[Rewind] Stephen Cohen and Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Liberals Digging Own Grave with Russiagate
“This new Cold War [is] more dangerous than the preceding Cold War,” professor Stephen Cohen tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” Cohen, a professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, has a new book out that addresses the possibility of a U.S.-Russia armed conflict in the near future. Part of the current rejection of the Kremlin that has brought the two nations to this dangerous brink, according to Cohen, is rooted in the U.S. political elites’ desire to maintain their ability to determine the world order. When Vladimir Putin was first elected, the professor explains, it became immediately obvious that he wanted Russia to take part in shaping “how the world is structured.”
“Since then, [there’s a] sense that America doesn’t have a free hand any longer … but I don’t think our establishment has ever gotten used to this reality,” says Cohen. “And a lot of the catastrophes we see, including the wars, is a kind of Don Quixote tilting at these windmills with war, because the world’s not conforming to what Washington thinks it ought to be. Nor will it ever, any longer.”
Joining the two is Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, to discuss the neo-McCarthyism that has been unleashed by Russiagate and what the journalist calls “Trump derangement syndrome” that leads liberals to buy into hysteria surrounding Russia so long as it serves an anti-Trump agenda. While Vanden Heuvel argues that the American left is making significant progress on domestic issues, even progressive leaders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren “have to some extent bought into this new Cold War.”
Highlighting the dangers of the current anti-Kremlin hysteria, the journalist posits that in the upcoming general election, however, “you’re going to see people moving ideas forward on the foreign policy front that will not be Trumpian, but will be first principle of restraint, realism, anti-intervention, not policing the world and understanding that endless war is a disaster.”
In the media player above, listen to Cohen, Vanden Heuvel and Scheer discuss in depth both the dangerous as well as hopeful paths the U.S. is headed down as it grapples with its domestic and foreign policy under the shadow of a new Cold War, and “new [progressive] insurgencies” continue to make headway despite the American establishment’s firm grip on power and a wave of neo-McCarthyism that threatens to censor dissent. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, Stephen Cohen, a professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University. And he’s joined by his wife, a very famous journalist, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is the editor of The Nation magazine, the oldest continuing publishing political journal. And Stephen Cohen has written a book with a really alarming headline: “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.” And we are doing this interview on the day when Michael Cohen is testifying in the Congress, and talking about, he doesn’t quite say that Trump was a Manchurian candidate from Russia, but he says there was some influence, and wink wink, and so forth. Let’s just start with that, Stephen Cohen. Your book really examines this phenomenon of our society now dominated by a red-baiting hysteria that you say even exceeds the worst moments of the Cold War, [and] has brought us dangerously close to a military confrontation with the main rival nuclear power. How do you do red-baiting without a Red? Or am I reading Putin wrong, is he really a secret KGB commie?
Stephen Cohen: Well, from the beginning Putin has said he is, and presented himself as—and more or less governed almost 20 years as—certainly a non-communist, and I would say an anti-communist. So as I was working on this book, roughly since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014—and the book ends quite late, at the end of 2018—two questions kept running through my mind. Why is it that throughout my lifetime, American presidents were not only supported but encouraged to deal with the communist leaders of the Kremlin, particularly regarding nuclear weapons and other security issues, and keep us safe? They were communist leaders. But today, Putin, who sits in the Kremlin, is an anti-communist. And when President Trump went to meet with Putin—it was in Helsinki in July last year, I think—it was called treason. So it was OK to deal with the communists, but it’s not OK to deal with the anti-communist. The second question that comes to my mind, and is threaded through this book indirectly and then directly, the Democratic Party—but not only—have so embraced this phenomenon of Russiagate, whose, let’s be candid, core allegation is that Trump is somehow beholden to the Kremlin, or the Kremlin put him in power. I can find no evidence for that, but it’s become a kind of urban or Washington myth. So I asked myself this rhetorical question: do the people who pursue Russiagate, which keeps Trump from dealing with the Kremlin leader the way every American president has tried to do since Eisenhower, would these Russiagaters prefer to try to impeach Trump to averting war with Russia? And increasingly it seems, whether these Russiagaters are aware of it or not, the answer is yes. And that’s why I think this new Cold War is—one reason why I think it’s more dangerous than the preceding Cold War, which our generation, Bob, and our kids, survived.
