Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I have thought for a while that “the Russia thing” will provide strategic clarity that wasn’t apparent in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Many tried to puzzle through what happened and calculate Democratic strategy based on that assessment. But when Donald Trump sacked FBI Director James Comey, the man chiefly responsible for investigating the president’s ties to Russia, all that puzzling seemed moot.

For the Democrats, the choice isn’t between “identity politics” and “economic populism.” It’s between wise policies that benefit Americans versus policies that benefit a hostile foreign power. Specifically, the task ahead is getting voters to see that Republican priorities are Vladimir Putin’s priorities.

Some would say this sounds like “McCarthyism,” and God knows Katrina vanden Heuvel and her intellectually deranged husband Stephen Cohen are saying precisely that. Their arguments, like so many in The Nation, appear frozen in amber, an effort to re-litigate mummified anti-Communist arguments that died long, long ago. But this isn’t a witch hunt. The Russians did attack our country by mounting a massive social-media campaign to sway public opinion. The Trump campaign did communicate with the Russians months ahead of November. The GOP leadership did know about Russia’s influence before Trump was the party’s nominee. If there’s ever a time for Democrats, liberals, progressives and anti-anti-American leftists to punch left, this is that time.

This is a fateful moment for the Democrats.

Our history suggests we live up to our ideals, usually, when we are faced with external threats. America was not a “melting pot” before the First World War. But the federal government’s recruitment shortage forced it to open the armed forces to Jews and “white ethnics” in ways it never did before. And to encourage such men to volunteer, the government mounted its own propaganda campaign to persuade all Americans of all backgrounds that out of many, we truly are one.

Same thing happened after the Second World War. The federal government did not care if Southern states were violating the constitutional rights of their black citizens or were maintaining a system of apartheid in which murder was legal. But after defeating two nations whose explicit aim was to enslave the world according to insane theories of racial superiority, the US found itself looking in the mirror and gasping with horror.

We are now in a similar period, one could argue, in which conservative forces have again paralyzed the nation. From gun violence to social welfare, from climate change to the assault on democratic institutions, the conservatives have claimed power where they do not have a majority and, thanks to judicial appointments, will maintain power long after white Americans have become a demographic minority. If nothing changes, we can expect the Russians to attack our election process for years to come. If nothing changes, someone is going to benefit. That someone is not the American people.

So the Democrats need to get voters to see that Republican priorities are Vladimir Putin’s priorities. Consider for instance, health care. What better way of wounding your enemy than by taking away insurance for tens of millions of Americans? The Republicans, in replacing Obamacare with a vastly inferior product, are moving to do that. And Putin is smiling.

Consider Citizen United. Everybody says they hate money in politics but can’t do anything about it. Well, the Federal Elections Commission has launched an inquiry into Russia’s buying ads on Facebook to move the election. Do you think any Republican could defend the status quo if Democrats called for election reform in the name of our democracy?

Consider gun violence. The NRA used to be the voice of gun safety. Now it’s corrupt. It’s also a friend of Putin’s. I am not kidding. Since 2012, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has made several visits to Russia, making nice with an authoritarian who wooed LaPierre by whispering the dulcet tones of gun rights. Not even LaPierre could stop a call for gun-control legislation if it were clear the status quo is destroying America from the inside out with Putin’s blessing.

The Democrats need to to get voters to see that Republican priorities are Vladimir Putin’s priorities sooner rather than later. A president’s impeachment and removal are no longer abstractions. It may never happen, but with each new revelation, emerging at breakneck speed, Trump’s downfall is no longer theoretical. It really could happen.

And if it does, the Democrats must hold the Republicans accountable. Trump’s sins are their sins. If he is Putin’s useful idiot, it stands to reason that so are the Republicans.

And they can start by leaning on Mitch McConnell. Former CIA Director John Brennan told a Senate panel Tuesday that: “I was aware of intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and US persons involved in Trump campaign.” Under testimony, he told lawmakers that he informed leading Senators from both parties about what was happening. From that discussion, according to a December Washington Post story, the Obama administration hoped to present a bipartisan united front against Russian interference. But McConnell said no.

The Post reported that: “He would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” McConnell’s decision was partisan politics. And the Russians were made part of the Republican Party.

Quite literally, Putin’s priorities were the Republicans’.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.