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Tulsi Gabbard and the Return of the Anti-Anti-Trump Left

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tulsi Gabbard has been slowly edging toward leaving the Democratic Party and, it now seems more likely than not, launching a spoiler candidacy to peel disaffected left-wing votes away from the Democrats. Her “present” vote on impeachment, followed by a disavowal of what she called the “zero-sum mind-set the two political parties have trapped America in,” sets the stage for Gabbard to play the role of 2020’s Jill Stein.

Left-wing anti-anti-Trumpism played an important role in the bizarre 2016 outcome. Die-hard Bernie activists, fired up with anger at the release of DNC emails stolen by Russians that purportedly showed the party had rigged the primary, demonstrated against the party outside its convention hall and tried to drown out the speakers inside with boos. Stein attacked Hillary Clinton from the left, then audaciously staged a grift-y fundraising scheme supposedly to hold recounts in the states she had labored to flip to Trump. Trump’s election appeared to deliver the same shock of reality that had vaporized Ralph Nader’s 2000 support.

But Gabbard’s emergence is another indication that the disaffection that drove these events has not disappeared. Anti-anti-Trumpism has maintained a small but durable intellectual infrastructure. The sentiments that first registered as dissent from the Russia investigation transferred to impeachment, and a chorus of left-wing voices is attacking the effort to remove Trump from office as at best a misguided diversion and at worst a deep-state coup.

The anti-anti-Trump left is not a monolithic bloc. It has differing levels of enthusiasm for splintering the progressive vote in general elections, for Trump himself, and for the ethics of explicit alliances with the right. (Some anti-anti-Trump leftists eagerly appear on Fox news and other right-wing media, while others shun it.) What they share, in addition to enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, is a deep skepticism of the Democratic Party’s mobilization against the president. The left’s struggle against the center-left is the axis around which their politics revolves. From that perspective, the Russia scandal and impeachment are unnecessary and even reactionary.

While incomprehensible to liberals, centrists, and even many leftists who work within two-party politics, left-wing anti-anti-Trumpism has a coherent logic. It takes as its starting point a familiar critique that Trump won because liberalism failed. Trump, while bad, is merely a meta-phenomenon of the larger failure of the Democratic Party and the political and economic Establishment. And so, to the extent that investigating Trump’s scandalous behavior allows Democrats to discredit Trump without undergoing revolutionary internal changes, it is counterproductive. “The Ukraine affair,” writes left-wing historian Samuel Moyn, “shows that the biggest risk to the American people is that centrists link impeachment to a reinstatement of one set of failed prescriptions, while the right repulses the attempt to oust the president and rules under equally dead-end policies.”

Some anti-anti-Trump leftists see impeachment not merely as a distraction from the Sanders revolution but a deliberate effort to marginalize it. Krystal Ball and Aaron Mate recently speculated that Democratic leaders just might be setting up an impeachment trial in order to keep Sanders and Elizabeth Warren locked up in Washington and off the campaign trail. While such a possibility is obviously insane, if you consider the struggle between left-wing populists and evil neoliberals to be the central dynamic in American politics, it might seem at least plausible.

What gives the anti-anti-Trump left its emotional impetus is a simmering resentment against the center-left, especially the way the Russia and Ukraine scandals have made Democrats lionize elements of the security Establishment. “My discomfort in the last few years, first with Russiagate and now with Ukrainegate and impeachment, stems from the belief that the people pushing hardest for Trump’s early removal are more dangerous than Trump,” writes Matt Taibbi.

Ted Rall, who has been given space on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page to publish periodic anti-anti-Trump columns, uses one of his recent pieces to quote Doug Henwood, a fellow leftist. “It seems like a lot of Dems think that everything was pretty much OK until Trump took office, and if we can just get back to the status quo ante, everything will be all right,” Henwood says, “Add to that the fact that impeachment is making liberals celebrate spies, prosecutors, and heavily medaled soldiers — people no one on the left should have any warm feelings towards — and you get a serious feeling of derangement.”

This is less an argument than an expression of mood. The scandals have reordered the contestants in the political drama in a way anti-anti-Trump leftsists simply can’t stomach. The spectacle of Democrats lionizing intelligence officials and other cogs in the security state creates an irrepressible gag reflex.

Ironically, the same dynamic has brought anti-anti-Trump leftists into their own strange-bedfellow alliances. Leftists like Mate and Glenn Greenwald sometimes appear on Tucker Carlson’s show, giving an edgy, trans-ideological sheen to his increasingly overt white nationalism. Ball’s “Hill.TV” outlet was started by John Solomon, the Republican operative who has worked closely with Russian oligarchs to disseminate conspiracy theories that vindicate both Trump and the Russians. Its format frequently consists of Ball and her conservative co-host alternating attacks on the Democrats from the left and the right.

The fact that anti-anti-Trump leftists have interests that coincide with Russia’s compounds the dynamic. There is zero reason to suspect any of them have covert ties of any kind with Russia. Their arguments are perfectly explainable in normal terms. Russia has helped amplify their ideas because it suits Russia’s agenda — Moscow generated and promoted the most strident anti-Clinton voices on the left in 2016 and seems to view left-wing opposition to the Democrats as a lever upon which it can usefully lean. That fact does not by itself implicate their arguments; if the Russians happened to find reason to promote arguments any of us have made, we’d resent people suggesting we were toeing the Kremlin line. That resentment seems to have created a life of its own, making some leftists tolerant of Trump’s disturbing, obviously corrupt relations with Putin.

But what brought them to this strange place is their hatred for the center-left, which blots out any sense of proportion of the danger Trump poses. Pay close attention to this sentence, by Samuel Moyn, especially his use of the operative terms equally and biggest risk: “The Ukraine affair shows that the biggest risk to the American people is that centrists link impeachment to a reinstatement of one set of failed prescriptions, while the right repulses the attempt to oust the president and rules under equally dead-end policies.” The right and the center-left are equally doomed, and the biggest risk is that the Establishment prevails over Trump.

Many leftists can imagine a bigger risk than the Establishment neutralizing Trump before he can bring the system down. Yet somehow, the emergency of his growing authoritarianism has not concentrated every mind, and the election of Trump has not dispelled the fantasy that his destruction of the center and the center-left will lead ultimately to a better world.

Tulsi Gabbard and the Return of the Anti-Anti-Trump Left