RS: And I want to include Katrina in this. You are a Soviet, or a Russia expert in your own right. You studied at Princeton, you studied the language—
Katrina vanden Heuvel: You know what I studied at Princeton? I studied McCarthyism. But it’s interesting, because I do think we’re witnessing a kind of resurgence of neo-McCarthyism, which was very much tied up with anticommunism. And I’m struck by that, and I’m struck by the liberal, progressive complicity in violating, nullifying their first principles in what I call sometimes “Trump derangement syndrome.” At The Nation, we try to be careful not to be reflexively anti-Trump. It’s easy to be anti-Trump; let’s admit, he’s put us on the cusp of a new arms race, withdrawing from the INF. But at the same time, you know, The Nation believes in restraint, in withdrawing from Afghanistan, from Syria, in talks with South Korea, North Korea,which many Democrats railed against. We believe that withdrawal from Afghanistan on its own terms is an important step, and is not just a gift to Putin, as so many Democrats said. So I just believe that cold wars are lousy for progressives; they’re lousy for women, men, and children, but they fatten the defense budgets, they empower war parties on both sides, they close space for dissent, they close space for independent groups. And you’re right, Steve and I have lived in Moscow off and on, certainly since ‘85, Gorbachev years. And I have seen how [the] previous Cold War, if not narrowed, shut down the space for exchange, for dialogue. And so it’s a very Alice in Wonderland, scrambled politics moment, which I know you feel.
RS: Yeah, in a sense it’s not, though. In a sense, if you think of the U.S. as an imperial power that has adopted the conceit that we represent the major civilizing force in the world, and the center of democracy and freedom, and we have pretty much a monopoly on any good ideas, and so forth—and can do no wrong—that would be a pretty good summary of the dominant mindset at this point. It is consistent with the period you studied, McCarthyism. And the contradiction of the original Cold War, not the current Cold War with Russia, is it was based on an obvious, fraudulent notion that communism was internationalist rather than nationalist. Now, you’ve written some very important books about that, Stephen Cohen. And the irony is, the Sino-Soviet dispute was a reality before the Chinese communists even came into power; Yugoslavia had broken away, there weren’t any two communist governments in the world that really were on friendly terms. And yet, the idea that somehow as you point out, even being an ex-communist, the hold is so powerful, it’s like belonging to some weird religious sect. Now, the basic question I want to ask you as a professional, as a leading academic, how do your colleagues, how do the experts consistently get this wrong? How did they not know that Russian communism, like Chinese communism, like Vietnamese communism, was an intensely nationalist phenomenon?
SC: Well, I was lucky. I grew up in Kentucky; I went to Indiana University, and at Indiana I met a man whom I think was certainly the greatest Russia expert—Russianist, generally—of his generation, Robert C. Tucker. And Bob, my mentor and then my friend at Princeton for many years, always saw Russian communism in Russia’s own tradition, and as a form of Russian nationalism. So he was never taken in by this sense that Russian communism had this appetite to control the world. It had an appetite to make Russia great again, so to speak; that was its mission, certainly after Lenin. Because after Stalin destroyed essentially the founding fathers of the Bolshevik revolution, it was—communism, Russian communism, which was kind of a misnomer—was transformed into a new ideology. And state nationalism—that’s the important point, state nationalism—was at the pivot. And that is a very long Russian tradition. So now let’s flash to Putin. He’s hated in this country as was no communist leader in my lifetime. After Stalin, certainly. And I think the poisons of anti-Putinism has become merged with the loathing for Trump into some kind of toxic phenomenon that is crippling American diplomacy, certainly Trump himself, and is a grave danger, and is not going to end with Trump. I mean, we’re going to have to figure a way to overcome it.
