This dismal eyesore, courtesy of ultra-lib ‘grassroots’ organization Mad Dog PAC, went up near my house recently. It’s one of three new billboards appearing around the state as part of the new anti-Mitch blitz. Unseating the self-described “Grim Reaper” of all policies progressive or vaguely left-ish, the Democrats have finally realized, is what needs to be nearly at the top of the priority list. Even if we get Trump 2020—and at this point there seems to be no reason to suspect we won’t—at least without Mitch, there’s a sliver of hope for the ability to advance some sort of legislative agenda.
One of the other billboards features a photograph of Mitch McConnell and his wife, quasi-notable grifter-bureaucratic Elaine Chao (whose pedigree spans multiple administrations: commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission under Reagan, Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Bush I, Secretary of Labor under Bush II, Secretary of Transportation under Trump), and next to it the provocation “We’re rich. How are y’all”. The folksy pandering of the ‘ya’ll’—and dreadful design—aside, this is a decent message. Mitch McConnell’s net worth is estimated at some twenty-two million dollars. He’s not the wealthiest senator, falling far below Virginia’s Mark Warner, who clocks it at first with around a net worth of two hundred and forty-three million. But juxtapose it against Kentucky, the state whose interest he ostensibly represents, where the poverty rate has consistently been above the national average, and which currently holds the 14th position on the ranking of states with the highest unemployment rates. Combine this with his propensity to be identified as one of the most corrupt members of the senate, his voting record that panders to lobbyists, and his consistent struggle for unlimited campaign donations (he famously described the day that President W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 as the “worst” of his “political life”), and a pretty clear image of Mitch emerges.
Which brings me to the third of the Mad Dog PAC billboards. It’s the same dull red background, and in large yellow letters it reads “Russian Mob Money… Really Mitch?”
Three billboards, one that strikes some sort of populist note hinting at the terminal condition of Kentucky’s apparently permanent underclass, and two that play into the national din around so-called Russia-gate. If I want to put on my own tin-foil hat for a moment, the timing is rather suspect, as it occurs in syncopation with Joe Scarborough coining the catchy “Moscow Mitch” on the Morning Joe, which was instantly picked up and became a trending hashtag on Twitter. “Russian Rand”, alluding to junior Kentucky senator (and son of Ron Paul) Rand Paul, quickly followed.
On the one hand, there is a Russian dimension to the story of Kentucky’s moribund industrial history, and not all of it savory. Rumors of Russian mob involvement in the state’s coal industry have circulated for years, and in April 22nd a story appeared in the Courier Journal that one Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch purported to be linked to the country’s notorious criminal enterprises, is looking to invest a sizable sum in an aluminum processing plant in the eastern side of the state. It’s this strand that has brought the Russophobes in the media circus down on Mitch. Of course Deripaska has been linked to Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced campaign chairman. Of course Deripaska is close to Putin. Bring Deripaska money to Kentucky, mix in the power of the Donald-Mitch alliance, and we’re cooking with gas.
On the other hand, it all looks so absurd. Deripaska is close to Putin—ok. What still-standing oligarchs aren’t close with him? Russians want to invest in Kentucky industry. And? The last time I checked, the United States was deeply reliant on foreign direct investment for economic growth. It goes without saying that this always ends up interfering with the political process, with varying degrees intensity; Giovanni Arrighi, for example, has drawn attention to how flows of investment coming from Asia in the 90s made it difficult for America to pursue a national agenda in the face of international pressure—a contradiction that helped set the stage for the Bush administration’s schizophrenic pursuit of neoliberalism transnationalism and neoconservative national unilateralism. While sinister, this doesn’t exactly raise the specter of conspiracy in the sense of that the new Russophobes seem to believe that it does. It points instead to the general condition that under capitalism in its neoliberal mode, the nation-state loses some of its autonomy as it becomes more porous and riven with global flows.
