A frequent weapon for Democrats in the 2016 election is to publicly malign those they regard as critics and adversaries as Russia sympathizers, Putin stooges, or outright agents of the Kremlin. To put it mildly, this is not a new tactic in U.S. political discourse, and it’s worth placing it in historical context. That’s particularly true given how many people have now been targeted with this attack.
Strongly insinuating that the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, has nefarious, possibly treasonous allegiances to Moscow has migrated from Clinton-loyal pundits into the principal theme of the Clinton campaign itself. “The depth of Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin is revealing itself by the day,” her website announced yesterday, and vital “questions” must be answered “about Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia.” The Clinton campaign this weekend released a 1-minute video that, over and over, insinuates Trump’s disloyalty in the form of “questions” – complete with menacing pictures of Red Square. Democrats cheered wildly, and really have not stopped cheering, ever since the ex-Acting CIA Director (who, undisclosed by the NYT, now works for a Clinton operative) went to The New York Times to claim “that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
But this smear tactic extends far beyond Trump. It is now used to vilify anyone perceived to be an impediment to Clinton’s victory. When WikiLeaks published thousands of DNC emails shortly before the Democratic Convention, which ultimately forced the resignation of four top officials, it was instantly asserted that it was The Russians who gave them those emails (even though The Washington Post cited an intelligence official as saying that “the intelligence community . . . has not reached a conclusion about who passed the emails to WikiLeaks” and “We have not drawn any evidentiary connection to any Russian intelligence service and WikiLeaks — none”). Democrats not only treated this evidence-free conspiracy theory as Truth, but – following the Clinton campaign – proceeded to smear WikiLeaks as a Kremlin operation:
After converting Trump and WikiLeaks into arms of the Kremlin, Democrats turned their smear campaign to media outlets and journalists who simply reported on the contents of the leaked DNC emails: beginning with The Intercept, the first to report on it. That The Intercept and its journalists and editors proved themselves to be witting or unwitting Kremlin weapons and guilty of being Russia apologists and sympathizers was pronounced by MSNBC’s most enthusiastic neo-McCarthyite host, a Clinton-revering Boston Globe columnist, the Communications Director of California Democratic Congressman John Garamendi (including the outright lie below), and one of the growing legion of Hillary’s neocon supporters.
When Bernie Sanders looked earlier this year to be the one who was standing in Clinton’s way, slimy suggestions began emerging of his dark connections to Russia. In January, Clinton’s Senate ally Claire McCaskill went to The New York Times to warn of ads “with a hammer and sickle” if Democrats nominate Sanders (smearing opponents by pretending to be concerned about how they’ll be attacked by the GOP is a Clinton speciality: it’s how her 2008 campaign justified inflaming the Obama-is-a-Muslim falsehood by being the first to circulate the now-infamous picture of Obama in Muslim garb while in Indonesia).
Meanwhile, Clinton operative David Brock said “Sanders is a socialist” and “has got a 30 year history of affiliation with a lot of whackadoodle ideas and parties,” and pro-Clinton pundits linked Sanders to Communists through his 1980s praise of Castro and the Sandinistas. All of that culminated in Republicans like Lindsey Graham and National Review citing Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union as proof of his suspicious loyalties:
Bloomberg‘s Leonid Bershidsky noted that “Sanders’s long-ago ‘honeymoon’ in the Soviet Union is held up by his opponents as evidence of dubious judgment, and even Communist sympathies or anti-American tendencies.” During a CNN debate, Anderson Cooper began a question to him this way: “You honeymooned in the Soviet Union.”
On Saturday, it was Jill Stein’s turn in the Kremlin seat. As the Green Party candidate rises in the polls, it was only a matter of time before Democrats turned their Russia-smearing eyes toward her. One of the most widely-shared tweets of the weekend was this one from Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment: a total fabrication that was nonetheless heralded by dozens of Clinton-support journalists because it did the job of smearing a Hillary dissenter as a Russian tool:
This tweet is, to state it plainly, a lie. Stein simply did not “gush over Russian support for human rights.” To the contrary, in this very video, she criticized Russia for diverting scarce resources into military spending while its people suffered, and merely praised her fellow participants from around the world who attended an RT-sponsored conference. But no matter: Democratic operatives and journalists widely hailed it as proof that she, too, is some sort of Russia dupe or worse.
One Clinton-supporting blog – while also lying by claiming that “she only criticized the US” – attacked Stein for criticizing the U.S. while standing on dirty foreign soil (“with Red Square as her backdrop”), a long-standing trope used by the Far Right to attack liberals and Democrats for being unpatriotic by virtue of criticizing the U.S. while outside its borders. Commenting on that post, numerous Clinton supporters predictably denounced Stein as a traitor, saying “I don’t think it goes too far to suggest these are acts of sedition and possibly treason,” while the blogger himself dismissed objections over his “red-baiting” by saying “Putin is former KGB!” Journalists from major media outlets used all this to announce that Putin now has not one but (at least) two presidential candidates he controls:
So just like that, literally overnight, Clinton-supporting journalists and Democratic operatives converted Jill Stein into an agent of the Kremlin – all because she went to Russia and attended an event where Putin spoke.