But Putin comes to power in nineteen-ninety, ah, in 2000, excuse me, basically the head of a ruined Russia; the decade after the end of the Soviet Union was ruination in Russia. So Putin’s first mission is to pull Russia back together. And you could argue he did so in too many authoritarian ways; historians will have to sort that out. But for Putin, the restoration of Russia as a stable, prosperous order at home and a great world power abroad, that was his historic mission, written on the wind, so to speak. It could be no other way. If his name wasn’t Putin, the mission would have been the same. What happened at this moment is that in our elites, who make our foreign policies and run our media, after the weak, needy, alcoholic Yeltsin who governed Russia, semi-governed, president of Russia during the 1990s, they had gotten used to a subservient Russia. At most, a junior partner of the United States. So if we bombed Serbia, as Clinton did in 1999, Russia’s traditional little ally—so what. Russia grumped, but it couldn’t do anything about it. And if we expanded NATO from Berlin all the way to Russia’s borders, as has now happened, even though we promised the last Soviet leader we would never do that—we have the documents, that’s not an urban legend, it was all clear—Russia could do nothing about it. And suddenly comes Putin, who says enough is enough. And he says something very simple, publicly at international security conferences, when Senator McCain and others were there. He said the era of the one-way road is over. You will now deal with Russia as you do with all other great powers. We will make concessions and you will make concessions. It will be a two-way road.
And the hating on Putin, I think, grows out of the assumption—you allude to it, Bob—that after the end of the Soviet Union, one country would decide the so-called world order. Liberal—it wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t much of an order, and it wasn’t world. But we said this is an order, and it’s our order, and then Putin says no, there are a lot of countries that have a right to say how the world is structured, and Russia’s one of them. That was such a shock, such a disappointment. I can give you one example, and I’ll quit. Nicholas Kristof, an influential columnist for the New York Times, wrote very early on, I think within 18 months to two years after Putin came to power, that he was gravely disappointed because—now listen to what he wrote—Putin did not turn out to be a sober Yeltsin. That is, Yeltsin had limited utility because he was drunk and sick. What they wanted was Yeltsinism without Yeltsin, with a sober leader. And Putin was anything but that. And since then, the sense that America doesn’t have a free hand any longer—and it’s not just Russia, it’s China, it’s the BRICs nations, and many others—but I don’t think our establishment has ever gotten used to this reality. And a lot of the catastrophes we see, including the wars, is a kind of Don Quixote tilting at these windmills with war, because the world’s not conforming to what Washington thinks it ought to be. Nor will it ever, any longer.
RS: [omission for station break] We’re back with Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, and we’re talking about the “War With Russia?” with a question mark, Stephen Cohen’s book. There is nothing controversial in your book, with all due respect. And yet you’re being attacked all over the place. Why? Because to use Al Gore’s phrase, you’re dealing with an inconvenient truth. And the inconvenient truth, as I see it, is it’s convenient for the Democrats to blame Putin for their failure in the elections. So the inconvenient truth is Hillary lost the election because she was a lousy candidate and represented conservative politics at a time when populism was what the country needed, and Bernie Sanders was defeated. We’ve also got a case now of Trumpwashing. Whatever the U.S. has done, the torture of prisoners, the invasion of countries irrationally, anything—we have Trumpwashing. You know, you mention Trump, everything else goes. So I want to turn to Katrina here, because it seems to me the left is at the weakest position that it’s been in my lifetime. And I’ve been around a long time. We don’t have a peace movement. So if Trump does something sensible, like trying to negotiate with North Korea instead of invading, and doing it in a country that we also leveled, like we leveled Vietnam, and he’s there, we don’t see Trump as a peacemaker, we don’t—you can’t even read a straight news story on AP or anywhere else without every other paragraph contradicting whatever the president said.
