Let’s kill the aiding-and-abetting meme once and for all!

By Robert Wright, Apr 25 2020

This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers. 

The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it: 

Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. 

OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:

But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. 

I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.   

1. The passage makes no sense. If I understand Packer correctly, he’s saying that Trump “collaborated with”… a virus? Collaborating with another being means helping it in exchange for its helping you. Does Packer really mean that Trump wanted the virus to kill lots of Americans and tried to facilitate that? (Leaving aside the question of whether the virus fully comprehended the terms of the deal, as befits a true collaborator.)

Look, I wouldn’t put it past Trump—or lots of other politicians—to countenance mass death for the sake of political gain. But there are so many reasons to doubt this particular evil-genius scenario (beginning with the genius part) that I won’t waste time listing them.  

Maybe I’m being pedantic. Isn’t a gifted writer allowed to deploy metaphors loosely? Indeed, doesn’t Packer get extra points for his sly creativity? After all, he managed to hint that Trump has Nazi sympathies while putting this innuendo in such an absurd context that no one can reasonably demand that he defend it! Shouldn’t I cut Packer some slack, especially since he and I are both on the anti-Trump team?

No, no, no! No mercy! That’s my point—I’ve been driven all the way to a zero-tolerance policy. And, yes, I realize that it still may not be clear to you why my reaction to Packer’s piece is so extreme. Which leads to reason number two: 

2. The author of Packer’s piece is Packer. George Packer was among the prominent liberal hawks who famously and influentially advocated the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. You may ask: But isn’t 17 years long enough to forgive and forget? Forgive yes, forget no. If we want to avoid such blunders in the future, we have to remember the things that led to them. One such thing was enslavement to an American-o-centric view of the world—specifically, failing to consider how invasion and occupation might be perceived by the various different groups that constituted the Iraqi nation. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that someone who failed to adequately ponder that question is a promiscuous deployer of the aiding-and-abetting meme. Because…. 

3. The aiding-and-abetting meme is routinely deployed to discourage departing from an American-o-centric view of the world. For example: 

In 2004, Jonathan Steele, writing in the Nation, tried such a departure. He argued that an election in Ukraine viewed by Americans as “a struggle between freedom and authoritarianism” was more complicated than that; the candidate America was supporting by bankrolling websites and radio stations and deploying political strategists was actually opposed by lots of Ukrainian voters. And, Steele noted, America’s attempt to sway the election, viewed from Moscow, didn’t look like an innocent exercise in democracy promotion. Steele opined that “Ukraine has been turned into a geostrategic matter not by Moscow but by Washington, which refuses to abandon its Cold War policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet Republic into its orbit.” 

A writer in the New Yorker, rather than try to dispute that claim (as would ideally happen in reasoned debate), deployed the aiding-and-abetting meme. He noted that this piece in the Nation aligned with the views of one Vladimir Putin and said that the Nation was “once again taking the Russian side of the Cold War.” And the New Yorker writer who said that was…George Packer! 

By then—nearly two years after the Iraq invasion—Packer was having second thoughts about the wisdom of the invasion, yet he hadn’t abandoned the perspective that led to it. He was still determined not to see things from the point of view of America’s adversaries—so determined, apparently, that he wanted to stigmatize people who tried such a thing. 

Packer and his ilk carried the day. Fully a decade later, America was still trying to sway elections in Ukraine, and the average member of the American foreign policy establishment (aka The Blob) was still unable to imagine how this might look from Moscow. In 2014, when a democratically elected Ukrainian president supported by Russia was deposed under threat of violence, fled the country for his life, and was replaced by a government led by a man who had been hand-picked by the US for that role, American foreign policy elites celebrated as if we had just witnessed democracy in action.

Putin was less thrilled. He responded by occupying and annexing Crimea and supporting violent separatists in eastern Ukraine, thus condemning Ukraine to its current tortured state. This reaction shocked Americans more than it would have if people like Steele had been taken seriously rather than marginalized by people like Packer.

And so it goes in American political discourse. If you raise questions about, say, the wisdom of America’s arming rebels in Syria, you are an Assad sympathizer and a Putin stooge. If you argue that engagement with China makes sense in spite of its human rights record and its lack of transparency (oops, I meant to say, its cover up) during the first phase of the Covid contagion—well, obviously, your allegiances are suspect. 

It’s testament to the power of the aiding-and-abetting trope that this latest version of it is being harnessed by both sides in the presidential campaign. On the one hand is the suggestion—made by Trump and some of his supporters—that Joe Biden is a servant of China’s conniving rulers, and on the other hand is the suggestion—made by Biden and some of his supporters—that Trump is a servant of China’s conniving rulers. So we can look forward this campaign season to an arms race of Chinaphobia at a time when various challenges—like fighting a pandemic without ushering in a global depression—call for international cooperation.

Which brings us, finally, to a few kind words about George Packer. I guess he deserves credit for suppressing any temptation to join this arms race, to play the China card against Trump.  

But what does it say that this suppression seems to have become sublimation—that the impulse to deploy the aiding-and-abetting meme was so strong that, denied one kind of expression, it just surfaced in new and bizarre form, as an accusation of collaboration with a virus

I think that’s what sent me over the edge: the thought that this primitive, tribalistic rhetorical tactic, which by all rights should have been discarded forever on the glorious day that Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate, remains as stubborn and hard to eradicate as, say, the virus Trump is allegedly collaborating with. 

I’m not calling for an end to discussion of foreign influence on American politics. It's fine, for example, to point out that various foreign interests try to steer American policy to their ends. But these discussions should involve high standards of evidence, should avoid gratuitous personal attacks, and should always coexist with an awareness that the US, too, tries to steer policy in other countries to its ends. 

What should be strenuously avoided—and called out when it appears—is the use of cheap emotionalism to constrict our field of vision, to imprison us in the American-o-centric solipsism that has brought much death and suffering, has failed to serve America’s interests, and that, nonetheless, continues to guide American foreign policy.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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