Scoundrel time: from the Rosenbergs to Russiagate

On 19 June 1953, the executioner at New York’s Sing Sing prison electrocuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both convicted of spying for Soviet Russia.

The pair died despite a prolonged campaign for clemency by progressives who correctly identified the prosecution as less a punishment for the theft of ‘atom secrets’ (a charge of which Ethel, at least, was almost certainly innocent) and more as a warning to terrify dissidents at home. The Rosenberg killings duly played a key role in consolidating domestic repression during the fifties, their deaths signaling to radicals the fearful consequences of opposition to the state.

Now look at this:


Who or what does the ‘Liberal Identity’ FB group represent? It might be the work of genuine anti-Trumpers; it might, conceivably, be a parody launched by conservative trolls. Either way, something’s gone terribly wrong with the so-called #Resistance when the execution of leftwingers can be plausibly memed for anti-Trump lolz.

In a recent Jacobin post, Seth Ackerman argues that Russiagate – the obsessive focus on Putin’s supposed involvement with Trump – will not end well for the left. He’s right but too cautious: better to say that, irrespective of how it ends, the Russia scare has been deeply pernicious from the very start.

As far back as December 2016, Keith Olbermann released an episode of his GQ ‘Resistance’ video show in which he riffed off (the now discredited) claims that ‘Russian hackers’ had accessed but failed to release files from the Republican National Committee at the same time as they obtained emails from the Democratic National Committee. The preferential treatment accorded to the Republicans proved, he said, Americans to be victims of ‘a bloodless coup’.

Shaking with emotion, the former NSBC host warned that ‘we are no longer a sovereign nation, we are no longer a democracy, we are no longer a free people’, before concluding:

Permitting Donald Trump to assume the office of president reduces the chance that we will have any future elections! The nation and all of our freedoms hang by a thread, and the military apparatus of this country is about to be handed over to scum! Who are beholden to scum! Russian scum! As things are today, January 20th will not be an inauguration, but rather the end of the United States as an independent country.

Now, in 2003, the US ensured that Iraq would no longer be an independent country by invading with 177,000 soldiers, eventually celebrating its conquest by building, in Baghdad, the largest embassy in the world (a facility the size of Vatican City). Russia, Olbermann would have us believe, achieved the same result in the US by not releasing some emails.

Nearly two years later, it’s probably safe to conclude that American democracy didn’t actually disappear under the Russian jackboot in late 2016. In fact, as Corey Robin points out, Trump’s first year was noteworthy precisely because, for all his bluster, the new president struggled to exercise even the level of authority one would normally associate with the office. The undeniably pernicious consequences of the Trump victory were, for the most part, entirely within the normal boundaries of rightwing American administrations.

How, then, to explain Olbermann’s outburst?

In his essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, Richard Hofstadter famously analysed the original Russiagate by scrutinising the Red-baiting fulminations of Senator McCarthy and his allies. The paranoia he diagnosed persisted after McCarthy’s downfall, partly because, for rightwing activists, the identification of a conspiracy provided reassurance in the face of uncertainty, even once the Cold War ended. If, for instance, you blamed pornography and the collapse of the family on a cabal of ‘cultural Marxists’ insinuating themselves into the culture industries, you insulated yourself from the far more frightening reality of capitalism’s impersonal commodification of sexuality and relationships.

The election of Donald Trump rightly dismayed leftists everywhere. But a certain kind of liberal greeted the result not as a political setback but as something more like a category error.

Managerial Democrats – and the social layer associated with them – fetishised expertise and control, priding themselves both on their skills in tending a neoliberal economy and their ability to corral the public into voting the correct way. For such people, Trump’s victory over Clinton, the far more qualified candidate, represented a rift in the fabric of reality itself, not so much because of Trump’s bigotry but because of the populist campaign with which he triumphed against the business and media consensus for the Democrats.

It’s that context that gave rise to Olbermann’s video.

Hofstadter argued that the conspiracist engages in a form of projection, positing his enemy as someone who ‘wills, indeed … manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history’. The Clintonites did precisely that, attributing the 2016 result to a nefarious but skillful intervention by a rival state in a way that salvaged their entire political philosophy.

If Russia had stolen the election, managerialist liberalism hadn’t been discredited at all. Rather, its exponents had been temporarily outmaneouvred by an especially fiendish opponent – an outcome that made perfect sense to them.

Furthermore, the identification of a Russian conspiracy offered a means of redress, one that didn’t necessitate recalibrating ideas or strategies in the slightest. If Democrats could expose Putin’s involvement, they could agitate for Trump’s impeachment (or, in the wilder formulations, a military intervention to unseat him) and thus undo the electoral result, miraculously dispelling the unpleasantness of the outcome and restoring the normal political order.

