Although the article that inspired this post came out late last week, it’s rather appropriate that I’m writing it on 12 September. Before I give you the link (rejoice, Russophiles, for it is an Applebaum piece), let me set the context by taking us back to the months following 9/11. Insofar as I had access to TV at the time, it seemed a great deal of coverage was dedicated to brainstorming all the different ways terrorists could kill Americans in the US. It was as if they went to action screenwriters for expert opinions on terrorist tactics.
To be sure, the terrorists did get a bit creative around that time. After using planes as missiles, there was the infamous “shoe bomber,” for example. The anthrax letters turned out to be unrelated to Al Qaeda, but this wouldn’t become known until much later. Still, there were times when it seemed like they were just winging it in order to fill gaps in the news cycle. One example I remember was the “threat” of terrorists using emergency services vehicles in order to carry out their attacks a la Die Hard With a Vengeance. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 contains a short montage of news stories warning about exotic threats such as poison pen guns and model airplanes laden with explosives. It’s not that any of these threats were inconceivable, but they were just as possible before 9/11 as after.
This brings us to Applebaum, who apparently phoned in a piece about all the terrible things big bad Russia could do to upset or manipulate the US presidential election. At first I was thinking of answering it point-by-point, but really many of the claims are overlapping and thus I thought would be better to answer the main thrust of the piece. In general, everything centers around attempts to put the legitimacy of the US election in question via propaganda and/or hacking.
Before I take on the article I must admit that I’m just a bit disappointed in the media establishment as of late. Just earlier last week we had open mic at Foreign Policy, and here we have an award-winning journalist who is taken very seriously in political circles introducing a piece by saying “Yes, I know it sounds insane.” And as for “If the USA were Ukraine,” well, I think this Italian chef put it best:
Alright enough joking around. So in case you still haven’t read the short article, Applebaum lists a number of ways Russia could try to sabotage the election so as to make it seem illegitimate, thus leading to a propaganda coup and perhaps extreme anger from one half of the population. Let’s get one thing clear, the idea that the Kremlin is trying to have an influence on the US election is very believable. The problem is how much of an influence they can actually have. The truth is that when it comes to Trump’s base, the Kremlin’s hackers and propagandists need not lift a finger nor utter a word for those angry people to declare the election rigged or illegitimate should their candidate lose in November. Trump himself already raised the idea that the election might be rigged weeks ago. If you think these people need Russia’s help to come up with a conspiracy that explains why they and their candidate failed, you simply don’t know these people, and you might be grossly out of touch with American political reality.
Once again I think we should back up again, back to 2000 in this case. When most people think of the stealing of the 2000 election, they think of George W. Bush and the Supreme Court’s decision that effectively made him president. However, if you were on the conservative side in those days, as I was, there were accusations that Gore was trying to steal the election as well. As I remember it, the accusation you’d hear from other Republicans was that Gore wanted to recount and recount until he won. Both before and after that election you’d hear rumors about illegal aliens being organized to vote Democrat, and I guarantee you’ll hear it come this election. Where was RT back then? Where was Sputnik News? How did AM radio hosts and ordinary conservatives come up with these conspiracy theories without Putin to help them?
Now for the biggest rebuttal, let’s look at the last administration and the so-called “Birthers.” I have a step-father who most likely went to his grave sincerely believing that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and by virtue of the latter illegitimate. Anyone who remembers the Birther movement knows that a number of its leaders attempted to file lawsuits essentially arguing that Barack Obama was not the the legitimate president of the United States. To my knowledge, every such suit has been thrown out of court. This means that anyone still believing that Barack Obama is not a natural born US citizen eligible to serve in the office of the president implicitly believes that for the past eight years the presidential administration has been legitimate even if it was legally elected, and what is more, the entire court system is almost certainly corrupt and thus illegitimate. Did anyone need RT to come up with that? My late step-father had probably never heard of RT.
The point I’m getting at here is that when you’re talking about Trump’s base and the far right, you don’t need any kind of special action to get them to dispute the legitimacy of an election that doesn’t go their way. These are people who already “know” what really happened, and all the Youtube videos or viral links they share thereafter to support their claims are just justification after the fact. Just take a look at how such people react whenever there’s a terrorist attack or mass shooting, for example. Typically they’ve already declared it to be a “false flag” carried out by the US government long before the blood has even dried. Media erroneously reports something in the first few minutes of the event? False flag! A person in the background of a photo doesn’t “look right?” False flag! In short, these people don’t really place a high value on concrete evidence and critical thinking, and as such, they don’t need any kind of Russian manipulation to make them question the legitimacy of the presidential election should they lose. If Zimbabwe had an English-language news service promotig a story about Hillary rigging the vote, they’d snatch that right up and have it on their news feed in seconds.
