Conspiracy theories often can conceal as much as reveal. The conspiracy narratives tend to be excessive at best, and a red herrings at worst, as I’ve (written previously). And as of this moment, the unfortunate consequences of the Kremlingate conspiracy theory hatched a year ago are coming to a head and deserve revisiting. MSNBC, CNN, the Times and the Bezos-owned Post and the are leading the way, tirelessly wrapped up in the intrigue of people in Trump’s orbit and their ties to Russian business and intelligence interests. Yet the smoking gun they are all looking for, evidence of collusion between Trump and the Kremlin to subvert the American election, remains an elusive projection of Trump’s enemies. Anti-Trumpers so incensed, so incredulous that a billionaire confidence man has become president that they are hoping for a very John Le Carrre way to oust the orange menace in the White House.
It’s a dangerous tactic played by the conspiracy-minded, at worst it rattles the saber for war against another nuclear power, fueled by hawks on both sides of the isle. And at least it perpetuates a cynical politics of blame and externalization, a politics of blindness as harmful as McCarthyism, and uses Kremlingate as a cudgel against the alienated populist progressive left.
It falls in line with other paranoid politics of the past around the idea that the sleepwalking masses are being manipulated by a cabal of masterminds behind a curtain. In different eras, the idea of a hidden cabal was credited to an international conspiracy of Jews, or Masons, or Communists, or Muslims. Kremlingate recapitulates old conspiracy-minded mythic tropes, fitting within a history of paranoid polictics in America. Historian Richard Hofstadter observed that America has always had a paranoid version of its politics. It’s a politics that is emotionally fueled by fear, and prays on the latent fears and bigotries of a people. In the case of Kremlingate, it prays on our historical Russophobia and fears of the other Europeans on the east. The paranoid style of American politics usually finds safe harbor with the American right, typified by the John Birch Society, McCarthyists, the birthers, and so on. But the left also has times of paranoid hysteria, exemplified by the JFK conspiracy theories, 9/11 truthers, and now this. In each case, these are emotionally-charged narratives that may reveal an emotional truth, but be factually vacuous.
One of the features of conspiracy theories is that those who think they know the truth think that everyone else is deluded, or that those who bring up doubt about the narrative are considered “in on it.” People who bring up doubts or question the logic of the story, real journalists of the left like Max Blumenthal, Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, Bob Sheer, Jeremy Scahil, Matt Taibbi, Adam Curtis, Thomas Frank, and Abby Martin are cast as Putin “puppets” by the corporate liberal classes of the mainstream press. Someone is sure to stop reading here or accuse me of being a Russian troll. (I’m not denying Russian trolls exist – I know they do. But so too American trolls. But trolls didn’t win the electoral college for Trump.) Independent news from Real News network, RT, Alternet, and Truthdig, have been cast as untrue because they are progressive, and Google has successfully altered its search engine algorithms to decrease the traffic at these websites, in the name of fake news Kremlingate crackdowns on the American independent free press. The effects of this investigation are getting real and dangerous, and for all the wrong reasons, begging the question what the endgame of Kremlingate really is. Is the endgame to impeach Trump? To get to what? Pence? Why would anyone be motivated to impeach an incompetent fool with a competent Koch lap dog? (as Jane Mayer explained in The New Yorker) To get there, we have to think logically and analytically about this story.
One thing that clues us into the idea that this is a conspiracy theory is that the evidence doesn’t quite line up, and there are many versions, many ways to tell this story, the details remain vague, tantalizing, inviting people to read into them. The gist of it is that Donald J. Trump has a secret alliance with Russian oligarchs, Russian oil, and he is a puppet of ex-KGB Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Or, another version is that Trump is a conspirator with Russian interests because he’s being blackmailed by Russian intelligence, the FSB, over a story in the Steele Dossier about urinating Moscow hookers. Allegations of Russia hacking the DNC, the Clinton emails, Russian agitprop in cyberspace, the obviousness of Putin’s interest in Trump, and Russia’s interest in disrupting all Western democracies (it’s been said that Germany was also hacked in their election). Trump’s appointment of oil-friendly and Russia-friendly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and of course, the controversy over Trump ally Lt. General Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. And there are the reports that Donald Junior met with a Russian attorney to look for dirt on Clinton, but apparently was disappointed by what was found. And there is political operative and money launderer Paul Manafort, who’s been on the payroll of corrupt oligarchs in Russia, including deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was sort of the Trump of Ukraine until the remarkable populist ouster in 2014. The points are there, but there is little as yet to connect these dots, which make it ripe for post-truth conspiracy theorizing on both sides of the isle.
