The millennial left’s dangerous disinterest in the Trump-Russia scandal

The millennial left’s dangerous disinterest in the Trump-Russia scandal

Photo Credits: ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

Why pursuing Trump’s Russia connection is a crucial and pragmatic step in pursuing a progressive America

Anyone who cannot stand the fact that Donald Trump is president probably agrees that his greatest accomplishment has been catalyzing a powerful new counterwave of civic engagement among younger people.

This younger generation of progressive millennials is strongly motivated by views and values that sharply contrast with Trump’s, especially on topics like healthcare, the environment and social justice. It’s wonderful to see so many young people passionately engaging with these important problems. I’ve grown increasingly concerned, however, with the lack of interest and knowledge from people of my generation in the expansive investigation into Trump’s ties to the Russian Government. Or, as Trump referred to it in an interview in which he admitted to obstruction of justice (a crime) on live TV, “this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia.”

Over the last two years, I’ve observed equally-concerned commentators allude to this disinterest. Even more powerfully, I’ve had numerous encounters with friends who don’t even know basic information about the scandal, like who Robert Mueller is, the fact that actual crimes have been uncovered and the fact that the Russia story is NOT “that thing where Trump asked Stormy Daniels to pee on him,” as my friend once thought. Thus, I realized it would be a tall order to hope that they would understand the gravity of the House Intelligence Committee issuing subpoenas for over 80 individuals and organizations associated with Trump on March 4.

This disinterest in the Russia scandal is appalling because of what’s at stake. Determining whether Trump, his businesses and his campaign were or still are in a corrupt relationship with the Russian government, and whether one or all of those parties are in an ongoing effort to cover up that relationship, should take priority over any other subject like healthcare, climate change or social justice. The Russia scandal gets to the very heart of the values, principles and robust institutions that have sustained our democracy for over two centuries, regardless of whether conservatives or liberals were in power. Failure to realize this significance is a symptom of our worsening understanding of civics and lack of appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the American democratic system. This ironic combination of increased civic engagement and decreased civic knowledge perhaps goes hand-in-hand with the younger generation’s heightened idealism and progressivism.

Many millennials who have only known a post-Soviet Russia hold the view that fearing Russia is antiquated — that it’s stupid and impractical to keep demonizing the Russians when we won the Cold War almost three decades ago. It’s absolutely true that we should neither demonize the Russian people nor conflate them with the Russian government in any circumstances, but we must also remember that the people running the Russian government never stopped fighting the Cold War. We did. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we assumed that defeating communism equated to eliminating the source of the conflict. That being said, the conflict between the countries was — and continues to be — rooted in geopolitics and deeper philosophical differences that transcend the capitalist-communist dichotomy.

After the Soviet collapse, disdain for our system and vengeful desire from ex-KGB thugs like Vladimir Putin and oligarchs is what motivated them to help Trump in an effort to compromise and show the weaknesses of American democracy. They were successful, and the idealistic millenials need to understand that addressing this crisis in our democracy has to come before any other issue they want to champion. Failing to do so would negate any progress made on social or environmental justice issues because it would show that we don’t even have faith or pride in our institutions in the first place.

Before the 2018 midterms and going into 2020, Democrats have shown a desire to run in “affirmative ways” by advocating healthcare and social and environmental justice issues. Implicit here is the assumption that prioritizing the Russia scandal is too negative and “in-the-weeds” to be a successful strategy. In a piece for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait wrote that leftists feel the Russia story is somehow “preventing the left from prosecuting a populist case against Trump.” This attitude is wrong. Russia needs to be the central issue of the 2020 campaign cycle because challenging Trump’s suspicious Russian political and business connections and his attacks on the Justice Department is in fact “affirmative.”

It is a positive message to fight for American values and rule of law, especially when the president is hostile toward our own legal institutions, ethical norms and intelligence services and refuses to do anything about the continued cyber threats from Russia. The left must prosecute this as a populist case against Trump in the court of public opinion to ensure our country can support our progressive agenda in the future. Nothing could be more affirmative and pragmatic. Yet, the Democrats’ pathetic messaging strategies (one area where they could take a cue from the GOP) have prevented them from successfully making this case to the public, especially to millennials. Polls carried out and published by Vanity Fair Magazine before the 2018 midterms showed this failure, with millennial women especially likely to be completely disengaged from the Russia investigation.

Since many moderates and old-school Republicans are also quite alarmed by the Russia scandals, Chait added that some leftists may view promoting the Russia revelations as a frustrating appeal to the center. He said that, “By expanding the Democratic coalition into the center, at least temporarily, the Russia issue runs counter to their goal of repositioning the party to the left.” Again, this reasoning is horribly wrong and misguided because Russia needs to be the basis of the populist, grassroots case against Trump.

The article goes on to say that the millennial, social justice, anti-imperialism left may think it is hypocritical to worry about the Russian threat to American democracy when the U.S. has been guilty of the same, meddling in the elections and domestic politics of countries worldwide. Chait writes, “[Trump’s] realpolitik alliance with Russia, and his premise that America has no right to hold its political system above Russia’s, strikes a chord in some precincts of the left.” Justifying an indifference to Mueller’s investigation with this anti-hypocrisy, anti-imperialist argument is also horribly misguided because it represents resignation to the pessimistic and unpatriotic notion that we as Americans shouldn’t aspire to continuously improve and perfect our democracy.

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald has surprisingly become a darling on Fox News for saying that the Russia story is just a convenient scapegoat for Democrats who would rather look outward than inward after the humiliating 2016 defeat. While this may also be an appealing argument for the millenial left who want to promote reflection, it’s important to realize that “reflection” and getting to the bottom of the Russia story are not mutually exclusive. Determining how Russia has been so successful in manipulating our social media platforms and our discourse will require a great deal of inward reflection; Russia is not a scapegoat for our loss because Americans and the American system had to be gullible and flawed, respectively, for Russia to have been this successful.

I’ve previously written on why it is essential to stay informed and not tune out. Seeing the high levels of interest from young people in some of America’s most pressing problems is beyond encouraging, but at no point did I say that intense interest in some issues exempts one from caring about others that are just as, if not more, important. You don’t get to chose the news — it happens, and if you want to consider yourself an engaged citizen, it’s your responsibility to know as much about everything as possible.

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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