It’s here that I get to my main problem with this piece by Applebaum, or at least the problem apart from the fact that it looks as though the thought process behind it went something like: “Dammit! I’ve got to publish another article this week about how Russia’s going to screw us.” In a word, the problem is projection.
I, like most people used to think that psychological projection just means that you constantly accuse others of doing what you actually do, as if you’re the Russian foreign minister. As it turns out, it’s not quite that. In layman’s terms, it’s basically a way of coping with uncomfortable impulses or thoughts by denying them and instead attributing them to others.
You can see this in Russia in the statements and behavior of certain government officials and celebrities. They insist that Russia has this other civilization, a true European civilization, which embodies Christian traditional values and morals unlike the decadent, decaying West that always seems to have higher standards of living and more stability for some unknown reason. But when you observe Russian society as it is, it’s clear that this idea is laughably false. It’s not that Russia is actually worse or more immoral than many other countries out there (once we exclude the activities of the government and its bureaucracy), it’s just that Russians are basically like everyone else in the world. They sometimes get drunk and act stupid in public just like American college students (I must say Russians are a lot cooler about this than Americans). They like porn. They can be consumerists and put crass materialism ahead of higher values. But when confronted with the fact that Russia is by no means morally superior to other developed countries, the self-proclaimed patriots always have an excuse- these things exist in Russia because of the West. The West makes girls want to learn to twerk and it makes boys hungry or internet porn. To be sure, many fashion trends or ideas have spread into Russia from the West and other countries, but the fact is that if Russians were truly a civilization with higher morals and an inherent aversion to such “degeneracy,” these things wouldn’t take hold in Russian society; they’d be rejected. More importantly, they wouldn’t need laws or groups of violent thugs to suppress them or weed them out. Russia is what Russia does, not what some jackass in the Ministry of Culture or the State Duma imagines it is.
Now brace yourself, readers- the same thing I just wrote about projection in Russia also applies to the United States. Ever since political pundits and policy wonks suddenly woke up to the fact that there are these Russian foreign language news outlets, they seem to have become very eager to offload responsibility for our own political dumpster fire on the Russian propaganda apparatus. Here’s a tip, my punditchiki. See all those fringe guests they have on RT and Sputnik News? They’re Americans and other Westerners. Many of them have been peddling their conspiracy theories for decades. Alex Jones started his empire of conspiratorial bullshit circa 1996, four years before Putin became president of Russia. Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film JFK was released literally weeks after the Soviet Union fell. In case you haven’t heard, there’s been something of a conspiratorial streak in American society for some time now. One fellow even called it a “paranoid style.” In 1964.
I could go on for pages and pages about how the American establishment lovingly tilled the soil and made it fertile ground for right-wing extremism, but for now I’ll keep it brief. Russia didn’t inflict Trump on us. Russia didn’t create our far right. They’re not the reason why, should Hillary win, millions of perpetually enraged Americans will be screaming about rigged voting and possibly expressing their fury through violence. This cancer on American society was one of the few things the post-industrial United States manufactured entirely on its own.
The deregulation of media made it possible for one viewpoint to dominate the AM band. Conspiracy theories started to become mainstream. During the Bush administration it became acceptable political discourse to accuse dissenters of treason. From 2008 onward we saw a return of incoherent, nonsensical red-baiting that would make Joseph McCarthy cringe. In a sense, a large part of America, as much on the left as the right in some cases, has decided that reality simply does not matter. People make their own realities. All the while the establishment either did nothing to combat this trend, or at times they encouraged it because it was politically expedient. Trump, the “alt-right,” the neo-Nazis coming out into the mainstream spotlight- they’re all just the natural consequence of a society that puts the profits and power of its top elite ahead of public good and the mental health of society.
In this sense, there is nothing Russia can do to American politics that Americans haven’t done better. All the Kremlin is doing is gathering up our garbage and dumping it back through our kitchen window. When you start engaging in projection and blaming other countries for your problems, you’re on your way to Putopia. I’m sorry, DC pundits, but Trump and his movement are an American mess, and Americans have to deal with it.
And Anne, if you need more ideas for columns just let me know. There’s always a story about someone saying something positive about Stalin somewhere in Russia, or something equally “ominous” to warn Western leaders about.