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The Hillary Clinton-Tulsi Gabbard feud, explained

Neither of them come out looking particularly good.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking into a microphone onstage.
Hillary Clinton speaking at George Washington University on September 17, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Hillary Clinton emerged from relative political obscurity last week to claim that Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential candidate and member of Congress from Hawaii, was “the favorite of the Russians” prepping for a third-party spoiler run during a podcast interview. She went so far as to imply that the representative was “a Russian asset.”

Gabbard fired back by calling Clinton “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party.” In Gabbard’s telling, her party’s 2016 nominee was behind “a concerted campaign to destroy my reputation ... through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine.”

“It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me,” Gabbard, who is at 1.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics primary polling average, concluded. “Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”

This is a bizarrely intense fight given that these two are members of the same party. Clinton suggesting Gabbard is the Kremlin’s chosen agent for destroying the Democrats in 2020? Gabbard accusing Clinton of being the puppet master behind a massive conspiracy against her? Are these people serious?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is “yes” — in ways that reveal some troubling tendencies among American liberals and leftists today.

On Clinton’s part, the accusation reflects a remarkable overestimation of Russian influence on the part of certain Democratic Party loyalists — and a corresponding willingness to fling around baseless allegations of people they don’t like being aligned with the Kremlin agents. At bottom, it’s a conspiratorial way of viewing the world that disconnects Democrats from reality.

Gabbard’s bizarre counter-allegations of a Clinton conspiracy reflect the way in which her nominally anti-war politics are actually a kind of pro-authoritarian, conspiratorial worldview — particularly on Syria, an issue at the top of the political agenda right now. Her approach has a handful of fans on the party’s left flank but has really found its base on the pro-Trump right, real-life proof the horseshoe theory of the political spectrum has actual merit.

Fortunately, these tendencies do not seem to be afflicting any of the top contenders for the party’s nomination at the moment. Politicians closer to the center like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg don’t sound like Clinton; left-wing candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders don’t sound like Gabbard. But this ugly fight exposes real internal problems on the (broadly construed) left half of the American political spectrum, ones that liberals and leftists cannot and should not ignore.

What Hillary Clinton gets wrong about Tulsi Gabbard and why it matters

Hillary Clinton, at an event promoting The Book of Gutsy Women.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

To be fair to Clinton, one can see why she would think it’s plausible that Gabbard is Russia’s favorite candidate in the 2020 primary.

Gabbard is a combat veteran and US Army reservist who has made issues of war and peace the central plank of her campaign platform. She has sold herself as a non-interventionist, a critic of “regime change” and “endless war.” In practice, though, Gabbard’s record doesn’t fully bear this stance out. She has long spoken favorably about American use of force when it’s not directed at toppling dictators, arguing that the US needs to refocus on fighting Islamist terrorists.

As far back as 2015, she has been advocating that the US work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and his chief ally, Russia — in fighting ISIS and extremist factions among the Syrian rebels. This view has led her to take a remarkably pro-Russia stance on the Syria conflict, even when it clashes with the policies of her own party’s president and standard-bearer.

In January 2017, she traveled to Syria and met with Assad personally, catching the Democratic leadership in Congress off-guard. After returning to the US, she went on CNN and parroted the regime’s line that there was “no difference” between the mainstream anti-Assad rebels and ISIS. At last week’s Democratic debate, she described the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, which is controlled by America’s Kurdish allies, as “yet another negative consequence of the regime change war we’ve been waging in Syria” — a false description of what happened that seemed to let Trump’s troop withdrawal off the hook.

The Kremlin may be taking notice. One recent analysis from the Alliance for Securing Democracy (an electoral interference monitoring group) found that Russian state media has given Gabbard disproportionate coverage relative to her poll numbers. It also documented Twitter bots that appear to be of Russian origin being active on her behalf. That said, the extent to which Russian bots are working to promote Gabbard is contested, and it’s not clear that Clinton is justified in saying that Gabbard is Russia’s favorite.

But Clinton’s comment seems to go further than that. Take a look at the full context from an episode of Campaign HQ, former Obama aide David Plouffe’s podcast. It seems to suggest that Gabbard is not only Russia’s favorite but actually its agent in the Democratic Party:

PLOUFFE: [Trump is] going to try to drive people not to vote for him, but to say you can’t vote for them either...

CLINTON: They’re also going to do third party again. And I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody [Gabbard] who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And that’s assuming [Green Party 2016 candidate] Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she’s also a Russian asset.

Now Clinton is not saying that Russia is “grooming” Gabbard as an agent — which many media outlets initially reported. Rather, she’s saying that Trump and the GOP are grooming Gabbard to be a third-party candidate, while she’s simultaneously getting outside support from the Russians.

But the use of the word “also” in that last line about Jill Stein seems to heavily imply that Gabbard is a Russian agent. While it’s not clear if that’s what Clinton meant to say, her phrasing was at best sloppy and at worst making an inflammatory accusation against Gabbard (and Stein) without real evidence.

It’s hard to overstate how serious it is to accuse a politician you don’t like of being an actual agent of a hostile power, of working to undermine the United States from within. The fact that Russian mouthpieces seem to approve of Gabbard and Stein is hardly sufficient to level such a grave charge.

Yet Clinton’s comments are not a one-off: they reflect a tendency among Democratic loyalists, both in the elite and rank and file, to throw around charges of Russian influence without much grounding in fact.

