Is there a pro-Putin clique in the White House?

Lee Sustar argues that the uproar about Russia in U.S. politics today is a sign of deeper disorientation caused by a power shift in the world economy.

Clockwise from top left: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jeff SessionsClockwise from top left: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions

THE POLITICIANS sounding off about Russia's influence in the U.S. election last year could be correct.

Given the many documented contacts between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russian officials, operatives of the Kremlin may indeed have attempted a massive intervention in a U.S. presidential election. If true, that would be a remarkable turn of events just 25 years after the U.S. prevailed over the former USSR in the Cold War.

But the debate about Russia is also a vehicle for a wider, multisided faction fight in the U.S. political establishment. This struggle involves not just the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, but the most powerful institutions of the U.S. state, including the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department.

At issue isn't just whether Trump leaned on Russian President Vladimir Putin to win the election, but how the U.S. should respond to its imperial disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the failure of the economy to fully overcome the devastation of the Great Recession, and the rise of China as both an economic and military rival of the U.S.

There's a domestic dynamic, too, of course. The Democratic Party, still reeling from Hillary Clinton's disastrous America-is-already-great presidential campaign, is using Trump's Russia scandal to cover up for its own political crisis.

For the Democrats, it's more convenient to point to Putin's alleged role in Trump's victory than to acknowledge that the candidate of their party had a deadening, status-quo message that couldn't turn out the party's most loyal supporters.

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IT'S NO surprise that alleged Russian involvement in the elections would lead to a political crisis in the U.S., as Trump opponents of all stripes seize on the allegations to try to weaken a man they see as a destabilizing and dangerous in U.S. politics.

But the hypocrisy is rather staggering. Washington's outrage over supposed Russian meddling in U.S. elections comes more than a century after the State Department and the Marine Corps began changing regimes and rigging votes in Latin America.

"In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times," wrote historian John Coatsworth in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America. "That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century."

The U.S. took its election meddling around the globe after the Second World War, though its operations became a bit more discreet as the U.S. carried the banner of "democracy" during the Cold War.

But the efforts were just as systematic as an old U.S. Marines excursion in Honduras. Political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University calculated that the U.S. intervened in presidential elections in other countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000.

One major focus of U.S. electoral meddling was Italy, where the Communist Party was by far the biggest political organization following the Second World War. With the collaboration of U.S. labor union officials, the CIA orchestrated major interventions in Italian politics from 1948 into the 1950s.

And the U.S. is still at it. The government-funded National Endowment for Democracy--a supposed NGO that includes the foreign policy arms of the Democratic and Republican Parties, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO--recruits and trains political operatives in a number of countries, doing "in the open what the Central Intelligence Agency has done surreptitiously for decades," wrote John Broder in the New York Times.

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DONALD TRUMP alluded to the sordid history of U.S. foreign policy when he challenged Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's characterization of Putin as a "killer."

"There are a lot of killers," Trump said. "We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?"

Media commentators were taken aback over Trump's willingness to normalize Putin's repression. The Russian president has overseen not just military intervention in Ukraine and Syria, but the imprisonment of political dissidents and a clampdown on press freedom.

And if there is no conclusive proof that the Russian government was involved, some 36 journalists have been killed in that country since 1992--and Russian law enforcement has been uninterested in pursing these cases.

But in mainstreaming Putin, Trump isn't just possibly returning a favor to a prominent backer. He's trying to import Putin's strongman behavior into the U.S. to further his own political agenda of economic nationalism, militarism, severe restrictions on immigration and a law-and-order crackdown on civil and political rights.

Does this political convergence mean that Trump is a Putin puppet?

Certainly it's hard to keep track of the dizzying number of Trump-Russia connections--from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's paid appearance with Putin at an RT television party in Moscow, to current Attorney General Jeff Sessions' meetings with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign, to Trump consultant Roger Stone's contact with the Guccifer 2.0, the alleged Russian hacker supposedly behind WikiLeaks' publication of Democratic National Committee emails.

Then there's Trump's extensive business ties to Russia--the details of which are only partly known.

But even if the most lurid allegations about the Trump-Putin bromance turn out to be true, the furor over Russia represents much more: An emerging debate about how the U.S. should respond to its imperial challenges--especially its economic and military decline relative to China.

