Trump, Russia, and the Return of Scapegoating, a Timeless American Tradition
Our bipartisan tendency to blame others for our own failures will be the cause of American decline.
Now that the intelligence chiefs’ report on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election is available in expurgated form—and we have no reason to assume the classified version is any more substantial than the rubbish made public last Friday—it is time to do that most difficult thing: step back and take a cold, hard look at ourselves. What we find, to put my conclusion first, is that most of us will do more or less anything just now to avoid taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and what it is we are up to.
This is commonly done by way of scapegoating. The Russian case is extreme, but it must not be seen in isolation.
It is true that Americans today are a divided people in many respects. But let’s not make too much of this, for we display a striking unity in our tendency to blame others for our difficulties, shortcomings, and failures, of which there are unusually many at this moment—every one our own doing. It is tempting to anatomize our current outburst of scapegoating according to political persuasion—which party abuses whom—but this does not do because almost everyone gives in to flinching from failures that are all our own.
Donald Trump (with a lot of Democratic backing) indulges in a bout of Sinophobia boringly reminiscent of earlier iterations reaching back more than a century. On the other hand, everywhere one looks Democrats (with a lot of Republican backing) assert that Russia strikes at the very foundation of our republic.
Trump’s China-bashing, which I read as unconsciously racist, is not yet institutionalized but shortly will be. Last week’s intelligence report on Russia was a stunning farce—flimsier than even hardened skeptics would have predicted. So were those still-weaker allegations this week to the effect Russia possesses material compromising Trump. But this is no moment to exhale. Russophobia is policy. We are in for many years of it unless Trump succeeds in shutting this project down.
Russophobia, Sinophobia, the always-handy Islamophobia—the scapegoating habit is worth thinking about as an established national trope. It has a long history. What can we learn from it now, as it builds to an unusual height? What does it tell us about who we are in 2017?
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The joint report presented last week by James Clapper, Michael Rogers, John Brennan, and James Comey is so devoid of substance even The New York Times seems to take half a step back. William Binney, one of those whistleblowers we are fortunate enough to have among us for their efforts to keep the conversation sane, described it succinctly (in an interview with the dreaded RT): “It says the U.S. intelligence agencies have lost their professional discipline in providing intelligence. This is a joke.”
It is—a bad one. As some of us have long suspected, the intelligence agencies traffic in surmise—wishful surmise, I would say, politically convenient surmise. Others have parsed the report thoroughly and commendably. It amounts to 25 pages of the cotton-wool language official obfuscators always deploy when making something of nothing. We are left to conclude that it is Clapper, Brennan, Comey, and Rogers who have imposed unduly on the American political process. We are left to wonder why they have taken so much of this nation’s time and attention—critically befouling our public space as they did—simply to induce another case of that semi-hysteria familiar to all students of American history. Let us not forget, although most of us do, that James Clapper perjured himself when, four years ago this March, he denied that the NSA ran extensive data-collection programs. Why are so many of us now perfectly willing to believe a compromised spook who is also a criminal? These are all good questions, too.
There are immediate, near-term conclusions to draw on the way to the enduring one, the one that matters most. Here are three of mine.
First, the incessant hubbub about Russia’s throwing the election to Trump is of little account other than to Clintonites in need of psychotherapy. The frenzy of Russophobic scapegoating in the Obama administration’s final days concerns a very different, more serious matter: It reflects the panic prompted by Trump’s proposal to turn relations with Moscow from irrational hostility to sober, reasoned cooperation. The pitch of this paroxysm is a measure of the extreme dependence of numerous constituencies on a brink-of-war degree of tension with Russia. We are on notice now: Elements within the Pentagon, the CIA, the national-security apparatus, the NATO bureaucracy, and the defense contractors will go to the mat to prevent whatever kind of neo-détente Trump may have in mind. They need a hostile world, and we will live in one until enough of us insist otherwise.
The numerous implications here, as should be plain, are grave. It is no time for juvenile carping; we must hope Trump holds his ground and prevails in this ferocious fight. That he will is not now certain.
Second, the misuse of intelligence for political purposes has been evident at least since the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, ran the State Department and the CIA, respectively, during the Eisenhower years. While the problem has worsened, as the claim of WMD in Iraq made clear, the perversion of clean intelligence typically occurs after it is sent to the White House. The actively deceitful role taken by the intelligence officials is without precedent so far as I can make out. We must now contemplate what it means for our elected government to proceed without disinterested intelligence as to the world beyond our borders. There is no one left to supply it, as people such as Binney advise us.