‘[B]y finding foreign demons who can be blamed for Trump’s ascendancy,’ argues Jackson Lears, ‘the Democratic leadership … shifted the blame for their defeat away from their own policies without questioning any of their core assumptions.’

In other words, the Russiagate discourse appealed because it offered an alternative to populism – or, more exactly, because it made populism disappear.

For Olbermann and other #Resistance leaders, Trump didn’t prevail because his promise to restore vanished glory (in marked contrast to Clinton’s insistence that the country was ‘already great’) resonated with Americans still hurting from the GFC. No, the Republicans won because the Kremlin made them win – and, as soon as the Russians were dealt with, Clinton, or someone like Clinton, would be restored to power. There were no lessons to be learned, no conclusions to be drawn: all that was required was the exposure of Putin’s wicked machinations for normal service to resume.

Did the Russian state try to steer American politics in particular directions? Quite possibly, yes. Countries interfere in each other’s domestic affairs all the time. As Chomsky noted recently, in 2015 Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the US congress openly urging lawmakers to oppose Obama’s policies, an intervention far more blatant than any statement by Putin. Furthermore, while the ‘meddling’ by Netanyahu and his predecessors correlates with America’s unstinting support for Israel, Putin’s efforts don’t seem to have born any fruit whatsoever, with relations between American and Russia deteriorating markedly under Trump as Washington imposed a tough new regime of sanctions.

But the ubiquitous insistence that Russia ‘hacked the election’ pushes the debate away from a discussion of Russian foreign policy goals and into the realm of Hofstadter’s paranoia, since the phrase means simultaneously everything and nothing, and so allows a grab-bag of different (and sometimes flatly contradictory) claims about foreign malfeasance to morph into a general impression that requires no particular proof.

Did Putin interfere by rigging the voting machines? Does Putin control Trump through kompramat – to wit, the notorious pee tape? Did the conspiracy centre on the Facebook ads depicting Jesus engaging in an arm-wrestling match with Satan (with a handy caption noting that ‘Hillary is a Satan’) or were the Podesta emails the real nub of the matter?

We can argue about any or all of those episodes, with varying degrees of clarity (given that very often the allegations depend on inherently unverifiable allegations by spies or secret agents). But in some ways that debate misses the point. The specifics always matter less than the structure, with Olbermann’s hysteria not so much anomalous but exemplary, a mode necessary to provide the totalising narrative into which the various manifestations of Russiagate can be slotted as required.

If you search out the Twitter accounts of #Resistance influencers like Louise Mensch or Eric Garland, you see the genre in its purest state: a free-associating flow of speculation, gossip and accusation, part John Le Carre and part Sigmund Freud. But a recognisable hint of mania peaks out from even the more serious discussions, with, for instance, Jonathan Chait’s long indictment of Trump as a Russian agent centring on a convoluted diagram reminiscent of the chalkboard scrawls with which Glenn Beck once explained his theories about the UN and Agenda 21.

‘In Russiagate,’ argues Aaron Maté, ‘unverified claims are reported with little to no skepticism. Comporting developments are cherry-picked and overhyped, while countervailing ones are minimized or ignored. Front-page headlines advertise explosive and incriminating developments, only to often be undermined by the article’s content, or retracted entirely. Qualified language – likely, suspected, apparent – appears next to “Russians” to account for the absence of concrete links. As a result, Russiagate has enlarged into a storm of innuendo that engulfs issues far beyond its original scope.’

Maté’s description recalls the ‘9/11 Truth’ movement, an obvious antecedent for Russiagate.

In his 2008 book The Great Derangement, Matt Taibi chronicles the emergence of ‘trutherism’ from the degeneration of the antiwar movement.

‘Regarding the actual events of 9/11,’ he writes, ‘the theories espoused by Truthers vary significantly. Some believe in little more than the matador-defense LIHOP theory (in which Bush and Co. simply allowed the attacks to happen), others believe that the Pentagon was hit by a missile instead of a plane, while still others believe that the “planes” that crashed into the towers were not planes at all but high-tech holograms or video tricks (the ‘no-planes’ theory).’

Again, the precise nature of the plot mattered less than a belief in its existence, since, politically, conspiracism functioned as a strategy for social change rather than a commitment to any set of facts. For the 9/11 obsessives, ‘truth’ was functional. Their analyses of steel beams and jet fuel would, they thought, topple the regime and undo the war on terror more effectively than any peace march or protest meeting.

