Donald Trump's Defenders on the Left

Why some progressives are minimizing Russia’s election meddling

Steffen Kugler / Bundesregierung via Reuters

When it comes to possible collusion with Russia, Donald Trump’s most interesting defenders don’t reside on the political right. They reside on the political left.

Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich aren’t defending a principle. They’re defending a patron. Until recently they were ultra-hawks. Now, to downplay Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, they sound like ultra-doves. All that matters is supporting their ally in the White House.

For left-wing defenders like Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, ideology is king. Blumenthal and Greenwald loathe Trump. But they loathe hawkish foreign policy more. So they minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War.

It’s a genuinely principled position. The problem is that principles are blinding them to facts.

On Tuesday on the Tucker Carlson show, Blumenthal laid out the progressive case against “Russia hysteria.” His first point was that, by obsessing about the Russia scandal, Democrats are forfeiting the chance to outline a genuinely progressive alternative to Trump. For the “corporate sellout establishment that can’t agree on a big economic message, that doesn’t favor single payer [health care],” Blumenthal argued, “this is just convenient because this gives them a way of opposing Trump without having to do anything remotely progressive.”

This is wrong. While it’s true that Democratic politicians and liberal pundits have spent a lot of time discussing the Russia scandal, it’s not true that they haven’t done “anything remotely progressive.” To the contrary, Democrats in Congress have opposed Trump’s agenda more militantly than did congressional Democrats during the Reagan and George W. Bush years. In 1981, 48 Democrats in the House and 37 in the Senate voted for Reagan’s tax cuts. In 2001, 10 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate supported Bush’s. By contrast, every House Democrat opposed Trump’s first big legislative push, repealing and replacing Obamacare. (Had a repeal bill come to a vote in the Senate, Democratic opposition would likely have been unanimous there too.)

It’s the same with Supreme Court nominations. In 1986, every Senate Democrat voted to confirm Antonin Scalia. In 2005, half of Senate Democrats voted to confirm John Roberts. This year, only three Democratic Senators voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch. Part of this, of course, is partisan sorting. There are fewer Democrats from conservative states and districts than there were decades ago. But it’s also because Democratic members of Congress are more responsive to their liberal base. In 2001, California’s Dianne Feinstein voted for Bush’s tax cuts. A California Democrat voting for a Trump tax cut would be inconceivable today.

Blumenthal is right that Democrats don’t have “a big economic message.” But that’s not primarily because of the Russia scandal. Parties that are out of power rarely have a clear agenda. It’s hard to develop a clear message when you don’t have a clear leader. Narratives emerge during presidential campaigns. And the early evidence is that the progressive themes Bernie Sanders pushed last year—single-payer health care, free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage—will carry more weight inside the Democratic Party in 2020 than they did in 2016.

Blumenthal’s second argument is that the anti-Moscow line Democrats are now pushing will come back to haunt them. It “will be repurposed by the political establishment” so that “anyone on the left … who steps out of line on the issues of permanent war or of corporate free trade will be painted as Russia puppets.” Greenwald has made a similar argument. On Monday he savaged a new foreign policy group, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which brings Clinton campaign veterans together with “neoconservatives” like Bill Kristol. “The song Democrats are now singing about Russia and Putin,” wrote Greenwald, “is one the neocons wrote many years ago, and all of the accompanying rhetorical tactics—accusing those who seek better relations with Moscow of being Putin’s stooges, unpatriotic, of suspect loyalties, etc.—are the ones that have defined the neocons smear campaigns for decades.”

There’s a basis to this fear. Democrats have unleashed dangerous forces by getting to the GOP’s right on foreign policy before. In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton criticized George H.W. Bush for not deposing Saddam Hussein. In so doing, he helped lay the foundation for the push for regime change that culminated a decade later in the Iraq War. (A war I mistakenly supported.)

But the problem with downplaying Russian election meddling because you’re afraid it will fuel militarism is that it evades the central question: How worrisome is the meddling itself? When it comes to Russian’s interference in the 2016 election, progressives like Blumenthal are behaving the way many conservatives behave on climate change. Conservatives fear that progressives will use climate change to impose new regulations on the economy. And because they oppose the solution, they claim there’s no problem.

