The Best Hot Take on the Mueller Report Is From 1796

Washington called all of this in his prescient Farewell Address as he left office. As he feared, the spirit of party has overwhelmed the U.S. political system.

President George Washington delivers his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber of Old Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789.  (AP Photo)
President George Washington delivers his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber of Old Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789. Photo: AP

The Mueller report is now (mostly) public. The lurid speculation from Democrats and chunks of the corporate media that President Donald Trump was somehow a Russian agent was false. But the report, and Mueller’s previous indictments, should persuade any reasonable person that the Russian government did indeed intervene in the 2016 election in support of Trump.

The response from the U.S. political system to Russia’s meddling has been uniformly appalling, although in different ways from different factions. The whole thing’s such a degrading catastrophe that it’s tempting to give up on politics and human beings generally. But since we’re stuck with both, let’s take a step back and consider some profound advice on this subject from George Washington.

Incredibly enough, Washington called this whole thing back in 1796 as he was leaving office as America’s first president. His Farewell Address, as it became known, was until the 20th century as celebrated as the Gettysburg Address is now. The Senate still reads it every year on Washington’s birthday.

America’s founding fathers, Washington included, had grievous flaws. But they were serious people, who genuinely risked death to rebel against the British Empire. Because their lives depended on thinking deeply about politics, they did so in a way that few U.S. politicians have since.

So we should pay attention to the fact that much of Washington’s Farewell Address is devoted to a specific warning: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

These words may sound overwrought or anachronistic. But Washington wasn’t president of the current United States, the center of the largest empire in world history. In fact, Washington implied in his Farewell Address that the U.S. could be considered “small or weak” and faced rivals who were “great and powerful.” Moreover, he had direct experience with the efficacy of foreign interference: The American Revolution would never have succeeded without French troops and matériel, provided by Louis XVI in an effort to humiliate his hated British rivals. This support was so critical that French commanders and Washington jointly accepted the British surrender at Yorktown that ended the war. (Then, in perhaps history’s greatest example of blowback, regular French citizens were so impressed by the American Revolution that they staged one of their own and decapitated Louis. Whoops!)

Americans have almost totally forgotten the relevant subsequent history. But the 223 years since the Farewell Address have proven that Washington’s anxieties were justified. Foreign influence indeed has repeatedly and perniciously warped U.S. politics.

The Civil War would likely have ended in a Union victory years earlier if Great Britain hadn’t unofficially intervened on the side of the Confederacy: The South had a minuscule industrial base and needed the British to build their navy and manufacture their guns. After the war, the U.S. forced Great Britain to pay $15 million for damages caused by the ships it had built for the rebels.

The British manipulated American politics with more success 50 years later, via a covert propaganda campaign designed to nudge the U.S. to enter World War I on their side. The head of the effort secretly told the British cabinet, “In the eyes of the American people the quiet and subterranean nature of our work has the appearance of a purely private patriotism and enterprise.” The British government tried to bribe the newly-founded New Republic by offering to buy 50,000 copies of every issue if the magazine continued its pro-Allies stance. (The New Republic turned them down.)

More recently, Richard Nixon conspired with the government of South Vietnam during his 1968 presidential campaign to sabotage Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to strike a peace deal with North Vietnam and end the Vietnam War. The election was extremely close, with Nixon beating LBJ’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, by just 500,000 votes out of 73 million cast. If Nixon hadn’t scuttled Johnson’s efforts, or if Nixon’s treachery had been revealed, it’s likely that Humphrey would have won. Instead, Nixon took the White House, and in 1973 signed a treaty with North Vietnam on essentially the same terms available in 1968. In the meantime, 20,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians died.

Just 12 years later, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s campaign almost certainly colluded with Iran’s newborn Islamic Republic. During the chaos of the Iranian revolution the year before, students in Tehran had overrun the U.S. embassy there and seized 52 Americans as hostages. Reagan’s top staff were deeply worried that President Jimmy Carter would strike a politically popular deal just before the election to get the hostages out. The evidence is quite strong that the Reagan campaign therefore made some kind of agreement with Iran to keep the hostages until the moment Reagan was inaugurated. As the January 1981 headline in The Onion book “Our Dumb Century” put it: “Hostages Released: Reagan Urges American People Not to Put Two and Two Together.”