Trutherism was thus always a right-wing tendency, despite the many progressives in its ranks. It grew from a despair in collective agency, implicitly counterposed to action by the state, which would, the truthers assumed, haul away the Bush gang in handcuffs as soon as their schemes were exposed.

As we’ve seen, a similar dynamic underpins Russiagate. Yet, where ‘9/11 truth’ remained a movement on the fringe, Russiagate originated with political insiders, which renders it both more reactionary and more dangerous: a phenomenon always as hostile to the left as to Putin.

Think, for instance, about the response to WikiLeaks’ publication of the DNC elements, a key element in the #Resistance narrative.

For most liberal pundits and politicians, the release of the so-called Podesta files by hackers working for the Kremlin constitutes the most solid evidence of Putinite meddling. The leak destroyed, we were told, Clinton’s momentum in the final weeks of the campaign, thus allowing Trump to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But the outrage at WikiLeaks would have possessed considerably more moral force if the dump contained – as the Clinton camp originally asserted – forgeries, fake documents planted by Russia to discredit the Democrats (as per the Zinoviev letter of 1924).

In fact, as we now know, the released files were one hundred per cent genuine.

That gives the argument a very strange slant.

If the document dump hurt Clinton, it did so by confirming an already widespread perception of her proximity to Wall Street. For instance, one email revealed that, in a paid speech to bankers, she boasted of possessing both a ‘public and a private position’, a revelation that undercut her belated attempts to present herself as an authentically anti-corporate figure.

Insofar as a genuinely progressive post-mortem of 2016 focused on the Podesta files, it would do so to underline the folly of running an unabashedly pro-capitalist candidate in an era marked by growing hostility to big business, something that enabled Donald Trump – a billionaire famed for conspicuous consumption – to offer himself as the outsider standing up for the little guy.

By contrast, the #Resistance insists that Clinton would have won, if only voters hadn’t learned so much about her. For wasn’t that the logic of the whole argument? Putin’s hack, they say, unfairly shattered the Democrat façade, presenting the people with truths that they had no right to know.

It’s a strange – and distinctly undemocratic – claim, predicated on the assumption that the successful functioning of the electoral system depends on candidates being able to successfully deceive the voters.

Yet it’s typical of the way Russiagate forestalls a broader social analysis.

The argument that first emerged in America in 2016 was quickly ported from the specific setting of the presidential election to many of the other contexts in which outbreaks of populism had dismayed the political class. The Justice Department’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency would eventually explain that Russian ‘specialists’ had been directed to create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with the social and economic situation and oppositional social movements’.

Without the efforts of Vladimir Putin, it seems, the twenty-first century would have seen the lion lay down with the lamb, and the plutocrat sup happily with the prole. But, as a headline on the ABC site complained, ‘Russia-linked bots [are] trying to make the world an angrier place’.

The Russians did Brexit. They also did Jeremy Corbyn and Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and other insurgencies inside the Democrats. ‘European intelligence analysts I have spoken with over the last month,’ reports Scott Horton, ‘say they have picked up clear data suggesting that Putin has authorized and put in play a major active measures campaign designed to spit and disable the Democratic Party because he believes this is the surest way to keep Donald Trump in power and undercut any opposition to him. The method used, according to these sources, will generally follow what was done during the 2016 campaign, where one of the core strands of the Russian operation focused not so much on supporting Trump as it did on persuading key Democratic constituencies that it wasn’t worth going to the polls to vote.’

Now, almost every social study shows the world becoming an angrier place not via Russian intrigues but because of a growing alienation from liberal political institutions, as the masses retreated from their traditional affiliations into a sullen, simmering apathy that periodically exploded into fury.

Contrary to what Horton’s anonymous spies might think, the presidential election provided a perfect example of that general trend. For all the talk of Russia ‘putting in play … active measures’ (could you put in play inactive measures?), Trumpism could not have been a more quintessentially American phenomenon: a faux populism stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster from a variety of the local resentments arising from a divided and broken country. Trump absorbed his talking points from years of Fox News, while embracing and amplifying an Islamophobia promulgated by both parties ever since 2001. The racism, the ‘grab em by the pussy’ sexism, the nativist obsession with walls and security: all of that was apple pie Americanism, not some exotic discourse injected from Moscow.

Why should that surprise anyone?

As Masha Gessen has repeatedly argued, the liberal Russophobes completely distort Putin’s stature even in his own authoritarian but ramshackle country. They depict him not as the blustering head of a dysfunctional and declining regional power but rather as he wants to be seen – as a Machiavellian strongman and international string puller.

