Here’s the scoop—a Republican candidate for U.S. president made secret and illicit dealings with a foreign power to gain advantage in the election. The architect of this scheme went on to nab the seat in the highest office in the free world. The cost, borne by all, was more than just the integrity of the democratic process; but led to untold human misery, the enthronement of a racist authoritarian, and brand new heights (or lows) in American venality. It was also an illegal, and arguably treasonous, act of collusion and conspiracy.
You’ve heard this all before. In fact, for the past 4 years it’s taken outsize space in our political discourse, not to mention on the desks of our elected officials. I’m not referring, however, to President Donald Trump. I’m talking here about the 1968 election of Richard Nixon.
The story—first made famous by Christopher Hitchens, and since corroborated by declassified White House tapes and the published notes of Nixon’s Chief of Staff—goes like this. In 1968, the Nixon campaign conspired through shady channels with South Vietnam to sabotage President Johnson’s Paris peace negotiations. Assuring the South Vietnamese junta that they’d score a better deal under a Republican than a Democrat, Nixon convinced Nguyen Van Thieu to withdraw from peace negotiations, undermining President Johnson’s credibility and Vice President Humphrey’s election strategy. So Nixon won, the war raged on. Four years later, President Nixon brokered a peace in Vietnam nearly identical to the terms offered in 1968. The main effect was 4 more years of carnage, countless ruined or stolen lives, the chemical defoliation of Vietnam, and the extension of the war into Cambodia—all of which was pointless. Secondary effects included ramping up repression of antiwar dissent and the growth of the C.I.A. as a paramilitary death squad and drug-trafficking cartel (an essential player, as it happens, in the “War on Drugs,” which Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman is on record stating was cooked up to punish Nixon’s “two enemies: the antiwar left and black people”).
Nixon’s treachery was known to the intelligence community, which had been bugging the phone line of South Vietnam’s ambassador. It was known, in fact, to President Johnson, who found out from the F.B.I. It was known, in other words, by people who had every means at their disposal to end Nixon’s career (not to mention, speaking legally, his life). But what brought down Nixon ultimately wasn’t this known plot of electoral and geopolitical sabotage. It was Watergate, a comparatively trivial crackpot scheme of paranoia and stupidity. For all of the grotesque and criminal and duplicitous stuff that presidents get away with, it’s only the dumbest things for which they get you in the end.
It’s pretty rich that President Trump would be investigated and impeached for nearly the same thing that President Nixon, of all people, got away with. It’s even richer that the effort has been led by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. Decades of torture and mass killings, wars on false pretenses, false flags, assassinations, state terror, coups d’états—all good and fine; but letting Russian trolls do posts on social media—that’s where we draw the line! And don’t you dare attempt to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden…Have the eminent czars of subterfuge finally gotten soft, grown a conscience, redoubled their commitment to fair play and the rule of law? Fat chance. Then why are the most rapacious and despotic ghouls of the security state closing ranks against a president whose alleged crime is being nice with Russia? To ask the question is to answer it.
The efforts to depose the 45th U.S. president have taken two main forms, both involving allegations that Donald Trump solicited the help of foreign governments to win the U.S. presidency. One of them involves a story of collusion and complicity (so-called “Russiagate”), the other one of bullying and coercion (“Ukrainegate”). In either form, the unconscious narrative drive is the notion that, wittingly or not, Donald Trump is at the service of the Russians. At the very least, the stories go, Trump’s corruption and crooked deals have compromised the interests of U.S. “national security.”
For Trump and his supporters, these efforts are the products of a partisan “witch hunt.” For his liberal opposition, they’re the work of conscience-stricken patriots standing bravely up for democracy and the rule of law. Both are wrong. In reality, one should see in Russia- and Ukrainegate a bipartisan effort, led by the old guard of the national security Right, and cheerled on the side by liberal dupes in a media environment saturated with ex-intelligence officials.
When Trump began complaining of a “deep state” out to get him, respectable media tried to bash it as a “conspiracy theory,” while basically admitting that there is, in fact, a concerted effort by insider “career officials” whose “dissent has been ongoing almost since Day 1.” Where Trump is wrong is that there’s nothing “deep” about it. The security establishment, which used to be content with kidnappings and coups behind the scenes, is pretty explicit on what they want. They went public with their stance ahead of Trump’s election, and now they’ve taken center stage in the national drama of the presidency.
