years of “repeal and replace Obamacare” sloganeering? In substance and genealogy (its origins in the Heritage Foundation, the implementation of something very like it in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney) Obamacare is essentially a Republican program. Had it not come with Obama’s name attached, doctrinaire free-market theologians of the Rand Paul or Ted Cruz variety would still not like it, but neither would they or any of their co-thinkers get especially worked up on its account.
Nevertheless, it was opposition to Obamacare, more than anything else, that kept the GOP’s several factions together during the Obama years. How ironic that all those “repeal and replace” Republicans are now floundering because when they finally got their chance to do what they said they wanted to do, they were unable to do anything at all. It is tempting to say that they outsmarted themselves, but the word “smart” grates when applied to them.
Democrats are generally nicer than Republicans, and many times more civilized. Were their self-exonerating anti-Russian, anti-Putin campaigning not so dangerous, they would plainly be the good guys still, comparatively speaking.
Even with their hysterical Russophobia, they probably still are. But being comparatively less awful than the GOP is no reason to buy into the election meddling story that Democrats are so assiduously promoting.
It is possible, of course, that despite all the reasons to be skeptical of their narrative, there is some truth in what they say. Even if there is, however, why make such a big deal or it? Who cares?
Evidently, pundits with venting privileges on ostensibly liberal cable networks do and Democratic Party sore losers, but their concerns are misdirected. No one, not even the worst of the worst on MSNBC, claims that those dastardly Russian meddlers affected the outcome of the election in any significant way. Russians didn’t defeat Hillary Clinton; she defeated herself.
It is not for want of trying that no one has been able to make a plausible case for the claim that, but for Russian meddling, Clinton would have beaten Trump. But, alas, no one has been able to maintain that Russians had anything to do with collecting or counting votes, or that they interfered with the workings of the electoral process in any other way.
The idea instead is that they depressed Democratic turnout by diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton. They did this, supposedly, by providing evidence of the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to rig the election for Hillary and against Bernie Sanders, and by demeaning Clinton in ways that Democrats and their friends in the mainstream press don’t even bother to try to spell out.
If only the Democrats and their media flacks would evince half as much self-righteous indignation over past and on-going Republican efforts at voter suppression! There is no doubt that they were real and that their consequences were significant. Neither is the case with alleged Russian voter suppression efforts last year.
Moreover, even if the Russians did do all that our propagandists claimed they did, they did nothing worse than what countless homegrown political operatives do when they sell candidates to voters in more or less the way that commercial advertisers sell the wares they peddle to targeted audiences.
The difference is morally significant. If the Russians actually did suppress voter turnout in 2016, it was through one or another form of persuasion. Republicans suppress votes by making it difficult, or impossible, for likely Democratic voters — African Americans and other “persons of color” mainly, but also students, and many elderly citizens — to exercise their right to vote.
The consensus view notwithstanding, the Russian election meddling narrative is short on compelling evidence, and is grounded in a patently defective rationale. Even so, it could still have merit.
But even if there was meddling as charged, nothing much came of it. This has always been obvious, and it too is significant.
Sanders supporters didn’t need Russians to tell them that the Democratic Party wanted Bernie to lose and Hillary to win. Everyone paying attention knew that already. Clinton’s shortcomings were also evident for all to see.
Therefore, if the story line being pushed by our “manufacturers of consent” is on track, it would only show that those Russians are not nearly as clever as the propagandists vilifying them would like people to think. By documenting the obvious, what they did made about as much sense as throwing buckets of water into the ocean.
Why then is Trump putting the extent of his ineptitude on display by acting as if he is about to block the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling? Trump may not be the magisterial dealmaker his remaining fans believe him to be, but he is surely not as self-destructively stupid as his actions suggest.
The answer must be that he really does have something to hide; something more damaging than anything the mainstream media narrative suggests.
Trump doesn’t know much, but he surely does know that Congressional investigations and Justice Department investigations involving special prosecutors take on lives of their own, even when, in the first instance, they are much ado about nothing. Watergate was only “a third-rate burglary,” after all.
He is also shrewd enough to realize that his business machinations give Congress and the Justice Department plenty to investigate. There is sleaze galore out there, waiting to be uncovered.
Therefore, in the weeks and months ahead, if Trump is still around – or even if he returns to the gilded monstrosity on Fifth Avenue that he had built to glorify himself, leaving arch-reactionary Mike Pence in charge — we will have loads of well-corroborated reports of shady (artful?) deals with Russian oligarchs and, insofar as there is a difference, Russian mobsters, making the news interesting again.
This is sheer speculation, of course; and the evidence, what there is of it so far, is circumstantial. Much of it consists of idiotic tweets that suggest nothing more damning than an acute consciousness of guilt. Ì
Nevertheless, I would bet the ranch, if I had one to bet, that honest and determined investigators with subpoena power scratching beneath the surface, will find incontrovertible proof of legal, moral, or political infractions so egregious that even the fools who still refuse to admit that Trump conned them into thinking that, as President, he would somehow make their lives better, will find it impossible to keep on standing by their man.
Trump is guilty, a hundred times over; and it is plain as day too that whatever it turns out to be that he is guilty of, that his over-arching cupidity and vanity made him do it.
Finding out what he is guilty of should be at the top of every competent authority’s to do list. It should also become a consuming passion of journalists who, for their own good and the good of the public they serve, no longer want to propagandize for the beneficiaries of the status quo.
Because the power structure is so thoroughly and uniformly intent on dumping Trump – not for wholly creditable reasons, but, for a matter of such urgency, that hardly matters – opportunities for doing authentic journalism, even in the face of the propaganda mechanisms Herman and Chomsky identified, now exist to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable before November 2016.
It is a complicated business, however because the same anti-Trump animosities that make it possible to mobilize the press against the government also enable the Democratic Party to enlist support, in media circles and more generally, for the demonization of Putin and his government, with all the dangers that ensue.
So, by all means, investigate, investigate, and investigate some more – taking care, however, not to be sidetracked onto false paths where perils of Clintonite design threaten to spin out of control in ways that even competent statesmen, like Putin and Sergey Lavrov, would have a hard time diffusing, if they still had reasonable interlocutors in Washington to work with.
Those are, to put it mildly, in short supply. With Trump in the White House and a bipartisan (but Clinton inspired) neocon consensus in Congress, reasonable interlocutors in Washington are about as numerous as genuine progressives in the Democratic fold.
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).