KVH: So, let me take issue with you, though. I don’t think the progressive left is at its weakest moment in terms of bold domestic issues. You know, the Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all was just introduced in the House today. I do think Congress, there are some good people like Representative Ro Khanna of California, who has, for the first time since 1973 there’s been an invocation of the War Powers Act around Yemen. And I think that’s important, that Congress find some way to reassert its role in matters of war and peace. I do think that there is the beginning of an understanding that we need to build—maybe it’s transpartisan, but a transpartisan foreign policy of restraint and realism. And there are people who are beginning to work on that. It is a minority position, and sadly the leading candidates I admire at the moment, [Elizabeth] Warren and Bernie Sanders, have to some extent bought into this new Cold War. Bernie Sanders talks about an axis of authoritarianism.
No one is for authoritarianism, but the way he’s defining it is in sync with the foolhardy national defense strategy, which has, as you know in the last months, decided America’s main enemies are Russia and China. Not the global War on Terror, which had never been a war. So there’s a lot of work to be done, Bob, but I do think that this election, 2020, you’re going to see people moving ideas forward on the foreign policy front that will not be Trumpian, but will be first principle of restraint, realism, anti-intervention, not policing the world, and understanding that endless war is a disaster. By the way, how do you democratize our foreign policy and reduce a crazily bloated defense budget if you’re on a Cold War footing? I would like to ask the candidates that question.
RS: You don’t, and that’s my whole point.
KVH: But I do think there’s an enormous energy and climate crisis. And Jerry Brown, who’s now chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, former governor of California, I think is committed, as are others working with him, to fuse that energy, which is very much a generational energy, to build it out into a peace and justice movement as well. And I think that would be—anti-nuke, anti-nuke, anti-climate crisis. I think there’s possibility in that.
RS: When I say I’ve never been in this sort of irrational climate, I remember the original Cold War quite well. And we had a real enemy. You know, whatever you thought about it, there were communist governments that for whatever reason, correct or incorrect, thought they were in a major life-and-death struggle with the west; so did the western leaders. The irrationality of the moment is that the only people around who adhere to an ideology that is associated with that original Cold War are the people who are producing all of these products that we buy at Costco and Walmart. The ideology-bashing turned out to be incorrect; communism turned out to be quite adaptive to the modern world, and actually the most energetic capitalists in the world right now are the communists. And Donald Trump, amazingly enough, predicts that oh, if we can cut a deal with North Korea, they’ll go on to be one of the big, booming economies in the world. And what’s irrational, and the reason I challenge—not, you know, yes, Donald Trump has terrible manners and he has reactionary positions and he, you know, I’ve even called him a neofascist if we want to do name-calling. But the fact of the matter is that in foreign policy, Donald Trump is assuming—not always, not around Iran and certainly not around Venezuela—but assuming kind of as moderate a position as one would have gotten from Hillary Clinton.
What I am concerned about is that even though we were able to have a peace movement—and people like Dr. Martin Luther King were able to say stop killing those Vietnamese, even though they’re communist they don’t threaten us and we can make peace with them, and he turned out to be right—you can’t get a rational discussion about Putin, who actually has advocated fairly sensible positions. I don’t think he did anything terrible in Syria, I think he helped bring matters to a resolution and helped deal with the refugees. So I’m saying something very serious from my point of view. I think we’re in a moment of madness where you cannot count on the establishment to be rational in its own terms.
SC: So there’s two things here that need to be discussed. Are there people anywhere near where policy is made who share our concerns? We have in our own minor, maybe ineffectual way, tried to identify a handful of American politicians who share our views, and encourage them to do two things. To speak clearly and loudly, and to band together. It’s too easy to pick ’em off—look what happened to Tulsi Gabbard, whose foreign policy views are very good. And as soon as she utters them, NBC publishes a big attack on her on its website, accusing her of being the Kremlin puppet or something. So this is the new red-baiting, right? The Kremlin puppet. I’ve been called that, Katrina’s been called that. Anybody who challenges what you and I are worried about is a Kremlin puppet. We’ve got to get past that. Dealing with Trump is a big problem, but it’s an American political problem; I mean, it’ll sort itself out depending on what the Democrats do or don’t do. Learning to live with Putin, as you say, Bob, is really astonishing. Because Putin has not been an aggressive leader, he’s been a reactive leader; he’s constantly reacting. But let me give you one example, because I think all of us should think about it. Let’s go to Syria.
