In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx made it clear in brief and scathing terms what he thought of Victor Hugo’s famous anti-Bonaparte pamphlet, Napoleon le Petit: “Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against [Louis Napoleon]…He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history.” What does it mean that the Victor Hugos of our age are television personalities like Stephen Colbert and Rachel Maddow, and that our Napoleons are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin? And why have we forgotten our Marx?
The day after Robert Mueller revealed finally to the world that he would not indict Donald Trump, or for that matter a single American citizen, for colluding with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election, one of my coworkers charged into the kitchen too excited to speak coherently. “Did you hear? Did you hear? No collusion! It was a hoax! No collusion! A hoax from the DNC! Right from the DNC! A hoax! We can lock up Crooked and the DNC! The DNC! No collusion!” His voice was rising rapidly in both volume and pitch, as men’s voices do as they realize how little they understand about what they are explaining. My coworker talks openly about how a girlfriend would really just be an overpriced prostitute. He carries a gun in his car and warns me when I’m delivering a pizza in an area he deems “unsafe” (meaning a place where black people live). He talks at length about the danger of welfare queens and socialist healthcare and the Green New Deal; he also lives in a hurricane hotspot, has visible medical conditions, and, like me, earns $5.44 an hour plus tips at a job that does not offer him health insurance. When he mentions Trump, his face lights up with an excitement that seems practically sexual, the tragic repressed fetish of a man in a society that defines manhood as domination, yet offers him nothing to dominate. He doesn’t go home from work until he has consumed a stupefying volume of discount beer. I worry about his safety on a regular basis. The concept of conspiracy means a lot to him; he accuses his fellow drivers of conspiring to rob him of high-tipping deliveries. His worldview is sculpted by a tragic and mean-spirited amalgamation of fear and self-loathing. Though he identifies as a politics junkie, there are simply so few times he gets to be right about anything. But he gets to be right about this. There was, after all, no collusion.
The only character in American literature to fully capture the essence of President Donald J. Trump is George Bluth, Senior, from Arrested Development (the early seasons, not the recent cash grab). Like George Senior, Trump is a coward and a conman, a perennial loser who built a real estate empire lying to idiots. Like George Senior, Trump’s minor fortune is constantly jeopardized by his own incompetence, an incompetence rivalled only by the incompetence of those surrounding him (he could exclaim, like George Senior, “I have the worst fucking attorneys!” any day of the week). Like George Senior, Trump is guilty of every conceivable crime (fraud, sex crimes, violent crimes, you name it) except for treason. And like George Senior in the third season of Arrested Development, Trump stands accused of treason, the one crime he ostensibly did not commit.
When liberal media outlets began reporting on supposed ties between the Trump campaign and Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly before the 2016 election, they relied heavily on unnamed sources in the “intelligence community,” as they had when in 2003 they reported on Iraq’s fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction. After the electoral college handed Trump the presidency, an undeniably bizarre nightmare, liberal media consumers were hungry for answers, preferably answers that didn’t blame the obvious culprit, the ongoing collapse of neoliberalism’s legitimacy which can only be replaced by the direct assertion of its logic, authoritarian white supremacist kleptocracy. Responding to these consumers, liberal media outlets leapt on any story that could portray Trump as somehow in the thrall of some sinister alien power. Anonymous sources in the intelligence community, many of whom were also disgruntled by the defeat of more openly pro-intelligence candidate Hillary Clinton and well-versed in blaming Russia, were happy to feed reporters. The rush to publish meant almost none of these stories were ever verified. Many (Russians hacking into the Vermont power grid, Trump fearing the release of a pee tape, Russians using a sonic device to attack American diplomats in Cuba, Don Jr. having advance warning of WikiLeaks concerning Clinton, etc) were already debunked, though retractions received far less coverage than the initial reports. Many reputable voices (Glenn Greenwald most conspicuously, but also Matt Taibbi, Allan Nairn, Osita Nwanevu, Noam Chomsky, people generally comfortable on the right side of media history) pointed this out and were subsequently denied access to mainstream media platforms. The Mueller report should surprise nobody, least of all the journalists who spread myths of “Russiagate” without concrete evidence for more than two years now.
The myth that Trump committed treason by colluding with Russian spies to win an election has received far more attention from the anti-Trump “resistance” than far more serious crimes we know he did commit. For just one of many examples, look to Yemen, where Trump has consistently supplied bombs and tactical support to his allies and business partners, the Saudi monarchy, in their internationally condemned destruction of the country. According to UNICEF, the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen killed an average of 140 children every day in 2018 – that’s the equivalent of the worst mass shooting in American history every nine hours, or the worst terror attack in American history every eighteen days. Yet Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found that from July 2017 to July 2018, Yemen was not mentioned once on MSNBC, the hotbed of Russiagate theorizing. The liberal media’s hesitancy to condemn Trump for war crimes comes from their long-standing commitment not to question American wars, but it also comes from the importance of a good guy/bad guy narrative: Trump’s Yemen policy is just an expansion of Obama’s, so to criticize it would be to criticize both the liberal and conservative centers of power in the United States. Much easier to chase some absurd story about treason.
An under-reported side effect of the Russiagate conspiracy theory has been its role in bolstering Putin’s crude authoritarian rule in Russia. All serious scholars on Russian politics (including Masha Gessen in the political center and Tony Wood on the left) argued from the beginning that Putin’s spies simply don’t have the resources needed to meaningfully influence the American electoral process. The intelligence community is nostalgic for the heyday of the Cold War, when, with Soviet Russia portrayed as an existential threat with spies lurking everywhere, they were given almost complete control over US foreign policy. But the post-Cold War story of Russia is one of decline and collapse. Today the Russian economy is about the size of the Italian economy, and Putin represents not an all-powerful Stalinist totalitarian but a lowly thug, trying where he can to execute the will of a few oligarchs while clinging to his office through the occasional assassination or homophobic rant. Yet anti-American resentment in Russia (ever since the American intervention to install vastly unpopular neoliberal President Boris Yeltsin, an instance of political interference that never got its own CNN theme music) is quite powerful, and according to the respective works of Gessen and Wood, Putin has been playing up his role in the American election to curry favor with his people. It should be telling that the Mueller report has received almost no attention on Putin’s propaganda networks; the revelation that the Russian strongman is not in fact that strong would only hurt his already embattled position.