That brings us to today and the total collapse of America’s elites.

Because foreign interference is a genuine, serious issue, Democratic leaders and the corporate press owed it to Americans to treat it that way. They could have focused on what could be proven and kept what was provable in perspective. Yes, Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election in various ways. No, this was not an “act of war,” and in fact it appears to have been one of the milder examples of foreign meddling in history. Washington would have counseled that this behavior from other countries is unfortunate but a given, and that we should therefore “observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

Instead Democrats and large chunks of the media jumped directly to incendiary delirium. Against all odds, they managed to accuse Trump of the only crime he hasn’t committed: conspiring with Russia. This incompetence was particularly impressive since the Democrats had consciously decided not to make an issue of the foreign collusion committed by the GOP’s candidate in 1968 and (probably) 1980. Helping Republicans cover up real crimes and accusing them of imaginary ones: That’s the Democratic Party.

Top Democrats also demonstrated — given their enthusiasm for America’s bipartisan subversion of the political systems of numberless countries — that they are ridiculous hypocrites. A week before Election Day in 2016, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton said privately in 2006 that “we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win” that year’s Palestinian elections. To her, it was an act of great incompetence by George W. Bush not to have rigged it sufficiently.

And that wasn’t the end of the core dishonesty of many Democrats. As Washington explained, concern about foreign influence “must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.” The Democratic Party’s leadership does not oppose and in fact welcomes the powerful influence of Israel and the Persian Gulf petro-states on U.S. politics. Indeed, given that Washington wrote that “real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious,” he would not be surprised to see how the political system has treated Rep. Ilhan Omar. (The GOP feel similar equanimity about Israel and the Gulf states, but at least for this moment they appear to welcome foreign meddling from any country, rather than picking and choosing which meddling is acceptable.)

Yet none of this exonerates Trump & Co. Regular grassroots Democrats, and just regular Americans, have every right to be furious and disgusted with Republican behavior during the Russia imbroglio.

The fact that the U.S. government has brutally intervened in the politics of dozens of other countries doesn’t mean that normal Americans can’t legitimately be angry about Russia’s 2016 meddling or the GOP’s response. The governments of Iran, Egypt and Chile have done their share of intervening in the politics of other countries, but regular Iranians, Egyptians, and Chileans still have every right to be furious about U.S. interference in their politics.

Given the unusual circumstances of Trump’s election, it’s also understandable that regular Democrats are maddened by his glee in governing from the far right. His margin of victory was so thin — just 80,000 votes in three states gave him his electoral college victory — that it’s irrational to deny that Russia’s interference, as weak as it was by historical comparison, may have made the difference. It’s also irrational to be certain it did make the difference. But a president with any sense of patriotism and fairness would have acted in the most conciliatory way possible.

The fact that the information released in various hacks was accurate, and that Clinton and the Democratic National Committee should never have concealed the important aspects of them, likewise doesn’t invalidate anger from everyday Democrats. Imposing transparency on one candidate but not the other is to place a heavy thumb on the scales.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the citizens of all countries have the right to expect their leaders to oppose attempts by foreign nations to influence their politics, even if an attempt benefits them. Instead, the intense factionalism of Trump and the GOP generally has made them incapable of even pretending to care. In a healthy democracy, Trump wouldn’t, even “in jest,” have asked Russia to steal Clinton’s emails. When Donald Trump Jr. was told that the Russian government wanted to give him damaging information about Clinton as part of its support for his father’s campaign, he would have called the FBI. Sen. Mitch McConnell wouldn’t have refused Barack Obama’s September 2016 request to participate in a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against foreign meddling. Most of all, Republicans would be deeply concerned by the new information in the Mueller report about Russia’s attempts to manipulate the nuts and bolts of the U.S. voting system. Their failure is exactly what Washington feared: “The spirit of party,” he said, “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”

Washington also predicted the Democratic response to the blatant sectarianism of the GOP. “The continual mischiefs” of factionalism by one side, Washington wrote, inevitably create disastrous responses from the opposing faction. Their ensuing mirror-image loyalty to party over country “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

All this barely scratches the surface of the wisdom in Washington’s Farewell Address, and its applicability to our current predicament. Anyone who reads it in its entirety will be startled and alarmed by his prescience. What’s most distressing is that Washington predicted that his effort would all be for nothing:

In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.

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