If we ask whether hatred of Hillary Clinton, much of it irrational and fueled by decades’ worth of outlandish conspiracy theory, played a role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — I mean, that’s not even a question, right?
Many interlocking factors were implicated in the most bizarre and unlikely election result in modern political history: James Comey’s fateful letter to Congress; the disruption caused by fake news and social-media manipulation, some of it apparently by the Russians; the Clinton campaign’s overconfidence and complacency. But the orgiastic, “1984”-style outpouring of lock-her-up Clinton hate, weaponized brilliantly by Donald Trump and his campaign, was surely one of the biggest. To some degree it made all the others possible.
As conservative talk-show host Joe Walsh recently told Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, he voted for Trump knowing full well that the former reality-TV star was a liar, a con man and a thorough sleazebag. Partly Walsh was voting for tax cuts and conservative judges — a bargain Trump has honored, uncharacteristically — and partly he just couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. His decision was clearly not exceptional.
Clinton’s general-election strategy of trying to peel off “mainstream” Republican voters from their party’s noxious nominee was a total failure. As everyone except our president now understands, she won the national popular vote. But even that is slightly deceptive: Clinton piled up huge margins in heavily Democratic coastal or metropolitan states and lost everywhere else. (Subtract California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, and Trump won the national vote by nearly 5 million.) Clinton got almost exactly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012 (in a lower-turnout election with a slightly smaller electorate), while Trump got 2 million more votes than Mitt Romney had.
So Republican voters overwhelmingly showed up to pull the lever for Trump, whatever misgivings they may have felt. Democratic voters didn’t quite do the same for Clinton. That much is beyond dispute. But why did that happen, exactly?
That’s where we come to the chewy, poisoned-nougat underside of the question we started with: It wasn’t just conservatives who despised Hillary Clinton. Did left-wing Clinton hate tip the balance of the 2016 election and put Trump in the White House? This second, less obvious question may be invisible to most people, and even to most Democratic voters. But it runs like a radioactive third rail beneath a lot of seemingly unconnected issues, including the party’s internal discord, the panicked reaction to the “democratic socialist” insurgency, the debate over “Medicare for All” and the 2018 midterm campaign, the internet crackdown on certain kinds of “extreme” or “controversial” political content and the often overheated rhetoric surrounding the Trump-Russia scandal.
I’ll jump in right away and say that I don’t know the answer and nobody else does either. Given that particular election, you can argue that any marginal factor, no matter how minor, made a difference. I think the question is more interesting than the answer because it tells us something about the concealed nature of ideological conflict in America. In fact, it would be worse than useless for me to offer an opinion: If you’ve thought about this question at all, you already know what you believe and you damn sure don’t want to be talked out of it.
To state the question about Trump and the left in its most extreme form — which is not, alas, an invented form — did Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, working as the agents or useful idiots of Vladimir Putin, join forces to torpedo our First Woman President out of some misogynistic, nihilistic, puritanical and America-hating spite?
Put that way, which is only slightly more grandiose than the framing of ardent Democratic loyalists like Neera Tanden, Malcolm Nance and Daily Kos, the proposition sounds deranged, if not full-on Trumpian. Like all good conspiracy theories — like Donald Trump’s “deep state” conspiracy, or for that matter the most elaborate forms of the Russiagate conspiracy — it provides an all-purpose explanation for disorienting events that might otherwise challenge the theory-holder’s understanding of the world.
Tanden, Nance and various others have engaged in the most scurrilous forms of Red-baiting, guilt-by-association and flat-out falsehood in recent months, effectively suggesting that any and all opposition to Clinton or criticism of the Democratic Party agenda by those who identified as “progressive” was illegitimate if not treasonous. Nance has yet to retract his spurious claim that Jill Stein hosted a show on Russian TV or his contemptible allegations that Greenwald is a Kremlin agent, which can only throw his assessment of Donald Trump's Russian connections into considerable doubt.
(Disclosure: Greenwald used to write for Salon and we have had cordial exchanges. I don’t know him well, but I am highly confident that his cantankerous opinions are not the result of Kremlin paychecks.)
And yet: If we pull back from the paranoia and try to unravel the layers of anxiety that enable it, we may find an actual pea, way down there under all those mattresses. Democratic theories about a sinister conspiracy in which the party’s left-wing critics are revealed to be right-wingers after all (an accusation also directed at the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign) are imaginary responses to a real phenomenon.