So Putin said to Obama, I think it was around 2014, he said it to him diplomatically through the foreign ministers and personally when they met. He said, look, we have a choice now. Either Assad, the leader, official leader of Syria, will occupy Damascus, or the Islamic State will occupy Damascus. For Russia, and Damascus is kind of our backyard, there are 7,000 ISIS fighters carrying Russian passports. We’re in this, whether we like it or not, and they’ve said when we kill the heathen in Syria, we’re going to come home and kill the heathen in Russia. This is vital for us.
So he says to Obama, Putin says, join us. Join us in Syria. This is the citadel today of international terrorism. Let’s fight together in Syria. And Obama is kind of back and forth on this, back and forth, and Obama pulls back. Whether he was thwarted in Washington, he was irresolute, or he didn’t understand international affairs, or he just didn’t like Russia. So that moment was lost. But that example Putin gave is a Russian way of thinking that we can’t avoid. Who will occupy Damascus? The Islamic State, or Assad? I mean, it isn’t going to be Hillary Clinton that’s going to rule Damascus.
Real leaders make real choices in a real world, and the problem with the Washington policy elite is they urge on us choices in a world they’ve imagined that doesn’t exist, with choices that do not exist. So to me, this is the most troubling part. The Russians have become, under Putin, I guess what you’d call the realist international thinkers. And they see so much opportunity for American-Russian cooperation. And we have become intensely ideological—Trump’s made it worse, but before Trump—and unable to think about Russia the way we did the Soviet Union. When communists—people who called themselves communists, they weren’t much of communists—but it was understood that this was a great power with nuclear weapons, and that if we were going to be safe, we were going to have to have rules of the game, and this meant negotiations and summits. And we didn’t call it treason. I think at the moment that the real problem with the dangers of the new Cold War—and the book argues why it’s so much [more] dangerous than the one we survived—that not all, but most of the basic problems are in Washington, not in Moscow. Because we still have, I think—Putin wanted this for 15 years, I’m not sure he believes it’s possible today—we had an eager and willing partner for a new détente in Moscow. And he was rebuffed repeatedly, and no leader can be wrong for too many years and retain his position. So Putin has to watch his back, too.
RS: Bouncing off what you just said, whether we’re liberals or conservatives or whatever, we have an obligation as intellectuals, as journalists—I am supposed to be objective about Trump. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I am supposed to struggle. So we do have our views of history, our views of what’s important, and so forth. So the real question with Trump right now is this—and he is a polarizing figure, and he’s you know, boorish—
KVH: Deeply, deeply, yeah.
RS: The manners are incredible. He’s the ugly face of America—we all know that. But the fact is, we don’t have a force for peace, for rational understanding. I know there are progressive signs, I’m not dismissing them. But there are intimidating forces. And you have it—I’m not going to speak about The Nation, I can tell you what Truthdig, the publication I edit, you know—I had to beg people the last few days to put the story on that Trump went to Vietnam and is negotiating peace. Peace matters, give peace a chance.
KVH: Peace matters. We have a terrific correspondent, Tim Shorrock, who has taken on the Democrats in these last months, who treat the opening to North Korea as something seditious, when in fact you seize opportunities for dialogue and diplomacy where you can find them. I do think there’s been a nullification of first principles among progressives and liberals because of Trump derangement syndrome, whatever you want to call it. But I also think we will look back at this time, and look back at the shameful complicity of the media political establishment in this madness. It is an all-American trait to have a robust debate, at least I believe so. We’ve had one hand clapping, the narrative about Russia, about Putin, about U.S.-Russian relations has been so flattened, perverted, and demonized that we have lost not only the peace and justice movement—which I think will come back around nuclear issues, which are rising again.