So that’s the Democratic Party’s approach to the 2016 election. Those who question, criticize or are perceived to impede Hillary Clinton’s smooth, entitled path to the White House are vilified as stooges, sympathizers and/or agents of Russia: Trump, WikiLeaks, Sanders, The Intercept, Jill Stein. Other than loyal Clinton supporters, is there anyone left who is not covertly controlled by or in service to The Ruskies?
There are so many levels of irony to the Democrats’ reliance on this ugly tactic. To begin with, one presidential candidate who actually has significant, questionable ties to Russia is named . . . Hillary Clinton.
As The New York Times detailed in 2015, Hillary and her husband Bill were at the center of a deal that “gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States.” Those responsible for engineering that deal gave millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, which “were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors.” Hillary herself approved the deal as Secretary of State, while Bill personally “received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.”
Those are ties far more substantial than either Sanders or Stein have ever been shown to have to Russia. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that The Washington Post recently reported that at least some Moscow factions may prefer Clinton to Trump.
Then there’s the policy basis for insinuating that people like Stein and Trump have misplaced allegiances to Russia rather than the United States of America. Both have been vilified for advocating ways to reduce US/Russian tensions. Trump in particular has been attacked by Democrats for his opposition to arming Ukraine in order to deter Russian aggression, his desire to cooperate with Putin in Syria, and his questioning of the ongoing financial and security value of NATO. All this, we’re told, would benefit Putin, making anyone who advocates it in “alignment” with the Russians deliberately or otherwise.
But there’s another politicians who advocates many of these exact same policies. His name is . . . Barack Obama. Last year, even as bipartisan demands mounted for him to arm anti-Russian elements in Ukraine, Obama adamantly refused, “fearing that it would only escalate the bloodshed.” One of Obama’s key arguments, as he expressed to The Atlantic earlier this year: “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.”
Obama’s views on Syria are similar: he wants to work in cooperation with, not in opposition to, Russia, and has proposed a partnership to achieve that. And, of course, Obama famously mocked Mitt Romney in their 2012 debate when the GOP nominee pronounced Russia as the “biggest geopolitical threat” facing the U.S.; said the President: “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
In sum, Obama has continually downplayed the threat posed by Russia, and has repeatedly advocated and implemented policies that are in accord with Russia’s interests, with the goal of avoiding conflict with them rather than seeking it.
Because of all this, Obama has repeatedly been attacked by the militaristic Right for being “soft on Russia” and an “enabler of Putin.” For Democrats to now adopt this warped template, and try to equate efforts to reduce tensions with Russia with some sort of disloyalty, is nothing short of mad. As my colleague Lee Fang pointed out, Obama’s refusal to capitulate to anti-Russia hysteria and seek conflict with Moscow – something Democrats are now depicting as servitude to Putin – is one of his most important accomplishments:
After forging peace with Iran, Obama's second & far less recognized foreign policy accomplishment was refusing to turn Ukraine into Syria— Lee Fang (@lhfang) August 7, 2016
Obama steadfastly refused to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, knowing it would lead to endless escalation and bloodshed.— Lee Fang (@lhfang) August 7, 2016
If all this Russia fear mongering leads to a proxy war during the Clinton presidency, plz send the pundits to fight on the front lines.— Lee Fang (@lhfang) August 7, 2016
This Democratic campaign theme not only stigmatizes any efforts to reduce tensions with Russia as wrong-headed – just observe how Stein’s pro-peace message was converted into subversive Kremlin propaganda – but explicitly equates such efforts with evidence of disloyalty and love for Putin. Given Obama’s own record, that tactic is as self-destructive as it is stupid, manipulative and dangerous.
But by far the greatest irony in all of this is that Democrats have now explicitly adopted the exact smears that were used by the Far Right for decades to demonize liberals and the left as disloyal Kremlin stooges. For the entire second half of the 20th century, any Americans who opposed U.S. proxy wars with Russia, or advocated arms control deals with them, or generally desired less conflict, were branded as Useful Idiots of the Kremlin, loyal to Moscow, controlled by Russian leaders. Democrats have taken this script – one of the most shameful and destructive in American history – and have made it the centerpiece of their 2016 presidential campaign.
