What the Al Franken and RussiaGate conspiracy theorists have to say about contemporary American politics
By: Callum Leemkuil-Schuerman
In December of 2017, Al Franken resigned from his Senate seat following weeks of protracted debate over allegations of sexual misconduct. His leaving was spurred by a large group of Senate Democrats calling for his resignation, as well as pressure from social media—all in all, a very typical case for the #MeToo movement: transgression, mild consequences.
A lot of people—cards on the table, myself included—were very happy about this. The Democratic Party is a very frustrating thing. It seems chronically unable to stick up for itself or to maintain consistent moral principles, like, for example, opposing imperialist warfare or providing people with universal healthcare. However, by taking a strong stand against Franken, it seemed like the Democrats were finally taking a firm stance against sexual misconduct, even from heavy hitters among its own ranks. Furthermore, Franken (if you believe the allegations) had done this to himself—it’s extremely easy to make the case that a necessary precondition of being a senator is not committing sexual assault.
Not everybody saw it this way. In fact, some people saw it very, very differently. These people, largely coming from what might be described as the Bill Maher wing of the Democratic Party—typically older, white, male, cisgender, and straight, or some combination thereof—felt that a line had been crossed somewhere along the way.
I would say that most of these people probably have no problem in theory with the #MeToo movement. When you hear about monstrous predators like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Bill Cosby, it’s difficult to avoid feeling a lot of sympathy for their victims, even if you have some kind of attachment to their work. However, with a politician it can feel different, particularly if it’s a politician you trust. Franken was supposed to be on our team. He was supposed to have our backs. It’s hard to swallow that he betrayed our trust. And that’s exactly what some people have refused to do.
It’s very important to note that this happened in the wake of RussiaGate, an event that served to permanently shift the worldviews of a large swath of rank-and-file Democrats into full-tilt conspiracism. It is, at this point, undeniable that during the 2016 presidential election, there was some form of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
However, people misidentify the problem: they see the collusion with Russian meddling as the cause and Trump as the symptom, when in fact it is the other way around. The Trump campaign’s willingness to accept whatever help was offered from unscrupulous parties working to further their own interest has very little to do with Russia in particular, as becomes clear if you look for even a minute at the people Trump surrounds himself with i.e., Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, who have spent their entire careers caping for murderous dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos; vampiric real estate tycoons like Steve Mnuchin; xenophobic foreign leaders like Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump’s involvement with Russia is merely another example of who he fundamentally is: an opportunistic and unprincipled grifter.
Unfortunately, Democrats looking for answers to the very fair question of “what the hell happened in 2016” latched onto the matter of Russia as an easy answer that absolved them of all blame.
In this frenzy, a new group of voices were suddenly given an outsized degree of prominence: the citizen investigators. These people, notably figures like Eric Garland and Louise Mensch, promote ridiculously elaborate conspiracy theories in unreadable prose. Here’s Garland, someone with no relevant experience, explaining some nonsensical “Game Theory:”
Meanwhile, Mensch promoted the theory that the Supreme Court was going to remove Trump and place then-Sen. Orrin Hatch in the high office (which she has since recanted), and that Steve Bannon was going to be executed for treason:
These people aren’t just nobodies—Garland has 181,000 twitter followers, while Louise Mensch has 289,000. Garland’s nonsensical Game Theory ramblings have even received plaudits from the writers and editors of Mother Jonesand the Washington Post.
It’s remarkable how many similarities the hardcore RussiaGate theories have to the contemporary far-right QAnon conspiracy, which hinges upon Trump secretly teaming up with the Mueller investigation to indict Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Both focus on the idea of a hidden force of benevolent crusaders inside the government that will sweep away the morass and treason of the Enemy, who is racially determined; what makes the Russian a mighty foe, according to Garland, is that “Russians as people are civilized, artistic, enamored of brilliance and tragedy, and generally proud.”Garland also spends much of his time accusing Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein—two of America’s most prominent Jewish politicians with little else in common—of being paid Russian agents whose goal is to undermine American democracy, playing on the most classic of anti-Semitic tropes that are also at the heart of nearly every right-wing conspiracy theory.
The combination of this liberal conspiracism with the feeling that Franken has somehow been wronged has led down some bizarrely toxic rabbit holes. Franken’s accusers—seven women that have absolutely nothing to do with one another—are, of course, plants. Leeann Tweeden, Franken’s first accuser, is a Republican, meaning she must be working hand-in-glove with Roger Stone to undermine the Democrats.
In fact, this is something I have personally experienced. This past winter break, while at a Half Price Books with two of my friends, I made a joke about Franken being disgraced after seeing a copy of his book, only to abruptly find myself facing the explosive ire of the woman that had been standing behind me.
“How dare you talk about him that way,” she shouted at us. “You young neocons don’t know how hard we fought for Franken. We believed in him, and he doesn’t deserve to be torn down because he grabbed someone’s ass at the state fair once.”
This woman’s general belief system exemplifies the problems with the Maher wing of the Democratic Party. They are prone to hero worship: Franken’s goodness is to them an inherent quality, not something that arises as an amalgamation of the work done by his constituents and his staff. The assumption that my friends and I were neocons is also very telling—it is clear that, from their perspective, attacks on Franken can only come from the Enemy.
But even this is only the tip of the iceberg. As time has gone on, the community of Franken defenders has developed its own coterie of citizen investigators, and they are just as prone to out-and-out conspiracism as Garland and Mensch.
Twitter’s John Mashey, for example, makes the astonishing claim that Franken, as a 5’6’’ man, has correspondingly short arms that make it physically impossible for him to grope women. Mashey also notes that Franken’s accusers cannot be trusted because it is easy, apparently, to misinterpret an innocent or accidental ass-grabbing. Mashey chooses to disseminate his theories through charts that look like something off of a JFK truther website:
People like Mashey do not hold the majority view on Franken, nor do they command a majority in the Democratic Party. Still, attitudes such as his are far from out of the ordinary, and similar people—middle-class, college educated, suburbanite white men—are becoming an increasingly sizable chunk of the Democratic coalition, and they concern me.
They make me worry that the Democratic Party is permanently stuck in a mode of self-absolution and paranoia. They make me worry that there will never be a move away from the Democratic adulation of its political leaders. But most of all, they make me worry that, at the time when the Democratic Party needs most to be connecting with marginalized people of all identities on a strong, material basis, they instead detach themselves from the world they actually live in.