But part of what’s happened is the shock of the Trump election, and as you rightly said, the inability of the Democratic Party or progressives to look deeply into America’s own pathologies, to blame it on Trump or Putin, is very dangerous. But we need to understand that the establishment, I believe, understands how discredited, how bankrupt it is. But I think the big fight for the future is how you build a different, alternative foreign policy, articulate it clearly, take it to the country—a country, by the way, which is not in sync with the elites, Bob. You know that, that disconnect has been there for years. On the eve of 2018, the midterms, Russiagate for example, or the menace of Russia didn’t even rank as one of the top 25 or 30 issues. And if polling shows, Americans seek an end to these endless wars without victory. They seek diplomacy, they believe their leaders—catch this—exhaust all possible means, alternatives before going to war. So I think we’re at a moment, a turning point, and the struggle is on to ensure that a discredited, bankrupt establishment doesn’t lead the way forward, but what a progressive left can build is also going to demand a lot of discipline. And not being baited, or so focused on Trump that you abet him instead of abetting peace and justice and other possibilities.
SC: Here’s where Katrina and I get into a conflict that probably doesn’t really exist, but rhetorically we’ve gotten into it. I think the situation is terribly, terribly dangerous with Russia. And we can talk about the new nuclear weapons, the new nuclear arms race. The Dr. Strangeloves on both sides are talking about usable nuclear weapons now, because they claim they can control the radiation fallout. I mean, this is someplace we haven’t really been, at least not in 30 or 40 years. So the situation is perilous; the demonization of Putin, the demonization of Trump, traditional diplomacy has broken down, contacts are being criminalized. So we’re at this crucial moment. In 1935, George Bernard Shaw visited Stalin. And he said to Stalin, you know, your literature is not very good; Soviet literature should be a lot better. And Stalin said, these are the only writers I have. Trump’s the only president we’ve got now. Hate him all you want, and we’ve got him for two or six years—we can’t wait. Now, Katrina thinks that the focus should be on building movements from below, working with voters—
KVH: Well, Congress playing a role.
SC: All right. That’s all correct. But we don’t have time, so I keep thinking every day, because we found them—you remember, Bob—we found them finally in the Senate for the most part during Vietnam. We were out there by ourselves, and suddenly we’ve got four or five, not only McCarthy, but there were a whole bunch of them suddenly in the Senate that rebelled against their own president, and not only Democrats. So I’m thinking, as Katrina likes to say “transpartisan,” I’m looking across the political spectrum, looking for politicians whose voice might get in the mass media—where we have been shut out, by the way. I used to write regularly for the New York Times op-ed page; I can’t get on there. Looking for politicians who will talk about what we’re talking about in an urgent way. And you find them in strange places; I mean, I am drawn to Rand Paul, the senator from my own state of Kentucky, not because we’re both from Kentucky, but because on these foreign policy issues, he is correct. So is Tulsi Gabbard. So are other people, maybe only five or six—Ro Khanna of California. But we need voices at the top, because leaders change foreign policy. That’s our tradition, for better or worse. And so we really do need a leader now, and we are without a leader at the moment.
KVH: I don’t disagree. I think you need inside outside. You need the energy, the movement, the pushing, the social movements, but you need allies inside. I certainly, certainly agree with that.
RS: I think there’s something rotten at the core of this. You said, what about the U.S.? And I think this is a society that is in crisis and cannot face it. And this whole Russiagate, this whole hysteria is a way of avoiding a serious inquiry into what ails us. The clarity of the moment requires recognizing this rot at the core. And at the core is this notion of American exceptionalism. It came up in the presidential election; here’s Donald Trump saying he’s going to make America great again, and Hillary Clinton said it’s always been great. Right there, you had the problem. If we are such an exceptional nation, and all the major crimes have been done by other people, then we are to be trusted with the planet’s future. And that means denying all of the really horrible problems we had in our own system, going back to the destruction of the native culture that was here, slavery, you go right through the whole list.
