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Jan 25, 19

Wilderness of Mirrors: Notes on the Trump-Russia Scandal

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A look at American’s obsession with the Russia scandal, while also asking the critical question, what radicals can get out of the conversation?

For the last two years, Americans have entertained a singular obsession with the Trump-Russia scandal. This drama’s reliably convoluted plot took a delightful turn recently with an astonishing leak in the New York Times. According to their sources, after Donald Trump suddenly fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017 the Bureau launched a counterintelligence investigation into the President to determine if he was acting, either wittingly or unwittingly, on behalf of Russia.

Let that sink in for a moment: the FBI believed the President might be a Russian agent. Mind you, this is not fevered speculation from the algorithmic depths of the internet! This is the FBI we’re talking about, that most conservative and small-minded of institutions. Could it be true? Perhaps pondering the “worst case scenario,” as Trump-Russia aficionados call it, no longer makes one appear quite so crazy.

Speaking of crazy, it seems to me that Trump-Russia has for too long been the purview of lunatics – or, at least, lunatics of the wrong sort. To date, no serious-minded militant or radical analysis has been produced on the subject. Why this prolonged silence on the single biggest news story of the last two years and, in my estimation, the signature scandal of our era of political farce?

Radicals out to be paying more attention to the case before the course of events catches us off-guard. As I see it, a potentially historic crisis is unfolding which might not only cut short Trump’s ignominious presidency but fundamentally upend the very legitimacy of the US government. If the situation is as dire as the Times makes it out to be, then it’s hard to see how this will end anywhere but the streets.

What follows is tentative analysis, and even more tentative speculation, regarding the strange saga known as Trump-Russia. If what I say sounds wingnut, it’s because the times in which we live have become unmoored from logic or decency. As a rule, whoever today seeks political certainties will find only jest.

Conspiracy of Fools

Radicals who have so far ignored or remained skeptical regarding Trump-Russia should be forgiven. There have been plenty of reasons to avoid getting drawn into the baseless speculation and news-cycle addiction, starting with less-than-accurate reporting. For one thing, the case largely revolves around the integrity of electoral politics and the intricacies of the justice system – not exactly our favorite topics. For another, conversation around Trump-Russia is largely dominated by “Resistance” grifters on one hand and conspiracy theorists on the other, often overlapping into a toxic brew of indignation and insanity.

There are other, more serious reasons to approach the scandal with caution. Consider how continual fascination with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation distracts us from the more immediate and baleful effects of Trumpism, from the Muslim Ban and Family Separations to the current Government Shutdown. As noted Trump-Russia skeptic Glenn Greenwald has also pointed out, shouting “the Russians!” is likewise a convenient way for Democrats to avoid reckoning with their embarrassing political failures.

“What if we radicals set aside our reservations, at least for the time being, so we might take a closer look at these dynamics?”

Greenwald has raised another point worth mentioning here. If the macropolitical lesson of 2016 – in the US and elsewhere – was a populist rejection of ruling elites, then the narrative of pesky Russian interference serves to cover up the discontent still lurking within Western democracies. I might add that hype around the now infamous Russian influence operations has led to a troubling tendency to blame political instability on ever-multiplying social media trolls, as has happened with the Yellow Vest protests in France. It’s a quick way to delegitimize domestic dissent, a technologically-updated version of the old “outside agitator” trope.

Then there’s the unfortunate matter of the Resistance. Last November’s dreary “Nobody Is Above The Law” protests encapsulated the weakness of liberal anti-Trumpism: not because demonstrations were sparsely-attended, but because their pleas for normalcy were so pathetic. The initial outpouring of collective rage against Trump’s election has been traded for the plodding, juridical retribution of Mueller. If the hallmark cries of “Not My President!” ever had meaning, it was because they hinted at a desire to directly depose the president-elect. That task has now been outsourced to the Office of Special Counsel.

The Resistance, intent on reigning in Trump’s excesses and restoring law and order in America, views impeachment as the only ambition worth discussing. To achieve their goal, they have made common cause with everyone from neoconservatives to the intelligence community. Their infatuation with power even extends to the FBI, elevating Comey to the status of a martyr and Mueller into a patriot for the ages. A longing for the status quo masquerading as Resistance is among the darker jokes of our sardonic time.

Theory of the Case

While there have been good reasons for radicals to look with disdain upon the Trump-Russia craze, it’s also become clear the scandal’s not about to disappear from the national landscape. In fact, it seems only to be heating up as a protracted political crisis. A recent series of high-profile stories, like the arrest of Roger Stone, and rumors of an impending “Mueller Report” suggest the time has come to take seriously what’s at stake in America’s favorite conspiracy theory.

What if we radicals set aside our reservations, at least for the time being, so we might take a closer look at these dynamics? What might we learn from delving into what the intelligence community dubs the “wilderness of mirrors” – the shadowy terrain of spies and spooks? Here we must tread carefully, neither ignoring the suggestive evidence nor giving credence to the unhinged fantasies of the paranoid.

