Where to Begin?: Democratic Politics and the Russia Question

If you’re like me you’ve been glued to your computer screen watching the dumpster-fire—or, more accurately, democratic tragedy—unfolding over the investigation (or non-investigation) of Russia’s tampering in the 2016 presidential elections. This has been a sordid affair, with secret White House meetings, the pathetic tale of General Flynn, the lying of Senator Sessions, and the latest story of a thousand paid trolls flooding social media in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Rather than recount these dispiriting episodes, I want to ask instead: As citizens dedicated to preserving democratic institutions in the United States, where do we go from here?

In Connecticut, we are lucky to have a congressional delegation that has unanimously voiced considerable support for investigating the possibility of a Trump-Russia connection, and the Russian hacking of our elections more broadly. And Representative Jim Himes has proven a powerful voice in his pointed condemnation of Devin Nunes’ mishandling of the congressional investigation. Given that our congressional delegations is both responsive to our demands, and already on the right side of the issue, what work is left for us to do? Where to begin?

intelligence committee contactsFirst, we should all contact the members of the House Intelligence Committee and the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence. We should let them know that, as concerned citizens, we demand: 1) the Nunes step down for his mishandling of the investigation, and 2) that the congress create a select committee, with a special prosecutor, to investigate possible connections. We should point out that only with a non-partisan select committee is it possible to remove the cloud of impropriety overshadowing the Trump administration. And, if collaboration between Russia and the Trump campaign did take place, failing to identify this fact prevents the possibility of stopping such meddling in the future. Failing to uncover the scope of Russia’s influence in the 2016 election seriously places America’s democratic institutions, and our national security, in jeopardy.

However, we should also be realistic that Representatives and Senators outside our state will be less responsive to those who did not elect them. As such, we need to expand our pressure beyond phone calling to committees.

First, I would recommend that we contact our own representative—in our case Representatives Larson, DeLauro, Esty, Himes, or Courtney—and demand a meeting with him (or his staff) dedicated to strategizing how to push this issue forward. Our representatives know the political terrain better than we do. They are better positioned to know what kind of tactics work, who is most vulnerable, and what we might do to crack them. We should also let our representatives know we are committed to pursuing this issue; that we will not accept their non-cooperation; and that we will reward them only if they purse this issue with dogged determination.

Second, we must make the Republican Party own their gross mishandling of this issue. One strategy might be to highlight the hypocrisy around their refusal to investigate the possibility of a very serious Trump-Russia connections despite having spent years conducting a Benghazi witch hunt, which included multiple hearings, cost millions of dollars, and yielded no evidence of wrongdoing (despite, by their own admission, being designed as a Republican hatchet job). We need to compare this cynical charade with their own negligent shoe dragging on the Russia issue. They are governing by burning down abandoned buildings then pointing to smoke, while looking away from the inhabited houses currently billowing smoke. These are not the people we want in charge of our government, our military, our electoral system, our Supreme Court. As a strategy, I think there is room to push the Russia-Trump investigation by showcasing the hypocrisy around Benghazi. We should reframe the Benghazi witch hunt as a monument of Republican incompetence, partisanship, and flagrant disregard for a non-partisan truth. This should become our rally cry. We should disrupt every town hall and every congressional hearing with insane yelping “Benghazi! But Benghazi! Stop everything! Benghazi! They’ve come to take our children! Benghazi!” etc. etc. Republicans should not be able to walk in public without people yelling at them: “We will not forget Benghazi! Do your job!!” The Tea Party got attention because it appeared insane and unhinged. Remember the hats, the flags, the signs, and the side arms? We similarly need a symbolically rich spectacle and, I would argue, one that clearly demonstrates the double standard they are perpetuating by ignoring the very real possibility of a Trump-Russia connection.

In a political system driven off the rails, playing by the rules and making logical arguments about who-met-who-when-and-where still matters. But it is the job of journalists (and a select committee) to get the story right. We are, however, activists. And we should not conflate good reporting and fact finding with effective political strategy. Our job is to push intransigent politicians—many of whom are partisan hacks with a lot to lose from a failing Trump presidency—to do things they otherwise would not do. This requires making the Republicans own the insanity of Trump. Right now, however, they remain comfortable using him, his stupidity, his pliability, to pass their legislative agenda. We need to make sure everyone remembers that Trump is only president because “Benghazi!!!!”—a cynical charade the Republicans perpetrated, which sowed the doubt that Russian operatives then exploited (quite possibly with the support of Trump, or those around him…but we won’t actually know until it’s properly investigated). We should not let people forget that Russian hacking is only effective because the Republican Party created the conditions in which it was so.

(The author of this piece teaches at Trinity College.)

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