All This Russia Stuff

Real bromance.

Paul Manafort, chairman of Trump’s election campaign, was paid millions of dollars through secret bank accounts in Cyprus to promote policies favorable to Russia.

Roger Stone, a former Trump advisor, chatted with the Russian agents  and leaked the Democratic National Committee’s hacked emails to WikiLeaks, expressing familiarity with their content before they were released.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince,  the mercenary brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, secretly met with an ally of Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles islands to “establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump,” The Washington Post reported.

Another Trump aide, Carter Page, passed on documents to Russian intelligence.

If you’re like some on the left, the real story here — the important thing to stress — is not that the most powerful man on earth has, at the very least, a concerning affinity for a right-wing authoritarian in the Kremlin, and lot of strange personal and financial ties to allied Russian oligarchs, but that a British Tory named Louise Mensch has taken this all too far, all while receiving likes and shares from unsophisticated liberals.

The important thing is that, sure, there may be something awry here, with all this Russia stuff, but ultimately it’s a concocted distraction: from single-payer health care to the failures of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party as a whole.

Because, as with 9/11, some who are bad exploit a thing that definitely happened, there are those who have decided that All This Russia Stuff — the official narrative — is tantamount to a false flag, a story created or certainly embellished by those who hate U.S. President Donald Trump because of the one thing he gets right: desiring peace and friendship with Moscow instead of a new Cold War.

Glenn Greenwald began hammering on this point in the summer of 2016, declaring those questioning Trump’s ties to Russia the heirs to Joe McCarthy at the same time he described the president-to-be as a non-interventionist who would at least entertain “cooperation” with Russia on Syria, by which he meant bomb it (which is non-interventionist by virtue of it not being World War III).

The storyline — of establishment politicians, their press and their deep state, working in concert with liberal dupes to divert attention from their own failings — is almost a funhouse mirror version of the official narrative they decry. And it’s fidelity to that storyline, not the facts, which dictates their response to every revelation.

At the heart of their praxis is a belief that imperialists working in concert is the only real alternative to imperialists going to war with each other, the call for a multi-polar world fading to black as Trump and Putin dismantle NATO and show the regime-changers who’s now calling the shots, together. There’s a sympathy for what Noam Chomsky calls “the one element of Trump’s programs which is fairly reasonable,” coupled with a hysterical exaggeration of the neoliberal center’s desire for war with Russia and externally imposed regime change in Syria.

“If Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing,” Trump said in February. The key difference between him and those “not defending him, but…” is ambivalence, when it comes to Russian bombs. “Utterly bizarre how many people are willing to treat this like it’s some sort of BREAKING!!! (and scary) development,” Greenwald wrote after Russia began bombing Syria in September 2015, a year after the United States (Russian airstrikes likely killed over 2,200 civilians in the next seven months, according to the monitoring group Airwars).

“Russia says they targeted al-Qaeda,” Adam Johnson of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting chimed in. “If true, are people arguing this is a bad thing?”

Johnson was to again give Moscow the benefit of the doubt when news broke that the DNC had been hacked and that Russian intelligence was accused of being behind it. Skepticism is an admirable trait, especially when big claims are being made about a foreign state intervening in a political process. But whereas there’s a readiness to believe such claims when made about the U.S. (“It doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for capabilities beyond your real one,” Henry Kissinger once remarked,) there’s an equally defiant refusal to entertain them when made regarding a traditional foe whose grievances one sympathizes with.

As it’s often pointed out, the U.S. government has no right to be outraged about electoral interference; it’s done the same abroad, at a significant cost in human life. It is not so innocent, as President Trump remarked in a February 2017 interview on CNN. The mistake some make is in ignoring that Russia too can be self-interested. For them, Trump’s comments were a welcome break from U.S. moralizing, not a license for both imperial powers to behave badly, preferably together.

Johnson, for example, ruled out the possibility in July 2016 in a column, endorsed by Greenwald as shredding the “shoddy and sparse… evidence that Russia is responsible for the Wikileaks docs,” as the FBI and all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies now believe. While the critique has since moved on to that fact — the CIA says it, so you believe it? — at the time the issue was, as Johnson wrote, that “no one in the US government, including the FBI and White House (who have reportedly reviewed the situation in detail), have implicated or even suggested Russian involvement in the leak — neither on the record nor anonymously.”

At the same time, all three private firms that linked the hacking to Russian intelligence were knocked for being “contractors for the US government,” the strongest evidence itself cast as exonerating: “If this was such a high-level FSB plot, why couldn’t the once legendary ‘KGB’ scrub routine metadata, or find someone who speaks native Romanian?”

