The Demonization of Dissent

The Demonization of Dissent

McCarthyism has gone mainstream.


The war of words between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and current 2020 presidential aspirant Tulsi Gabbard has been, in some respects, clarifying. Clinton’s insinuation that Russia is “grooming” the Hawaiian Democrat for a third-party run in order to influence the outcome of next year’s election, instead of provoking a “have you no shame?” response from the establishment media, was gleefully repeated by such establishment fixtures as the journalist Jonathan Alter and the scholar Norman Ornstein. In other words, McCarthyism has gone mainstream.

To get to the root of what is going on here, the spat between the Clinton camp and the upstart, anti-interventionist Gabbard must be placed within the broader context of the past several years during which, under the influence of Russiagate, the Democratic Party and the establishment media have taken the lead in calling for a new Cold War. Only then can Clinton’s accusation be seen for what it is, part of a long campaign of vilification and demonization against critics of the establishment consensus on Russia going back at least to late 2013, if not earlier.

Express doubts about the establishment’s preferred policy toward Russia, and you will find yourself not only in the crosshairs of the liberal mainstream media but, even more worryingly, on the radar of the intelligence community—just ask a minor Trump campaign functionary like George Papadopoulos.

Left-leaning outlets and think tanks like MSNBC (Hardball host Chris Matthews has decreed that loyal “Americans don’t go to Russia”), The Daily Beast, New York magazine, Think Progress, the Center for American Progress, and The New Republic have all recklessly accused scholars, journalists, and activists with whom they disagree of being Kremlin “toadies” and “useful idiots”—this last, of course, having been a common trope marched out by the John Birch right during the Cold War, and even in the years following.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has frequently accused journalists and news outlets with which he disagrees of being conduits for Russian propaganda. An op-ed by Kristofer Harrison in The Hill accused California Representative Ro Khanna of doing a “favor” for Vladimir Putin in sponsoring legislation that would cut off US funding to neo-Nazi battalions in Ukraine.

After the 2016 election, as the author Tony Wood puts it in his book Russia Without Putin, “the paranoias of the Cold War seemed to have made a comeback.”

Which is only too true.

Over the last several years, high government officials have attempted to paint discourse and policy proposals with which they disagree as proof of disloyalty, if not worse.

One need only look to March 2017, when, on the floor of the US Senate, the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain, accused Kentucky Republican Rand Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin.” The accusation came amid an effort by Paul to have an actual debate (as opposed to a voice vote) over whether Montenegro should join NATO. Said McCain to Paul, “If there is objection, you are achieving the objectives of Vladimir Putin.”

Still more alarming, several months later, in December 2017, a little-noticed amicus curiae brief sent by former high-ranking US intelligence officials asserted that Russia uses “political organizers and activists, academics, journalists, web operators, shell companies, nationalists and militant groups, and prominent pro-Russian businessmen” to subvert the American political process.

Russia’s intermediaries, said the brief cosigned by, among others, former CIA director John Brennan, may include “the unwitting accomplice who is manipulated to act in what he believes is his best interest, to the ideological or economic ally who broadly shares Russian interests, to the knowing agent of influence who is recruited or coerced to directly advance Russian operations and objectives.”

And this is precisely what Clinton has now accused Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of color, a combat vet, and a major in the Army National Guard, of being: an accomplice in Russia’s malign campaign to influence the 2020 election. What we are now seeing is nothing less than a joint effort by the former secretary of state and her allies in the media (which very much include certain former high-ranking members of the US intelligence community) to vilify those like Gabbard who vocally oppose a new Cold War with Russia.

With the exception of Representative Beto O’Rouke and Senator Bernie Sanders, rather few of Gabbard’s 2020 rivals rushed to her defense. And while The Nation’s national correspondent Jeet Heer noted that it is “crucial to defend Gabbard from Clinton’s smear, which is rooted in a pernicious tendency of centrists to see criticism of the status quo as treason,” the silence with which this development has been greeted by many of the erstwhile guardians of political dissent on the left has been nothing short of deafening.

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