It feels a bit like 1950….
Back in those panicky early Cold War days, the biggest show in town was the investigation of Alger Hiss, an American government official accused of being a highly placed spy working on behalf of the Soviet Union. Over the past several weeks of today’s spy scare, it was revealed that a foreign policy advisor during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was placed under government surveillance due to suspicions (as yet unproven) that he was a Russian spy, a Russian woman who is here on a student visa was arrested and charged with being a spy, and a recent magazine article even explored the idea that President Trump himself is an agent of Russia. All we need to round out the picture is an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, some sweaty new version of Senator Joseph McCarthy at its helm, grilling terrified witnesses and loudly accusing them of espionage and treason.
However, before going any further with this discussion of spies and spying, two salient facts must be acknowledged.
The first is that every nation has spied on every other nation from the dawn of civilization. It is both prudent and smart to make every effort to peek at the inner machinations and motivations of your neighbors, who might, sad to say, not always have your best interests at heart. Given the terrifying weaponry washing around the world today, to not spy on other nations in order to divine their decision making would be both foolhardy and irresponsible.
In addition, it is both obvious—and understandable—that American politicians are always accusing their rivals of being un-American. Wrapping yourself in the flag to win political and—even more importantly—moral advantage is as tried and true a method of winning votes as kissing babies. Our opposition to Russia after the end of World War II in 1945 (Who now remembers that the Soviet Union was one of our most important allies in the fight against Nazi Germany?) only added a new twist to this old ploy, and Presidents from Truman to Trump have been accused of being Russian dupes by political opponents who saw advantage in making this charge.
I am not certain the ferocity of the attacks are any worse than they used to be. President Truman was, for example, regularly excoriated by Republicans for having “lost China” to the Communists, and Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater continually barked that President Lyndon Johnson was “soft on Communism” during his own failed campaign for the Oval Office. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the red-baiting disappeared for awhile because the Communists suddenly seemed like they wanted to become compliant capitalists, but the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, his KGB credentials flying, signaled there were limitations to the goodwill that could be bought via a McDonalds dishing out Big Macs in Moscow
What makes today’s iteration of the Cold War political attacks so difficult to understand is that it is now the Democrats accusing the Republicans of being blind to the Russian threat. Even as they are busily embracing “Democratic Socialism”, which sounds like some focus group phrase concocted to make Communism palatable in Cleveland, Democrats are furiously lobbing accusations of treason at President Trump for having the temerity to attempt to de-escalate superpower tensions at the Helsinki summit. Given that only a few years ago Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and former President Clinton were best buddies with Vladimir Putin, the resurrection of this harsh and uncompromising Reagan-era “Evil Empire” rhetoric is apt to give one a bad case of whiplash. What is not new are the old charges of treasonous intent that are on Page One of the “I’m more of a loyal American than you” handbook for demonizing your political opponents.
None of this is, of course, connected with any tangible reality. Many of the actions Donald Trump has taken as President have been the opposite of what any actual Russian agent would have done. Whether he was pushing through a stupendous increase in U.S. defense spending, sending arms to Ukrainian separatists fighting for their freedom from the Russian Federation, or pushing rules of battlefield engagement in Syria that have already resulted in hundreds of Russian casualties, President Trump has been a much harsher adversary of Russia than his predecessor ever was.
Indeed, if one flashes back to 2012 and President Obama—who was unaware that the microphone was on—timidly asking Russian President Medvedev to inform Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility to deal with difficult issues “after my election”, you have to wonder where all the Democrats and overwrought media were at that time. Was Barack Obama colluding with Russia to swing the Presidential election in his favor? Not surprisingly, there was no breathless inquiry regarding this question.
Of course, reality and rage do not have to necessarily coincide—what would be the fun in that?—and painting a hammer and sickle on President Trump’s back is a handy tool for escalating the anger necessary to drive Democratic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020. Whether voters believe any of this or not is hardly the point. The accusations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy or agentprovide a uniting issue for fractious Democrats, lend fresh legitimacy to Robert Mueller’s endless investigation, and hopefully distract voter attention from historically low unemployment and a roaring domestic economy. Whether this will translate to Democratic electoral gains in the midterm elections and beyond is anyone’s guess, but it does not mean that we have heard the end of this discussion—and the many baseless theories it will spawn.