The fix was in: If the Russians had done it, why wouldn’t the U.S. government escalate the crisis? But also: Are you so basic as to believe a government contractor? And furthermore: If Russia did it, why is there evidence?

The U.S. government did ultimately choose to escalate a crisis and blame the Russians. But what happened next will not at all surprise you.

Greenwald and his imitators on the right and left found that the intelligence community wasn’t hesitant to talk about this, and indeed killed pre-election stories set to be published in The New York Times, was, in fact, a monolithic deep state (Greenwald identifies the CIA as the “military-industrial complex”). It was pissed that Trump, like his predecessor, doesn’t want to regime-change Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — and the deep state wants to regime-change Trump as a result.

Facts having not been kind to the president’s adversarial apologists on Russia. The result has been falling back on a posture. The more sophisticated are not outright dismissive of the active investigations into the president and his associates — already damning, if one finds two powerful right-wing authoritarians fawning over (if not, necessarily, illegally colluding with) each other bad enough. Rather, they are concerned, deeply so, with the outliers — a prolific, conspiratorial tweeter named Eric Garland, for instance, instead of Trump-Putin conspirator Erik Prince — and still getting the facts wrong.

Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, for example, has announced the arrival of “Putin Derangement Syndrome,” citing a former British Tory MP who liberals sometimes retweet ( she thinks the Russian president killed Andrew Breitbart, founder of the far-right website run by Trump’s top strategist Steve Bannon) and an apparently deliberate misreading of a liberal pollster, Matt McDermott.

“McDermott,” Taibbi wrote, “wondered why reporters Michael Tracey and Zaid Jilani aren’t on board with the conspiracy stories (they might be ‘unwitting’ agents) and noted, without irony, that Russian bots mysteriously appear every time he tweets negatively about them.”

As McDermott noted on Twitter, however, he had explained to Taibbi prior to the publication of his column that he didn’t view either reporter — who prior to the election considered Trump the less objectionable evil and “about as dangerous as a fruit fly,” respectively — as an “agent” but rather noticed their rejection of “conspiracy” with respect to Russia had won them a lot of bots for friends, citing a story about Russia allegedly using bots to promote stories harmful to Hillary Clinton.

Whether there was anything to that report was beside the point. To Taibbi, it was again a story of how something true or not could be exploited by those up to no good. These stories “in liberal outlets like Salon” — the website had aggregated the original reporting from The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Jason Cherkis, but Salon’s brand of earnest Democratic partisanship makes for a useful nonpartisan punching bag — insist “that ‘Bernie Bros’ were influenced by those same ubiquitous McDermott-chasing Russian ‘bots.”

And that is troubling. It allows the establishment to describe Sanders followers “as unwitting dupes who departed the true DNC faith because of evil Russian propaganda,” Taibbi wrote, “which is “insulting and ridiculous” and a testament to the “remarkable capacity for self-deception within the leadership of the Democratic Party.”

Taibbi’s rhetoric is instantly recognizable as correct by those critical of Clinton and centrist Democrats. The timeline, however, speaks to why he and others prefer their storyline.

“Some 13.2 million people voted for Sanders during the primary season last year,” Taibbi writes. “What percentage does any rational person really believe voted that way because of ‘fake news’?”

But the emergence of anti-Clinton bots is said to have come in force during the general election, not the primaries (1 percent of 13.2 million is 132,000 in an election decided by roughly 80,000 votes), and that’s being said not by Clinton’s human drones, but by Sanders supporters and aides.

In June 2016, John Mattes “started noticing something coursing like a virus through the Facebook page he helped administer for Bernie Sanders fans”: fake news of the variety alleging “that Clinton had murdered her political opponents and used body doubles.” Others noticed that “after Clinton became the Democratic nominee in July,” another Sanders supporter noticed the pages she administered were being hit with anti-Clinton spam.

Keegan Goudiss, head of digital advertising for the Sanders campaign, noticed the same thing, attributing it to trolls and other non-state actors. But, “Was there a Russian entity supporting these websites that popped?” he asked. “That’s important and people deserve to know who influences our democracy.”

These aren’t your typical apologists for capitalism or the Clinton campaign. They are, consequently, excluded for that cleaner narrative: of neocons seeking more war and neoliberals seeking an excuse for losing to an idiot.

The question, at this point, has to be asked: Is there something that would convince skeptics of what’s come to be known as “this Russia stuff” (or “this Russia distraction,”) that there is anything to the federal and congressional investigations into potential coordination between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, the president of the United States and most powerful man on earth?


Photographs courtesy of Folsom Natural, Donkey HoteyMike Maguire, and IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. Published under a Creative Commons license.