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Why Are Leftists Letting the Democratic Establishment Define the Trump Opposition?

Like it or not, the left must engage with the unavoidable Russia story.

David Ryder / Getty Images

The nationwide March for Truth this past weekend, which called for “urgent investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election and ties to Donald Trump,” was the latest example of one of many historical anomalies on display in American politics this year: The center-left is the organizational force driving street protests across the country. Orchestrated by Democratic Party affiliates and interest groups, the march provided a clarifying window into the priorities of the center-left and their attempts at self-rehabilitation in the Trump era. It also gave insight into how leftist factions seeking to gain leverage within the party might approach the Russia issue, which has become increasingly unavoidable.

The center-left—defined, broadly, as elements aligned with the Democratic establishment, and whose current political strategy revolves almost entirely around steadfast opposition to Trump—has found a successful marketing strategy. Because Trump is so widely loathed among liberals and historically unpopular with the broader public, any attempt to impede or hobble him inevitably gets wide circulation in the progressive-oriented media ecosystem. At this point, activist Democrats are extraordinarily invested in the Russia investigation as a means of removing Trump from power.

Yet, if this center-left strategy succeeds in toppling Trump, it’s difficult to see how leftists could claim much credit. Despite demanding that the Democratic Party make robust amends for last year’s massive electoral failure, the left—in acquiescing to liberal priorities—aids in the party’s self-rehabilitation efforts, which don’t include much in the way of genuine self-criticism or tangible reform. It would perhaps be more tactically wise for the left to keep a critical distance from the Russia issue, insisting that there are more rational means of opposing Trump and fertilizing left-wing ideas than hanging their hopes on an investigation that has not, as yet, come close to validating the thesis that Trump meaningfully colluded with any hostile foreign power.

The Russia story has become so dominant, though, that the left must engage with it to remain relevant. Although some of the most perceptive critics of Russia hysterics come from the left, often their response takes the form of exasperated derision—along with the lament that progressive agenda items are being woefully under-emphasized. And while it may be true that Democrats would be wiser to focus their attention elsewhere, it nevertheless is the case that huge swaths of the most activated segment of the Democratic Party coalition are extremely exercised about the Russia saga, and view it as central to the overall strategy for stymying Trump and the GOP. Therefore, simply badgering such people to “move on” won’t be effective.

Instead, the left would do well to engage the issue on the merits. It must be emphasized that questioning the veracity of the Russia collusion narrative has nothing per se to do with defending Trump; rather, it has to do with defending reason and prudent political strategy. For close to a year, the inherent sinisterness of having “Russian connections” has been at the forefront of the Democratic Party’s agenda, and with the media’s help, it’s now implanted in the minds of much of the party’s base. This has resulted in illogic, impeachment fantasies, and even unabashed Russophobia. At the “March for Truth” in Los Angeles, which I attended, the main theme was that Trump had committed treason; Soviet-era and homophobic iconography was appropriated to portray Trump as a “puppet” who has sold out the American people on behalf of his Russian benefactors.

In acceding to the Democratic Party’s priorities, leftists risk allowing the Russia issue to become the ideological focus of the Resistance, while left theoreticians toil away, formulating systemic critiques that go unnoticed. It’s a slightly awkward position for the left: When liberals organize marches and public action, like the much larger Women’s March earlier this year, leftists often react with a combination of wariness and eagerness. They’re wary because such marches mean that liberal priorities—such as rehabilitating the political fortunes of the Democratic Party, whatever the cost—will be put front and center. Yet they are also eager because these events are opportunities for radicalization. Many of the Democratic-organized, anti-Trump actions over the past several months have featured the Democratic Socialists of America on scene, for instance, recruiting potential converts.

At the same time, by acquiescing to a center-left stratagem, the anti-establishment left forfeits its own ability to shape the public perception of the Resistance; and because the center-left is where the fixation on Russia originates, the most salient means of opposing Trump is viewed as taking him down on Russia-related grounds. Granted, there’s some logic to this strategy, as creating an aura of generalized scandal around Trump seems to have successfully hampered his ability to staff the federal government and pursue anything resembling a coherent governing agenda. Trump’s erratic behavior gives the Democratic base the impression, understandably, that there must be some underlying criminality at the heart of the Russia issue, or else Trump wouldn’t blow so much hot air about it. And while the collusion suspicion may never be confirmed, Trump’s response to the inquiry—specifically, his firing of FBI Director James Comey—has raised the legitimate question of whether he obstructed justice.

But deferring to liberal analysis on this subject also means that progressivism is increasingly associated in the public imagination with Russia histrionics rather than, say, a non-interventionist foreign policy or aversion to concentrated financial power. Cooked-up narratives about foreign infiltration are normally the province of the right, but the center-left has cooked up one of its own—or at least, overhyped what little remains known—for reasons of political opportunism. If the left wishes to be a check on power and create the conditions for long-term change, it’s imperative that it respond with careful, evidence-based inquiry, as there are growing segments of the populace with reasonable questions about what the hell happened. Democratic Party zealots can’t be the only ones offering answers.