So we were at a point, actually, where we were beginning to examine ourselves. That’s what the populism of the left and the right was all about. Let’s take a hard look at who we are, how do we fit into this more complex world, what needs improvement. And that means examining your security agencies, the flow of information. We had whistleblowers stepping forward, telling us about our government spying on us. We had the military-industrial complex being examined, why do we need it, what is it doing.
And what I think is at work here is this, again, Trumpwashing—suddenly the FBI, they’re virtuous. The CIA doesn’t lie to us. The NSA doesn’t lie to us. Anytime the U.S. is involved in the world, it must be on the side of the angels. And so the most powerful nation in the world that can really seal the future of the planet will go on as an unexamined phenomenon now, not responsible for any major problems. That is the mood of the moment. And what they will do, as you point out, is redbait or McCarthy-bait anybody who gets in the way of that narrative.
SC: Bob, the problem with the way you formulate it is—and even if it’s true, and I probably agree with about 75 percent of it—that it’s too all-embracing, it’s too sweeping, it’s too beyond the reach of solution, it’s too existential. We need to identify the issues that imperil us the most, and we need to find people to address them. The only major successful electoral politician that I’ve come across, who shares probably 75 percent of what you say, is your own former governor Jerry Brown. We don’t agree with him about everything, but on these basic issues, he agrees there’s a problem. He’s 80 years old, but if I could pick one candidate who has the concerns we have, and the experience governing—because we don’t need any more presidents who have never governed. If I could wish myself a candidate tomorrow, even though he’s 80 years old—but we’ve got, everybody else is in their seventies, I mean other people who are at the top. But he really thinks along these lines, partly because he’s a reader.
KVH: Steve is quite traditional in a sense, going to a candidate after you kind of gave a jeremiad about the crisis. I think you’re right to some extent, Bob, but I also think you’re talking about the establishment, you’re talking about a media that treats left-wing populism almost like a dead fish. I think there’s a disconnect in this country, and I think millions of Americans, without learning it from the New York Times or the gatekeepers, know there’s a crisis in this country, and they’re trying to find ways to see another way. And that, to me, is hopeful: that there is a change, there’s a new generation, there are new insurgencies. Maybe not at the scale commensurate with the problem, but they’re existing without an establishment willing to work with them. In fact, there’s a suppression of these insurgent forces, yet they keep coming. They keep coming from different directions.
RS: I mean, I just—what is frightening about the moment is scary not because progressives aren’t stronger or weaker, or the next election or this candidate. It’s that we’ve lost common sense. And so we are at a moment here now where everyone wants Congress to get Trump! Get him, and knock him out! And whether we have a reasonable trade agreement with China, or whether we can get rid of nukes in North Korea, or what are we really going to do about climate change—because if you don’t have good trade agreements with China, you’re not going to control the burning of coal or anything else, you know. And so there are serious problems out there, and we have a mood of giddiness, of nuttiness, where you don’t discuss these things. They’re seen as a distraction. And I want to offer one last point. We had the renegotiation of NAFTA, OK? Trump did talk about, he wanted to get rid of NAFTA, change it. I only bring this up because people are looking for daylight, positive, or what have you. Trump has been negotiating with China, and this goes to American exceptionalism now. Are we going to let him go to the next stage, as Japan did, where it isn’t all dependent upon poorly paid women assembling iPhones, OK?
And so with this NAFTA agreement, I want to end on a positive note, and again let me get in trouble here by saying something positive about Trump. In that, whether he did it or some aide stuck it in, for the first time in a trade agreement we say if you’re going to make a car in Mexico and bring it into the United States duty-free, 45 percent of that car has to be made by people who are making 16 bucks an hour. If we did that for China in these trade negotiations now, including maybe the right to unionize, the right to take it to local courts, which didn’t happen under the old NAFTA and so forth—we’d have an economic revolution in those countries. And you could forget about the border.
