When will we really know what happened with Russia and the 2016 election? The story lines proliferate so quickly that it’s a full-time job following them all. Quick: How did the Democratic memo refute the Nunes memo? Identify: Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Felix Sater, Aras Agalarov, Reality Winner. Only a handful of diehards still maintain that Russia didn’t meddle in the election—OK, try to meddle. It does seem that evidence for Russia’s involvement is becoming stronger rather than weaker, a conviction hardly limited to fans of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders himself said, “It is now clear to everyone that agents of the Russian government were, in a disgusting and dangerous manner, actively interfering in the 2016 elections in an effort to defeat Secretary Hillary Clinton.” But we still don’t know—and may never know—how much it mattered, or whether the Trump campaign actually colluded with the Russian government, or whether the Russians wanted Donald Trump to win or just intended to sow chaos or what.
Nonetheless, it’s vital that we understand as much as we can about what happened, and that the Mueller investigation continue. I’m troubled by arguments on the left that wave away inconvenient facts because they don’t fit some desired outcome. That’s what I want to take on here.
1. Focusing on Russiagate means neglecting more important things. Look at Rachel Maddow—it’s all she talks about! I grant you that Rachel does seem a bit obsessed. But most news media—and most people—can think about, report on, and act on more than one issue at a time. And there are times when one issue deserves a lot of attention; no one’s complaining that #MeToo or gun control is getting too much ink. Behind this argument is another: that Russiagate is trivial. But how do we know it’s trivial before we know exactly what it was? People seem to be leaping to conclusions here, based on their political priors and what they want to believe.
2. Democrats are concentrating on Russiagate to avoid facing their failures, especially Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the centrism it supposedly represents. But maybe the party is both promoting Russiagate and acknowledging its problems. Somehow it’s racking up an awful lot of wins, in Virginia, New Jersey, Washington State—even Alabama. Democrats have won around 40 state and federal legislative seats that were previously held by the GOP; Republicans have only flipped four. Democrats are competing in red states like Texas they’d conceded long ago. Maybe some elements in the party got the message. Maybe “the resistance” is real. Maybe Russiagate isn’t a distraction but a kick in the pants.
3. Oh, come on, stop being so hysterical and McCarthyite. As I wrote a few months back, these words are virtually meaningless and rely for their emotional force on the political alignments of a vanished age. “Hysterical” (and can we retire this sexist term for “irrationally overwrought,” please?) assumes nothing happened, which is the very thing at issue. “McCarthyite” assumes that Russiagate skeptics are being demonized, instead of appearing on Tucker Carlson and CNN, like Glenn Greenwald and some of my Nation colleagues. Masha Gessen, who has argued against inflating the importance of Russian interference from the beginning, is one of the most admired journalists in the country, and justly so. But while on the subject of overwroughtness, what about the belief that accusing Russia of meddling in our election is escalating tensions and possibly provoking a new Cold War, or even a hot one? Or that Russiagate is a deep plot by liberal Democrats and the intelligence community to bring down Trump and prevent a détente? Strangely, just the other day, the intelligence community was busy destroying the hawkish candidate Clinton—the Comey letter was what caused her poll numbers to cave. But memories are short.