The Left Is Losing Its Mind Over Trump, Russia and Putin

This year, after nearly three decade abroad, I returned to the United States, and it has taken a while to adjust to the political climate. I keep going to press conferences, receptions and dinner parties and hearing politicians and political operatives fulminating about "the Russians."

The refrain is pretty similar: They used to be known as the Soviets, but they never really changed. The damned KGB always ran the country, and it still does. And, you know, they stole the election last year. They colluded with our opponent! There's a red in damned near every bed these days.

What's a little discombobulating about this line is it's mostly coming from Democrats and journalists in the mainstream press. A friend in New York—a Canadian, and thus not a participant in the ongoing drama in American politics—was recently at a dinner party hosted by a major Democratic donor and his wife. In passing, he said he was about to travel to see the refurbished Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and then enjoy a performance at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

The others in attendance looked at him, my friend told me, as if he were nuts. "You know," the host informed him, "that's pretty much like going to Berlin in 1938." My friend changed the subject.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had political opponents killed and destabilized two of Russia's neighboring countries, but he isn't Hitler. Even for the foot-stomping, tantrum-throwing Democrats in 2017, that comparison is ludicrous. But other lefties fall back on World War II for a different comparison: The Russian meddling in our democracy was "the equivalent of Pearl Harbor," as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put it. That makes the Russian president the equivalent of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the imperial Japanese.

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Putin Left
U.S. President Barack Obama extends his hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As someone who grew up during the Cold War, spent much of the '90s covering Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then Russia (including Putin's ascent) later in the decade, this line of thinking seems bizarre. Democrats, it seems, have willfully tossed their past positions on Russia down the Orwellian memory hole.

In 1972, George McGovern won the Democratic nomination for president, and with that came the end of serious Soviet skepticism in the party. He had vanquished Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a senator from Washington and the party's leading anti-Soviet hawk. Jackson tried again in 1976, only to lose to Jimmy Carter, who chided his political opponents for their "inordinate fear" of Communism. (To Carter's credit, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, he admitted that the "scales" had fallen from his eyes.)

But unlike Carter, a lot of others on the left failed to sober up. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the mainstream Democratic Party became consumed by nuclear hysteria—we were all gonna die!—and that fear infected the producers of pop culture. In 1983, ABC broadcast a propaganda film entitled The Day After, which was what life would be like after a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Then, there was On the Eighth Day, a 1984 documentary about what would happen after a nuclear war. And around the same time period, Carl Sagan, a popular astronomer with a television series on public broadcasting, penned a widely read article on the same subject: "We have placed our civilization and our species in jeopardy," he wrote. "Fortunately, it is not yet too late. We can safeguard the planetary civilization and the human family if we so choose. There is no more important or more urgent issue."

The tenor of this and other doomsday nuclear narratives was that if the worst happened, it was going to Reagan's fault. This fear sparked the nuclear freeze movement, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Europe to protest the planned installation of intermediate-range nuclear weapons on the western part of the continent.

In those days, "colluding" with Moscow wasn't a big deal. The Soviets tried to help the nuclear freeze movement, which they saw as in their interests. KGB agents occasionally funneled cash to so-called "peace groups" in the West, and some left-leaning arms-control groups acknowledged that Soviet agents would turn up at conferences to help with propaganda. Yet many Democrats thought the nuclear freeze movement had been a great success. Why? Because the anti-nuclear uprising "had a substantial impact upon mainstream politics, especially the Democratic Party," wrote Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany. "After the movement's successes in 1982, the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination met with peace movement leaders, pledging their support for a nuclear freeze and other nuclear arms control measures. The Democrats pushed a freeze resolution through the House of Representatives in the spring of 1983 and made the freeze a part of the party's campaign platform in 1984." Never mind that Reagan, the man the left derided as a warmonger nuclear cowboy, won the 1984 election in a historic landslide.

Sixteen years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin replaced a drunken and ailing Boris Yeltsin, who, however briefly, had brought democracy to Russia. At a New Year's reception in 2000, President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Russia, Jim Collins, acknowledged the main reaction to Putin's ascension in the U.S. government was one of "relief," because Russia was so chaotic in those days. Secretary of State Madeline Albright would later call the former KGB man a "reformer."

Putin for years was able to dupe U.S. presidents into thinking he was their friend—from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. In a 2012 presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney cited Putin's Russia as the U.S.'s foremost foreign policy challenge, and Obama sarcastically said the "1980s are calling, and they want their foreign policy back." The Democrats cheered. And Obama appeared to believe he could work with the Russian strongman. He famously asked Putin stooge Dmitry Medvedev to "tell Vladimir" that after the election he (Obama) would have more "flexibility'' to work on arms control deals.

But the moment that really captured the credulity of the Democratic Party when it came to Russia and Putin had come earlier. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, with a "reset" button, which meant the administration would replace the bad, anti-Russian policies of the past with new ones. The problem, however, is the word "reset" was misspelled on the button. Those who controlled Obama's foreign policy evidently couldn't find a Russian speaker competent enough to tell them that the button presented to Lavrov said "overcharged" in Russia. Clinton laughed at the mistake. Lavrov laughed at her.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during an interview with Mariella Frostrup at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in Cheltenham, England, on October 15. Reuters

Now, Democratic representatives all over Washington can't stop ranting about Moscow. I asked David Satter, a Washington-based journalist—and the only Western reporter to be banned by Putin from entering Russia since the end of the Cold War—what I should make of all this. Are these people serious about their anti-Russian venom?

"Oh God, no," he said, as we sat in a Russian restaurant called Mari Vanna in Manhattan. "This is all just politics, and hypocrisy is the mother's milk of politics."

I think he's right. I'm agnostic on the question of whether President Donald Trump or his associates actually "colluded'' with Putin to win the election. If they did, they should be strung up.

As for Putin, he's undoubtedly an authoritarian thug. At home, he has eliminated many of the briefly won freedoms of the Yeltsin era, and abroad, he seems determined to again dominate Russia's neighbors. But it would be hard to find many liberals in Washington who actually cared about any of this before Trump beat Clinton.

If the outcome had been reversed, Congress might still be working to figure out how exactly Russia meddled in the election—just as the Soviets had done in 1968 and 1976. But we most certainly wouldn't have this anti-Russian circus going on in the nation's capital—a show that will likely continue for quite some time.