So it’s official. After almost two years of investigation, involving who knows how many tens of thousands of hours of labour, Special Investigator Robert Mueller and his team have concluded what any sensible person could have told them before they started, that there is ‘no evidence’ that US President Donald Trump has in any way colluded with the Russian Federation. The obvious lack of evidence has not stopped a large cohort of politicians, journalists, and social media trolls from insisting over the past two years that Trump is a Russian agent, a tool in the hands of the Kremlin, or even a ‘traitor’. Along the way, they’ve told us again and again that the decisive revelation was just around the corner, that Mueller would ‘flip’ General Flynn or Paul Manafort, or whoever else, and that these people would soon spill the beans, proving Trump’s guilt beyond all doubt. But now, it turns out that it was all a ‘nothingburger’ after all. Quelle surprise!
Sadly, those responsible for spreading the collusion story are unlikely to pay any personal price for the millions of words of nonsense they have spewed forth since 2016. Don’t expect Luke Harding, Molly McKew, or Rachel Maddow to fall on their swords shouting ‘mea culpa’, let alone expect their bosses to fire them. But there will be a price to pay nonetheless. Some of that price will be domestic-American, and some will be international.
Domestically, the Democratic Party are the big losers here. At some point, late in 2016, while the US presidential campaign was still ongoing, the Democrats decided to play the Russia card big time. As I noted back on 2 November 2016, ‘With a week to go to the US presidential election, Clinton is actually behind Trump in the latest polls. Her response? Double down on the Putin theme.’ But as I also pointed out, ‘it isn’t working’. And it didn’t. The ‘Trump as a Russian agent’ meme served as a distraction from the real problems the Democrats needed to address in order to win elections. But instead of learning that lesson from Trump’s victory, the party quadrupled down on the Russia issue. In the process it has wasted two years hammering home a false narrative which has no obvious relation to the everyday needs of ordinary voters. This can’t be helpful.
The fantasy which Democratic politicians and their enablers in the media have woven has surely also served to discredit them, at least in the eyes of those already inclined to regard their outpourings with some degree of scepticism (true believers will not, of course, be affected). There’s a lot of talk about Russian ‘disinformation’. But whatever rubbish may, or may not, flow out of the orifices of RT pales into insignificance against the vast effluence of rotten manure that pours from the mouths of the American establishment once it firmly sets its mind on something. As I’ve noted before, there’s a reason why people turn to alternative media and conspiracy theorists: they’ve lost faith in the mainstream. The outcome of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal is going to accentuate that tendency. ‘Why should I believe the New York Times or the Washington Post after all that?’ people will ask. And the only possible answer – that for all their faults they’re still better than InfoWars – isn’t always going to convince.
Perhaps, if there was some moderate alternative out there, this wouldn’t matter so much. But another effect of Russiagate has been to silence moderate voices. The collusion story has popularized the idea that Russian ‘agents’ are out there seeking to undermine our democratic systems. It’s not just Trump who’s been accused of working with the Kremlin. The charge has spread far and wide to include anybody who might express doubts about the existence of a massive Russian conspiracy working away to destroy our societies from within. Arguably, Russiagate and the proliferating volume of think tank reports denouncing the ‘Kremlin’s Trojan Horses’ are intimately connected. The result is an impoverished public debate about Russia and the policies that we should pursue toward it.
This in turn has international consequences. Although the collusion story has failed to force Trump out of office, it has obliged him to change the track of his foreign policy. What that policy would have been in the absence of Russiagate, we can never know. But President Trump’s attitude to Russia has been very different to that of candidate Trump. The latter argued in favour of improving relations with Russia; the former has taken multiple actions designed to worsen them. The idea that he may have been driven to do so by a desire to distance himself from accusations of being a Kremlin stooge seems very plausible. Quite possibly, therefore, the collusion accusation has had a very negative, and quite unnecessary, effect on East-West relations.
All of this was quite avoidable. There was no shortage of commentators pointing out from the start the enormous lacunae in the arguments that Trump was a Russian agent, drawing attention to the enormous deficiencies in supposed evidence such as the dossier put together by former British agent Christopher Steele, or demonstrating the sloppy logic in works such as Luke Harding’s dreadful book Collusion. But all this was ignored. One has to suspect that this was because it didn’t suit the purpose, which wasn’t to report the news but to depose Donald Trump. Perhaps the only thing one can say in Russiagate’s favour is that for all its awfulness, it’s still not as crazy as Brexit. We can at least take solace in that.