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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Tragedies of anti-Trumpism: The Russian investigation

The investigation

Most are aware of the charges that Russia may have somehow tried to influence the 2016 presidential election and that Russian interests have a disproportionate influence in the operations of the Trump administration. One claim is that a Russian agency, the Internet Research Association, somehow manipulated social media to target certain groups of people in the United States to influence their vote with "fake news." Another claim is that high-level operatives, like former National Security Advisory Michael Flynn, was somehow in the pay of Russian operatives from other countries. A third claim is that Trump is deeper in cahoots with the Russians, receiving difficult to trace contributions from Russia in exchange for Trump advancing Russian interests. As I understand it, Russia isn't the only foreign power alleged to exert undue influence, but the news I've seen focuses on "Russia" and Putin.

In light of these charges, part of the investigation into Trump has to do with his, his administration's, and his campaign's dealings with Russian and other foreign operatives. The questions behind this investigation seems to be what did they know, when did they know it, and how might they be compromising national security because of it?

This investigation needs to be done, and if it uncovers illegal actions, those actions must be prosecuted. Even if what it uncovers is not illegal, it may uncover questionable dealings that should call into question the competence and good faith of the Trump administration.

Three tragic consequences

But however necessary the investigation is,  into Trump's dealings with Russia may do, I see three potentially unfortunate consequences. unfortunate, potential consequences. First, the investigation feeds into a narrative of knee-jerk anti-Russianism and hyper-American nationalism and all the unsavory historical associations that come with that narrative. Second, the investigation glamorizes Putin.

Un-reflective attacks on free speech

One concern the Russian investigation has brought out is that "fake news" bombards social media and manipulates people to vote a certain way or not to vote at all. One possible reaction to "fake news" is advocacy for more gate keeping in the distribution of information. I fear that gate keeping can be unduly strict and may limit what can be said.

It all depends on what kind of gate keeping we're talking about. The fewer and more centralized the gate keepers--and the more formal and rigid the gate keeping process--the more danger. The more diffuse the gate keepers and the more access we have to alternative, non-gate-kept information, the better. To be clear, I haven't yet seen any serious proposal that might raise concerns. The only proposal I've actually seen (and at secondhand, so I don't have a link) is combat trollery on social media so as to provide more transparency about who is providing what information and in whose interests that information is being provided.

Another red scare?

The investigation revives our periodic obsessions with Russia and with anyone who may plausibly be smeared as "pro-Russian." That isn't too different from our other periodic obsessions, such as the war on terror or the anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980s. But I'd just like to point that we've seen this movie before. The sides seem to have changed a bit. Those who say "but there really is a danger" tend now to be more on the left. Those who say "this is hysteria" or "this is a nothingburger" are probably more on the right. (Here I'm using commonsense, and therefore overbroad and vague, definitions of "the left" and "the right.")

That the sides have switched doesn't mean there's no danger. I should be wary of reasoning by analogy or assuming that because two situations have one thing in common, they have other things in common. But the similarity to other campaigns about "foreign intervention" should give at least a moment's pause. Will the allegations of "pro-Russianism" go overboard and start to ruin lives? Will anyone who raises the possibility that Russia isn't as great of a danger eventually be branded as "traitors"?

Probably not. I said the similarity to concerns the US has seen about foreign intervention should give us "a moment's pause." But I wouldn't say it should give us two moments' pause.

The greater glory of Putin

The investigation serves Putin's interests. Or rather, Putin will find it easy to spin the investigation in a way that buffs up his domestic standing. Maybe Putin is a danger to the US and maybe what Trump and his friends have been doing really does compromise national security or at least signals corruption. But every revelation of how Russia engineered a "fake news" campaign or somehow influenced the 2016 election likely plays into Putin's hands. Maybe Russian experts can tell me where I'm wrong, but I strongly suspect Putin gets a lot of leverage, in the form of bragging rights, by portraying himself as the guy who messed with the American elections.

That perhaps is the most "inevitable" of the tragedies from the Russian investigation. It's obviously (to me) something that needs investigating and it's impossible to investigate in a way that won't redound to Putin's interests.


My warnings about the potential attack on free speech and the next "red scare" are slippery slope arguments. My warning about how Putin may shape the investigation to his own interests is, if not trivial, perhaps to be expected and not particularly in anyone's control. But I believe there's no harm in keeping these concerns in mind.

See introduction and table of contents for this series

Friday, December 28, 2018

Tragedies of anti-Trumpism: Introduction

I write this post to introduce a new series that I call "the tragedies of anti-Trumpism."By Trumpism, I mean the facile appeal to bigotry and to authoritarianism that Trump--but not only Trump--represents. By "anti-Trumpism," I mean opposition to Trumpism.

Yet any serious effort to combat Trump and Trumpism entails, almost necessarily, certain costs to anti-Trumpists' own integrity and to those in whose name they pursue their activism. These costs are "tragic," not because they are too high to justify opposing Trumpism, but because opposing Trumpism almost necessarily exacts these costs.

I mostly join those who say we must remove Trump from office by any legal means necessary and that we must combat Trumpism. I say I "mostly join" and not "completely join" because I'm not convinced that just because a means is legal it is therefore the right thing to do. But that's a conversation for another day. And I certainly am not endorsing illegal means.

I'm aware I'm doing what is sometimes called "anti-anti-Trumpism." That term refers to those who oppose (or at least don't support) Trump but who are bothered by the way others oppose him. I'm aware of the allegation that this "anti-anti-Trumpism" is a bad thing, akin to support for Trump and what he stands for by way of nitpicking and finding fault with any and all criticisms but not actually doing or saying anything meaningful to call Trump and Trumpism to account.

In light of that allegation, I must concede several points:
  • My series of blog posts will be a species of anti-anti-Trumpism.
  • On some level I am indeed offering something like support for Trumpism inasmuch as Trump's supporters take refuge in criticizing his opponents.
  • Other than penning a few criticisms of Trump (an exercise that, like talk, is cheap) and other than voting for Hillary Clinton, I have done nothing substantive to oppose Trump.
  • I have less to fear from Trumpism than others who are more marginalized than I am and therefore it's easy for me to criticize those who have more to fear and more to lose.
  • I feel a certain amount of personal defensiveness when I hear people criticize Trump, Trumpism, or Trump supporters. That defensiveness has more to do with my own pride and perhaps baser inclinations.

At the same time, I find it inadvisable to remain silent. Whatever incidental support for Trump or Trumpism my series offers,* I believe that even anti-Trumpists can benefit from reflecting on the costs to themselves and to others that result from their activism. At the very least, I believe it's preferable for activists of any stripe to go into their activism with eyes wider open.

Table of contents for the series

*Let's face it, my blog doesn't exactly have a wide readership. I've thought of posting this series, or parts of it, over at Ordinary Times, but for now I am not doing so. In part that's because I'm not prepared to deal with the (in my opinion, mostly legitimate) pushback I'd receive.