I have written before about legendary journalist I. F. Stone who took on both the Washington establishment and its complicit media. In an essay, Glenn Greenwald says that there is much we can learn from perusing Stone’s writings, even though they were written over a half-century ago, because they illustrate that the Cold War McCarthyite tactics that Stone endeavored to counter are alive and well today.
Two vital points stand out here: 1) the key to sustaining fears over foreign adversaries is depicting them as all-powerful and ubiquitous; and 2) once that image takes root, few will be willing to question the propaganda for fear of being accused of siding with the Foreign Evil: “the thesis no American dare any longer challenge without himself becoming suspect.”
This tactic — depicting adversaries as omnipotent super-villains — was key to the war on terror. Radical Muslims were not just violent threats; they were uniquely menacing, like Bond-film bad guys.
When photos emerged showing how the U.S. government was transporting terror suspect Jose Padilla to his trial by placing blackened goggles and earphones over his face, one U.S. commentator justified it by explaining it was necessary to prevent him from “blinking in code” to his terrorist comrades to activate plots. When asked why terror suspects were bound and gagged for long intercontinental flights to Guantánamo, a U.S. military official said that these were “people who would chew through a hydraulic cable to bring a C-17 down.” They possessed powers of dark magic and were lurking everywhere, even when you couldn’t see them. That’s the reason to fear them so much that one submits to any claim and any policy in the name of crushing them.
Few foreign villains have been vested with omnipotence and ubiquity like Vladimir Putin has been — at least ever since Democrats discovered (what they mistakenly believed was) his political utility as a bogeyman. There are very few negative developments in the world that do not end up at some point being pinned to the Russian leader, and very few critics of the Democratic Party who are not, at some point, cast as Putin loyalists or Kremlin spies:
Putin — like al Qaeda terrorists and Soviet Communists before him — is everywhere. Russia is lurking behind all evils, most importantly — of course — Hillary Clinton’s defeat. And whoever questions any of that is revealing themselves to be a traitor, likely on Putin’s payroll.
Keith Gessen provides a more realistic take on Putin, examining in great detail the many myths being propagated about him, and concludes that the rhetoric being used is straight out of Putin’s playbook.
Compared to the 40-year cycle of US deindustrialisation, during which only the rich gained in wealth; the 25-year rightwing war on the Clintons; the eight-year-old Tea Party assault on facts, immigration and taxes; a tepid, centrist campaign; and a supposed late-breaking revelation from the director of the FBI about the dubious investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server – well, compared to all those factors, the leaked DNC emails must rank low on the list of reasons for Trump’s victory. And yet, according to a recent report, Hillary Clinton and her campaign still blame the Russians – and, by extension, Barack Obama, who did not make a big issue of the hacks before November – for her electoral debacle. In this instance, thinking about Putin helps not to think about everything else that went wrong, and what needs to be done to fix it.
This evasion is the essence of Putinology, which seeks solace in the undeniable but faraway badness of Putin at the expense of confronting the far more uncomfortable badness in front of one’s face.
If Donald Trump is impeached and imprisoned for conspiring with a foreign power to undermine American democracy, I will celebrate as much as the next American. And yet in the long run, the Russia card is not just bad politics, it is intellectual and moral bankruptcy. It is an attempt to blame the deep and abiding problems of our country on a foreign power. As some commentators have pointed out, it is a page from the playbook of none other than Putin himself.