Julian Assange and the future of democracy: Is this a turning point in World War IV?

Assange's arrest was an authoritarian masterstroke, exposing intense confusion and hypocrisy on the anti-Trump left

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 14, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin; Julian Assange; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)
Vladimir Putin; Julian Assange; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve occasionally invoked the term “World War IV” to describe the internal conflict -- at once social, cultural and political -- that has virtually paralyzed most of the major Western democracies. It’s a concept first developed by the late Jean Baudrillard in 2002, when he observed (correctly) that what began with 9/11 was not a war between the West and the Islamic world -- a pair of meaningless abstractions in any case -- but a self-destructive war within the Western world itself, "the emergence of a radical antagonism" at the heart of the democratic-capitalist order. 

This week’s arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London -- however you understand that event, and whatever you make of him -- strikes me as a key moment in the history of World War IV, one that makes clear how much has already been lost. It has cut through the anti-Trump coalition on the so-called left like a hot knife through a brick of lard, exposing hypocrisy, uncertainty and prevarication on all sides.

Even by the standards of the Trump administration this has been an insane news week, with the president's unhinged pronouncements on shipping immigrants to "sanctuary cities" and the vicious and hateful right-wing attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar. It's tempting to say that the fate of Julian Assange really doesn't matter next to all that. But in fact all these things are not disconnected, and Assange's arrest fits into the larger strategy of the right-wing authoritarian movement, which is not just to divide and conquer but to bewilder, divide and conquer.

L’affaire Assange has already occasioned innumerable social-media hot takes and journalistic jeremiads, all written by people who are certain they’re on the side of justice and democracy while their opponents are delusional tools of fascism. I can try to avoid falling into that classic Heffalump trap -- a pit dug by the righteous for their enemies, into which they themselves tumble -- but I will almost certainly fail.

Baudrillard didn’t live to see World War IV hit critical mass. The “War on Terror” that flowed out of September 2001, although enormously damaging to everyone and everything it touched, was just the opening act. With the rise of right-wing populism across the Western economic zone and the near-simultaneous implosion of the supposedly democratic political systems in Britain, France, the United States and various other nations, we are now in the thick of battle. The longer it takes for us to recognize that, the worse the consequences will be.

I recently asked Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who is an unquestioned moral leader and a profoundly decent person, whether we faced a “crisis of democratic legitimacy” that was much broader than Donald Trump. Jones seemed genuinely taken aback by the question and dismissed it out of hand. "I don't think it's a crisis," he said. "I don't think it's a national emergency." It was more a matter of developing a "deliberative response" to contentious issues like immigration, he said, and restoring "the prestige of the institutions of government."

I didn’t say this to him at the time but I should have: I’m sorry, Senator, but that’s not OK. This is a question that rises above ordinary political or ideological differences. It does not depend on what you think about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Green New Deal. Minimizing or denying the scale of the crisis is the road to Armageddon.

I’m not here to defend Julian Assange. He’s not an easy person to defend, and is disliked for a variety of reasons by people across the political spectrum, which made him an irresistible target in the Trump administration’s not-so-stealthy war against press freedom. Ashley Feinberg of HuffPost summed up that argument succinctly:

One of the many cruel ironies in this situation is to see mainstream liberals who literally, one day earlier, had scourged Attorney General William Barr over his handling of the Mueller report, or expressed horror at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s hints about a coming war with Iran, turn around and celebrate the arrest of Assange, as if some other version of the United States government in some other universe were responsible for that.

As Glenn Greenwald and Micah Lee point out in their carefully researched and closely argued analysis for the Intercept, it’s clear that Pompeo (an end-times Christian fanatic who was previously Trump’s CIA director) and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- a pair of hardcore Islamophobes and culture warriors with, shall we say, an expansive view of executive power and government secrecy -- had Assange in their sights since the first days of the Trump administration. There’s no reason to think that Barr, with his quasi-totalitarian theory of presidential authority, wouldn’t jump right on board. Those who celebrate Assange’s arrest because it satisfies a political grievance and because hey, he’s not really a journalist should at least be honest about whose side they’re on.

Does all this seem at odds with Assange’s 2016 role as a semi-clandestine ally of the Trump campaign? Only sort of: As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, if Assange really believed he would be rewarded for his services by Donald Trump -- a man whose entire career has involved using people up and throwing them away -- then he’s not half as smart as he thinks he is.

That’s World War IV for you. It makes us all smaller, stupider, more selfish. It spreads moral confusion and shrinks the spirit. All of that happened to Julian Assange, in my estimation, but he was hardly alone. We believe the small-mindedness and tribalism are only affecting other people: the MAGA-hat hordes or the puritanical leftists or the craven neoliberals or whoever else. In fact, we know it’s true, because our minds are capacious and our tribe is enlightened.