Of course Trump and Putin deny any collusion. Let us assume for a moment, that despite all the lies of Putin and all the bullshit of Trump, that the both Trump and Putin are telling the truth, that yes, they have some ideological agreement and mutual desire to thaw American-Russian relations but no further connection, and that Kremlingate is what they say it is, really a red-baiting hysterical post-truth fake news conspiracy theory conjured up in the wee hours in the morning by Trump’s deep state rivals, set out to delegitimize the president by connecting him to America’s traditional and historic rival power. This red-baiting angle has all of the hallmarks of a moral agenda – that Trump is crooked, boorish, misogynistic sexual deviant, and a foreigner who betrays the values and narratives we have about the meaning of being American. He’s “un-American,” a racist bigot to the new McCarthyites in the (yikes) Democratic Party. It paints Trump as a wicked villain seeking to destroy the state.
But wait a second, what new information does it tell us? What does this conspiracy theory add that we didn’t already know? Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s a bit excessive, like post-truth, like alternative facts. In short, we don’t need to believe that Trump is a boorish, racist, misogynist billionaire Manchurian candidate seeking to destroy the American state, because he really is a boorish, racist, misogynist billionaire, plus a demented malignant narcissist and paranoid ignoramus seeking to destroy the American state. Yes, it’s true, he’s all of those things. We’re knocking on an open door. Trump’s rivals from the populist left don’t need a Russia conspiracy to hang him with. They already have enough homegrown evidence to hang Trump with. I mean, yes, his rise is totally incredible, he’s basically a walking X-File full of incredible I-Can’t-Believe-This-Is-My-President shit. But we don’t need Mulder and Scully in order to close the case on this one. Our country, sadly, is more than capable of doing this to ourselves. And our flimsy attempt to find a conspiracy sidesteps the soul searching this country desperately needs.
Which begs the question – why Kremlingate? What does the Kremlingate narrative really serve if not the people? It serves the deep state. If Trump can be ousted by political insiders pulling the rug out from under him, appealing to our conditioned Russophobia gives the deep state a reason to perform a soft coup, to scapegoat a failing president, and to go on with their imperial status quo. (Let me break it down like this: either there is something grievously true about this conspiracy, or there is a conspiracy against Trump by the deep state. Put another way, either Trump is a Manchurian candidate, or there is a force making him to look like he is one. Which is more likely? Couldn’t it be that the country is so very fearful, so emotionally disappointed, so flummoxed that a billionaire con artist rose to power with a wave of political nihilism that fingering a mysterious if capable cabal of evil geniuses is the most likely explanation for a collapsing world order? There is a saying that goes like this: when your friend and your enemy tell you the same thing, you’d best pay attention. I’ve heard progressive journalist Glenn Greenwald caution about a CIA soft coup brewing, and I’ve heard conservative and Trump ally Roger Stone say the same thing.) They really have every reason to do precisely this. And this exact performance would appease the angry masses, who once having purged the figurehead from the state apparatus, would go back to their normal lives, back to labor, back to consumerism, back to the momentum of the empire of illusion. It would, in essence, short-circuit the brewing radical forces of the populist left whose fire has been ignited by the country’s experiment with flimsy fascism.
With conspiracy theories, it is important to ask – what does the narrative serve? What idea or class, or whose interest does the conspiracy narrative serve? These theories tend to say more about the tellers projecting their wild fantasies than the persons these theories are about. (Poor Richard Gere!) Kremlingate is not a story emerging from revolutionary forces. It is the antithesis of revolutionary forces. Kremlingate serves a peculiar American complex – Russophobia. It conjures old paranoid fantasies of the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism and the arms race, when accusing the opposing candidate of Russian ties was the nuclear option. It serves the broken remnants of the bellicose cold war democrat who just failed to win the presidency. It emanates from the wreckage of the Clinton campaign and her allies in the State Department, which remains rather hawkish on Russia. In fact, many political watchers were warning of Cold War 2.0. Clinton was their cold war candidate, prepping for a Syrian proxy war and NATO showdown. But now we have the liberal press going wild. Keith Olbermann ranting tirelessly about Trump’s supposed treason. Liberals and Democrats sneering at the mention of Russia. Knee-jerk reactions against any thought of peace with the rival state. And this from your supposed peacenik liberals? And why not – because these paranoid fantasies are powerful emotional forces that would be more than capable of conjuring up an old fashioned narrative like Soviet mind control, MKULTRA, black ops of the CIA and the sixteen other spy agencies of the United States.
