In this weirdest year, there may be no weirder phenomenon than the rise of the progressive Donald Trump supporter.
There exist two broad species of this political genus. First are the radical instrumentalists who see the Republican nominee as a noxious but necessary way station on the road to socialist revolution. Two months ago in this space, a writer named Christopher Ketcham made the “left-contrarian arsonist” case for Trump, arguing that, “What’s needed now in American politics is consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos—and crisis, with possible resolution—and a Trump presidency is the best chance for this true progress.” While acknowledging Trump as “fascistic,” Salon’s Walter Bragman urged his fellow lefties to at least acknowledge that “he would shake the current system to its core.” In March, actress Susan Sarandon explained to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes her hesitancy to support Hillary Clinton in the general election because “Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in.”
With their purposeful enablement of right-wing populist extremism over center-left incrementalism, America’s latter-day revolutionaries are behaving like Weimar-era German communists, who, on Joseph Stalin’s orders, attacked Social Democrats as “social fascists” rather than battle Nazi brown-shirts. Clearing the way for an actual fascist to take power would “heighten the contradictions of capitalism,” a dialectical Leninist concept holding that conditions must deteriorate drastically in order to wake the proletariat from its slumber.
Today in America, the stakes may not be as great as they were 80 years ago, but the political strategy is similarly irresponsible. Exultant in their moral narcissism, these lefties for Trump display no concern whatsoever for the consequences of their juvenile behavior. It shouldn’t surprise us that the vast majority of them are white and upper middle class, precisely the sort of people most insulated from the ravages of a potential Trump regime.
But it is the second group of progressive Trump fans, subtler in their sympathies, who warrant the most concern. These are the so-called anti-imperialists who harbor deep revulsion at the idea of American power being used for good in the world. America, they believe, is more often than not a source of evil and disorder—a jaundiced view of our global role that they share with the Republican nominee. Unlike the aforementioned wannabe revolutionaries, most of these progressives haven’t endorsed Trump. But they nonetheless embrace the radical departure in American foreign policy that his presidency promises. (Update: Several of the authors discussed in this piece have responded to it here.)
Despite bootlegging Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again,” the Trump campaign has thoroughly scorned The Gipper’s optimistic message and acclamation of the United States as a “shining city upon a hill.” In 2013, when Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the notion of “American exceptionalism” in a New York Times op-ed responding to a speech by President Barack Obama calling for humanitarian action in Syria, Trump declared the article “a masterpiece” to Piers Morgan. “You think of the term as being fine, but all of sudden you say, what if you’re in Germany or Japan or any one of 100 different countries? You’re not going to like that term,” Trump said. “It’s very insulting and Putin really put it to him about that.”
More recently, the Times’ David Sanger asked Trump if he would make “the spread of democracy and liberty” a component of his foreign policy. “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture,” Trump replied in a bit of whataboutery that could have been mistaken for Noam Chomsky. “Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood? How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country? … We have to fix our own mess.”
For centuries, Americans have broadly accepted the idea that their country serves a unique world role as both a political leader and moral exemplar. This notion of American exceptionalism traces itself to the nation’s founding upon universal ideals of liberty and individual rights, garnered real sustenance through the part America played defeating fascist and then communist totalitarianism, and endures today as America remains a beacon for people living under tyranny overseas. Except, that is, on the isolationist right and anti-imperialist left, two groups the Trump campaign has united in rejection of American global leadership.
“Trump is right, we are flawed messengers,” declared radical left-wing Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin in reaction to Trump’s Times interview. As evidence, Robin cited a United Nations hearing on American police brutality, where delegates from human rights luminaries like Pakistan, Russia, China, and Turkey denounced Uncle Sam. “No matter the DC freakout over Trump NYT interview, think his tacit repudiation of US exceptionalism is praiseworthy,” echoed Washington Post blogger Ishaan Tharoor.
Over the past eight years, a bevy of Republican politicians and conservative polemicists (including yours truly) have assailed Obama for disavowing American exceptionalism. Many of these selfsame conservatives, however, have no problem endorsing Donald Trump, who has repeatedly and explicitly rejected American exceptionalism in a manner Obama has only hinted at. The least that can be said of Trump’s left-wing admirers is that they’re intellectually consistent. Much as the far right is giddy over Trump’s normalizing previously taboo rhetoric on race and immigration, the candidate’s progressive fans welcome his normalizing the rejection of American global primacy.
