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Democrats beware: the Trump-Russia inquiry isn't the path to power

Cas Mudde

The Trump-Russia collusion story might be the talk of Washington, but it’s not the case in the rest of the country

Donald Trump with Vladimir Putin last year. Will Mueller be able to find conclusive evidence of collusion? Photograph: Jorge Silva/AFP/Getty Images

The investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential elections is the talk of the town again. Since special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians last Friday, social and traditional media have exploded with speculations about the next step, because, in the end, the only question everyone really seems to care about is whether Donald Trump was involved – and can therefore be impeached for treason.

Democratic party leaders once again reassured their followers that this was the next logical step in the inevitable downfall of Trump. And on Twitter Trump attacked everybody and everyone, from Hillary Clinton to Oprah Winfrey, to keep the topic on the agenda and spin it in his own favor.

While Democrats believe that time is on their side, this is highly doubtful. The longer the investigation lasts, the bigger the charge will have to be to justify the time and money spent. Sure, the Republicans wasted massive amounts of time and money on the Benghazi investigation, which had even less evidence to support it, but they controlled Congress. With Trump shouting “witch-hunt” and Republicans talking “waste of resources”, Mueller will have to come up with a smoking gun soon, and I’m not talking fraud or golden showers.

I seriously doubt he will. While there is no doubt that the Trump camp was, and still is, filled with amoral and fraudulent people, and was very happy to take the Russians help during the elections, even encouraging it on the campaign, I do not think Mueller will be able to find conclusive evidence that Donald Trump himself colluded with Putin’s Russia to win the elections. And that is the only thing that will lead to his impeachment as the Republican party is not risking political suicide for anything less.

Issues like immigration, taxes and health care are all considered much more important, also by most Democrats

But maybe the Democrats don’t really believe in collusion and are just riding the Russia investigation to win the next elections. After all, the Republicans kept the Benghazi investigation going for years. But the difference is they were pandering to a much more emotional base, which is more easily mobilized. And they targeted Hillary Clinton, the liberal demon that many conservatives had hated for decades.

At first sight, polls seem to indicate that the Democrats do have a potential winner in the Russia investigation. When White House spokeswomen Sarah Sanders said that “no one cares about this issue”, the Washington Post claimed to prove her wrong by showing that “nearly half – 49% – of Americans believe Trump tried to interfere with the Russia investigation in a way that amounts to obstruction of justice”. Indeed, other polls confirm that a plurality of Americans believes Trump “acted improperly when it comes to any alleged coordination between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.” But that was not Sanders’ point!

While Sanders definitely exaggerated when she said that no one cares, she did have a point when she elaborated “it’s certainly not the thing that keeps people up at nigh.”. Only 35% of Americans said that the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia should be a “top priority” for Congress. Another 18% says it should be “an important, but lower priority.” While this amounts to 53% overall, even that number was lower than that for any of the other seven issues included, with the exception of Trump’s much desired wall on the US-Mexico border.

In other words, the Russia-Trump collusion story might be the talk of the town in Washington, but this is not the case in much of the rest of the country. Just four in 10 Americans believe the Russia investigation is “extremely” or “very” important to them, while issues like immigration, taxes and health care are all considered much more important, also by most Democrats. These are the issues that will bring them out to vote, not the Russia investigation.

Unlike the Democratic Party leadership in Congress, nominally Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders does get the point. Already two months before Sanders’s statement, he said on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, “Americans are not staying up every day worrying about Russia’s interference in our election” and called upon his colleagues to “focus on the bread and butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans”. With the midterm elections less than nine months away, I hope the Democratic Party will at l(e)ast listen to him.

  • Cas Mudde is Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction and The Far Right in America

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