This week, Representative Eric Swalwell taunted Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as “Kiev-in McCarthy.” It was reported that Nancy Pelosi has recently told Senate colleagues that she believes Mitch McConnell might be an active traitor to his country. According to CNN’s account of a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats, “Pelosi laid into McConnell, saying, as she’s said before, that he is acting like a rogue Senate leader. She mused that sometimes she wonders whether McConnell has Russian connections, the sources said.”
And in the Democratic debate, Pete Buttigieg tried to walk an odd line, simultaneously criticizing Trump for being too close to Vladimir Putin, while also criticizing his administration’s inability to find a way to work with Russia on matters of common interest. “Despite this president’s coziness with Vladimir Putin, we actually seem to be further away from being able to work with Russia on things like the renewal of START,” he said.
It was Buttigieg’s comment that was the funniest of them all, showing that at least some Democrats are aware that there is reality itself, in which Republicans are their normal domestic political opponent, but that they must also condescend to a weird partisan fantasy in which Republicans are somehow controlled by Vladimir Putin.
The reality is that Russian and American relations are terrible under Trump. While there has been a relatively orderly process of communication about military movements in Syria, as Russia and the United States sponsor different actors in that civil war, America’s relationship with Russia seems to be at an all-time low since the end of the Cold War.
In August 2017, Russia and the United States engaged in mutual expulsion of some diplomatic personnel. And after an apparent poisoning attack in the United Kingdom in 2018, the Trump administration expelled another round of Russian personnel from the United States. Also in 2018, the United States engaged in a four-hour battle in Syria that killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Some security experts even worried that the lack of diplomatic communication between the two nuclear powers put the world in danger.
In November 2017, Andrew Higgins reported in the New York Times that Putin’s political opponents in Russia were getting tired of “what they see as America’s Russia fever.” Why? Because
it reinforces a narrative put forth tirelessly by the state-controlled Russian news media. On television, in newspapers and on websites, Mr. Putin is portrayed as an ever-victorious master strategist who has led Russia — an economic, military and demographic weakling compared with the United States — from triumph to triumph on the world stage.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny called the Democrats’ investigations into Russian interference “not just a disgrace but a collective eclipse of the mind.” Fear-mongering and conspiracy theories have consequences.
Trump has occasionally expressed interest in seeing Russia brought back in to make the G-7 into a G-8, but there’s been no substantial improvement in relations. Sanctions still hammer the Russian economy.
For years, Democrats tried to brag that they were the reality-based community, the ones who didn’t let partisan or imperial fantasies interfere with their political judgment. But now it’s as if certain news networks and politicians are caught in a feedback loop and think they have been dropped into an episode of Showtime’s Homeland or a revival of 24.
There are other countries, such as Ukraine, in which Russian interests do get considered and in which domestic actors have entanglements with business and political interests that favor the Kremlin, or at least a faction within Russia. The parliaments of these countries are rife with accusations of dual loyalties or foreign subornation. These are sad countries in many ways, given an unlucky set of geographic and political conditions. The United States is unlike them in every way.
We know that some of these actors know better. Nancy Pelosi, from happy experience, knows that Democrats can win elections by focusing on bread-and-butter issues with their constituents. That’s how she won Democrats a majority in Congress. So the question remains: Why is there this subset of wine-mom Democrats, Morning Joe addicts, and their couriers who prefer to believe this conspiracy theory about Putin?
Perhaps madness has its own attractions. Maybe Americans have grown tired of being a world power and instead prefer the exciting low-level conspiracy theories that pass for news in Italy, Greece, or the sites of other has-been empires.