At one time, of course, the Kremlin truly did exert a global heft, inspiring sympathisers on every continent and ruling over what Hewlett Johnson famously described in 1939 as ‘the socialist sixth of the world’. Today, though, it clings by its fingernails to the wreckage of that empire: influential in places like Syria and the Ukraine but no longer in any sense a superpower.

And that, of course, goes to the hypocrisy at the heart of the whole discourse.

We’re told that the hackers who accessed the DNC files did so via an email sent to John Podesta asking him to change his password. If they were indeed Russian operatives, they were using phishing techniques not so different from those employed by your average Nigerian prince.

By contrast, we now know, courtesy of Edward Snowden, something of the rather more sophisticated measures (active ones, no doubt) that the United States employs when it wants to meddle abroad, with the NSA running a team of elite hacker group called Tailored Access Operations to break into and infect computers all around the world. The Snowden files document American agencies regularly monitoring the personal phones of at least 122 world leaders, including some of the US’s closest allies – Angela Merkel, a woman often identified by liberals as the epitome of sensible centrism, personally complained to Barack Obama after German agencies warned her that the NSA had been tapping her cell.

We know that the American state used such methods on politicians during the 2010 G8 and the G20 summits in Toronto, as well as before, after and during the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. We also know that the NSA doesn’t merely target the political elite but intercepts millions of communications between ordinary people on every continent, in pursuit of its goal of total access to the world’s information networks.

Jonathan Chait tut-tuts at leftists for their lack of outrage at the ‘foreign meddling’ narrative. But we might equally ask how many of the liberals shocked by John Podesta receiving a bodgy password reset message have said a word about the infinitely more significant programs uncovered by Snowden, programs that the US state continues to employ?

On 20 July, in the wake of Trump’s summit with Putin, the minority whip Steny Hower delivered an impassioned speech condemning Russia for its electoral interference. House Democrats rose to their feet, chanting ‘USA, USA’, as belligerently nationalistic as any Trump fans.

Electoral meddling is very bad – except, of course, when Americans swung the Russian election for the corrupt drunk Boris Yeltsin, an effort documented by Time in a front cover story headlined ‘Yanks to the rescue’.

As the former spy Lyle Jeremy Rubin points out, the US government carried out at least 81 such ‘electoral interventions’ between 1946 and 2000 while spearheading the violent overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil and Chile.

As recent as 2009, Hillary Clinton’s State Department played a complicit role in the brutal deposition of democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya’s government in Honduras. No other country, including Russia, even approaches this level of wanton disregard for the norms of sovereignty. Around the world, organizations that the U.S. ‘fund[s], support[s] and direct[s] are openly dedicated to manipulating foreign elections, creating U.S.-friendly opposition movements and even overthrowing governments that impede U.S. interests worldwide.’ In 1999, President Clinton sent three advisers to Israel to try to swing the country’s elections for Ehud Barak. The New York Times reported that they were ‘writing advertisements, plotting strategy and taking polls’ for the candidate. Imagine what the reaction would be if Putin had literally dispatched three top deputies to join the Trump campaign.

All of this is possible, of course, because the American state maintains the most powerful military the world has ever known, with the US spending more on weapons, equipment and personnel than China, Russia, Britain, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India and France. As Alice Slater explained for the Nation:

The United States has approximately 800 formal military bases in 80 countries, a number that could exceed 1,000 if you count troops stationed at embassies and missions and so-called ‘lily-pond’ bases, with some 138,000 soldiers stationed around the globe.

That enormous footprint means Washington can treat great swathes of the globe as domestic territory, in a way that remains entirely unacknowledged by most liberals. Many of the Democrats who blasted foreign interference in the US also denounced Trump for contemplating troop reductions on the Korean Peninsula, completely oblivious to the hypocrisy involved.

But that’s the consequence of Russiagate: the re-normalisation of the liberal imperialism discredited by the catastrophes of the so-called humanitarian interventions of recent decades.

Or, more exactly, its re-normalisation among the progressive intelligentsia, since there’s very little evidence that the broader population shares the liberal Russia obsession. In a recent Gallup study surveying Americans on ‘the most important problem facing the country today’, ‘the situation with Russia’ doesn’t score high enough to register, even as ‘dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership’ continues to climb.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Russiagate narrative has never been about building on the huge public opposition to Trump. On the contrary, it’s always been about fending off the potential for radicalisation that was visible in 2016 (and is even more visible today), encouraging reporters, pundits and activists to fete #neverTrump Republicans and intelligence operatives rather than attending to the deep fissures opening in American society.