The only indictment from the Mueller investigation that does point to collusion (though not treason) is that of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor. But liberal media has paid only fleeting attention to that indictment – because it points not to Russia, the traditional Great Hostile Power, but to Israel, our supposed democratic ally. According to Mueller, Flynn (who has received money from Israel and Turkey, both American allies and both totalitarian regimes just as violent as Putin’s) contacted the Russian Ambassador after Trump’s election but before his nomination to undermine then-President Obama’s policy toward Israel. Obama planned to abstain in a UN resolution to condemn Israeli settlements (rather than vote “no,” the usual American position on such questions), Flynn illegally asked the Russian government to delay the vote until Trump could vote “yes,” which they did. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were openly in contact with many foreign governments and relied on foreign input for their policy platforms; this was characterized as collusion only in the case of the Russians to feed into James Bond-style fantasies. In fact, though it violates the United Nations Charter, interference between governments in elections is not at all atypical if the governments are powerful enough (Russia’s is not); imagine if the media was as scandalized by the current US attempts to institute a right-wing government in Venezuela and preserve one in Haiti as they were by the possibility of Russiagate.
Like George Bluth Senior, Donald Trump is objectively too stupid to commit treason. His only successes are those he blindly stumbled into, his legal expertise is non-existent, he can only rarely follow a sentence to its conclusion. He became President through luck; a combination of the Clinton campaign’s misguided effort to draw him to the front of the primary field, of his unprecedented level of media coverage, and of an underestimated resentment in the American body politic which would rather watch the system burn than remain intact. Like Martha Stewart, he is a petty gangster with a lifestyle brand who should be shocked at having spent so long outside of prison. The idea that he somehow outfoxed the most elaborate counterintelligence apparatus in human history and got away with it is plainly absurd. The media understands that stupidity, but refuses to admit it and lose their potential supervillain; like Bonaparte in Marx’s time, they see him as “clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized.” But despite their fetishization, there has never been a villain easier to outsmart than Donald Trump – yet somehow, popular media has handed him a real point of credibility. When Trump runs in 2020 telling his followers that he survived a media hit job (most likely in anti-Semitic terms that will cement their willingness to use violence on his behalf), news anchors such as Wolf Blitzer and Rachel Maddow, personalities like Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, and former intelligence mouthpieces like Malcolm Nance and James Comey will have nobody but themselves to blame.
Trump is horrible. Obviously. Apocalyptically so. It is natural that liberals and any other decent human beings would want to a) remove him from power and b) do so without being blamed for him coming into power. But Trump being in power is not what’s wrong with America, and just booting him for the sake of booting him will not fix any of our problems. Trump’s election has been called an overdetermined event; was it the electoral college that privileges the candidate who can speak to rural white voters, was it a declining standard of living that led to anti-status quo sentiments, was it the centuries of racist and sexist innuendo peddled by the establishment that finally begged to be spoken out loud, was it the shattering of American horizons after the 2008 market collapse that turned the frontier in our imaginary into a wall, was it the fact that the Democrats sabotaged the imminently more likable and courageous candidate during the primaries and ran their least popular candidate in history? It was all of those things. Did a few Facebook ads placed by Russian hackers play a role? They could have, but it hardly seems to compare. If we wish to take power away from the world-destroyers in 2020, we will need to address all of these issues. An electoral college that allows a President who lost by 2 million votes? A country where wages have been stagnant for over 40 years of skyrocketing corporate profits? A society where the courses of individual lives are sculpted by arbitrary social constructs such as gender and race? An ideology hinged on the desperate belief in constant expansion? A so-called Democratic Party indebted to corporate megadonors, more invested in the status quo than their own electoral victory? I would take a system without those risks over a system without foreign Facebook bots.
Contrary to popular opinion, everybody has an ideology. An ideology is just the network of understandings through which separate realities adhere – without which, as Barbara Fields puts it, “you are in the position of the mythical millipede who was asked how in the world he can walk with all those legs, and as soon as he stopped to think about it he couldn’t walk anymore.” The value of any ideology is of course simply its predictive merit. There were people who predicted the results of the Mueller report, just as there were people who predicted that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, and people who predicted that the merger of investment and commercial banking would result in a financial meltdown. The difference between those who do correctly predict historical trends and those who do not is purely ideological. Liberals failed to predict these developments, which is not in itself a crime – we all get things wrong. But if the liberal media took its supposed mission of enlightenment seriously, they would at least try to learn from their mistakes; after a supposedly “unpredictable” event, you would expect to see any sincere media outlet interrogating those who predicted correctly. Instead we see the liberal media doubling down – already today on the New York Times and MSNBC, while there is no mention of Greenwald or Chomsky, we see the same neocons and security consultants who spent years warning of Russiagate, offering increasingly desperate explanations. Increasingly ideologically isolated, the liberal center seems hell bent on ignoring any opportunity to increase their own accuracy and relevance if such an opportunity would lend a platform to the left. Let us never forget that it is so-called radicals who so consistently describe reality – the sooner we realize that the true radical fundamentalists are in fact the centrists themselves, who cling to beliefs despite being proven wrong so consistently, the greater our chances are of surviving the true material crises of our time.