Sometimes it seems as if political reality has become an extended graduate-school seminar, in which every event must be understood as a “signifier” whose true social meaning (if any) is concealed or ambiguous. I was going to write something this week about whether the spread of “fake news” and the rise of Donald Trump derive in some way from the school of contemporary thought often labeled “critical theory” or, less accurately, “postmodernism” — and in particular from the semi-incomprehensible work of legendary French philosopher Jacques Derrida. But as usual with big ideas, the news cycle has intervened in alarming and hilarious ways, so we will defer — or perhaps differ — that discussion for another time. (For the five or six of you who got that joke, I am deeply sorry.)
Instead let’s consider the Russia scandal, and how and why the unknown dimensions of that murky affair have become yet another proxy war in the struggle for the future of the Democratic Party and the soul of the American left. On the face of it, that seems bewildering and illogical, since the Russia scandal nominally revolves around questions of fact that presumably have answers.
You hoped I was going to pivot to Trump’s Twitter war with Mika Brzezinski, didn’t you? I sort of did too, and I can feel the ghost of Derrida — who didn’t quite live long enough to be horrified and amazed by social media — looking over my shoulder and shaking his head. But I’m not sure even he would have found anything interesting to say about l’affaire Mika, beyond the obvious: “Sacre merde! After everything this guy has said and done, this idiocy is what finally turns his own party against him!”
As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega observed on Thursday, the fact that everyone in the media and political establishment became so vividly outraged about the president’s vulgar and misogynistic verbal assault on a TV host is more than a little weird. Did they only now notice who was in the Oval Office? Had they not heard quite enough about this guy, until now, to make up their minds about whether he was a decent and responsible person, capable of conforming to adult behavioral norms? Were Stephen Colbert and Lindsey Graham and every elected Republican woman in the country really out there thinking, “Well, I’m not a fan, but maybe he’s kinda growing into this job”? Once again we seem to be in the territory of things meaning something different than they appear to mean.
Or maybe we’re just in the territory of massive denial. It’s not just a river that nourished an ancient civilization that lasted much longer than ours will, folks! I bring up Colbert in particular because his big viral laugh-line on Thursday night’s “Late Show” — “Let’s stop pretending that Trump is a symptom of something; he is the disease” — was both striking and, to my ears, deafeningly clueless. Colbert specifically suggested that Trump had crossed some line with the Brzezinski tweets that hadn’t been crossed before, and also that since Chuck Schumer and Paul Ryan didn’t hurl grotesque personal insults at each other, American politics, absent Trump, was essentially normal.
To me that’s a ludicrous ahistorical argument, like saying that women’s lives in the Middle Ages would have been awesome if only the Inquisition hadn’t burned so many witches. But I’m forced to admit that’s my interpretation, and the contrary view that Donald Trump is some inexplicable aberration or natural disaster that has afflicted an otherwise healthy nation is widespread.
That brings us back to the supposed questions of fact in the Russia scandal. Did Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? (We have repeatedly been told the answer to that one, although I hasten to observe that we haven’t been shown any evidence.) Did Trump or people in his campaign collude with the Russians in that effort? Did Trump, once in the White House, try to obstruct justice by firing FBI Director James Comey and trying to short-circuit the investigation into possible campaign collusion?
Since we don’t actually know the answers to those questions, even if we think we do — and since that’s driving us all crazy — the questions have become symbols or ciphers or, yeah, signifiers. But for what? Maybe this is a case for Detective Derrida after all! Like Nietzsche and Heidegger and Edmund Husserl before him, Derrida was always concerned with the persistence of “metaphysics” in human thought, meaning that we all operate with bedrock assumptions we do not challenge, forgetting that they too are products of human thought. (Or can only be perceived by way of human thought, anyway.) In that sense, the questions surrounding the dangerous liaison between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that either did or didn’t happen stop being yes-or-no factual questions and become metaphysical questions. We answer them based on faith rather than evidence.
OK, I have made every possible reader angry now. But as even the stoned, texting B students in that philosophy seminar could tell you, the assertion that my faith is based on evidence — but yours isn’t! — is pretty much a dead giveaway. (That was more or less the critique Derrida made of Marxism, causing him to be widely despised in late-’60s and early-’70s Paris.) Am I suggesting that there’s no such thing as objective reality and that the outrageous crap Alex Jones churns out has the same “truth status” as stories published by CNN? Not in the slightest. The real point is a lot more basic than that: If you’re not willing to examine your own preconceptions — your starting point — you never quite know where you are, and the stories you tell are likely to be unreliable.
