Masha Gessen has impeccable credentials as a Putin critic — you may remember her from her instant classic Autocracy: Rules for Survival, but you may not know that the Jewish lesbian mother of three fled Russia in 2013 to escape the country's Putin-fueled, ultra-violent anti-LGBT movement — and so when she tells us that the conspiracy theories about Trump and Putin are problematic, it's worth listening.
Gessen documents the thinness of the theories linking Russia and Trump: it's true that Trump's cabinet of robber-barons has lots of dealings with Russians, but that's because every billionaire is in bed with every autocrat — dictators from Belarus to Azerbaijan to Turkey to Syria and Saudi Arabia. But developing this into a conspiracy theory about Russia secretly running the Trump campaign is a mirror image of the Russian xenophobic practice of claiming that the US is secretly operating Russia's opposition. The parallels are strong: for example, the unsubstantiated claim that the Russian ambassador to the USA is a "spymaster" is the mirror-image of the Russian claim that Obama's ambassador in Moscow was actually a spy.
The major source of allegations of Russian involvement in the Trump administration is unnamed sources in the US spy agency, who, like their Russian counterparts, are sunk deep in xenophobia and paranoia. They may hate Trump, and you may hate Trump, but that doesn't mean you're on the same side as them, or that they have your best interests at heart.
Making the anti-Trump campaign about Russia is politically useful, because (for now), it's a game the Republicans will play along with. Republicans will forgive Trump's cabinet appointees for perjuring themselves and being incompetent, but not for lying about Russia.
As useful as that is, the real problem of the Russia theories is that they focus the criticism of Trump in xenophobic claims of the other, rather than on the real, undeniable evils of the Trump administration. The debate centers around whether Russia influenced the Muslim Ban, rather than the injustice of the Muslim Ban.
Eventually, the GOP will stop worrying about being punished by voters for being soft on Russia, and the tactic will die — and we'll still be fighting the Muslim Ban and all the other shitty policies of trumpism.
The unrelenting focus on Russia has yielded an unexpected positive result, however. Following Flynn's resignation, Trump designated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a thoughtful and highly respected military strategist, as his national security adviser. And Fiona Hill, probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of Putin's Russia, is expected to take charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council. Hill has been a consistent and perceptive critic of Putin, and a proponent of maintaining sanctions imposed by the United States following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Both of these appointments—and the fact that sanctions remain in place six weeks into Trump's fast-moving presidency—contradict the "Putin's puppet" narrative (as does the fact that Russian domestic propaganda has already turned against Trump). But such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.
Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.
Russia: The Conspiracy Trap [Masha Gessen/New York Review of Books]