It presumes that the Russian other is like an omniscient Bond villain – a chess master manipulating world events for its own nefarious purposes. Trump as Russia’s golem, part of Blofeld’s master plot to implode America with a belligerent brainwashed billionaire. The real world is a lot messier than an overly elaborate plot from an episode of Mission: Impossible. Are we in a Cold War hangover or what?
What would collusion even mean? What is collusion? How in the world would Putin actually, in the real world, help Trump? Did his troll farm agitprop sway voters? Facebook bot agitation? Fake news? Was any of this anymore fake than the world’s most famous con artist running for president? Or the agitprop promoted by our own home grown agents provakateurs like Roger Stone and the Breitbart machine? Or the work of Mercer-produced “Clinton Cash” and Dinesh D’Souza?
The Kremlingate narrative demonstrates a very cynical worldview that is being perpetuated by those in charge of the managed democracy. The prime example is Hillary Clinton herself in her memoir of the election campaign. She says she is taking responsibility for losing the election, but then spends most of the book blaming former FBI director James Comey and sexists and the Russians. Then she blames Bernie Sanders. (Which begs the question, how can you blame someone you beat in the primary? Especially since your party was rigging for you the whole time? I’ve heard of sore losers, but sore winners?!) When she sat down with interviewers like Chris Hayes, she goes on a tear about how she thinks Trump’s team colluded with Putin, and prompted Gussifer 2.0 (a Russian hacker), to hack the DNC. But she is unable to make the case how on earth Russia influenced the result even if this was true. Did Russia hypnotize the public? No. Did they hack the polls? No. Did they influence millions of people? No. Did they make Clinton not even show up in states she took for granted like Wisconsin and Michigan? No, that was her own failing. Did the Russians make Clinton have an uninspiring campaign in a change-y zeitgeist where she says things like “America is already great.” You get the impression listening to Clinton how shallow she thinks people are, how shallow democracy is in that she thinks the voters were tricked by propaganda rather than inquiring how she was unable to connect with those same voters. It shows a Clinton who lives in a bubble, a parallel world of insiders, of a meritocracy. She misread the people, and her memoir shows she still doesn’t understand what happened. It’s the neoliberal way of running for office, as Thomas Frank points out, she ran on her resume – the most qualified, the insider, former first lady, senator and secretary of state – and is incredulous that she lost the job to the most unqualified candidate.
Turns out the Clinton emails were never found, though John Podesta’s was. But in all the hacks what was, after all, revealed? It’s a story corroborated by Donna Brazile in her memoir. And it demonstrated how phony the democratic primary was and rigged against an earnest contest from Sanders. It revealed the cynicism of machine politics, the blockade of superdelgates the party used to pre-select their candidate before a single person even voted. What’s the point of voting if they’ve already given it to their presumptive nominee? Where’s the contest of ideas? Where’s the debate? Again, more cynicism, more suspicion of democracy, more secrecy. These were all of Hillary’s flaws exploited.
Last December, Obama held his last press conference in which he was asked about Russian meddling given the results of the intelligence services which were tracking this. Obama’s answer was as even headed as one can be, that Russia didn’t influence the results of the election. Sorry folks, we did this to ourselves.
Someone, I forgot who, said an interesting analogy of the whole thing. Imagine you are at home and your house blows up. How did this happen? Well let’s see … you have a troubled deviant teenage son who has been playing with a chemistry set recently. But at the same time you have a troubled neighbor kid who has been throwing pebbles at your house at the exact time the house blew up. So you naturally blame the neighbor kid – this is not his house! This is American democracy today, the house is blown up by the nation’s own substantial delinquency. But we can’t see it or acknowledge it because the forces at work are too close, too powerful, that they defy being seen even though they are in plain sight.
