How Russia Hysteria Contaminated The Montana Special Election

After his GOP opponent Greg Gianforte was charged with assault for “bodyslamming” and pummeling a reporter on Wednesday — one of the most insane last-minute turns in American political history, surely — Rob Quist may pull out a victory tonight in the Montana special House election. And there are aspects of his campaign that you might call laudable or refreshing in certain respects, though several of the national narratives swirling around this race don’t have much basis in on-the-ground reality. But for all Quist’s luster as a populist leading a Bernie Sanders-offshoot, mini-revolution thing in Montana, there are ways in which you can see national Democratic Party messaging seeping into his campaign stylings.

Namely, here’s what Quist said of Gianforte at a televised debate on April 29: “He will bet on Russia, I’ll bet on Montana.”

His campaign also blasted out the following attack:

“Montana voters deserved to know why Greg Gianforte held onto his shady Russian investments after repeated Russian aggression against the United States and why he kept his Russian ties secret during his failed run for governor.”

What exactly does this bluster stem from? Gianforte, a multi-millionaire, owns shares in two index funds that are invested in Russian firms. As the Billings Gazette pointed out, other entities with comparable “investment” in Russian firms include the Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration and the Montana University System Retirement Program. Would it be sensible to also accuse Montana public employees of having “Russian ties” given that per this logic, they too have “bet on Russia”? Probably…not.

Look at Quist’s delivery when he rattles off this attack, and it does come across like something that was force-fed to him, not something that would come naturally. There is no earthly way that “Russian investments” would have been an issue in a Montana congressional race if not for the hysterical national climate around Russia that has been fostered, mostly by Democrats and liberals. One of the major dangers of ongoing, never-ending, will-always-be-with-us Russia hysteria, as I and others have frequently warned, has nothing per se to do with Trump: it has to do with how the hysteria will creep into other aspects of political life. This would be a perfect example.

According to Brad Tyer and Alex Sakariassen of the Missoula Independent, most Montana reporters laughed off Quist’s attack as an ill-advised dud:

But it was more than just a “dud,” it was a manifestation of what at base is xenophobic sentiment — the idea that having “investments” in Russian entities would somehow be inherently sinister. The overall atmosphere that has been cultivated around Russia gives license to these sorts of attacks, no matter how frivolous or groundless; going after Gianforte’s immense wealth, and his use of index funds in general — financial devices which most Montanans don’t even have a conception of — would be perfectly legitimate, and wouldn’t require lapsing into the kind of mindless Russia nonsense that has so dominated Democratic discourse for approaching one full year. But the temptation, evidently, was too great.

One reason why even a Montana congressional candidate would have calculated that yammering about Russia is politically expedient is because the core Democratic constituencies he is attempting to motivate to vote are exceptionally exercised about the Trump/Russia story. Therefore, invoking Russia — even in the most spurious possible manner — entices exactly those people to come out and vote. This is a degraded form of politics, devoid of substance, playing on what amounts to xenophobic conspiracy. And it’s been entirely mainstreamed: not just within the decadent corridors of mainstream Democratic power, but even among ostensible populist insurgents who promise to take the party in a different direction.

It’s an incredibly depressing state of affairs. In recent weeks, Quist hasn’t had much more to say about the Russia issue, instead focusing on public lands (which he claims Gianforte wants to sell off) and healthcare. That tack seems sensible, as most Montanans think a lot more about public lands and healthcare than they do Putin. But still, the fact that Russia mania contaminated even a Montana race should give people pause about the long-lasting and far-reaching consequences of the current national psychosis.

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