Not content with three years spent peddling a theory about Donald Trump conspiring with the Russians to win the US presidency, the Democrats are summoning the ghost of Joseph McCarthy to attack their own. In a 17 October interview with podcaster David Plouffe, failed 2016 presidential candidate and party heavyweight Hillary Clinton described Democratic presidential primary candidate Tulsi Gabbard as “the favourite of the Russians”.

“[They’re] grooming her to be the third-party candidate”, Clinton said. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.” It is not clear why Clinton chose to publicly smear Gabbard, who is languishing in the polls. But it is likely related to her stated opposition to US “regime change wars” and her previous criticisms of the party for conspiring against Bernie Sanders (who has also been called a Russian operative) when he was Clinton’s competitor for the Democratic nomination in 2016.

For 2016’s biggest loser, Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints are everywhere. “That’s assuming [former Green Party candidate] Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset – I mean, totally”, Clinton told Plouffe. It is almost as if you don’t like corrupt, corporate neoliberal imperialism, then there’s something treacherous, even treasonous, about you.

On the same day, House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference that “all roads lead to Putin” after a confrontational meeting with Trump. The senior Democrat has given the go-ahead to impeachment inquiries into the president over a July phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump is alleged to have threatened to withhold military aid. “It undermines our national security”, Pelosi said. “We were sending that military assistance because Ukraine needs that vis-à-vis Russia.”

“Moscow meddling” is a useful line for a party hostile to any interference into the status quo of US capitalism. The Democratic Party is a machine for corporate and imperial power, funded by Big Pharma and Silicon Valley billionaires, and tightly controlled by committees of their loyal servants. Clinton, the face of this machine, was perhaps the only candidate who could have lost the 2016 election to Trump – a billionaire rapist pretending to take on the establishment.

The spectre of Russian interference in the election was the perfect excuse for such a humiliation. The problem wasn’t that most of the population was not interested in more of the same – poverty, endless war and politicians treating the country like their personal feeding trough; the problem was that the USA’s sacred institutions of power were profaned by an army of foreign Facebook trolls.

But as Clinton’s slanders show, the Russia obsession doesn’t stop with attacks on Trump. The Democratic leadership is trying to discipline the party’s challengers, arguing that anyone who threatens to “split the vote” against Trump is doing the work of the USA’s global enemies. As Matt Taibbi pointed in Rolling Stone on 21 October:

“Everyone is foreign scum these days. Democrats spent three years trying to prove Donald Trump is a Russian pawn. [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell is ‘Moscow Mitch’. Third party candidates are a Russian plot. The Bernie Sanders movement is ... the beneficiary of an ambitious Russian plot to ‘stoke the divide’ within the Democratic Party ... [I]ndependents attracted to the mild antiwar message of Tulsi Gabbard are likewise traitors and dupes for the Kremlin. If you’re keeping score, that’s pretty much the whole spectrum of American political thought, excepting MSNBC Democrats. What a coincidence!”

The Democratic debates have been dominated by health care. According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll in August, 70 percent of the population supports Medicare for All. The resuscitation of the Russia question helps to push the demand out of the spotlight and into some back room where the Democratic National Convention can kill it quietly. In a country where 44 million people lack health insurance, it won’t be that easy. But there’s nothing to gain for working people in a fight around foreign interference.

Trump’s extreme nationalist agenda is not challenged one whit by the Democrats’ panic that “the Russians are coming”. Nor is mourning the desecration of the great institutions of US power. But that’s what makes this patriotic angle so useful for the Democratic Party: if all roads lead to Putin, then perhaps the world will drive right by as the Democratic establishment sails back into the White House, where it can, like Trump, carry on robbing the poor to feed the rich.