What is the force of delinquency destroying American democracy? It’s not Trump himself, but he is part of a larger system. As with any mystery, we have to follow the money. A trove of clues were revealed in the Paradise Papers, where it was revealed how the world’s ultra-wealthy send their money to tax havens in Bermuda, the Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands, and other bank havens to avoid taxes. We’re talking about an aggregate of trillions of dollars stored in offshore accounts by the international billionaire class. This includes billionaire backers of Trump and Steve Bannon, the Mercer family. It includes the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It includes Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Now Ross has been criticized for his investments in Russian shipping and oil. But this again is a distraction. The real news is that the billionaire class all benefit from investments in every country. Their money is international, their investments are global. They all have investments in international conglomerates – money in Russia, China, Korea, France, the UK, the Middle East, India, wherever. Even they can’t keep track of all that money.
This is, incidentally, why all these Trump cronies are so nervous. Yes, they all have business ties in … gulp … Russia. And it’s pretty much the case with all of these elites that if an investigator like Robert Mueller is sniffing their sheets, he’s going to find something; some money laundering, some offshore haven, some tax evasion and so on. That’s what they do. They hide money as second nature. More than that, that’s why these folks are in politics, to make money for themselves and their friends. That’s who we vote for, our own thieves, as Citizens United opened the floodgates for money in politics. It’s an international kleptocracy of oligarchs, as people like Bernie Sanders have been warning.
The real conspiracy is right under our noses. It’s so omnipresent that we rarely call it by its name. It’s sort of like fish having a name for water. It’s our economic system. It’s called neoliberalism. It’s a system of predatory capitalism where the billionaire class consolidates power, using tax breaks, tax havens, and international law and investment shelters to advance their class. They buy governments and courts with their lobby, create agitprop for their interests both foreign and domestic. It’s a formula that breaks down like this – socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. It’s starkly evident in looking at the Republican platform today – they don’t even have a single platform that isn’t a direct benefit to their billionaire donors. It’s the single-minded goal of Republicans, the one thing they can all unite on, the one thread holding them on to Trump – the promise of tax cuts for the wealthy be it through the tax code itself or the repeal of Obamacare, (which has nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with a tax cut for the .01 percent richest). What is developing is a world of the ultra-wealthy, built for them and existing for their class. Their dream endgame – to codify and solidify a dynastic world for the plutocrats, a multi-generational world of monopolies and dynastic families, a perpetual gilded age of the oligarchs. It’ll be a neofeudal world, fulfilling a dramatic irony to von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Just observe where the wealth is, as every economist does. Eight people have as much as the bottom half of the world combined and our government today is looking to rid them of most of their taxes which they’re already avoiding.
It is an international effort to turn the world into what is really Russian capitalism. Russia is the prototype for the international right wing oligarchy. Russia today is run by a few billionaires who sucked up the wealth of the communist nation when its public holdings were liquidated after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The neoliberal model – austerity for labor, wealth for the ownership class. It was a model Putin fought for, the successful heir to Boris Yeltsin, the unpopular beleaguered drunken autocrat of the 1990s in which the CIA helped elect through their own propaganda efforts to squash what would have been the nation’s democratically elected return to communism. (Made into a comedy film “Spinning Boris” starring Jeff Goldblum). It was something, ironically, that the Russians incorporated into their own machine politics.
We do know about how Russia does government and propaganda. Russian propaganda is known for agitating the public, creating phony citizens groups, pitting them against each other in the good old divide and conquer. It’s a technique perfected in Russia by Vladislov Surkov. It’s called non-linear warfare and it’s used to keep the public confused, fearful and enraged. While communities fight their culture wars, or turn against each other in culture wars, the government and business class consolidate power. With the power of labor castrated, the left is reduced to the rubble of identity politics between races, ethnicities and genders, while language of class evaporates into non-existence. Funny thing is that this aligns with American right wing propaganda as well, business interests cuing up at the capitol from K Street, fueled by the Heritage Foundation, Mercers and the Kochtopus. Steve Bannon himself is a fraud, a provocateur of misdirection gaslighting the populist right under the overseas tax-evading slush fund of the Mercer family.