Let me begin by admitting my own point of view: enough information has made its way into the public domain – via reporting, indictments, and leaks – to confirm the belief that Trump does have a secretive relationship with Russia. From the Helsinki Summit to the recent Times report, events attest that something strange is afoot between him and Putin. Denying their bizarre rapport hinders a clear assessment of the political situation, which must be taken for exactly how ridiculous and unbelievable it is.

That said, the spectrum of claims about the nature of Trump’s hidden relationship with Russia runs from plausible, to intriguing, to delusional. Every narrative has its online partisans, opting for a “theory of the case” that attempts to draw available evidence into a coherent model of what really happened in 2016. For fun, here’s a few of the more conspiratorial possibilities:

Did Trump adopt pro-Russian policies in order to enrich himself and his family through favorable real estate deals? Does Russia have kompromat on Trump, leading him to do their geopolitical bidding? Did Paul Manafort sell out the campaign to “get whole” on his outstanding debt to a Kremlin-linked oligarch? Did Trump and Putin strike some sort of quid pro quoelection help for sanctions relief? Then there’s the mind-boggling question the FBI had to ponder: is Donald Trump a Russian asset?

My point here is not to evaluate the merits of any particular theory of the case – internet sleuths have been doing that ad nauseum – but to draw out the political implications were any of them to actually be true. In other words, the question I am posing to radicals is not Is it true? but What are the consequences if it were true? The former is a case, for better or worse, left to busybody prosecutors. The latter concerns us as political actors, as it bears directly upon our favored terrain – intervention in a social crisis.

What follows is a kind of scenario thinking, were the Trump-Russia scandal to bear fruit. For the sake of speculation, let’s assume the Special Counsel is able to demonstrate the Trump campaign secretly coordinated with Russia (“collusion”) to influence the election, and – an important caveat – that this coordination was conducted with the knowledge, perhaps even the encouragement, of Trump himself.

To be clear, whether such a conclusion is warranted remains to be seen. But it is only from that starting point that the situation could become truly interesting.

Vertigo of the Truth

However we arrive at the moment of truth, one conclusion seems inescapable to me. Mueller’s findings could well mean the delegitimation of the President of the United States of America.

For our part, radicals have never bothered with the fictions of legitimate governance. The disparities of power and the hypocrisies of the ruling class are on full display in a political system no less despotic for its democratic trappings. But imagine what such a moment might feel like to legions of starry-eyed liberals. With Mueller offering evidence of Trump’s perversion of the sacred democratic process – conspiracy with a hostile foreign power! – then his campaign victory would be proven to be the miscarriage of electoral justice that many instinctively felt it to be at the time.

The revelation would potentially render Trump an illegitimate president in the eyes of millions of Americans. The result of the 2016 election would begin to be considered fraudulent (something we could lament with our friends across the pond) and, to take it a step farther, no longer valid. It would require more than an asterisk mark in the history books to account for a muddied election, tainted by foreign interference and numerous other crimes by the victor and his aides. Trump would become the ultimate lame duck. In the public eye, he would be demoted from President to Usurper, his administration snarkily reduced to the language of “regime” usually reserved for America’s adversaries. It would surely be only a matter of time before he was whisked off-stage by Congress or the Justice Department.

The moment of apparent triumph, watching Trump receive perhaps the first comeuppance of his life, would be bittersweet for the earnest bunch of the Resistance. The cost of Trump’s guilt would be a heavy blow to the dignity of the presidency and the prestige of the state. American democracy, a chain unbroken for over two hundred years, would be disgraced. To the stubbornly idealistic liberal, Trump would be guilty less of deceiving public confidence than in piercing the veil of democratic fantasy the US rests upon. Treason, after all, is not the betrayal of your fellow man – that’s a given, these days – but of your country.

Legitimacy of the Streets

It’s almost certain that a damning result from Mueller would plunge the country into the murky territory known as a constitutional crisis. (As far as I’m concerned, it’s also as certain that the Special Counsel’s report is sure to be damning.) The great American Democratic Crisis would be upon us. Expect a public divided, 24/7 media shenanigans, back-and-forth legal battles in the courts, procedural chaos and partisan bluster in Congress, governmental gridlock that would put the current shutdown to shame.

What of the streets, the true arbiter of all politics? To the inevitable dysfunction of a Washington unable to fathom its own impotence, the streets and squares of America will pose a lively counterpart in the form of large-scale demonstrations of both anti- and pro-Trump factions. And it is in those public spaces that the ensuing crisis would be decided.

While early Trump-Russia protests like the #KremlinAnnex were forgettable, I suspect Mueller’s dizzying conclusions would bring out huge crowds. The potential makeup of the anti-Trump camp would go beyond the usual liberals and progressives to include mainstream conservatives, centrists, and libertarians, each with their own perspectives and aspirations. Even the most bland of moderates would likely be incensed by Trump’s surreptitious election scam (Trump University, but on the scale of the nation-state).

“The question that will define the conflict between these irreconcilable factions is this: is removing Trump the restoration of democracy or is it the subversion of the will of the voters?”

