Friedrich Nietzsche famously warned, “he who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Judging from the ongoing neoconservative meltdown in response to president-elect Donald Trump’s feud with the Intelligence Community, the lesson has fallen completely on deaf ears.
Perhaps the ur-text of the species arrived this past Friday, when self-proclaimed “conservative” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asked the question these people were, to this point, too shamefaced to utter out loud: “If Obama is a Muslim, is Trump a Russian spy?” There are many tragic, or even tragicomic, facets of this altogether unhinged piece, but for our purposes, two will suffice to illustrate the larger trend.
First, there is Parker’s brief flirtation with self-awareness:
Respecting others despite differences is, generally speaking, the hallmark of an enlightened soul, as well as a desirable disposition in a leader. Yet, those who sided with Trump interpreted Obama’s gentle touch toward the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as evidence of a hidden agenda to advance Islam in the United States—notwithstanding Obama’s rather robust drone operations, which eliminated quite a few bad actors who happened to be, or said they were, Muslims.
Noteworthy is that these same Obama doubters weren’t bestirred to suspicion when then-President George W. Bush visited a mosque immediately after 9/11. Nor, thus far, have they expressed any concern about Trump’s cavalier approach to Russia’s cyberattack on the United States.
Given this history and recent evidence, isn’t it about time Trump be declared a Russian spy?
No, I don’t really think he’s a spy because, unlike the man himself, I’m not given to crazy ideas. But what’s with this double standard? Under similar circumstances, how long do you think it would have taken for Obama to be called a traitor for defending a country that tried to thwart our democratic electoral process?
Translated, this masterpiece of sniveling passive aggression says roughly: “I’m too reasonable to call Trump a spy or Obama a Muslim, but dammit, I wish the people whose unreasonableness I feel safe in looking down upon would do it!”
Unfortunately, Parker can’t even bring herself to stop with that backhanded bit of McCarthyism. At the end of the essay, she has to give up the ghost entirely, as she writes: “In sum, when the president-elect persists in a state of denial, siding with the enemy against his own country’s best interests, one is forced to consider that Trump himself poses a threat to national security.”
And for anyone not fluent in supercilious Beltway contempt, she finishes by noting longingly: “In Russia, they’d just call it treason.”
Now, one could spend an entire column on the obvious rhetorical sleights of hand and weasel words endemic to those final two sentences. For instance, when was it formally announced that Russia (post-Communist Russia, I mean) is “the enemy?” Did I miss the declaration of war by Congress? Was there so much as a word from any president since the fall of the Berlin Wall to the effect of “we are at war with Russia?”
Of course, the answer is no. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama actually tried to cultivate Putin in their own ways, the former by trying to form an alliance against Islamic terrorism with the former KGB colonel whose soul he’d seen, and the latter by literally gifting Putin a big red “reset” button. Before that, President Bill Clinton was trusting enough to sell the country uranium.
At one time, even some neoconservatives made favorable noises about Russia. Parker’s colleague, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, remarked approvingly in a 2001 article for The Weekly Standard that “On his trip to European Union headquarters in early October, President Vladimir Putin made clear that he sees Russia’s future with the West—and that he wants the West to see its future including Russia.[…][I]n a world realigned to face the challenge of radical Islam, it is hard to see why Russia could not, in principle, be part of the West.”
Such a world appears to be precisely what the president-elect seeks now, and while it’s not at all clear that such a world is viable 15 years and many developments after Krauthammer’s article, the fact remains that the idea was not considered so ridiculous by even Russia’s newfound foes in America’s foreign policy community, provided a sufficiently globalist president (which Trump apparently isn’t) saw it come to pass.
Language of ‘Treason’
Second, when did a new cold or (worse) hot war with Russia become one of America’s “best interests?” Flirting with conflict against a rival nuclear superpower is dangerous, and even when it is unavoidable and justified (as it was during the Cold War), it’s hardly something to be argued for by sliding it into a column, unexplained, through weasel words.
Yet that’s precisely what Parker does, only to then conflate such a conflict with national security! Last I checked, national security is about making the United States safer, and baiting a rival superpower seems opposed to that by definition. Clearly, the closing paragraph should have been the column.
But these are concerns I will have to ignore for the nonce, as Parker’s final sentence requires the most attention: “In Russia, they’d just call it treason.” Matched with the passive aggressive tone of the first passage quoted, we can be in little doubt that Parker would prefer to call Trump’s dovish stance toward Russia and his skepticism of the intelligence apparatus precisely that.
This is more than dangerous—though it is that—and more than illiberal—though it is that, too. It is a deeply revealing bit of projection. If one grants my reading of these passages, then Parker is saying in effect that to fight Russia effectively, we must become more like Russia; which is to say, more prepared to suppress opposition or even skepticism of the revealed word of our governing elite, as expressed both by its diplomatic and intelligence functionaries, with charges of treason.
Now, perhaps Parker simply wrote inelegantly. Perhaps the final line is meant to show the superiority of America’s tolerance for dissent. Unfortunately, even if she didn’t intend to offer a sample of this species of thinking, she’s not the only source one can turn to in order to prove its existence. In fact, her column might be the most ambiguous source for discovering such musings about carting off Trump and his supporters to jail for daring to disagree with the CIA/the State Department/the Atlantic Council (though in mentioning the last two, I may be repeating myself).