First of all, there’s the emergence of an actual activist left within (or adjacent to) the Democratic Party, which threatens to destabilize the “grand bargain” under which the party has operated for nearly 30 years. Essentially, Democrats of the Bill Clinton era cut a deal with finance capital and the national-security state: On one hand, an economic policy based on free trade, deregulation and open markets, interlocked with an expansionist, interventionist foreign policy, both ceded to the control of technocratic experts. On the other, a widening agenda of civil rights protection and modest social reform programs at home, coupled with continued funding of the welfare state, albeit in reduced and partially privatized form.
As I wrote last week, that combination seemed to work well for a while, or at least it helped elect two Democratic presidents to two terms apiece. It also hollowed out the party from within and led to a devastating series of defeats in midterm elections and state legislatures, leaving Democrats in their worst nationwide position since Herbert Hoover’s administration, despite the undeniable fact that their policy positions are far more popular than those of the Republicans. With the sudden shift in the political wind of 2016, the true nature of the grand bargain suddenly seemed unmentionable. When I observed that Democratic “moderates” seem unwilling to articulate or defend their philosophy beyond vague rhetoric about pragmatism and electability, that’s what I was talking about.
If the progressive or “socialist” insurgency represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a wave of other young activist candidates across the country remains a marginal phenomenon, at least for now, mainstream Democrats correctly perceive that it’s a direct challenge to their power and the compromised ideology that lies beneath it. Furthermore, Ocasio-Cortez and her diverse coalition of allies cannot easily be stereotyped the way Sanders and Stein were, as leftovers of the 1960s white left whose principal constituency was privileged college boys motivated by sexist loathing of Hillary Clinton. Other reasons must be found for purging or exiling them, or at least for demanding their submission to party orthodoxy.
Nothing could possibly serve that purpose better, in the current confused climate, than linking the progressive left — through a largely bogus chain of association and insinuation — to Vladimir Putin and the Russia scandal. And yeah, let’s be real: There’s a little bit of there there.
As everyone in or around the American left understands perfectly well, there’s a small but fervent subset of activists and intellectuals who saw Hillary Clinton as the worst possible representative of that hawkish, neoliberal Democratic tradition and who thought the disruption of a Trump presidency might be no worse, or conceivably preferable. Yes, there were and are Leftists for Trump, or at least Leftists Not Entirely Against Trump. I know a few such people personally. It won't help to name names, but it might be fair to call them Chomskyites, although I'm not sure that Noam Chomsky himself qualifies as a full-fledged member.
To be clear, that group clearly does not include Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii or most of the other Democratic-affiliated progressives who have been accused of being insufficiently alarmed about Russiagate and therefore unpatriotic. It most certainly does include Julian Assange, getting lonelier and weirder by the minute in his embassy hideout, who did everything he possibly could to defeat Hillary Clinton, whether or not he worked directly with Russian hackers or knew he was doing so. I suspect Jill Stein felt that way as well. (Glenn Greenwald can speak for himself, although he repeatedly said during and after the 2016 campaign that his strident criticism of Clinton did not mean he supported Trump.)
You don’t have to buy any of the Leftists for Trump cadre’s arguments; I don’t find them terribly appetizing myself. But they aren’t incoherent and they don’t make the LfT part of a grand conspiracy or agents of Vladimir Putin, at least not in the sense Malcolm Nance means. On one hand, they thought Trump’s chaotic nationalism would create at least a momentary rupture in the hegemonic world order dominated by the United States — so far, so good! — which might be better overall for the future of the planet than the continuation of the “Washington consensus” under Clinton. On the other, they suspected the brutal proto-fascism of a Trump presidency might spark renewed resistance on the left and force the political establishment into major reforms.
You can kind of sum it up by saying that the LfT believed that America was already so screwed up that a Trump presidency might actually open a pathway to making things better, whereas a Clinton presidency would only make the bad stuff worse. It’s a debatable proposition at best, clearly akin to the old Marxist notion that you had to “heighten the contradictions” of capitalism in order to create the conditions for revolutionary change. To most observers, I suspect, the human costs in the medium term would not seem worth it.
Did this infinitesimal and self-marginalized group of dissidents somehow contrive, with the aid of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, to suppress the Democratic vote in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia and put Donald Trump in the White House? I think that question answers itself. But the true legacy of the non-anti-Trump left is more complicated than that. Its existence reflects a larger sense of existential doubt that stretches clear across the American political spectrum and to some extent has infected us all. It may also offer the Democratic Party leadership yet another opportunity to blame the left for its extraordinary record of political failure and postpone its day of reckoning.