The Mercers, it is no secret, along with other right-wing billionaires associated with the libertarian Mount Pelerin Society are part of a right wing plan to bring the states to a constitutional convention to literally re-write America, as noted by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and Nancy MacLean of the new book Democracy in Chains, to dismantle the state to the size of a shrew. These forces already have sway in half of the legislatures of the United States currently dominated by the Republican Party. They need two thirds to pull it off.
Paul Mason in his work on “post-capitalism” notes that neoliberalism is an unstable system of booms and busts. Without a strong central government to stabilize the economy, capitalism remains volatile. But with each bust, capital consolidates power ever more under the banner of austerity for the public sector. It’s an austerity machine. So the public sector, or government shrinks with each bust, as the ownership class gains wealth from one crisis or another, using the shocks of either market or political instability or environmental crises to purge the public coffer and privatize everything, selling off public assets to private investors. The right has no other plan than this, and it shows. Tax cuts for the rich. Billionaire cabinet. Deregulation. Exploiting public assets like the coast and federal lands.
Capitalism is unlikely to organically grow much more in America. It’s already become a post-capitalist world. American capital, in a blow against labor, moved its manufacturing abroad, finding ever cheaper foreign hands to manufacture its goods. America became a service economy, an information economy, an urban economy. It has little promise for an economic boom. That old Fordist capitalist boom in America is over. And it’s not coming back. Wealth that could be used to sustain the nation is concentrated in the hands of the few who don’t use their enormous wealth to create jobs, but simply invest more and more, creating monopolies for the 21st century dynastic age of dot coms. This is a world where the top three richest Americans – Bezos, Gates and Buffett – have as much wealth as the poorest 150 million Americans. It’s a world with increased productivity and low wages and low social mobility, where few can afford schooling and healthcare. Its growth rate is 2%, and economists are predicting not much higher with the rosiest of outcomes. Trump promises greater than 3%, and his whole presidency hinges on delivering. His method to do this however is the same tired tax cut and deregulation of Laffer Curve lovin’ Reaganomics. It’s an old fraud called trickle down economics, or what was called a century ago horse and sparrow economics, cause when you feed oats to your horse, some will come out the other end for the sparrows. They also think that privatizing public assets will boom the economy, when really it’s just transferring public wealth to private hands. He ran on a platform of a massive infrastructure plan – to rebuild roads, trains, airports, electrical grids, and so on. But there is nothing on that front yet – even though that would be a tangible stimulus to the economy, at least in a Roosevelt New Deal economy, but not in a Trumpian one, in which these would no longer be public infrastructure assets, but sold for pennies on the dollar to private interests. It’s a world where to pay for the tax cuts Trump will give to the billionaires, the government will borrow money from the same billionaire investor class … with interest. (The last part is actually contributed by the Democratic leadership in Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi). And it’s the only play, the very sad play, this but it is all Trump has left, and it is doomed to fail.
Capitalism is cornered in this country. The Democrats, the party that is supposed to be for labor, to keep in check the worst excesses of capital, has abdicated its responsibility for the last forty years. In the vacuum of this failure, the working classes have turned to the extreme right, waking up dark latent forces of racism, bigotry, gun enthusiasm and religious zealotry on the right, and a vacuous identity politics, wifi’d narcissism, extreme relativism and paranoia on the left. Just like Clinton abdicated responsibility for that election result, she leaves behind a party struggling to find its voice, unwilling to tear itself from the donor class of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Big Pharma. She presided over the demise of the party her husband dismantled in the 1990s when he betrayed labor. Hillary Clinton lost to a man who had no business being even seriously mentioned for public office. And in the vacuum of this failure, in the void of responsibility and the void of a real goal, the Kremlingate delusion fills. It’s a specter of our politically nihilistic age, unable to imagine a future, unable to give solidarity of voice with the people, or protect them from the predatory impulses of the plutocracy. The restoration of our fragile dignity relies on the solidarity of a people’s movement to restore democracy against the gaslighting of ever encroaching neoliberal propaganda machine. I suspect that one day Kremlingate will fade as quickly as it came, coming up with nothing. But people won’t ever really be convinced that something wasn’t going on back then. Kind of like how we think of JFK conspiracies, old communist conspiracies, old birther conspiracies, echoes in the cobwebs of our cultural memory as the global capitalist order unravels.