The most extreme manifestations of this are Twitter personalities like Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor, self-appointed Russia experts who built up a following among hardcore #resistance types by constantly predicting the reveal of proof that Trump is in Putin’s thrall — evidence that never seems to materialize. This strain of pure fantasy never became influential in the party, but there is a more attenuated version that did: Democratic politicians and liberal media outlets have frequently overhyped Trump-Russia connections or Russian penetration of the American political system, assigning it a degree of influence over American politicians and the voters’ minds that has not been supported by evidence.

Clinton’s comments are emblematic of this more subtle version of Russian overhype. It’s a worldview that conveniently exonerates Clinton for her 2016 defeat, suggesting that the Russians rather than Clinton’s own missteps decided the election. It’s a kind of epistemic poison, leading Democrats astray in a similar-but-much-smaller-scale way that Fox News narratives mislead Republicans. When you develop a vision of American electoral politics that overstates Russian power, you end up missing what actually matters.

Somewhat ironically, it’s also one that helps the Russians. The Kremlin’s email hacking and bot-tweeting campaigns were first and foremost designed to stoke divisions and inflame partisanship in the United States, turning up the heat on American partisan disputes and limiting the US government’s ability to coherently counter Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. Calling your political enemies Russian agents certainly helps this goal along.

“Putin can rejoice in the actions of the latter-day witch-hunters who are forever spying Russian influence,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute, writes in the Moscow Times. “By turning political debate into a hunt for traitors, it generates the very kind of toxic, suspicious political culture that undermines the bonds of solidarity and civility that underpin democratic societies.”

There are good reasons to be skeptical of Gabbard’s stances on foreign policy. But Clinton’s insinuations of dark connections between her and the Kremlin absent solid evidence help no one.

What Tulsi Gabbard gets wrong about Hillary Clinton and why it matters

Gabbard’s response to Clinton was, if anything, even worse than the original comments.

While Clinton never outright says that Gabbard is a Russian plant, merely heavily implying it, Gabbard accuses Clinton of masterminding a gigantic conspiracy against her without the slightest shred of evidence. She did so first in a series of tweets on Friday:

She continued to hammer home this theme in the days after. In an official video released on Sunday, she accuses an unspecified “they” (presumably Democratic elites) of organizing to “destroy” and “discredit” anyone who dissents from their official line. On Monday, she tweeted out a video of a friendly interview she did with Fox News host Tucker Carlson in which she accuses “Hillary Clinton, her proxies, [and] the warmongering establishment” of “conducting this coordinated smear campaign.”

The idea that Clinton is masterminding some kind of coordinated smear campaign in the media, that all of Gabbard’s critics are Clinton “proxies,” is the textbook definition of a conspiracy theory. But it’s hardly the first time Gabbard has embraced outlandish ideas that happen to flatter her worldview.

When Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in April 2017, Gabbard said she was “skeptical” that Assad was responsible, aligning herself with conspiracy theorists against both US intelligence and the overwhelming majority of independent experts.

Gabbard’s penchant for strangely reasoned defenses of militant foreign strongmen — she’s an avowed fan of India’s anti-Muslim, illiberal Prime Minister Narendra Modi — has contributed to her marginalization not only from both the Clintonite Democratic center but the also the Warren-Sanders left. Only a few on the so-called “anti-imperialist” left support her, a group made up of relatively obscure Twitter pundits with about as much influence on the actually existing Democratic Party as Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor. Her lack of a meaningful factional support base is a big reason why her poll numbers have been low for the entire primary.

But her appearance on Carlson’s show reveals how she’s succeeded in building a different fanbase: pro-Trump conservatives.

Gabbard Participates In Fourth Democratic Primary Debate In Ohio
Tulsi Gabbard.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Gabbard has progressive views on domestic policy, despite some past stances to the contrary. But centering her political appeal on her foreign policy, where she’s honestly not very far from Donald Trump, has made her some fans in MAGA-world. Ben Domenech, the publisher of the devotedly pro-Trump website The Federalist, donated $250 to Gabbard’s campaign. Steve Bannon has expressed admiration for her; so too have leading figures in the alt-right.

What this points to is a certain commonality, at the very extreme ends of the spectrum, between left-wing critique of “American empire” and right-wing isolationism — a foreign policy variant of the “horseshoe theory” of political ideology, which posits some factions on the extremes are closer to each other than those on the center-left and center-right.

The left-wing variant starts from the idea that America has evil intentions for the rest of the world — that it is, in fact, the largest threat to global stability on the planet. The right-wing version argues that the United States has no obligation to the rest of the world; that the US needs to put “America First,” even when it means ignoring suffering abroad.

These doctrines converge on the idea that the United States needs to stay out of foreign conflicts and even sometimes cross the line into outright apologia for bad actors abroad. This is how Assad and his Russian backers get painted as potential allies against jihadism rather than the human rights abusers they are, both by Gabbard and by Trumpists.

I don’t mean to draw equivalences here. While Gabbard only has a handful of fans on the left, Donald Trump is the president of the United States. But Gabbard’s embrace of anti-Clinton conspiracies and foreign autocrats shows how a strain of left-wing analysis, applied sophomorically, can lead to pretty ugly places. She’s a useful cautionary tale at a time when the left’s stock is rising on the Democratic side of the aisle.