Vladimir Putin. Kremlin photo

If You Think Investigating Trump’s Russia Ties Is a Distraction, You’re Missing the Point

We can’t let the oligarchs sell out American democracy


According to reporting and public testimony, federal law enforcement has a growing body of evidence that Pres. Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated with spies from a country hostile to U.S. national interests to criminally undermine his opponent’s campaign.

Nobody can deny the historical significance and the total fucking weirdness of this whole thing, but there are a number of critics on the left who believe that the present focus on Russia stories is a distraction from more important issues.

Paul Street summarized it well on Counterpunch. “The Russia Madness focuses public attention on something Trump isn’t, a Kremlin tool, rather than what he really is: an arch-plutocratic pre-fascist racist and sexist and super-militarist enemy of the poor and working-class majority.”

Everything Street wrote is true, but it’s still an overstatement to say that the Russia story is irrelevant except as a red herring. The collusion between Trump and Russian intelligence is a profoundly important story, but not because Russia subverted U.S. democracy — the presidential election was never democratic.

It was a gambit for the sake of oligarchy, and perhaps the most important story here is the Democrats’ inability to identify this fact thanks to their own devotion to billionaire power and their disconnection from the broad, working U.S. masses.

Most disturbingly, their devotion dovetails with the deeper implications of the Russian plot to suggest some very dark days ahead.

We can resolve the contradiction at the heart of this controversy — whether we should be more focused on Trump’s Russia ties or his oppressive politics — by recognizing that the true significance of the Russian controversy is that it is all about deepening the exploitation and oppression of already subjugated communities in this country.

The people directly responsible for the collusion — Mark Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Carter Page and even Trump himself — aren’t just Russophiles motivated simply by an affinity for the Kremlin. They also all have deep connections to corporate power in this country, including some of the largest, most politically powerful industries.

Their comfort with Russia is a function of the Russian government’s oligarchy, and their eagerness to introduce Russian influence into U.S. politics is an eagerness to deepen oligarchical tendencies in U.S. governance.

Bernie Sanders. Photo via Wikipedia

They were not alone by any means. The major donors who got behind Trump and his transition, including those that left their private businesses to “serve” his regime knew about these allegations. Some may have preferred to hope that the claims weren’t true — and they still lack conclusive proof, though there is certainly a lot of smoke for a non-fire — but the vast majority must assume that they are fact.

This is Trump’s class base, and whether they see the Russian collaboration as no big deal or an upside he is activating their comfort with oligarchic rule. His appointment of billionaires to positions where they can dismantle their regulators, his installation of lobbyists and political extremists into a “beachhead” that can turn the federal bureaucracy into a monolithic tool for unbridled corporate power and his own self-dealing from the Oval Office all take advantage of this comfort.

The transition to a formal oligarchy is not necessarily immediate, though if you step back and look at the last two months it is frankly disorienting just how quickly things are moving. One important step towards this illiberal transformation is the impunity Trump and his campaign team will likely enjoy for their crimes.

Yes, the FBI says that they are investigating these claims and demonstrated at least some independence during bureau director James Comey’s testimony on Monday. But Comey has shown a susceptibility to politics in the past and media reports indicated a deep level of support for Trump in the Bureau. This would reflect his support among law enforcement over all, and if the FBI doesn’t do its job, who does?

The GOP controls Congress and the chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence — Devin Nunes — has already been carrying water for Trump, even serving on his transition team.

And if Congress finds its independence or the FBI actually does build a real case, who will then take the case to court? Trump’s Justice Department? His hand-picked prosecutors? Again, Congress could impeach him, but an oligarchic government has a way of richly rewarding those who do nice things for them, including members of Congress.

At that point we could have compelling evidence that the president is a crook in league with foreign dictators to turn the United States into a final-form oligarchy while dismantling our empire’s strategic alliances and he would face no consequences.

Such a president can more or less do whatever he pleases. One of those pleasing things and the key necessity for the whole scheme to work is smashing the electoral process. We have tolerated widespread voter suppression for a number of years now, and Trump has openly promised even more. He will seal his oligarchy when he delivers on this promise, too.

All of this is far from irrelevant to the left. What hopes we’ve had and what toeholds we’ve held onto at this point are all rooted in mass democracy, and our primary enemy is concentrated economic power. The Russian plot is all about smashing what we’ve worked with and empowering what we’ve fought.

The whole thing is aimed directly at the working class and will be dependent on imperialist war and the scapegoating of internal enemies — the already marginalized and brutalized parts of our country. Trump’s collaboration with Vladimir Putin’s regime and his fascistic policy choices aren’t separate, competing stories — they are two faces of the same story.