This new protest movement would be capped by the demand for Trump’s immediate removal from power. (It’s also liable to dissipate as soon as its request is met by obliging powers-that-be – but more on that later.) It’s not a stretch to imagine a broad-based coalition mobilizing “patriotism” in order to oust a compromised president. We could expect to hear cries of liberty and eloquent appeals to freedom, and even see protestors don old-fashioned revolutionary garb. Under the stars-and-stripes would march the earnest, the outraged, the self-righteous, and all good citizens clamoring for normalcy.

But the Resistance would be mistaken to think they automatically have the upper hand, morally or politically. Any attempt to remove Trump from power is sure to meet violent resistance from his diehard supporters. What is Trump’s vilifying rhetoric about immigrants, about the dishonest media, about whatever daily threat to the American way of life, except tried-and-true methods to amplify the hatred of his fans? What is the hyper-targeted disinformation machine known as right-wing media but the weaponization of ignorance of the MAGAs?

Counter-narratives of “witch hunt” and “deep state” have already primed Trump’s base to discount whatever results Mueller presents and to come to the President’s ardent defense if necessary. The diligence of liberalism meets its folly in believing its opponents have the same respect for the truth or the rule of law. Appeals to “the evidence” against Trump will be met by the fury of those who suspect a coup against their leader. The question that will define the conflict between these irreconcilable factions is this: is removing Trump the restoration of democracy or is it the subversion of the will of the voters?

Fall of the Regime

Enter us radicals, who would occupy an unenviable position in the hypothetical situation I’ve described. Would we even have a place out there, hemmed in by the law-abiding niceties of liberalism on one hand and the authoritarian nationalism of the cult of Trump on the other?

As I see it, we don’t have to accept the premise of legitimate government to want an illegitimate regime to fall. Anger at government corruption, the abuse of executive power, and the blatant flouting of the law by elites has been at the heart of major protests in recent years, most clearly the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt. The fundamental loyalties of the President were also a driving factor of the ill-fated uprising in Ukraine.

“Here I will only suggest that among our essential tasks is to ensure that whatever openings erupt during popular protest remain open – to resist the foreclosure of radical possibility by whichever trap, be it democratic or autocratic.”

I don’t raise these particular examples by chance. In both cases, the people removed an authoritarian from power only to later end in new political tragedies. Here I will only suggest that among our essential tasks is to ensure that whatever openings erupt during popular protest remain open – to resist the foreclosure of radical possibility by whichever trap, be it democratic or autocratic.

Nor should we discount the explosive nature of certain demands simply because they are voiced in legalistic language. In France, to use a more current example, a heterogenous social base (including the right) have mobilized for two shocking months against the neoliberal, technocratic vision of Macron. Is there anything particularly revolutionary about opposing a fuel tax increase? In itself, maybe not. But it quickly became clear how far the Yellow Vest movement extends beyond any single measure and challenges the very authority of the centralized state. It is not one bill that is at stake after eleven weeks of protest, but the Fifth Republic.

In the same way, perhaps, it is not the 45th President who will suddenly enter in question with the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation, but the Presidency itself. If the Oval Office is to be prematurely vacated by the Special Counsel’s juridical finesse, I say so be it. Let the public contemplate the rot emanating from the state, peer into the void called democracy. Critical questions then come to mind. Could mass desire for Trump’s removal be translated into the refusal to see anyone subsequently installed in his place? Could the White House be kept as empty as Trump’s bloviating head?

The Scandal of Power

Trump-Russia is a crisis worthy of a confused epoch. It sits at the convergence of trends making our political moment uniquely weird and uniquely dangerous: a global deficit of democratic legitimacy, from Trump’s election to the Brexit debacle to the EU’s bureaucratic implosion. A widespread embrace of strongman-rule and the rise of the anti-globalist far-right, which Trump both embodies and allies himself with.

For those radicals still on the fence, I should add that the scandal is clearly an outgrowth of our old foe financial capitalism, from the shady real estate deals at the heart of the investigation to the hegemonic triumph of kleptocrats worldwide. And it is surely a preview of new forms of technological governance, in the bizarre melding of data science, electoral politics, and surveillance capitalism as revealed in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“Trump-Russia is a crisis worthy of a confused epoch. Never pass up a good scandal, especially one which might bring out the true scandal of power.”

For these reasons and others, Trump-Russia is a matter worthy of serious consideration by those committed to radical political possibilities. Instead of resigning ourselves to a dismal future defined by the choice of either Resistance liberalism or MAGA reaction, we should think of the scandal as a marvelous opportunity to topple the absurd, insufferable forces which dominate our lives.

No one yet knows what Mueller will find, much less what evidence the public may hear. Nor do we know if his report will even matter in our deranged, defunct political moment. Perhaps all the curiosity and outrage surrounding Trump-Russia will end with nothing but the passing condemnation by those few souls still able to be shocked by the depravity of power.

Were nothing to come of Trump-Russia, that would be an instructive lesson of another sort. But until that nothing comes to pass, radicals would be foolish to discount the possibilities such a crisis may open. Never pass up a good scandal, especially one which might bring out the true scandal of power.

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