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Can Republicans Break Free of the ‘Russian Trap’?

Thursday, March 30, 2017 10:03
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Can Republicans Break Free of the ‘Russian Trap’?



The Democrats’ recent campaign to accuse Moscow of conspiring with Trump to meddle in the US presidential election looks completely preposterous when viewed from Russia, but it must be acknowledged that this plan of attack is having an effect. By forcing the Republicans into a discussion about the «hand of Putin», the losing party has virtually paralyzed the work of the new administration, which simply does not have sufficient time and energy to embark on the promised changes. For example, the recent attempts to overhaul the infamous system of Obamacare ended in fiasco. Seemingly longer trying to loosen their rivals’ grip on power by seeking to minimize Trump’s residence in the White House and winning a majority in Congress, the Democrats are casting about, looking for any exposed raw nerve.

But in fact this tactic is hardly new – it’s easy to recognize these maneuvers from the sad playbook of the McCarthy era. The technique is fairly simple: first an image of absolute evil is established and perpetuated – in this case, of Russia and Vladimir Putin – and then anyone who has had the slightest contact with them or has even offered a sympathetic assessment (a «thought crime») is ostracized.

Trump himself has mentioned the wave of McCarthyism in the US. Of course, it hasn’t yet gotten to the point that thousands of people are being overtly repressed and persecuted, but American society has changed. The public has access to a wealth of alternative sources of information, and far from all of them are inclined to blindly trust «the arbiters of the discourse». Especially when the din of the propaganda grows louder based on such flimsy pretexts. However, at the «highest levels» where policy takes shape, this neo-McCarthyite tactic is still effective.

Apparently they’re right when they claim that everything that’s old is new again. Every subsequent era, despite being fresh and new, inevitably includes elements from previous epochs. It looks like we’re in some ways revisiting the 1950s, which was distinguished by its tenor of reciprocal attacks between the two opposing camps of the day. Only one of those camps – the formerly socialist or «eastern» one – long ago broke free of the vicious cycle of its faith in its own exclusivity and disintegrated, while the «Western» one seems doomed to continue that cycle. Even the geographic coordinates of both eras’ biggest crises are similar: the «Suez Crisis» and the «Arab Spring» in the Middle East, the volatility on the Korean peninsula, and the unrest in Europe.

By way of illustration, many of the speeches heard at the recent House Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 US election could have easily been made 70 years ago. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on that committee, set the tone for the hearings. He even dubbed the matter, «one of the most serious issues of our time». According to him, the «war of ideas» continues, only this time it is not «communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy», although otherwise this is nothing but a sequel. Consequently, some «good old McCarthyism» is fully justified. Moreover, Schiff emphasized that what Russia is doing is not the most important thing, but rather what it is capable of doing. In other words, there is no need to even prove anything, when what you’re dealing with is inherently evil. And the Democrats did not prove anything at these hearings – they just repeated information, such about the Republicans’ business and personal contacts with representatives of Russia that are not in and of themselves anything unusual. No evidence emerged of the notorious «collusion». The figures of speech Schiff used do not count as evidence: «None of these facts is seriously in question» and «We will never know whether the Russian intervention was determinative in such a close election … for the purposes of our investigation, it simply does not matter». 

Meanwhile, despite the fact that this campaign is utterly without merit, the Republicans are not able to shut it down in a convincing manner, since they themselves are mired in the trap of anti-Russian prejudices. In their attempts to at least remove themselves from that line of fire, they not challenging the premise of Moscow’s a priori «hostility» towards Washington. For example, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that held these hearings, Devin Nunes, stated, for example, «Russia also has a long history of meddling in other countries, election systems and launching cyber attacks on a wide range of countries and industries». Moreover, with unparalleled pathos, he lamented that «our inability to predict Putin’s regime plans and intentions has been the biggest intelligence failure that we have seen since 9/11». (?!) For all intents and purposes, the Republicans have resorted to only one defense gambit: they demanded that intelligence staffers who leaked information about their personal contacts to the media and to their rivals be held to account. By acknowledging Russian interference in general, but not necessarily in favor of any one candidate, they have deliberately assumed a vulnerable, no-win position, condemning themselves to simply «hunkering down» and giving the Democrats the opportunity to further crank up their fairly unsophisticated propaganda machine.

Some think that Trump made a mistake by not replacing Obama’s director of the FBI, who seems to be channeling J. Edgar Hoover, one of the biggest personalities from the McCarthy era. James Comey possesses compromising information on both Republicans and Democrats and has shown that he can open an investigation into anyone if he so wishes. Leaks from Comey’s office, which he supposedly cannot prevent, occur with suspicious frequency. By reviving the question of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails right before the election, Comey managed to ensure that Trump would leave him in place as head of the FBI. But then Comey quickly backed off from that issue and is currently openly assisting the Democrats in their attacks on the president. Former Trump staffer Robert Wasinger believes that Trump should not allow the emergence of a new J. Edgar Hoover and that «[t]he battle for control of the federal government begins with Comey».

However, the Democrats shouldn’t waste their time celebrating. Their victories will be short-lived. The losing party’s neo-McCarthyite tactics only expose and fuel the crisis gripping the entire system of governance, substantiating those criticisms of the system hurled by Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders during the election.

Trump’s weakness is that, unlike during his campaign, he is now part of that system and must play by its rules. And the system is happy to take its revenge on him. That alone will drag the crisis out. There is a segment of the populace that might convince itself that all tribulations are «because of Russia», but that means that the true causes of the crisis within the system will only be pushed further inward, threatening to erupt someday with even more of a bang. All this resembles the last throes of the late Soviet empire.

Of course the Republicans have no intention of backing down. Some key figures from Trump’s inner circle suspected by the Democrats of «colluding» with Russia, including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Carter Page, have already stated their willingness to appear before the House Intelligence Committee during the next round of hearings. Presumably they will be able to refute many personal accusations, and, for example, the «documents» fabricated by the Ukrainian authorities to defame Manafort will be easy to discredit. However, it is still difficult for Republicans to escape the «Russian noose» as long as they themselves are still susceptible to either the myth of Russians’ almost intrinsic hostility to Americans or the unrelenting threat to America’s security supposedly emanating from Moscow. They still have a choice to make: what is more important – antiquated clichés or the growing risk of political reversals in the near future?

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