The cast of characters in this drama is a who’s-who list of reactionary spooks. How did F.B.I. Director James Comey, once the bane of liberal aspirations, become the hope and toast of “the Resistance”? After a stint in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, approving warrantless wiretaps and torture, Comey scored a gig as general counsel and vice president of Lockheed Martin, the premier weapons dealer of the military-industrial complex. As F.B.I. Director, Comey kept his roll going with mass surveillance, tech infiltration, and targeting of Muslims. Then there’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller, “the dreamiest G-man to ever hunt for collusion.” Before the cast of Saturday Night Live sang his literal paeans, Robert Mueller was lying to Congress about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and defending bulk collection of private data by the N.S.A. Another intel veteran of Bush’s “War on Terror,” C.I.A. Director John Brennan, became a liberal darling (and M.S.N.B.C. contributor) by slamming Trump for being “in the pocket of Putin.” Before that, Brennan was the chief architect of U.S. drone assassinations (including of U.S. citizens), who has since gone on to work as an advisor for Kissinger Associates, Inc. All good company for James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, whose prolific career between the revolving doors of the private and public spy sectors led him to the expert opinion that Russians are “genetically” predisposed to meddling. His racialist views have found their home on C.N.N. The C.I.A. “whistleblower” behind the Ukrainegate revelations is still officially “unnamed,” but we can surmise what sort of person they must be to think, of all the monstrous things the government’s done, that Trump not shipping arms to a foreign war is what finally crossed the line.
It wouldn’t be the first time that an unnamed federale leaked a scoop which was, all things considered, so much hot air. After all, the Watergate burglaries that took down Nixon, leaked to the press by “Deep Throat,” were really among the least significant of Nixon’s crimes. We now know the identity of The Washington Post’s secret informant: Mark Felt, special agent and associate director of the F.B.I., who supervised the infamous COINTELPRO operations and was convicted, in 1980, for ordering illegal “black-bag jobs” against political dissidents. Why would Felt, a man with a proven flair for breaking-in and snooping, care that Nixon did the same? And why take Nixon down for that, and not for, say, Nixon’s earlier-mentioned act of foreign collusion? One possible answer, suggested by Michael Judge in Death Is Just Around the Corner, is that Nixon got on the security state’s bad side only after his rapprochement with China; Nixon’s subsequent wish to cool off tensions with the Soviet Union meant that he had to go. By contrast, extending the Vietnam War by 4 more pointless years was just the sort of crime the running dogs of empire could get behind.
Like Yogi Berra sez, it’s déjà vu again. The usual forces of reaction have come out to discipline a president who isn’t tough enough against their main geopolitical adversary. (Having spent the last few decades chasing regime change abroad, why not try their hand at home?) Recall that back in 2016, the security establishment backed Trump’s opponent, the arch-hawk Hillary Clinton. Trump had expressed on the campaign trail some sentiments that questioned national security orthodoxy; his position as an “outsider,” along with general incompetence, meant that he could not be trusted. “America First” smelled a bit too isolationist. His apparent “coziness” with Russia made it worse. Is it surprising that the closest Trump has ever come to being removed is from a scandal over him not sending weapons to Ukraine, for a proxy war with Russia?
(That conflict, I should add, includes the presence on Ukraine’s side of the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi group with high friends in Kiev and ties to the global fascist movement. Although Congress cut off aid to Azov in 2018, the group is formally incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard, and there’s reason to suspect U.S. support is still ongoing. Just another case in a long history of the U.S. backing fascist death squads to ward off Russian influence.)
One may wonder why the backroom deals of Trump inspired the wrath of U.S. intelligence, when they let Nixon off the hook. Is there a difference? Indeed there is. The difference between Trump’s and Nixon’s shady foreign deals is that the former’s, not the latter’s, disturbed the whims of the security establishment. Which is to say that in the bloodied hands of U.S. security elites, the Trump investigations don’t look like a good faith effort to root out the corrupt, but just a cynical ploy to reassert the prerogatives of empire.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Trump hasn’t been corrupt, or even conspiratorial. For someone as breathtakingly inept and venal as he is, I wouldn’t put it past him. But it beggars belief to think that the security establishment is motivated by anything more noble than naked power-grabbing—than by the fact that Trump has been, or seems to be, an unreliable steward of empire. And it should give us pause when the game show we call politics is just pageantry above the workings of the national security regime.
Ever since Trump came to power, there’s been talk of a “return” to a “paranoid style of politics.” Some observers see Trump’s antecedent in the John Birch Society, the crackpot far-right group that held embarrassing sway on the Republican Party in the middle of last century. (In fact, the Society’s current C.E.O. has claimed that Trump had “captured” what they started.) Their message—that Communist conspiracies had infiltrated America, including at the highest levels of government—gained new currency last decade in the Tea Party. Likewise, the persecution complex of Trump and his supporters seems awfully redolent of Bircher paranoia. But if I were to elect an heir of the John Birch Society, it’s not conservatives who come exclusively to mind. Nowadays, fear of foreign influence and secret Russian plots to destroy the U.S. government from inside is what keeps liberals up at night. What Russia- and Ukrainegate show is a liberal opposition taking cues straight from the playbook of the Birchers, prosecuted with a zeal that would make Joe McCarthy blush.