As with climate change, the evidence that Russia interfered in last year’s election appears quite strong. The CIA, the FBI, and the NSA all believe “with high confidence” that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” designed to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” The CIA and FBI also believe with “high confidence”—and the NSA believes with “moderate confidence”—that Putin was trying to elect Trump. They claim the Kremlin did this, in part, by stealing and leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials. It also “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”

It’s easy to say that because America’s intelligence agencies were wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, progressives shouldn’t believe them now. But there are critical differences. In 2002, the intelligence agencies faced intense pressure from the Bush White House and Pentagon to make Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs seem more menacing. They faced no similar political pressure to exaggerate the severity of Russia’s election meddling.

What’s more, officials in France and Germany say Russia has tried to subvert their elections too. And in his email to Donald Trump Jr., Rob Goldstone, who was arranging a meeting with a lawyer close to figures in the Kremlin, wrote about “Russia and its government’s support of Mr. Trump.” Blumenthal can deride a “bootlicking press and a bootlicking kind of liberal opposition that believes all intelligence agencies.” But Special Counsel Robert Mueller and four congressional committees are investigating the intelligence agencies’ conclusions. By the end of their inquiries, Americans will have a much fuller picture of Russian involvement in last year’s election than they had about Iraqi WMD on the eve of the Iraq War.

Blumenthal and Greenwald have an ideological problem. On foreign policy, they are anti-interventionists, or what Walter Russell Mead calls “Jeffersonians.” They believe that America’s empire threatens not only peace and justice abroad, but liberty at home. They want the United States to stop defending its “imperial” borders in Eastern Europe, South and East Asia, and the Middle East, because they believe such efforts cost Americans money, cost American lives, and create a pretext for surveillance that makes Americans less free.

That’s a totally legitimate view. As Mead notes, John Quincy Adams, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan were all, in different ways, Jeffersonians. Andrew Bacevich and Ron Paul are today. And American foreign policy, which is dominated by an interventionist bipartisan elite, can benefit from a Jeffersonian critique. How does it benefit ordinary Americans to continue an endless, almost certainly unwinnable, war in Afghanistan? Why is the United States considering expanding NATO when it means pledging American lives to defend countries that many Americans have never even heard of?

But it’s one thing to oppose defending the American empire. It’s another to oppose defending the American homeland. By intervening in the 2016 election, Russia did not threaten American influence in Afghanistan or Ukraine or Syria. It threatened America itself.

Near the heart of American democracy lies the idea that Americans—not foreign governments—should choose America’s leaders. It appears Russia challenged that by mounting a widespread, largely clandestine, campaign to get a particular candidate elected. And to make matters worse, the candidate it helped elect himself poses a serious threat to the rule of law in the United States.

Already, American liberal democracy is weaker because of what Russia did. If Russia casts doubt on the legitimacy of future American elections—by hacking into voting machines or spreading disinformation to discredit the results—it could do even greater harm. If Blumenthal and Greenwald are indignant about Kris Kobach’s efforts to limit Americans’ ability to choose their leaders, they should be indignant about Vladimir Putin’s too.

In his interview with Carlson, Blumenthal attacked Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin for calling Russia’s meddling “a political Pearl Harbor.” But in some ways, it’s an apt analogy. Until December 7, 1941, America’s conflict with Japan had been waged far from America’s shores. Tokyo wanted a sphere of influence in East Asia, its own Monroe Doctrine. The United States wanted to deny Japan hegemony over China, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. It was a contest over imperial frontiers. Then, on December 7, Japan unexpectedly crossed the Pacific and attacked the United States itself. Suddenly, even Jeffersonians had to acknowledge that Japan constituted a threat.

Similarly, in recent years the United States has waged proxy battles against Russia in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan, which are far from American shores. Jeffersonians can legitimately argue that America’s struggle for influence in those countries does more harm than good.

But last year, Russia unexpectedly attacked the United States itself in ways that genuinely harmed ordinary Americans. Trying to prevent Russia from doing so again doesn’t make you an imperialist or a hawk. No matter how anti-interventionist you are, you need to protect your own country.

Blumenthal and Greenwald need not respond to Russia’s meddling by supporting NATO expansion or greater military intervention in Syria. But Jeffersonians should offer their own vision for how the United States protects its elections. If that involves treaties and international organizations rather than sanctions and arms sales, that’s fine. If it involves American pledges to restrain its overseas cyber attacks, that’s fine too. What America badly needs is a debate, across the ideological spectrum, about how to safeguard American democracy from the new foreign threats that technology enables.

Jeffersonians can play a crucial role in responding to that problem. But not if they are so afraid of the potential answers that they deny there’s a problem at all.