The examples are too numerous to cite, but let’s start with the most ironic one. When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992 against the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush, one of the primary attacks on him was that he harbored sympathy for Russia or even disloyalty to the U.S. as evidenced by, among other things, his anti-war activism regarding Vietnam and his “unexplained” trip to Moscow as a college student. An October 9, 1992 Guardian article referred to how “the strange case of Mr Clinton’s trip to Moscow” to explain that “the Republicans are scratching away at those doubts about Mr Clinton ‘s character.” The Christian Science Monitor on October 15 of that year described “the Bush camp’s new effort to turn Bill Clinton’s bit part in the anti-war movement that swept the country 25 years ago, plus a student trip to Moscow, into something akin to treason.”
President Bush himself invoked these smears to bolster dark insinuations about Clinton’s loyalty to the Kremlin:
Mr Clinton should “level with the American people on the draft, on whether he went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his own country from foreign soil,” Mr Bush declared on the Larry King television show.
“I don’t have the facts, but to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, and not remember who you saw – I think the answer is, level with the American people,” Mr Bush repeated.
The prospect of disloyalty became a systematic theme against Bill. As the Los Angeles Times reported on October 9, 1992, “some Republican defenders of Bush suggested that the Clinton trip was, indeed, unusual and deserved close scrutiny. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who was secretary of the Navy at the time of the trip, said Thursday: ‘As far as I know, travel to Moscow in those days was primarily official business.'” That Clinton harbored KGB and Kremlin connections became a staple of far-right attacks on him for years.
That Ted Kennedy harbored secret Russian connections and loyalties was also a favorite right-wing smear for decades. In 2006, a new book led the right-wing press to claim that Kennedy had been secretly collaborating with Kremlin leaders to undermine U.S. policy on Russia. They also accused the Massachusetts Democrat of inducing the Russians to interfere in the 1984 election in order to help Democrats defeat Ronald Reagan.
Claims that the Russians were trying to interfere in U.S. elections to help the Democratic candidate beat the Republican was a constant theme of the Far Right for as long as one can remember:
Even Ronald Reagan – who declared the Soviets to be an “Evil Empire” – was not immune from this smear. When Reagan sought to finalize an arms control treaty with the Russians in the 1980s, Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus, denounced him as Russia’s “Useful Idiot” – now a favorite Democratic Party slur – while another key right-wing activist, Richard Viguerie, declared: “He has quit the fight and left the field of battle.”
This slur – “Useful Idiot” – is now a favorite Democratic insult. If you’re a Hillary critic, or someone who advocates a reduction of tension with Russia, you will literally be called it every day. What’s so amazing about that is that this was the favorite right-wing insult for years, aimed at liberals, Democrats, the left – anyone who opposed U.S. militarism or advocated peace treaties. As The New York Times‘ William Safire wrote in a 1987 column about “useful idiots,” the term “is being used by anti-Communists against the ideological grandchildren of those liberals, or against anybody insufficiently anti-Communist in the view of the phrase’s user.” Indeed:
National Review has published far too many articles to count accusing Democrats of being the Kremlin’s “Useful Idiots,” while right-wing columnist Mona Charen wrote a 2004 book with that title, arguing: “Meet the ‘Useful Idiots’ Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, Madeleine Albright, Katie Couric, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and all the other liberals who were — and are — always willing to blame America first and defend its enemies as simply ‘misunderstood.'”
A 2010 book by right-wing historian Paul Kengor was called “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.” It argues that “from the Bolshevik Revolution through the Cold War and right up to the present, many progressives have unwittingly aided some of America’s most dangerous opponents.” Specifically:
And then, of course, there’s the great pioneer of all of this himself: Senator Joseph McCarthy, who rose to fame, and then infamy, by running around accusing all sorts of domestic adversaries of being secretly loyal to, if not controlled by, their masters in Moscow. My favorite image of the Wisconsin Senator is from this YouTube clip, where he voices an accusation that one literally sees from Democrats on a daily basis:
This – at times verbatim – is the ugly, disgraceful, destructive far-right-wing script which Democrats have now fully and enthusiastically adopted in 2016 to smear their adversaries and critics. Notwithstanding the fall of Communism, it works because of the decades of training Americans have received to regard Russians as Evil Enemies, the fact that Putin himself was a former KGB official, that Americans always want and need a Super-Villain Enemy, and the massive benefits received by all sorts of influential factions from maintaining US/Russian tensions as high as possible.
But whatever else is true, there is no doubt that the methods, rhetoric, and tactics Democrats are now using are identical to the ones used by America’s Right for decades to smear liberals and the left. As The Los Angeles Times recently put it, “for decades, Republicans were the fiercest of Cold Warriors . . . winning elections by painting Democrats as the party of the frail and feckless. . . But in one of the most startling turnabouts in a campaign filled with role reversals, it is now the Democrats brandishing fear of Moscow as a club.” Some of them seem quite proud of this role reversal, notwithstanding the fact that they are mimicking and echoing many of the most shameful people and tactics of the 20th century.