A Conspiracy So Brainless
Much more honest, chilling, and detailed versions of the same thinking can be found on that famous proverbial toilet full of word vomit—Twitter—just by perusing any number of neoconservative Trump-hater feeds.
Thus, we hear Evan McMullin state flat out that Trump is “not a loyal American” (in other words, he is a traitor) because he dares to question the CIA and express friendly sentiments toward Russia. McMullin’s campaign manager, the not-quite-so hairless but equally brainless Rick Wilson, is even more blunt. Speaking of Trump’s “alliance” with Russia and laying the election results at the feet of “pro-Russian treason,” Wilson offers the kind of commentary that were it not published by someone with Washington media pedigree, would be the sort of thing one would expect to read on conspiracy blogs.
Speaking of conspiracy blogs, one can’t leave out the worst offender of all: former Heat Street editor Louise Mensch, whose open conspiracy theorizing about Russia is so unhinged that even a fellow anti-Russian pundit called her out for it. (Mensch’s response? “Girl I’m trying to save the world.” Alex Jones couldn’t have said it better.)
Some of Mensch’s other greatest hits include indicting poor Jeff Sessions as part of “the Russian faction”; tweeting at Steve Bannon that she “can’t wait to see [him] tried for treason”; alleging that Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich are Russian spies; calling for “precision bombing runs,” “bank hacks,” and “massive cyber war” against Russia; writing articles likely sourced to her cats alleging that entire swaths of the Trump team are being investigated by the FISA court; out and out screaming that FBI Director James Comey has fingered Trump as a Russian asset; and, of course, calling for Trump’s arrest.
In short, along with peddling disinformation, Mensch is calling for certain journalists and media figures (Cernovich, Jones, and Bannon, until recently) and political figures (Trump) to be thrown in jail for the crime of disagreeing with her. Given Mensch’s history as a successful romance novelist, one wonders if this is all deep cover for a “love among enemies” story about a Russian dictator and a courageous failed Western politician forming affection on the basis of their mutual intolerance for dissent.
An Attack on Liberalism Itself
All of this is bad enough, but worse still is the fact that all of these people also frequently smear even good-faith questioners of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s fallibility as closet Putin spies: yet another common tactic authoritarians use against their critics. Never mind that Steve Bannon himself agrees that conservatives should take Putin’s gestures toward social and cultural conservatism as simply flattery by a cynical, untrustworthy kleptocrat.
However, what separates Bannon and Trump from the new cold warriors is the recognition that, even if you grant that Putin is an authoritarian monster, this does not preclude him being useful to the United States. Indeed, there are excellent reasons and great foreign policy minds one can muster in defense of the idea of tolerating this particular authoritarian monster as the least of all current evils. Those arguments deserve a better response from Russia hawks than the sort of mindless smear campaigns they’ve offered.
Further, no American institution should be treated as infallible—least of all our intelligence agencies, which Trump correctly fingered as having gotten the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction issue disastrously wrong, and whose report explaining its conclusions regarding Russian intelligence is thin on evidence at best. Granted, it may be that the classified version is more thorough, but the public version is weak sauce. That so many people who are now turning on Trump probably also sought to impugn the patriotism and loyalty of people who questioned that WMD stinker (since all of the people mentioned supported the Iraq War) is no excuse: if anything, it makes this particular fixation worse, since they should’ve learned skepticism from their last religious attachment to intelligence that confirmed their biases.
More important than all this, though, I believe that resorting to charges of treason against people with whom you disagree while claiming to defend liberalism is both disgustingly hypocritical and dangerous to the integrity of liberalism itself. The projection of Trump’s neoconservative haters does precisely that: it transforms those afflicted by it from thoughtful people into would-be authoritarian apparatchiks hiding in some foxhole plotting the return of their own personal inquisition. This is bad for their ideas, bad for politics, and bad for the country.
What Neocons and Putin Have in Common
But ironically, the one thing this projection doesn’t do is permit its sufferers insight into the biggest question on their mind: namely, why Putin would prefer Trump over Hillary Clinton.
If the CIA report is to be believed, the reason is simple—because Putin believed Hillary Clinton had acted to manipulate an election against him and wanted to be sure that sort of thing wouldn’t happen again, which it assuredly would have done had she been President. In other words, Putin felt about Clinton roughly the same way the neoconservatives feel about Putin: as if she was an enemy determined to meddle in a country that rightly belonged to him and steal it away. Compared to the prospect of such a person having four years to destroy his government, almost anyone would have been preferable, especially a Russia dove like Trump.
And so perhaps the neoconservative hatred of Putin and, by extension, Trump really can be chalked up to rage against the mirror. After all, the evidence that Putin’s meddling actually swung the election is purely speculative, and just as dubious as the idea that the continued flailing of the Bush era’s shipwrecked minds might actually delegitimize or damage the president-elect. Any harm that was done exists purely in the realm of the possible, and frankly not terribly probable.
But whatever Putin’s effectiveness, neoconservatives have absolutely no ground to reproach him for the fact that, faced with the prospect of political extinction, he apparently decided that threatening the greatest institutions of Western liberalism was worth the risk. Based on the evidence of their own writing, it’s just what they wish they could do.