blind partisans

Caricatures of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are by DonkeyHotey

Which seems more astonishing? That Donald Trump’s supporters have forgotten the Cold War and fallen in love with a Russian dictator? Or that the only major historical event diehard supporters of Bernie Sanders remember is that the George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? What connects the amnesia of the former with the schematic error of the latter is that both are now being deployed to deny that Russian intelligence agents hacked the Democratic National Committee and major figures in the Republican Party to obtain kompromat, damaging information released to weaken the campaign of Hillary Clinton and retained to blackmail the administration of Donald Trump.

What Republicans have seemingly forgotten is a protracted ideological and proxy military struggle between the United States and Soviet Union that lasted from 1947 until 1991. Should they have any doubts that the Cold War actually occurred and suspect that all the talk about it is nothing more than another of those smarty pants deceptions perpetrated by smug liberals, they could consult a World Atlas from the period and there discover curious colored map spaces named Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, and Republic of Vietnam. Further evidence of the historical reality of the Cold War might be found in the public speeches delivered by Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Further confirmation might be found in the Congressional Record or news stories from the period. If none of that helps ring a bell, just watch Red Dawn again. Republicans loved that fantasy.

If such therapeutic reminiscence is successful, Republicans will recall that an entity called the KGB (Committee of State Security) played a crucial role in waging the Soviet Union’s side of the Cold War. The KGB performed tasks roughly comparable to those performed today in the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau. For parallels to the ‘cultural’ tasks performed by the KGB we probably have to look to Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda or to the Roman Inquisition. Like most Americans, most Republicans might not have ever learned that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the vast army of agents, analysts, interrogators and prison guards who worked for the KGB, collectively termed the siloviki, did not disappear. Instead they regrouped, abandoned communism in favor of nationalism, and put one of their own in power in 2000: Vladimir Putin. Yes, the same Vladimir Putin who has such a cozy relationship with Donald Trump.

For decades, Republicans postured as hypervigilant about national security threats from espionage and political subversion by the Soviet Union. Hypervigilance didn’t manage to catch many actual Soviet spies though hounding former communist party members and suspected sympathizers out of public life did win votes for Republican candidates. Republican hypervigilance about communism did not even end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tea Party Republicans condemned President Barack Obama as a communist when they weren’t condemning him as a Muslim. Some even managed to call him both. But now, after decades of bug-eyed hysteria about the threat of communism, Trump’s supporters vehemently deny any possibility that the reconstructed KGB had anything at all to do with hacking the Democratic National Committee and refuse to say anything at all about hacking the emails of major figures in the Republican Party.

Earl Browder who ran as the Communist Party's candidate in 1936 and 1940 (left) and Joseph Stalin the leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.
Earl Browder who ran as the Communist Party’s candidate in 1936 and 1940 (left) and Joseph Stalin the leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.

Examples of comparable 90° pivots by political parties on international relations are rare but students of American history know of one that is positively eerie. Before the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 23, 1939, the American Communist Party led by its presidential candidate Earl Browder had insisted that such a treaty was impossible. After it was signed Browder and his supporters insisted that the treaty was necessary. Communist Party membership swelled during the Great Depression but largely evaporated after 1939 because ordinary members couldn’t stomach the cynical new foreign policy dictated by Moscow. Which makes you wonder how old school anti-communist Republicans keep from abandoning their party given the distinct possibility that Donald Trump is taking his marching orders from Moscow.

Many diehard supporters of Bernie Sanders, embittered at losing the Democratic Party nomination because the party establishment had its thumb on the scales, insist that Russian intelligence agents did not hack the Democratic National Committee. Mention is never made that major figures in the Republican Party were hacked, perhaps because that offers no foundation expressing their undying hatred of Hillary Clinton. What matters to them is that Hillary Clinton lost the general election and that they believe Bernie Sanders would have won. To admit that her campaign was the target of covert action by a rival great power would take the focus away from her wrongdoing in the primary elections. Some of the diehards go even farther and celebrate the victory of Donald Trump as that of another, if inferior, anti-globalist.

Public verification by the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies that Russian agents engaged in hacking is dismissed by diehard supporters of Bernie Sanders as a fabrication, an evasion of responsibility by Hillary Clinton for losing the general election or an attempt by Barack Obama to ignite another Cold War. What is this absolute conviction based upon? The most common answer given is that the Central Intelligence Agency supported the claims made by the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. If the agency lied once, so goes the reasoning, then it can never be trusted to tell the truth. Perhaps nagged by the possibility that the KGB might actually be responsible, some diehards have also claimed an improbable level of expertise in information technology.

Ever alert to opportunities to exploit populist sentiment, Donald Trump chimed in with, “And if you look at the weapons of mass destruction, that was a disaster, and they were wrong.” He also claimed instant expertise in formation technology: “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a hard thing to prove.”

What diehard supporters of Bernie Sanders have succumbed to is the same “one historical analogy fits all” thinking that made Americans vulnerable to justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Back then the historical analogy was the Munich Analogy. Saddam Hussein was cast as another Adolf Hitler and Iraq another Nazi Germany. The ‘CIA lied about WMD’ historical analogy is just as flawed. Whatever limited utility historical analogies offer for understanding international politics vanishes when they are used to ignore crucial information. Vehement denial of any possibility of Russian hacking delivers the diehards at the entrance to the conspiracist hall of mirrors. Once inside, anything may be believed or disbelieved, a disorientation likely to politically demobilize.

Patriotic Americans have reason to worry about the willingness of change blind partisans, motivated by electoral opportunism and familicidal resentment, to countenance the subversion of this country’s liberal democratic institutions. Whatever legitimacy the Donald Trump and his administration might have enjoyed is evaporating. What matters most now is the protecting our government from the agents of a rival great power who may control Donald Trump and other figures in his cabinet. Against such a threat to the United States, all else pales to insignificance.

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Images: Caricatures of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are by DonkeyHotey via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license; photo of Joseph Stalin by неизвестный (unknown) via Wikipedia.org and is in the public domain;  and photo of Earl Browder who ran as the Communist Party's candidate in 1936 and 1940 via NPR and is in the public domain.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.