If people could make a decent wage on the Mexican side of the border, they’re not going to want to come over to this side. There’s no discussion of it. There’s no discussion of the nuclear arms race, which you were bringing up with Jerry Brown. What does it mean that we suddenly abandon an arms [agreement]? I’ll tell you, another subject, the third rail one that we haven’t talked about. If there was a foreign power that interfered in this election, it was Israel. No one dares mention that!
KVH: Bob, to say “nobody” is dissing Truthdig, is dissing The Nation—
RS: No, I shouldn’t say “no one,” obviously—yeah.
KVH: There is a network, and I do think that a younger generation—and Steve has found this watching YouTube and others—there’s a younger generation getting their news from alternative sources. We still need to take on the big gatekeepers, because they police and vilify. But come on, I mean, there are openings which I think you know that they exist.
RS: Yes—OK, I just want to complete the thought, though, of—I’m talking about individual courage, now, aside from how you build movements. That’s what we ask of our intellectuals, of our journalists, of our political spokespersons. I have—OK, very few people have pointed out—and by the way, I think Israel has the right to assert its views. I think Netanyahu can come to Congress and say whatever he wants. But it was breaking with tradition. He attacked Obama on his most important foreign policy victory, which was the arms deal with Iran, which I happen to support. I think it would be really unwise to destroy it. OK. However, that’s what Israel wanted.
So my last question to you is when I look at this situation, the reason I say it’s so nutty, Professor Cohen, it seems to me Putin is the guy who got screwed over whatever he was hoped to be gained by Trump winning. Russia still has sanctions; NATO’s still moving very close to their heartland. Arms control agreements are being torn asunder. And so as opposed to, for instance, Israel, which got Trump’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran, for example, is Netanyahu’s policy, what did Putin get from this?
SC: Well, and he’s criticized for that. I mean, first of all, the Kremlin did not do anything to help put Trump in the White House. There’s zero evidence. Moreover, there are maybe a half a dozen major newspapers in Russia that are close to the Kremlin. So if you want to know what the debates are inside the Kremlin, inside the 30 or 40 people, “the collective Putin” as he’s called in Russia, you read these newspapers. And during the electoral presidential campaign in 2016, in these Russian newspapers was a grave uncertainty of which candidate would be better for Russia, Trump or Clinton.
Russia has traditionally preferred the candidate they know, the devil they know. And they assumed that Mrs. Clinton would turn out to be just another American who would talk tough about Russia, but would do business. And they liked her husband. After all, they gave him $500,000 for a speech in Moscow about that time, talk about exchanging money. They worried about Trump; they didn’t mind some of the things he said, but they thought he was kind of off the wall and unpredictable. And the Kremlin doesn’t like unpredictability, particularly when it’s trying to rebuild Russia.
So there’s no evidence that they helped Trump; there’s not clear evidence that they actually preferred Trump. I mean, this was a debate that went on. So a lot of this is made up in the United States and projected. You used the word “optimist” before; I end by adapting an adage that Russian intellectuals like to use when asked if they’re optimist or pessimist about this situation. And they say like this: well, a pessimist thinks things cannot possibly get worse. And an optimist knows they can.
RS: Well, that’s a good note on which to end this. I want, first of all, I want to thank Katrina vanden Heuvel for being here, and I want to make it very clear I think The Nation magazine has been the most important political magazine this country has had in its long history. What is it now, a hundred and—
KVH: A hundred and fifty-four years. Thank you, Bob.
RS: A hundred and fifty-four years. And I want to say, as someone who’s read it for a—
KVH: And written for it.
RS: And written for it for a good 60 years or so, I don’t think it’s ever been in better hands than it has been under you. And I mean that not as a form of flattery.
KVH: Thank you.
RS: I know just how difficult it is to represent an independent, progressive voice at this time in our history, and I applaud you for keeping The Nation open. And I do want to once again commend this book, in closing, Stephen F. Cohen, “War With Russia?” It’s Hot Books, and it’s an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. And if you really want to get a fresh view of this debate, this is the one book you ought to read. “War With Russia?”—it is a question mark—From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz at KCRW. Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon are the producers of Scheer Intelligence. And we’ll see you next week.