On Thursday night, after Senate Democrats attended their latest briefing on the potential role of Russian hackers in sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Fox News host Tucker Carlson reintroduced viewers to an unlikely guest. Glenn Greenwald, a founder of the Intercept, was back on the show to condemn liberals for “more or less openly calling for and cheering for the intervention of the CIA” in U.S. politics.
“[Democrats] are hoping that this unelected faction in Washington will undermine and subvert and destroy the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency,” said Greenwald. “The media has been aligned against Trump and will side with anybody who wants to subvert him, including the CIA.”
Greenwald, while not a liberal, had built a large following as a critic of George W. Bush. He shares a Pulitzer Prize for stories about Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. Consistently, he has reported and written skeptically about America’s security state and foreign policy adventures. And this month, that was putting him in the unusual position of defending President-elect Donald Trump from accusations that Russians had put him into office.
Among veterans of Clinton’s campaign team, and among Democrats in Congress, nothing is less controversial than the investigations of Russian ties to Trump. But on the broader left, there’s a roiling debate about why Democrats are talking so much about this. Doing so, they believe, at best distracts from the need to change the party — and at worst aligns the party with shady “deep state” actors.
“There were positive steps in the direction of addressing the need for a class-based, populist approach, even if it meant alienating some of the business interests in the Democratic tent in the wake of the November defeat,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. “Among a lot of Democrats, it seems like that conversation has been halted. I blame the focus on Russia, largely. The hacks were a factor, but how much of a factor? And why not focus on the things that Democrats have control over?”
For a young generation of thinkers and activists on the left, America’s intelligence agencies are associated with the blunder of their lifetimes — the use of over-hyped scraps of information to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For an older generation, it’s just as jarring to hear Democrats cite the CIA or the other arms of the “deep state” that they watched destabilize or overthrow left-wing governments around the world.
In an interview this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said that Democrats were right to discuss Russia hacking, but he suggested that the party needed to fight and message more about economic issues. (He is organizing rallies throughout the country this weekend to focus on that, including one he will attend in Michigan.)
“You gotta walk and chew bubble gum [at the same time],” said Sanders. “Russian intervention into an American election is of some significance. But the nominees we’re opposing, we’re opposing on issues like health care, the environment, education. What we’re trying to do is show the Republicans that it would be great political mistake to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
Outside Congress, many left-wing critics are less polite. During the election, they had not shied from covering the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The Young Turks, the popular online news channel, sent reporter Jordan Chariton to each televised debate and uploaded cringe-inducing video of Podesta and other Democrats blaming Russia whenever Chariton asked about quotes from the emails.
Since the election, the Young Turks network's flagship show has dutifully covered the Russia story and Trump's disbelieving responses to it, but on his show, host Jimmy Dore has lit into Democrats for blaming hackers for their loss, raised doubts about the credibility of intelligence agencies, and seen the heavy hand of war hawks hyping the Russia connection to destabilize Europe and the Middle East. Chariton has turned to stories about hard-hit communities but has also chided Democrats for the Russia talk.
“The breathless, hysterical marching band among establishment Democrats isn't much different than Republican cries over fake controversies like Benghazi,” Chariton wrote in an email today. “I've seen zero concrete, indisputable evidence that the Russian government or government-sponsored hackers penetrated the DNC or Clinton campaign systems. Third-party cybersecurity firms hired by the DNC; anonymous intelligence officials; and neocons on cable news huffing and puffing is not evidence that Russia ‘hacked our election.’ ”
For some, the Democrats' focus carries whiffs of conspiracy thinking. “We just went through eight years of insane nonstop Republican paranoia claiming [that] Barack Obama was a secret Muslim plant in the White House, or a secret Communist, or, incredibly, both,” wrote Dave Lindorff in Counterpunch. “How different are the liberal Democrats who are breathlessly claiming that this new president is a puppet, wittingly or unwittingly, of the evil Russian puppet master Vladimir Putin?”
That skepticism isn't universal among critics of the Russia talk. In a July essay for the left-wing journal Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson argued that Democrats were "red-baiting" by accusing people who benefited from the hacks of being Russian pawns. Last week Robinson wrote a follow-up admitting that the hacks had mattered — but chastising Democrats for their seeming obsession.
“Every moment spent talking about Putin is a moment not spent talking about mass incarceration, policing, Social Security, Medicaid, public schooling, Chelsea Manning, gun violence, climate change and war,” wrote Robinson. “Trump is giving press conferences in front of factories whose jobs he has supposedly preserved, while Democrats are frantically calling Trump a Kremlin agent. Who is speaking most to people’s real life material interests?”
That worry, widely shared, is that the out-of-power Democrats have only so much time and media interest with which to build an opposition to Trump and the Republicans who control Congress and most of the states. Clinton's campaign strategy of “disqualifying” Trump, based on his connections and statements, succeeded in keeping his personal favorable numbers down — but did not keep him from victory. Just as Democrats gained little by highlighting Trump's criticism from Republicans such as Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the campaign for truth about Russia hacks puts Democrats on the side of Republicans like Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, Evan McMullin, and — once again — McCain. The economic campaign advanced by Sanders has taken up most of Democrats' time since the 115th Congress began, but Russia took more of the headlines.
“To me, it bodes poorly for the future: I'm afraid we're going to make the same mistakes that the Italian center and left made when fighting [Silvio] Berlusconi,” said Jacobin's Sunkara. “We're going to focus on the man and his odious personality and try to use measures to de-legitimatize him through mostly the press and the courts. Didn't work then, don't see it working now.”
This piece originally and incorrectly referred to Glenn Greenwald as "the editor" of The Intercept. Betsy Reed is the editor.