In that sense, the Russophobes of the #Resistance offer Trump his best chance of securing a second term. Given the understandable public cynicism about the state of American democracy, a campaign against the corruption of the electoral system by professional lobbyists and other representatives of corporate interests might very well touch a nerve. But why would the obsession with Russian spies resonate with ordinary people who know in their bones that the problems they face pertain to homegrown enemies – the tiny minority of the population who control the vast majority of the wealth?


Image: Russian presidential regiment / flickr

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I am so pleased to see Overland daring to publish this in-depth analysis. It’s obviously controversial stuff because I don’t see many other Australian media outlets falling over themselves to publish anything other than the standard unquestioning Washington-subservient narrative.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. A clever argument, but thoroughly flawed. Let’s start with the Rosenberg poster. It does not endorse the death penalty for foreign agents. What it does do is expose the hypocrisy of the Republicans: their smooth change of gears from hyper nationalism to submission before Trump – a man whose patriotism is dubitable, to say the least. As the poster makes clear, it is the hypocrisy that’s scandalous. If you have trouble seeing that, just suppose a prohibitionist politician is caught bootlegging. Publishing the news as a scandal would not necessarily imply support to prohibitionist policy. What it would do for sure is nail the hypocrite. Those are the grounds on which the Republicans stand exposed today.

    It is delusional to argue that that there is an equivalence or continuity in the policies of American administrations between the recent past and the present. In this year and a half of Trump, the US has exited the global climate change accord, the trans-Pacific partnership, and the UN human rights council. It has scrapped the Iran nuclear deal, undermined NATO and the European Union, built an embassy in Jerusalem, started a trade war with its biggest trading partners, conducted ingratiating summits with Kim Jung-un and Putin, and is now in the process of building a wall on its southern border, a wall that secures nothing apart from racism. Would you call this business as usual? It is baffling to read here: “Trump’s first year was noteworthy precisely because, for all his bluster, the new president struggled to exercise even the level of authority one would normally associate with the office.” And that, “The undeniably pernicious consequences of the Trump victory were, for the most part, entirely within the normal boundaries of rightwing American administrations”.

    To the best of my knowledge, no one’s been arguing that American statecraft was saintly in the past, or that investigative agencies were a bulwark of democracy. But can you identify any sort of vision of the future in the policies of the current administration? Where is America headed in pretending that man-made climate change is a hoax? Or by running up huge deficits, whether in building the border wall, giving tax breaks to the super rich, or trying to contain the fallout of trade wars? With all its sins, left of centre politics sets clear goals for the future – for example, the inclusion of women and minorities – against which its progress can be measured. What does tomorrow look like under Trump? How is it an improvement on today? Or, will he be counted a success simply for not bringing the world to an end?

    Flattening the distinction between previous administrations and Trump’s may work as polemics, but it is a species of dishonest argument. This kind of argument was much in favour before the US invasion of Iraq. At the time, the UN got its nose rubbed in all its failures of the past. Suddenly, nobody could think of anything good to say about the organisation (about its role in the eradication of smallpox, for instance). It was as if the UN with its mixed record had lost the right to call out any wrongdoing. The tactic was was a clever one, and in the short term it worked. At the time, Australia was one of the countries to fall in line with Bush’s diktat. Does this disqualify Australians from speaking out against a wrong ever again? And does America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan disqualify it from intervening to prevent a future nuclear war between, say, India and Pakistan? Playing off injustices and past wrongs against one another will get us nowhere. And if that’s to be our preferred line of argument, the world’s in trouble. One wrong does not simply shade back to an earlier one. The holocaust was not just another pogrom.

    As for Putin, even if you can persuade yourself that there’s no sinister explanation for Trump’s servility towards him, observe the man in his habitat. Putin does not need to micromanage the lives of Russians when he macro-manages them so well. The media and economy are under his control. Billionaires who got uppity with him learned this the hard way. Two-times President, then Prime Minister, and now at the start of his fourth term as President – after winning against a field of clowns whose opposition he needed to make his election legit – Putin has left no breathing room for a viable opposition in Russia. The state is effectively a criminal enterprise among a group of cronies, and there is no institutional counterbalance to the authority of Putin’s office. If only that were all. Given his hostility to the EU and to NATO, the scale of Russia’s interference – cyber, monetary, military – in eastern and western Europe, apart from American elections, Putin cannot be camouflaged even by the odious Netanyahu.

  3. Yes,yes,yes more of this would be beneficial. I have never understood this sychophantic relationship and the fourth estate in this country are a disgrace. Very dangerous.

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