Russia threatens to become the main preoccupation of our time. Already, a cottage industry of Russophobic paranoia, dispensed by quack experts in Kremlinology, dominates the media. What psychological need does this satisfy? Evidently, the 2016 loss of Hillary Clinton, who all the gatekeepers of serious expertise told us would win, left a psychic wound; far better to export the blame to sinister foreign schemes than to consider the internal or institutional reasons why she lost. It’s also true that liberals have picked up the Fox News model of using paranoia-bait for higher ratings. The irony is that while media grown-ups chastised Trump for being paranoid of the “deep state,” they gave literal deep state officials a national platform to spread conspiracy theories about Russia.
In the neoliberal era, politics is hollowed out. U.S. politics is especially dysfunctional—dysfunctional, that is, for everything except for making sure the wheels of military-industry keep spinning. So it makes sense that in a political moment largely lacking substance, the security agenda fills the void.
Critics have pointed out that all this talk of Trump and Russia and Ukraine is a distraction. The ruling government has inflicted an abundance of evils, each one more hideous and more pressing than “collusion.” Banking “the Resistance” on a fantasy that both the Senate and the House would fall in line with an impeachment reveals a middle school level of civics comprehension. To waste breath on this, while signing off on budgets for the border and the military, is an act of criminal negligence.
But more than a distraction, it’s also dangerous in itself. It has normalized a militant posture toward Russia, while perpetuating the fatuous logic of “national security” “experts.” It has given a platform and second life to careerist thugs who should be standing trial at the Hague. It has placed intelligence agencies at the front in shaping national politics. It has made deference to power and faith in technocrats the lynchpins of “resistance,” reviving nationalistic rhetoric about “loyalty” and “treason.” I would say it’s the emergence of a new Cold War mentality, except that’s not quite right—it’s the same Cold War, with the same players and interests and institutions at work, and shot through with the same old paranoia.
It’s not entirely clear that removing Trump was even the intention. Did anyone truly think that a rousing West Wing-style speech by staid old men in suits would make the Senate turn? Surely not the intelligence community, who made their whole careers by scoffing democratic norms. More likely, they were using the threat and pressure of impeachment to bully Trump into compliance. From the outset of his candidacy, Trump owed his viability to a collapse of the Buckleyite coalition—free-market capitalists, cultural traditionalists, and anti-Communist hawks—that defined U.S. conservatism during the Cold War; his victory left their futures in the lurch. It was only a matter of time before a jilted security establishment would try to reaffirm their relevance, and they would do so by beating Cold War drums anew. Trump’s 2018 appointment of trusty neocon John Bolton as National Security Advisor must have let the hawks sleep easy for a while—until his ouster, which was followed 3 months later by Trump’s articles of impeachment. I present this sequence of events without comment.
The lesson, so to speak, was learned. Since then, Trump has proved himself quite capable of administering a neocon agenda, even sans John Bolton, who was quick to send “[c]ongratulations to all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani.” What’s an impeachment between friends, now we’re all on the same side? Some liberal critics thought that Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general was a “wag the dog” diversion from impeachment (as their golden boy Bill Clinton did in 1998). Another possible reading is that it was an olive branch extended to a skeptical security establishment. Now impeachment mania has all but fizzled out, while under everybody’s noses, neocon thugs like Elliott Abrams and Robert O’Brien crept back into power. And liberals, who spent the past 4 years renewing Cold War paranoia, have no right to be alarmed by the neoconservative turn of the Trump administration.
If polls are any indication, the president survived impeachment more popular than ever. And he is backed by party loyalists who’ve shown they’ll stick with him no matter what. The neocons are happy too, now that the Prodigal Don has demonstrated how “presidential” he can be with cruise missiles and drones. The Muellers and Boltons and Brennans of the world can ease into semi-retirement, directing airstrikes from the comforts of a cushy think tank job or lavishing in book sales from their liberal adulators. Caught up in their alarm that presidents can be corrupt (who knew!), liberals lost the plot of a greater scandal of our time—and made themselves the willing stooges of a revanchist putsch by the security establishment.
There is a real discussion to be had about the spread of disinformation and propaganda, and what can or should be done about it. And there is, of course, the need to be always vigilant against corruption and abuse of power. But these discussions are compromised when they are mired in lurid tales of “foreign assets” and tainted with geopolitical bias. Just take a look at the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, whose efforts to buy the next election dwarf anything that Russian trolls can dream of; only to be welcomed by the Democrats, as if the influence of right-wing oligarchs is only bad when the oligarchs are foreign. In fact, his chumminess with Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, another foreign fascist who has actually “interfered” in domestic U.S. policy, seems to have raised no alarms—nor did any other Democrats’, for that matter. A healthier opposition party would have recognized Bloomberg as a hostile pathogen and worked immediately to flush it out. Instead, many Democrats have shown that elections can be sold to the highest bidder, while they amplified the voices of the intelligence community, the premier source of home-grown disinformation and foreign interference abroad. Even now, the allegation of being a Russian asset is a favored smear by liberals to denigrate the Left (or really, any candidate or critic who dares to flout political orthodoxy). Russia mania has gifted a useful smear that will be employed by the Right for many years to come, and no one can say they didn’t see it coming, unless they slept through the last century.
New York, 2020.