So it is with the Russia scandal, which is perceived by some liberals and progressives as a massive, history-shaping event — the biggest single factor in the national crisis of the Trump presidency, and perhaps the central explanation or meaning behind that crisis. For another group, and I guess it’s fair to call them leftists or radicals, the convoluted and hypothetical skulduggery of the Russian affair has a different status — maybe not irrelevant but secondary or ancillary, a distraction from more important issues. Each group views the other with almost as much horror and amazement as they view the actual Trump supporters in the red hats who inhabit a delusional alternate universe, where they are beginning to get tired of all that winning. (For which universe, to be clear, Jacques Derrida is not responsible.)
Both sides of this dispute have been vigorously aired by Salon's political columnists, as it happens: Chauncey DeVega memorably explored the thesis that Donald Trump might actually be a traitor, and Bob Cesca has argued that Russia's apparent hack attacks on the Democratic Party amounted to an act of war. Meanwhile, Danielle Ryan (who has lived in Russia) has addressed Americans' enormous ignorance about that country and its leadership, as well as the American media's multiple reporting failures (that column is coming this weekend), while Conor Lynch has suggested that "liberal jingoism" and unsubstantiated allegations threaten to undermine the anti-Trump resistance.
Another of our columnists, Paul Rosenberg, has argued with supreme reasonableness that Democrats can forge a more progressive, activist agenda while also insisting on a thorough investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign and its Russian connections. Sounds great, Paul -- but nobody wants to hear "can't we all get along?" in the middle of a street fight.
In fact, there’s no actual reason I can think of why an Audi-driving suburban “I’m With Her” loyalist might not conclude that the Russia scandal was less important than health care or the travel ban or the numerous ways the Trump administration is likely to screw up our country and our planet. Or why the most hardcore bearded BernieBro might not put down the bong and eagerly scrutinize every partly-baked nugget of news about Comey and Michael Flynn and Robert Mueller and the Russian “fertilizer king” whose private plane seemed to follow Trump around the country last year. I’m sure there are numerous such examples to be found in the real world.
But as a political narrative, the Russia scandal has become a weapon in the ongoing Democratic Party faction fight between “mainstream” liberals or moderates (aka scum-sucking, neoliberal Wall Street toadies) and populist or progressive insurgents (aka irresponsible, self-centered socialist dudebros). In the most extreme versions, each side has accused the other of moral blindness and self-delusion, if not grandiose historical crimes: Bernie-fied leftists are pro-Putin stooges or trolls driven by sexist vitriol, who not so secretly wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton anyway. Clintonite party regulars, meanwhile, are a pack of hysterical conspiracy theorists or “neo-McCarthyites,” who repeatedly fall for fake news about the Russia story in order to avoid facing their manifest political failures.
If neither of those stereotypes is remotely fair, both contain just enough grains of truth to keep the dispute raging, especially in the context of the Democratic Party’s near-total powerlessness and bewilderment. As for the supposedly factual question of whether Putin overthrew our democracy and put Donald Trump on the throne — which itself can likely never be answered — it conceals or contains a different and more fundamental question that also underlies Colbert’s Brzezinski monologue: Were things in America basically OK before all this happened?
Depending on what we mean by “all this” -- and what we mean by "before" -- this isn’t a brand new question that suddenly came up last Nov. 9. It is one that has divided the American left, in various forms, for generations. Are we a largely functional democracy on an upward trajectory that got hit with a bizarre orange plague virus, or a crumbling imperial superpower whose abundant internal contradictions have exploded to the surface in a spectacularly awful display of karmic payback?
I know what I think the answer is, and have made no secret of that fact. (Glorious Democratic victory of 2018, followed by impeachment, the mass shaming of Republicans and the return of sanity, normalcy and above-average test scores: So not happening.) You do too, quite likely. But our answers might be different, because we arrive at the question from different starting points — from competing metaphysics that by definition we can’t quite see, as our friend Derrida might say.
I suspect the epistemological confusion on the left over the Russia scandal — I stayed away from the five-dollar words, until now! — offers us an important lesson in humility, which is never easy or fun. We may never know for sure whether Putin got Trump elected, and may never agree about how much that question matters. The only honest way to evaluate the bizarre and unprecedented political events of the past couple of years is to admit that the evidence about what happened and why can be read in many directions. While we’re smack-dab in the middle of this period of revolutionary change (if that’s what it is), we cannot hope to understand the true condition of the West or America or democracy or the Democratic Party.
This creates a difficult paradox for the so-called resistance, with no obvious solution. We can continue playing out the tribal and ideological conflict revealed during the 2016 primary campaign — which was a long time coming, which neither side can win, and which risks creating a long-term rupture within the left-liberal electorate. We can forge an awkward, unstable coalition of opposition that temporarily ignores profound areas of disagreement about strategy, tactics, worldview and goals. That's a super-inspiring vision, right? Or we can forget the whole politics thing and gratefully embrace issues where we can all come together: The president definitely shouldn’t send nasty tweets to some lady on TV. She seems nice, and he doesn’t.