But that’s not how the Democrats or the liberal media understand it. To date I have heard none of these dots connected by any liberal commenter or politician. Instead they speak in nationalistic, militaristic, even McCarthyist terms. They puff up their chests in self-righteous patriotism and speak solemnly of “treason.” They even turn thoughtfully to George W. Bush as a voice of selfless service and national honor — they’re literally shameless.

The truth is that liberalism is rooted in the false notion that there is a fundamental unity of interests at the heart of our society and that we really all can get along. “What unites us is more important than what divides us,” an Aaron Sorkin character might put it. This drives their cloying need for approval, especially from the right.

Liberals are always arguing that you really are on their side if you’ll just listen, and they are also always eager to show off just how butch they are. Nothing makes you sound more like a tough guy than calling your political opponents traitors and threatening war with Russia. Hence their rhetoric since the election.

In this instance their desire to sound tough also serves the very useful purpose of deflecting responsibility for their most recent electoral bedshitting. They don’t have to address the fact that most people in this country can’t stand the Democratic Party, that their leaders are roughly as unpopular as a rapist who helped Putin corrupt our elections.

Democratic Socialists of America photo

Such an opportunity to avoid accountability, protect the innocence of the ruling class and sound like nationalistic tough guys so rarely comes around. No wonder the Democrats have such a hard-on for the whole Russian thing.

They have to avoid any self-examination because Trump or no Trump the Democrats are doomed. You can break down last year’s electorate into four broad tendencies that answer two basic questions. The first was more important. Are things fundamentally okay in the United States right now, or are they fucked?

The second helped to sort out the sides divided by that question. Which class is responsible for the fuckedness or greatness of the United States at this time?

The two most energized and impactful candidates of the year — Trump and Bernie Sanders — said that the country had big, undeniable problems at its core. The two lamest, underperforming candidates — Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, along with the lame but overperforming John Kasich — argued that while there were things that needed fixing things were generally okay.

Clinton’s whole convention was themed around how great things already were for everybody, a lie betrayed by the very visible protests led by Sanders supporters throughout the week.

Jeb! and Kasich would tend to give wealthy elites the credit for America’s hunky-doriness, while Clinton probably would have given the middle class that credit. Their positions are much squishier and overlapping, however, as Clinton loves her some billionaires and Bush and them kiss up to the middle class too.

No one who has actually seen the state of the U.S. working class or poor would ever be able to claim that things were going fine in this country, so they were invisible from this analysis and these campaigns.

Bernie and Trump were much less reconcilable, on the other hand, with Bernie blaming the “millionaires and billionaires” for the country’s problems and Trump pointing the finger at immigrants and people of color. Both did, however, attack the political status quo, and this was the source of their popularity and power.

This status quo is precisely what the Democrats are eager to avoid offending as they focus on the Russia stories without any talk of the scandal’s bigger economic context.

If the Democrats were really focused on beating Trump they would step back, examine their loss and recognize that their major failure was in not acknowledging that most Americans feel completely screwed over right now.

The fact that they still can’t acknowledge a core rot in the American body politic even with Trump as president tells you everything you need to know — they absolutely refuse to admit that the very system they were so central in constructing has destroyed the lives of the very people they claimed to represent.

They aren’t pushing for a bolder alternative on health care, they are defending a system that has left 28 million without coverage and that charges millions more of us out the ass for health insurance that still doesn’t cover our basic needs. They aren’t pushing for a $52-billion investment in higher education or housing or something else progressive, they just impotently complain about spending it on the military.

Actually they don’t even do that — they just glide right over it and focus on other budget items. And even then they aren’t pushing for a big increase in spending on the arts and humanities, they just complain about the cuts.

The sickening fact is that the Democratic Party does not exist to win elections, it exists to serve the ruling classes. Winning elections has been the best way for the Democrats to do this in the past, but now the things they need to do to win threaten their ultimate purpose. They will therefore actively avoid doing what it takes to win and instead put their energy into issues that justify a failure to learn from their mistakes.

Trump is going to try for meaningless elections, the Democrats don’t care if they lose, they both want to secure powerful economic interests. There’s one country that would immediately recognize a nationalist strongman-led state with toothless, half-assed opposition posing only an imaginary threat no matter how tough they talk. No wonder Russia cut the deal they did.

That’s all the bad news. The other bad news is that there are no organized political institutions capable of resisting this at this point, and so there is very little chance that we will be able to stop this circumstance from setting in. The good news, however, is that there are more folks organizing to build new, authentically democratic institutions than we have seen in decades.

Our Revolution, the Democratic Socialists of America and a variety of smaller but more militant — and possibly more important — groups are growing all over the country.

Join one today. Bust your ass. Dig in, get ready for the long haul, and focus on what really matters. In the end it isn’t about treason or loyalty, it’s about collusion with the rulers or defiance. As always, stay defiant.

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