This column was originally published by Truthdig.com
As Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling with the 2016 elections proceeds, anxiety bordering on hysteria is sweeping the land. No quarter of the political spectrum has been left unscathed by what predictably has become known as “Russiagate.” The mental health of the entire American body politic has been rendered unstable.
To the Democratic Party establishment and supporters of Hillary Clinton, Mueller, a former FBI director and assistant U.S. Attorney and one of the prime legal architects of the domestic crackdown on civil liberties following the 9/11 attacks, is the last, best hope to prove that the election was stolen from their candidate. The mainstream media (MSM), especially the chatter-box repositories of CNN and MSNBC, has become largely a Clinton echo chamber, obsessed with Russiagate coverage, while minimizing reportage on other vital economic and political issues.
The administration, driven by our malignant narcissist in chief, has been equally obsessed. With the backing of their own unofficial disinformation agency, Fox News, Trump and his surrogates have branded the question of Russian meddling as a “nothing burger” and condemned the Mueller investigation and the parallel inquiries underway in the House and Senate as the “greatest political witch hunt in history.”
Sadly, important voices on the progressive left that might otherwise be looked to for balance and perspective have also fallen prey to the hysteria. Pieces run by a variety of publications, from The Nation to Truthdig, have characterized the Russia probes as a new form of McCarthyism and, worse, potentially a threat to the prospects for world peace.
To all those who believe that Mueller is a saint or Satan, but especially to my colleagues on the left, I have three words of advice: Get a grip.
Yes, it’s true that the MSM is obsessed with every unhinged early-morning tweet dispatched by the president. But this should come as no surprise. The MSM is driven by a craven profit motive, and its orientation in the final analysis will always be determined by the financial interests of its corporate owners. Trump’s tweets sell. People tune in to Rachel Maddow and other talking heads to hear about the latest, much the same as they eagerly await new episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
Because of the media’s Russiagate fixation, it’s also true that the public’s attention is being drawn away from the substance of the Trump/Republican agenda that threatens to destroy the last vestiges of our democracy. Both Noam Chomsky, speaking in April before the American Association of Geographers, and Thomas Frank, writing last week in The Guardian, have forcefully made this point.
As Chomsky, Frank and others also have argued, it’s vital that any resistance to Trump be guided by the goal of building an alternative to Clinton-style neoliberalism. Restoration of the political status quo before Trump will not suffice. The opening for real social and political progress, though narrow, is clear, as the public—according to recent polling—remains deeply distrustful of Clinton and the Democratic hierarchy despite the proliferation of Russiagate stories. Clinton lost the election, not because of Russian meddling, but because she was a weak candidate.
This does not, however, mean that Mueller’s investigation is of no value to the left, or that his probe is McCarthyism reborn. I’ve made this argument before in this column, noting that:
McCarthyism, named after the late Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was the second “red scare” of the 20th century. It was a systemic purge in public and private sectors of individuals suspected of membership in the American Communist Party—or those suspected of being in sympathy, often in the vaguest and most overbroad ways, with the general aims and philosophy of the party. As a result of the purge, which lingered into the early ’60s, thousands of people lost their jobs and were blacklisted from working in government, academia, the film industry, union organization and other endeavors. It was a time of loyalty oaths, deadening political debate, social conformity and widespread hysteria.
Precisely the opposite is true of the Russiagate probes. Katha Pollitt, the longtime columnist for The Nation, whose family became a target of the FBI and McCarthy in the 1950s, put it this way in a post published in April, prior to the firing of former FBI head James Comey and Mueller’s appointment as special counsel:
McCarthyism involved the use of immense state power against a large, shape-shifting mass of fairly powerless ordinary people who, with rare exceptions, had done nothing more than exercise their right to freedom of speech and association. That’s quite different from the calls by Democrats to investigate whether Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee at the behest of Vladimir Putin, or whether Trump’s financial interests are tied up with Russia, or whether people like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn were up to no good. McCarthyism was a miasma of innuendo, divorced from facts. In the matter of Russia and Trump, a small number of individuals are suspected of serious and specific crimes. Moreover, this time around, the state is firmly in the grip of the supposed victims of the witch hunt. Donald Trump isn’t a high-school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he is president of the United States.
To be sure, Mueller is no friend of progressives. He’s a career Republican and a pit bull of a prosecutor. But he’s been given a job to do as special counsel—exploring allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and more recently, the president’s rapidly escalating efforts to obstruct the Russia probes, as well as Trump’s financial connections to Russian business interests—and from what I see, he’s fulfilling his mission.
From all indications, the investigation into both collusion and obstruction is gathering steam, fueled by the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails concerning his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June, the thinly veiled threats the president made during an interview with The New York Times last week to fire Mueller should he look too deeply into his financial ties to Russia, and the president’s recent tweets suggesting that he is considering pardoning family members and himself from prosecution should the need arise.
So how should the left think about and react to the Mueller investigation? Rather than ignore the investigation or regard it as a mere distraction from more vital issues and tasks, the smarter approach is to take advantage of the probe by linking it to Trump’s agenda, and using it—in articles, discussion groups, community and movement organizing and alternative media, and so on—to undermine both the agenda and Trump’s corrupt leadership.
The common thread that connects the Mueller investigation to the goals of the left is the president’s abuse of power. As I’ve also written before in this column, “Obstruction of justice is not a stand-alone issue. Trump’s dismissal of Comey didn’t happen in a political vacuum. The firing was an abuse of power, and abuse of power is what the Trump presidency is all about.”
Progressives are united in renouncing the Trump agenda—the use of the presidency for self-enrichment; the promotion of legal actions aimed at accelerating voter suppression; reinstituting the war on drugs; expanding mass incarceration and encouraging the growth of private prisons; defunding Planned Parenthood; obliterating Obamacare; dismantling the EPA and pulling out of the Paris climate accord; imposing a Muslim travel ban; scapegoating the undocumented and punishing sanctuary cities; and stacking the Supreme Court with ultra-conservative justices bent on rolling back civil rights and undermining the social safety net.
Mueller’s investigation offers an important tool—albeit one among many—to expose the president’s abuse of power and in the process delay and ultimately derail these initiatives. But for the investigation and the way it has forced the president to play defense, the Trump agenda, in all likelihood, would be far closer to full realization.
There’s no good reason for progressives who loathe the agenda not to unite in support of Mueller’s investigation. The trick is to do so in a levelheaded manner without yielding to the pervasive hysteria of the moment, or becoming part of the hysteria ourselves.