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THE DEBATE is an agonizing one for the U.S. ruling class, for obvious reasons.

The Republicans can complain about the weak economy of the Obama era, but can't entirely avoid the fact that a GOP White House oversaw the shattering financial crash of 2008. And the Bush-era neoconservatives can't speak too loudly about Obama's failure to prevent the rise of ISIS, since it was their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that created the catastrophe in the first place.

The captains of U.S. industry cashed in on globalization--for example, Apple used the rise of Chinese manufacturing to produce the iPhone, becoming the world's most valuable company in 2016.

But China benefited more. China's annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached $11.4 trillion in 2016, a tenfold increase since 2002 and closing in on the U.S. figure of $17.9 trillion.

By contrast, Russia's GDP for 2016 was just $1.23 trillion. For the U.S. capitalist class, it isn't hard to see which country is the main international competitor--even if the titans of the U.S. tech industry are reluctant to undertake a trade war with a country that's critical to their supply chain.

This created a political opening for Trump and his "make America great again" campaign. Economic nationalism could appeal to the middle class and sections of workers hit by job losses and a decline in living standards, while also attracting sections of capital unable to tap in to the global marketplace or facing competition from imports.

The nationalism also appealed to Pentagon hawks--both the ideological elements who built careers on hardline politics and the opportunists preparing for lucrative post-military lives as executives with defense contractors.

And after Trump actually made it to the White House, there are the former Goldman Sachs executives on hand to ensure that Wall Street can keep making money despite the chaos in the Trump West Wing.

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THE TRUMP administration is a highly unstable operation, with new fissures opening up all the time. But at a moment when the U.S. ruling class is confused and disoriented, Trump can fill a vacuum.

The Russia question, a relic of the Cold War from the last century, may give the anti-Trump political establishment a useful weapon. But to Trump, his adviser Steve Bannon and their inner circle, an alliance with Russia makes ideological, political and military sense. After all, it was the Obama administration that began looking to Russia to impose a settlement in the Syrian civil war.

The Trump White House wants to build on the relationship with Russia to enable it to focus on China, something Obama's supposed "pivot to Asia" failed to accomplish. If this means turning a blind eye to Russian intervention in Ukraine and other former states of the ex-USSR, that's a price the new administration is willing to pay. The fact that Putin's authoritarianism dovetails so nicely with Trump's makes matters easier.

Easier that is, until the results of the investigations into Trump's Russia ties come in.

Trump, having denounced the FBI and the CIA, and accused the Obama administration of wiretapping him, has launched a fight with the institutions of the "deep state"--the permanent government rooted in the intelligence and national security agencies and the Pentagon.

Leaving aside Trump's highly questionable tactic of fighting several powerful agencies at once, there is an underlying logic: An attempt to shake up the national security state in order to bend it to an aggressive, nationalist agenda. That program is reflected in Trump's proposed budget, which would savage social spending in favor of a 10 percent increase on a further military buildup--what Trump called a "public safety and national security budget."

What comes next is anybody's guess. Further exposure of the Trump crowd's connections with Russia may force others to follow Flynn out of the White House and even to jail.

On the other hand, Trump and Bannon could box in their critics in the national security establishment by confronting China--perhaps over North Korea's weapons program or through a Japan-China showdown over territorial waters. Before taking the reins in the Trump White House, Bannon predicted that the U.S. and China would fight a war within the next 10 years over islands in the South China. "There's no doubt about that," he said.

Trump and Bannon's pitch to the U.S. military and national security apparatus is straightforward: Russia is a has-been power that can be afforded minor concessions to seal an alliance. The U.S. must instead gear up for the greatest imperial challenge it has faced since the Second World War--the rise of China.

Stick with us, they say to the generals and the spies, and you'll get an endless stream of money and rising political clout. So far, the generals--if only to judge by the record number occupying top positions in the administration--seem to be preparing to carry out the program.

Because in the end, "making American great again" isn't just a Trump campaign slogan. It's the driving force of U.S. imperialism, and it has been for more than a century.

An unlikely turn of events has, for now, focused the debate on Russia, the main U.S. competitor of the last century, and the outlandish figures around Trump. But Washington's rival of the new century is China, and that's the focus of the Trump administration's drive to revive U.S. imperial power and increase its war-making capacity.