Assange is just the latest Donald Trump satellite to face criminal charges, after Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and others. The question cannot be avoided: What about the ringleader himself? It must be counted an irony of history that a sizable fraction of dyed-in-the-wool leftists, assisted by a few preposterous libertarians, who labored to turn Assange—and later Edward Snowden—into folk heroes during the Obama administration found themselves cheering Trump and lauding his “socialist” principles. It is fitting and proper that Assange answer for his crimes, but Trump presents a larger political problem that mere criminal justice cannot solve.
The Trump-Assange fringe has found its primary cause in the rejection of “American empire” and has been sympathetic to America’s enemies around the world. Bizarrely for a movement proclaiming fidelity to transparent government, it has greeted with enthusiasm and even active support Vladimir Putin’s hostility to free government, sabotage of democracy in the West, subversion of democracy in (and war on) Ukraine, and extinguishing of democracy in Russia. (Little wonder that ever since Snowden quit his country with his ill-gotten goods, he has enjoyed a welcome refuge in Putin’s Russia.)
Anti-communist crusaders like Richard Nixon used to accuse their political opponents of being “pink”—i.e., half “red,” or sympathetic to communism. It is remarkable that one of the most consequential allies of the anti-American reactionary left leads the American right. Before Trump’s ascendancy, the Republican party championed American global leadership. Now it’s an illiberal cult espousing the narrow nationalist themes of “America First.” Trump’s political movement remains committed to the ruination of America’s institutions and the retreat of its global influence. Under his sway, the Republican party views Joe Biden as a greater threat to the country than Putin’s Russia. Far from believing, as Republican presidents used to believe, that America was and ought to be a beacon of democracy in the world, Trump’s Republicans are intent on destroying democracy at home while admiring foreign scourges like Viktor Orbán.
The alliance between the reactionary left and the unhinged right has sought to corrupt the American republic and inhibit its power in the world. It should come as no surprise that the greatest opponents of American activism on the world stage are also the most corrosive to its internal politics: At its noblest, America’s foreign policy is based, however imperfectly, on the principles of freedom and democracy. Although not guided entirely by altruistic considerations, U.S. foreign policy is beyond comparison with the paranoid, vicious realpolitik that characterizes Russian or Chinese behavior in the world. It is the distinctly American internationalism, blending realism with idealism—coercion against despots and a basic concern for human rights—that leaves the new left and the old right out of sorts.
Both Assange and Trump—the two were practically teammates in 2016—are unburdened by any thoughtful consideration of the national interest and lack any moral constraints in the pursuit of their overriding objectives—the end of American hegemony and personal enrichment at the expense of the country, respectively. Assange faces charges as a dangerous foreign agent for attacking the republic from without as Trump subverted it from within.
Assange evidently aspires to live in a world without authority and in which no country (save, one imagines, his Russian benefactors) can act to protect its interests. The proper response to foreign agents who filch official secrets and interfere with elections is to arraign them for judgment before a court of law.
Trump, too, evidently aspires to live in a world without any authority but his own, or those of his role models: Putin, Xi, Kim, and his “favorite dictator,” Sisi. In this sense, Trump’s first impeachment—over withholding foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for personal political favors—revealed the same deep-seated contempt for democracy that was on display in his second impeachment. The proper response to such anti-democratic politicians is for responsible parties and citizens to pass them over.
The cause of democracy and the rule of law will soon be offered two opportunities, one legal and the other political. In short order, Assange will find himself in an American courtroom, answering for his outrages. And voters will have another opportunity to reject Trump—or whoever is elevated by the anti-democratic faction ascendant on the right—at the voting booth.
In the realm of law and of politics, legitimate power finds itself under several forms of overt and covert attack. Its partisans dare not squander the opportunity to offer it a vigorous defense.