Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.) This installment focuses on the House’s hearings on what Democratic Representative Adam Schiff termed “the Russian attack on our democracy”—that is, the Kremlin’s alleged hacking of the DNC—and allegations that the Trump campaign had “colluded” with the Kremlin in this. Batchelor, who has been reading a new book about the Eisenhower years, reflects on analogies with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings and allegations of that period. Cohen expresses deep anger and dismay over the neo-McCarthyism now unfolding in Washington, over the driving role being played by liberal and even progressive Democrats and their media in this increasingly institutionalized hysteria, and over the grave dangers it poses both for American democracy and US-Russian relations.
Cohen emphasizes the unmistakable elements of McCarthy-like slurring of people associated with Trump but also implicitly many more who are not—even people who did not support Trump’s presidential candidacy. During the House session, representative after representative, most of them Democrats, demanded the “unmasking” of people who had or who have “contacts” with Russia. Under suspicion was anyone who had traveled frequently to Russia, married a Russian, written or spoken critically of US policy toward Russia, or, as another Democrat put it, otherwise done “Putin’s bidding,” referring to the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in his previous role as CEO of Exxon-Mobile. All of this, Cohen points out, might implicate thousands of American business executives, scholars, journalists, diplomats, cultural figures, and others. In the unfolding narrative, any “contact” or “connection” with Russia might again be construed as disloyalty if not worse.
The low point of the Hearing might have been the Democrats’ rehabilitation of the infamous “dossier” compiled against Trump by a for-hire British former intelligence agent. Its new promoters sanctimoniously declined to mention its “X-rated” element—the charge that Trump hired prostitutes in Moscow and had them urinate on a hotel bed once used by President Obama—but it is precisely these preposterous aspects that go a long way toward discrediting the entire document. It was, Cohen thinks, a shameful day in American political history and one that further chills discourse about Russia in several American professions, as the original McCarthyism did—and, also like that plague, ruins reputations and lives along the way. Most astonishing perhaps was the spectacle of FBI Director James Comey emerging in J. Edgar Hoover’s role as a great authority on Russia—in this case, on the politics of Putin’s Russia and Putin himself, including his personal motives, plans, etc. And of Schiff, in his opening statement about a Kremlin conspiracy against “our democracy” and, referring to “collusion,” about “one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history”—morphing into McCarthy himself.
As usual, Congress was not acting in a political vacuum. For months, Cohen continues, mainstream media, mostly associated with the Democratic Party—from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The New Yorker and Politico; from MSNBC and CNN to NPR—have zealously promoted the theme of a Trump-Putin conspiracy, even a “Trump-Putin regime” (the Times’ Paul Krugman, among others) in the White House. Almost nightly for weeks, Rachel Maddow has been flinging unverified allegations against Trump and his “associates,” as have CNN panelists and anchors, always without unaffiliated skeptical, still less dissenting, voices. But the hysteria is now politically correct and widespread. Thus MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared that loyal “Americans don’t go to Russia” (March 20). The Atlantic’s David Frum proposed (in a tweet, dated March 14) that someone “should stake…out” a Russian Embassy concert in memory of the Red Army Choir that perished in a plane crash and “photograph who attends.” More important political figures are making their weighty contributions to the plague. For a disagreement in the senate, John McCain accused his fellow Republican Rand Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin.” And the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, declared, “We should never trust Russia.” This diplomatic axiom would invalidate decades of US arms-control agreements with Moscow. (Had Haley a wit, or any qualification for her position, she might simply have quoted President Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”)
Cohen then moves to even larger, more ramifying issues. The pivot, or foundational allegation, of the search for Russia’s American “puppets” is that Putin ordered the hacking of the DNC and dissemination of e-mails found there in order to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and abet Trump’s. For this, not one single fact has yet been presented, still only “assessments” based on purported motivations in the Kremlin. Nor is there any political or historical logic for this foundational allegation. The historical interpretation of Putin’s thinking, motives, and policies over more than 25 years—from his shock over the end of the Soviet state, it is said, and his reaction to protests to Moscow in 2011, to his overweening “hatred of Hillary”—is worse than reductionist. It deletes virtually every significant factor—personal, political, social, economic, international—in Putin’s leadership since 2000. And yet, it is offered by an array of “respectable” media outlets, the Democratic Party, and by Comey himself, as an explanation of Putin’s “attack on our democracy,” and one he is now undertaking against “our allies.” As bad as the history is—anti-history, really—the forensic evidence, Cohen repeats, is even worse: There is still none. (If and when any is presented, we should, of course, evaluate it, but not before there is actually something verifiable to evaluate.)
Nonetheless, Putin—or his Russia—is widely accused of having committed an “act of war” against America, an attack, we also heard in Congress and from an array of establishment media, comparable to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Lest anyone think the present danger is any less than was that of Soviet Russian Communism, we have The Washington Post’s formulation of “the red menace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia” and the assurance that “we were attacked by Russia” (Dana Milbank, March 21). The logic inherent in this most reckless allegation seems clear. At a minimum, the already dangerous US Cold War against Russia must become even harsher, and thus more perilous. But this logic, as it ramifies, might also mean the necessity of actual war, conceivably nuclear war, against Russia. (Such a possibility is certainly being pondered in high Moscow circles.) Challenging this logic is already being decried as “pro-Russian” and “Putin apologetics.” Cohen wonders how many influential Americans, if any, will now stand publicly against it.