Finally, to wrap this into some sort of explanatory framework for the Donald-Mitch machine is to profoundly miss the mark. Mitch is a powerhouse in the Republican Party. He’s the majority leader, and Donald is the head of the party. To see them as anything other than as a unified entity that undergoes the occasional disagreement is to not understand how American politics works. If you’re expecting Mitch to buck Trump and for some reason join the ‘resistance’, you’re delusional.
But delusional is exactly what the mainstreamers of the Democrats are. ‘Russia-gate’ is proof of that. Month after month, this vortex has spiraled more and more out of control. It dominates the social media landscape—twitter is a perpetual chorus of cringe-inducing hashtags like #MuellerIsComing, #WeBelieveMueller, #GOPcommunists, so on and so forth—and is in permanent coverage mode on Dem-linked media outlets like MSNBC. Memes featuring poorly-photoshopped Republican politicians in Soviet-era uniforms and hats emblazoned with the red star swirl about, and every boomer in the ‘resistance’ has become an expert in investigoogling and conclusion-leaping that rivals the right’s Pizzagate losers in frantic, wide-eyed paranoia. And while the Russia conspiracy is by far the loudest in its ability to dominate discourse, it slots neatly into a parade of competing (or, if you’re so inclined, overlapping) explanations for what happened in 2016. It was nihilistic e-savy youths hanging in their mom’s basements stoking the fire, or it was an emboldened racist white working class pissed about Obama that did the deed. In more sophisticated dimensions, it was an interlocking coterie of firms like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that hijacked the election through mass data collection and micro-targeting the population with personalized ads.
The latter is the most compelling, and it cuts right to the heart of the pernicious character of Silicon Valley capitalism and its caustic effect on political life. To focus on this in isolation, however, is to receive a lopsided narrative, and that’s precisely the narrative that documentaries like Netflix’s The Great Hack advance. Little attention is paid to the circumstances that made this machinery so successful in the first place. Likewise, nobody seems very interested in looking at what blacked-out ‘no future’ scenario that makes these supposed cyber-gangs of wayward trolls so nihilistic in the first place. Progs are quick to denigrate the great racist masses, but are very obviously recalcitrant to examine the very real conditions of economic degradation that marked the slow churn of the Great Recession’s aftermath. In each case—Zuck’s digital golem going out of control and getting swept up in the machinations of conniving right-wing operators, meme-savy anti-social kids, racist whites, Russians—easy answers that masquerade as complex analyses are selected and mobilized for political point-scoring.
This reveals something about the pathological character of the Democrats. These easy answers and blame-games are intended to operate as technicalities: the system of liberal market democracy has been working just fine and will continue to do so, but in the meantime it has been corrupted by some sort of outside force. Purge this invader, in whatever mask it is wearing, and everything will go back to the way it was before. Nothing is rotten in the very core of the whole thing, rotten due to objective tendencies and long-term evolutionary movements, to economic dispossession and political disempowerment—an enlightened mission has been only momentarily derailed. It’s a curious parallel to the attitudes of the far-right, which holds up its own host of invaders—Jews/banksters/globalists as well as minorities and immigrants—as contaminating an otherwise pristine or pure situation. In each cases, it’s an inability to come to terms with an abstract domination that can’t be identified with any group or institution.
I have little doubt that it will blow up in the Democrats’ face. In the case of Mitch, it has plenty of ammo that could be used against him—the state’s poverty, the opioid crisis, the long war on labor, inequality, the dismissal of environmental concerns. But instead they choose to align themselves with this flimsy story of conspiracies and backroom deals with Russians, all of which is rewarmed Cold War propaganda. He has already issued a statement playing off this fact, drawing comparison between the Dems and Joseph McCarthy. The measured and calculating wording of the statement, which points to a concrete history of wariness towards Putin and Trump’s sanctions against Russia, appears as the antithesis of what his opponents are offering—and this divergence will likely continue up through 2020.
At least we’ll get some corny billboards to look at in the meantime.