They’re certainly not wrong to see an intellectual fellow traveler in Trump, who has scorned America’s postwar leadership role like no major party presidential nominee. While Trump’s invocation of “America First” has been roundly condemned for its odious historical associations, one left-wing historian writing for The Huffington Post defends it on grounds that the organization has been spuriously maligned, its pro-Nazi leanings emphasized to the exclusion of its righteous pacifism.
Likewise, some progressives seem inclined to overlook Trump’s more bellicose rhetoric (proposals to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” torture terrorists, and kill their families) as just window dressing for what is ultimately the sort of non-interventionist foreign policy they favor. “Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” Trump declared in his first foreign policy address back in April.
Such words are music to the ears of those on the left who paint Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger” for her mainstream foreign policy views and traditional support for the American-led liberal world order. “The only alternative to Trump’s frothy isolationism is Clinton’s liberal hawkishness,” sighs The New Republic’s Jeet Heer. Writing for The Electronic Intifada, whose worldview is exactly what it sounds like, Rania Khalek concludes that “Clinton is also dangerous to world stability. And unlike Trump, she has the blood on her hands to prove it.” Though Khalek admits that “Trump is riling up fascist sentiments,” she says that “he’s doing so by tapping into legitimate anger at the negative consequences of trickle-down neoliberal economics driven by establishment politicians like Clinton.” In a Nation magazine symposium, Sherle Schwenninger, co-founder of the left-wing New America Foundation, merrily predicts that “Trump would redefine American exceptionalism by bringing an end to the neoliberal/neoconservative globalist project that Hillary Clinton and many Republicans support.”
The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani, meanwhile, observes approvingly that “With Trump’s ascendancy, it’s possible that the parties will reorient their views on war and peace, with Trump moving the GOP to a more dovish direction and Clinton moving the Democrats towards greater support for war.” Trump’s “dovish” inclinations are largely attributed to his belated opposition to the Iraq War, which he frequently and falsely tries to portray as something he expressed before, as opposed to after, the conflict began. For many progressive Trump defenders, however, his furious condemnation of George W. Bush elides such complications. “Trump opposed Iraq. Hillary voted for war: Let’s take his foreign policy vision seriously,” Patrick L. Smith urges his fellow anti-imperialist progressives in Salon.
Finally, there is the Russia factor. There exists no greater challenger to American global hegemony today than Vladimir Putin’s regime, a fact that has led many Western anti-imperialists to defend Russian prerogatives and generally portray Moscow as a benign actor in world affairs. Khalek explicitly recapitulated this perverse moral equivalency in a tweet:
To see this tendency in action, consider Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who, like generations of useful idiots before her, ventured to Moscow last December where she publicly vilified her own country and sat at Putin’s table for a 10th anniversary extravaganza celebrating Kremlin propaganda network Russia Today. Belief in America’s unique iniquity and a resultant blind spot for Russian depravities has also led some progressives to stick up for the presidential candidate Moscow clearly favors.
It’s no secret the Kremlin wants Donald Trump to win this November. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has worked for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, and one of his foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, has a financial interest in Gazprom, the Russian state energy concern. Trump has repeatedly attacked NATO—whose destruction is Putin’s top foreign policy objective—and has gone so far as to state that he would consider recognizing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Last month, after Wikileaks published embarrassing email correspondence from the Democratic National Committee that was likely delivered to them by Russian hackers, Trump openly called upon the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email server. For these reasons and more, both Russian domestic and international media have been overt in their support for Trump, whom Putin himself has praised.
To be sure, Trump is not an “agent” of the Russian government. But his rhetoric and policy prescriptions are precisely what the Russians—and left-wing anti-imperialists—want to hear. Trump’s disparagement of American allies for “taking advantage” of the United States, promises to dismantle NATO, and attacks on American exceptionalism are all echoed by Moscow and its sycophants. In The Nation symposium, New America’s Schwenninger said that Trump “would stop the drift toward a potentially dangerous new Cold War with Russia,” as if it were America and, not Moscow, that’s responsible for heightened tensions. Schwenninger also praised Trump for recognizing “Russia’s national-security interests in Ukraine” (a euphemistic validation of Moscow’s annexation and ongoing invasion of a sovereign European country), “welcome[ing] Russia’s fight against ISIS,” (largely nonexistent considering that most of its bombings have targeted anti-Assad rebels), and acknowledging “that there is no reason for the United States not to have good relations with Moscow” (other than the fact that it is a territorially revanchist, nuclear-armed, virulently anti-American dictatorship). In that same symposium, Stephen Kinzer happily predicted that, under a president Trump, “Our new anti-ISIS coalition would include Russia, Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Kurds,” a ghastly list, excepting the latter, of longstanding American adversaries.
Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks is a cut-out for Russian intelligence, states that a vote for Clinton is a “vote for endless, stupid war,” and that she “shouldn’t be let near a gun shop, let alone an army. And she certainly should not become president of the United States.” Assange’s fellow “transparency” activist Glenn Greenwald, who shares the anarchic libertarian nihilist contrarianism of the Antipodean sex pest (as well as his Clinton hatred), explains Trump’s attacks on NATO as nothing more than an expression of fiscal prudence. “Questioning… whether it has this ongoing value and whether the U.S. should be expending the resources it is expending on NATO when we have massive income inequality and our working class is being deprived in ways previously unimaginable, those are perfectly legitimate questions to ask. NATO is not a religion,” he told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, framing Trump’s repudiation of American treaty obligations as heartfelt concern for the working man. Criticizing Trump’s bromance with Putin gets in the way of “reducing our belligerence towards Russia,” (emphasis added), because in Greenwald’s warped view it’s the Obama administration, and not Putin’s regime, threatening the peace in Europe.
Confronted with the full, disturbing array of evidence indicating Trump’s unseemly coziness with a hostile foreign power, the Republican nominee’s left-wing sympathizers revert to a timeworn tactic: accuse his critics of “McCarthyism.” While this accusation was once hurled at right-wing demagogues who flung irresponsible accusations of dual loyalty at liberals, today it’s being hurled at liberals who cite very real evidence of dual loyalty on the part of a right-wing demagogue. A Nation editorial entitled “Against Neo-McCarthyism” faults liberals for “promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack” against the DNC, which all available evidence indicates it was. (Accusing Trump of asking the Russians to hack Clinton is “such unmitigated bullshit,” says Greenwald; the candidate was merely “trolling.”) Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel elsewhere warns that Democrats “are on the verge of becoming the Cold War party,” and admonishes her fellow progressives against “turning the Orange Menace into a new Red Scare.” A recent Paul Krugman column raising concerns about Trump’s ideological consonance with Russian policy priorities constitutes, in the eyes of the World Socialist Web Site, “a mission on behalf of the US military and intelligence complex in defense of Washington’s core imperialist war strategy,” probably the first time that the reliably liberal New York Times columnist has ever been accused of such calumnies.
Vanden Heuvel’s husband Stephen Cohen, a former professor of Russian Studies at Princeton and New York Universities, has long been the Putin regime’s loudest apologist in the United States, and so it’s predictable that he would join his wife in rationalizing Trump’s alarming amenity with Moscow. Recently on CNN, Cohen defended Trump’s chumminess toward the Russian president by asserting that “Vladimir Putin wants to end the new Cold War.” If that’s the case, Putin has a very strange way of showing it, considering how his regime invaded and occupied two of Russia’s neighbors, launched massive military exercises simulating nuclear strikes on NATO capitals, funds an assortment of extremist political parties across Europe, and pumps out virulent anti-Western propaganda 24/7. “Ricky Vaughn,” one of the most prominent, pro-Trump white supremacist “alt right” Twitter personalities, admiringly posted a video of Cohen’s interview on Twitter, a portent of the synthesis between right-wing isolationism and left-wing anti-imperialism the Trump phenomenon has produced.
During the Cold War, when Moscow made a moral claim (however tenuous) to supporting the workers of the world, Western progressives at least had a patina of intellectual justification (however thin) for sympathizing with the Soviet Union. Today, however, Russia is the world headquarters of global reaction, a predatory crony capitalist state that screws the poor, oppresses gays, pronounces itself the last bulwark of traditional Western Christianity, and suborns a variety of far right and outright neo-fascist political forces across the European continent. There is nothing remotely “left-wing” or progressive or even “anti-imperialist” about the Putin regime, on the contrary, it is the most imperialist power on earth, illegally occupying the territory of two sovereign countries and coveting much more.
Some progressives, however, captive to a crude and one-dimensional anti-Americanism, routinely talk themselves into defending the Russian gangster state. Having justified the appalling behavior of reactionaries abroad, it’s only natural they would validate one here at home.