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It's time for Democrats to drop the Russia 'shtick'

  • Democrats have been using Russia as a cudgel against Trump.
  • Trump's attack on Syria, Putin's ally, shows the dangers of such a game.
  • Here's how Democrats can defuse the situation before things spin out of control.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump last week made the ominous proclamation that U.S. - Russia relations "may be at an all-time low."

Given their recent antics, you'd think this would be cause for Democrats to celebrate. For months, dating back to the doomed Hillary Clinton campaign, the party's most enduring allegation against Trump was that he had been "compromised" by the Russian state, and therefore ought to be seen as a "puppet," "stooge," or "pawn" of the dastardly Putin.

This meme dominated the presidential contest, and the resulting furor has engrossed much of the Democratic rank-and-file ever since, such that exercised liberal activists now routinely show up to town hall meetings accusing Trump of "treason" and screaming for retaliatory action against his purported foreign suitors.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) appeared to reflect a wider sentiment in the party when she suggested last month that elucidating Trump's sinister Russian 'ties' ought to be the "only" issue Democrats pursue: all else flows from it.

Now, liberals who've spent the past nine months outraged at Trump's inchoate attempts to forge détente with Russia - or at minimum, not arbitrarily antagonize Putin - seem to have gotten their wish: Trump has suddenly reversed course and attacked Russia's client state, the Assad government, thereby aligning himself far more with the Clinton position vis-a-vis Syria than the one he espoused during the campaign. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister generally regarded as among the most pro-Western of the Kremlin's ruling elite, went so far as to declare the two nations' relationship "ruined."

Then last Thursday, the anti-Russia rhetoric emanating out of administration quarters ratcheted up further as CIA Director Mike Pompeo went on an extended tirade, vehemently denouncing WikiLeaks as a "hostile intelligence service" that had been "abetted" by Russia. He went on to declare Julian Assange a "fraud" and suggested that the Agency would undertake invigorated measures to hobble the publishing group.

"Given Trump's clear impulsivity and belligerent tendencies, the last thing Democrats ought to be doing is incentivizing him to take a needlessly hostile stance toward Putin -- or any other world leader, for that matter."

Pompeo's threats were disconcerting in that they could well have deleterious effects on wider journalistic freedom - he proclaimed that "free speech activists" hiding behind the banner of journalism cannot be tolerated - but Democrats at this juncture have no standing to object. For months they've leveled nearly identical accusations against WikiLeaks, vilifying the group as illegitimate for little reason other than it had released material that illuminated dirty Democratic practices, harming the Clintons' short-term political prospects.

If they had meant what they'd been screeching ad nauseam, Democrats would be cheering both Trump and Pompeo. Trump has fulfilled their demand for more belligerence toward Russia; Pompeo now affirms the very anti-WikiLeaks theories that they'd so intently propagated. So why don't beleaguered Democrats claim victory?

Perhaps because in truth, Democrats will never be satisfied. They have already woven such an elaborate theory as to the centrality of Russia in their strategy for stymieing Trump, and devoted so much political capital to the enterprise, that relenting now would make them appear utterly foolish. So they will likely press on - prominent liberal media personalities have already dismissed this month's Syria strikes as a mere 'distraction' from the core matter of "Russia-gate."

Fulminating about Russia may have been the sensible tack for Democrats seeking a short-term cudgel to wield against Trump, but the attack was incredibly myopic. It set the stage for the aggressive posturing currently on display from the administration, and made an already-fraught international situation that much more dangerous.

Trump is to blame for any havoc he might wreak in Syria or elsewhere, but Democrats, in their haste to undercut Trump at any cost, played a vital assisting role in creating a climate whereby anti-Russia genuflecting seemed to be the most politically-prudent course. Maybe it's time for Democrats to drop the paranoid shtick - there's a Russian behind every bush! - before something truly catastrophic transpires.

Given Trump's clear impulsivity and belligerent tendencies, the last thing Democrats ought to be doing is incentivizing him to take a needlessly hostile stance toward Putin -- or any other world leader, for that matter. But in fomenting a climate whereby the onus is on Trump to prove he's not a Russian "puppet," the party's leaders have done exactly that.

A saner course is to urge rationality, mutual regard, and diplomacy with respect to Russia, rather than the overblown, conspiratorial histrionics that have been so ubiquitous of late. The consequences of continuing down the present course are dire.

Commentary by Michael Tracey, an investigative reporter for The Young Turks. He was previously a columnist for VICE, covering both the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns, civil liberties, American religion, political corruption, foreign policy, and more. He's also been a contributor to the New York Daily News, The Daily Beast, The American Conservative, The Nation, Mediaite, The Intercept, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ mtracey.

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