Finally, the intelligence report’s inordinate focus on RT, the Russian television broadcaster, bears a salutary message: The West’s longstanding monopoly on what we can call the global narrative is collapsing. Read the passages on this point: The plangent, defensive tone is unmistakable. Rejecting the report, method and conclusions alike, is in this context a contribution to a positive trend—positive because one is better off for knowing how others see things. For the record: RT is a government-funded broadcaster on the BBC model and shares with the BBC the problems ordinarily associated with this ownership structure. BBC executives assert that the Beeb is a public-service broadcaster, not a state broadcaster, but this is an empty nicety. As of last year, useful to note, the BBC World Service receives a not-inconsiderable portion of its budget from the UK’s Defence Ministry.
As to last week’s larger, even more daunting lesson, the one I draw is this: The tasks of our time are too big for those charged with leading us to manage. I have argued many times that decline is not an inevitability. It is a choice. Refusing to accept and meet the obligations the 21st century imposes amounts to making this choice. We watch as this choice is made in our names. People like James Clapper came very close to running this nation into the ground during the Cold War decades. Close we are once again.
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A century ago a millenarian preacher named G.G. Rupert, a parish-to-parish wanderer in the Midwest, published a book called The Yellow Peril. A stupid man with a stupid thesis, Rupert did not invent America’s paranoia about an invasion of Asian hordes (among which he counted Russians). He merely gave it staying power by way of a biblical gloss. The book went through many editions, and Rupert did well by it.
I thought of Rupert from time to time when living in Tokyo during the Japan-bashing 1980s, and I thought of him again last week, when Trump named Robert Lighthizer his special trade representative. Lighthizer joins a team of ’phobes on the new administration’s trade side and is a tough Asia-basher of many decades’ standing. He bullied the Japanese as deputy STR during the Reagan years and now levels the very same guns at the Chinese.
It is too early to say whether Trump’s trade people will make a mess as they engage the Chinese, but they could, and the mess could be big. American companies went right for the old “two billion armpits” myth, as the immense if imagined Chinese market was nicknamed, when Deng Xiaoping opened China to Western capital in the 1980s. China would export its way up the development ladder while its domestic market matured, and the US was all for partaking. American companies now sink roughly $75 billion a year into fixed investments on the mainland.
Now the trans–Pacific economic relationship causes problems: deserted Main Streets in American cities, idled factories, a subclass of skilled workers reduced to “throwing boxes,” as they say at FedEx and UPS. There is the trade imbalance ($366 billion in 2015) and China’s immense holdings of US sovereign debt ($1.22 trillion). And yes, of course: These problems are China’s fault and China must fix them.
Washington has tried this trick before to no useful result, but Washington does not like either to remember or to learn. With the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, Japan was substantially encouraged to export its way back to life by selling whatever it could make to American consumers. As a follow to the Nixon administration’ determination to exploit the Sino-Soviet split, the United States pursued a variant of the same strategy in China, this time with American companies taking a greater part than they had during Japan’s postwar “miracle” years. In each case it took a couple of decades before these policies—both driven by geopolitics, not sound economics—began to exact their tolls. In each case, the United States quickly indulged in the blame game.
While the president-elect stands almost courageously against scapegoating the Russians, he rotates his gaze to scapegoat the Chinese. The fundamental worry among those who pay attention to Asia policy is that Trump and his trade people do not know how to read the time on history’s clock.
Sino-American relations do not, for the moment, have the same powder-keg urgency as the relationship with Russia. But this could change. In my estimation, Trump will get precisely nowhere as he goes after the Chinese on the economic side, simply because there is nowhere to go: A dense interdependence may be touched up at the margins but cannot be fundamentally altered. The danger, simply put, is that Team Trump’s inevitable frustrations cause trade friction to spill into security questions that are already too fraught for comfort.
To my mind, Trump’s trans-Pacific scapegoating is easy to explain. The extensive damage caused by our subjection to neoliberal economics since Jimmy Carter began following Chicago School fashions in the 1970s now reaches a critical, unsustainable point. Having failed to distinguish between a market economy and a market society, all serious remedies to the resulting ills are now dismissed as “unrealistic.” We cannot, in short, imagine a future different from the present; we cannot think anew. And so, unthinkingly, we scapegoat another nation for the problems we made for ourselves over many years.
I recall no previous time when so much of what befalls us was so cavalierly laid off on others. Our democracy decays, our economy falls ever further out of a healthy balance. I cannot imagine why anyone would assume there is not a heavy price to be paid for flinching from these problems—our homemade problems.