I don’t want to waste energy on ritual pronouncements about how terrible Julian Assange is, because his importance has been exaggerated (not least by himself) and because I think the legal or semantic questions surrounding his current predicament are almost beside the point. Assange is at best a prickly and disagreeable person who has done courageous things, indefensible things and downright baffling things, perhaps in all cases motivated by blinding arrogance or narcissism. His self-assigned role as a Prometheus of the Information Age, able to manipulate world leaders and shape the course of history, isn’t turning out quite the way he hoped. (Which is what happened to Prometheus too.)

As Marcotte’s commentary observes, Assange’s hubris led him to this situation, which he could likely have avoided. The guy is even better at making enemies than at exposing secrets. National-security hawks of the George W. Bush era have of course despised him for years over the massive 2010 release of military and intelligence secrets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, provided to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning. At least until the bewildering switchback of the 2016 presidential campaign, American conservatives and intelligence community insiders frequently depicted Assange as an enemy saboteur who should be shipped off to Guantánamo, or killed in a drone strike. (Hillary Clinton has said she does not recall joking about "droning" Assange at a 2010 State Department meeting, which falls some distance short of a denial.)

It’s worth noting here that the current U.S. extradition warrant for Assange relates only to the Chelsea Manning affair, not to anything that happened later. Furthermore Assange’s alleged crime was a minor, technical footnote to that whole business. Messages between him and Manning suggest that Assange tried (and apparently failed) to help Manning crack a password on a government computer -- not so Manning could gain access to the computer in the first place, but so she could extract the information while concealing her tracks.

Absolutely none of that is new. The entire story, including the alleged attempt to hack a password, has been known to government officials all along. Under Barack Obama, the Justice Department considered indicting Assange for that hacking offense (among various other things) but decided not to, specifically because of the precedent it might set in allowing prosecutors to concoct conspiracy charges against almost any investigative journalist who encourages a source to deliver illegally gathered material.

Liberals who more or less supported Assange for exposing American war crimes and espionage campaigns began to turn against him not long thereafter, for understandable reasons. First came the credible allegations of sexual assault made against him in Sweden, which Assange and his allies have consistently (and mendaciously) tried to depict as CIA disinformation, and which became the proximate reason for his lengthy sojourn in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. (That Swedish investigation was closed in 2017, because there was no point trying to prosecute someone who was locked inside a foreign embassy in a third-party nation. It may now be reopened, although that hasn't happened yet.)

Then of course came 2016, when for his own Night King reasons, Assange waged what we can only call a highly effective campaign of sabotage against Hillary Clinton. I believe a close reading of the evidence suggests that Assange felt no particular affection for Trump or Vladimir Putin. If anything, he may have convinced himself he was manipulating them, rather than the other way around. He loathed Clinton for both personal and political reasons (the apocryphal drone joke among them), and seduced himself into the radical-nihilist position that Trump and Putin were preferable enemies-of-his-enemies, if only because they might accelerate an existential crisis within the national-security states of the neoliberal Western order, et cetera. He was partly right, at least about that last part, but I don’t imagine that’s much comfort right now.

We can argue from now until doomsday about all the reasons for Clinton’s flukish defeat and how much blame or credit to assign to Russian social-media trolling, James Comey’s infamous letter and her own campaign’s cluelessness and ineptitude. Whether or not Assange was working directly with the Russians (which he has denied) there’s no doubt that the WikiLeaks dump of hacked emails from the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign was intensely damaging.

That was less because of what was actually in the emails -- which was largely uninteresting -- than because the Trump campaign deployed them masterfully to amplify the confused but widespread impression that Clinton and her husband were shady characters. Even if you believe there was a grain of truth to that, the net effect was to create the illusion of moral equivalence between a former secretary of state and U.S. senator and a lifelong con man and cheat. In fairness, I suppose that’s exactly how Assange and the rest of what I’ve previously described as the “non-anti-Trump left” view the situation.

I won’t try to pretend I have no position on Assange’s arrest. I obviously do. I find it striking that Marcotte and Greenwald and Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times and myself (two former Salon writers and two current ones, I might add), who occupy very different positions on the left-progressive spectrum and might have difficulty agreeing about almost anything else, have all arrived at approximately the same conclusion: This is profoundly dangerous, and those who are cool with the Trump administration's secret police seizing Assange by any means necessary are allowing political antipathy to cloud their judgment.

But I think the larger lesson here is about the question Doug Jones couldn't or wouldn't answer about the damage to democracy, which is what’s really at stake in World War IV. Liberals who blame Assange for the election of Donald Trump believe they are defending democracy against a vicious saboteur working for a foreign dictator, and accuse his defenders of being fellow travelers of fascism. Those of us who perceive Assange’s arrest as a wedge meant to divide progressives -- and meant to reveal that all the chatter about respecting democratic norms and restoring the rule of law, for some in the anti-Trump "resistance," is just a hypocritical smokescreen for partisan politics -- also believe we are standing up for democracy against its enemies.

Assange himself, I have no doubt, believed that he was striking a blow for democracy, according to some larger historical calculus understood only by him. He drove himself into a deep, dark place with that logic, and I wonder how far behind him the rest of us are. We all claim to believe in democracy, except for those who clearly don’t. But do any of us know what it is?


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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