Putin critic to Democrats: Don't let the Russia story become a 'crutch'

Politico Magazine published an interview with Masha Gessen Monday. Gessen is a journalist who has written a book critical of Vladmir Putin, but today she warns that Democrats seem to be heading down a dangerous political path in their attempts to resist the Trump administration. Interviewer Susan Glasser asked Gessen about falling into “the conspiracy trap.”

Glasser: Recently, you know, American politics has been consumed by Russia. Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia. And you wrote something that a lot of people were surprised by the other day, although I was not. And you said, “Beware the conspiracy trap.”

And that, in fact, the Russia scandal that now threatens to engulf President Trump’s very new presidency, you wrote, “In effect, could be actually helping President Trump and amount to a sort of a colossal distraction for us.” What did you mean by that?

Gessen: Well, a couple things. One is that, if you look at, you know, what we actually know about the Russia story, which changes every day, but what—at this point, what we actually know suggests that the likelihood that there’s going to be a causal link between the Russian interference in the American election and the outcome of the election. The likelihood that was a causal link, and that that causal link can be shown, is basically vanishingly small, right?

So—and I think that part of the reason—there are basically two reasons that a lot of journalists and a lot of activists have been focusing on Russia is because it serves as a crutch for the imagination. And again, I’m coming back to this topic of imagination, which obsesses me.

So one way in which it serves as a crutch for the imagination is that it allows us to imagine that, maybe, Trump will be so sullied by this Russia scandal, by this connection, even if he can’t prove a cause—causal link, just that the darkness of the scandal will be thick enough of a cloud that he will eventually be impeached by a Republican Congress.

That’s a huge leap. And it also, I think, doesn’t take into account the tools—the rhetorical tools that will have to be used to sully Trump in such a way, right? Which are basically xenophobic and, you know, corrosive to the public sphere. And the other way in which it serves as a crutch for the imagination is it also serves to explain how Trump could have happened to us, right? The Russians did it.

As Gessen says, this Russia “collusion” story only makes sense if you consider how it is operating in terms of mass psychology, i.e. as an explanation for the results of the election and as a possible solution to the problem posed by the election. As I noted earlier today, Democrats have already posed a whole string of unworkable solutions to undo this election—from recounts to Russia. Each one has been greeted as a potential liberator (from President Trump), but each one has failed to deliver. So far, this remains a fond hope in search of a mechanism sufficient to the task. Later in the interview Gessen says it’s just not likely to happen. Trump is going to be around for a while.

Gessen, who is no fan of Trump, also argues there is a danger to allowing what amounts to a conspiracy theory to become a crutch for the party. It’s a distraction from what is happening in the real world. “We only have so much bandwidth,” Gessen tells Politico. “If we’re not talking about what’s going on out in the open, if we’re talking about conspiracy instead, then we are, by doing that, destroying the politics that we should be preserving, right?” she adds.

Much of the rest of the interview is devoted to making comparisons between authoritarian Putin and President Trump. There is one moment worth pointing out in the midst of that discussion on the “first moves” made by authoritarian leaders. Gessen undercuts her own case saying, “Basically, Trump’s significant first moves have been twofold. To marginalize the media, and to start dismantling the federal government.” She then compares that to Putin saying, “Putin’s first moves were to ‘other’ and marginalize the media, and to raid the media. And to completely reform the way that Russia was governed, to concentrate power in the federal center, right?”

To her credit, Gessen realizes this is quite different from what Trump appears to be doing. “These are very—they’re actually sort of—their moves in terms of federal reform are going in the opposite directions, but it’s still—they’re still revolutionary, right?” she says as if asking for a lifeline. If the question is authoritarian control then there is a big difference between centralizing power as Putin did and attempting to decentralize it as Trump appears to be doing. That point deserved a more thorough examination but it doesn’t get it in this interview.

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