Discussing Trump’s ties to Putin could give us a chance to raise the issues that matter most to us: corruption and inequality.
Nearly every day, new details emerge about the relationship between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. The extent of the alleged collusion, which may ultimately endanger Mr. Trump’s presidency, has yet to be determined, but the scandal has dominated news coverage and enthralled Washington.
And yet to many observers on America’s political left, questions about Russia’s interference in last year’s election are a frustrating distraction.
Some believe that Russian meddling is, at best, irrelevant to the needs of working-class Americans, whom Democrats should focus on: Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, has chastised Democrats, saying, “Focusing on Trump’s ties to Russia alone will not win the crucial 2018 midterm elections, nor will it win meaningful victories on issues like health care, climate change, and inequality that affect all of our lives.”
Others say that the investigation is an overhyped, “neo-McCarthyist” conspiracy theory. The journalist Masha Gessen, for example, wrote in The New York Review of Books that it was “distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues” and at the same time “promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.”
Noam Chomsky has said that Russian interference in the election is “not a major issue” and that Americans’ obsession with it is making our country “a laughingstock,” especially considering the United States’ reputation for meddling in other countries’ politics. Moreover, many who oppose American hawkishness feel that the Russia scandal helps keep tensions alive with an old Cold War enemy.
For supporters of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, “Russia” can seem like Hillary Clinton’s convenient excuse for her failings as a candidate. In the words of Glenn Greenwald, Russian interference “explains otherwise-confounding developments, provides certainty to a complex world, and alleviates numerous factions of responsibility.”
But as the investigation led by Robert Mueller closes in on more Trump associates like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, it seems clear that the Russia story is only going to get bigger. Rather than downplay or deny it, the left should embrace it. Mr. Trump’s Russia ties illustrate the dangers of inequality and elite corruption — and point to the need for radical solutions.
The release this month of millions of leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers establishes what leftists have argued for years: The United States-led push for free trade and a globalized economy has resulted in vast, unaccountable flows of untaxed offshore wealth. The policies of the post-Cold War Washington consensus have enriched the 1 percent and offered new ways to shelter and launder money across borders. A transnational oligarchy has arisen, with secretive business partnerships tying, for instance, Wilbur Ross, Mr. Trump’s commerce secretary, to the family of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Far from undermining left-wing arguments, discussing these arrangements perfectly demonstrates the failings of contemporary capitalism.
Mr. Manafort’s indictment is a case study in international corruption. For years, the indictment says, he operated as an unregistered lobbyist for authoritarian governments, a popular racket in Washington. To avoid taxes, according to the indictment, he set up offshore bank accounts and laundered money through real estate and luxury goods — a common practice that enriches plutocrats while exacerbating housing crises in cities like New York and London by pumping billions of dollars of looted wealth into a tight real estate market.
While Mr. Manafort crossed lines (he has confessed to making false statements and material omissions) and now faces legal consequences, his long career typifies the amorality, opulence and lack of accountability that successive American governments have enabled.
Many establishment Democrats and Republicans in the self-proclaimed “resistance” to Mr. Trump say they are deeply concerned about the Russia scandal, but they have largely failed to consider its full implications.
To “Never Trump” conservatives, the main takeaways are that the United States needs to step up its confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, and that the Obama administration was insufficiently tough on Mr. Putin. Many Democrats, meanwhile, argue that Russian interference means that Mr. Trump’s presidency is illegitimate and that Mrs. Clinton is not to blame for her loss.
But Russian meddling in American politics is, in fact, the product of a long series of bipartisan policy failures. Democrats and Republicans alike supported trade policies that facilitated the rise of plundered fortunes in countries like Russia and China. For instance, in the 1990s, both the Bush and Clinton administrations encouraged the aggressive privatization of the Russian economy, which resulted in collapsing living standards, a new class of robber barons and a backlash against liberal democracy that Mr. Putin exploits to this day.
Left-wing critics of American foreign policy correctly point out that Russia is a convenient punching bag for hawkish pundits and politicians. But the most powerful counterweights to these hawks aren’t exactly progressive champions either: American corporations have lobbied against recognizing Mr. Putin’s human rights abuses and have sought to exploit Russia’s natural resources. Energy companies like Exxon Mobil, whose former chief executive, Rex Tillerson, now serves as secretary of state, have partnered with Russia and have sought waivers from international sanctions to drill for oil in Russia. A new Cold War would be dangerous, but so would a warmer United States-Russia relationship that enriches oil company executives in both countries.
As a rising generation of leftists increasingly asserts itself within the Democratic Party — and may, eventually, have the opportunity to shape foreign policy — it must articulate a new approach to Russia consistent with its core values. This approach should be driven neither by the interests of the national security state nor by the energy sector. Instead, it should aim to block Russia’s kleptocratic elite from safeguarding its assets in the United States, to clean up the influence of foreign lobbying on Washington and to shut down tax havens for billionaires everywhere. The investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties provides an opportunity to focus on these issues.
“Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable,” Mr. Sanders said in a recent address. “Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.” For Americans who broadly share Mr. Sanders’s views, this should be the real lesson of the Russia scandal.