In America, it’s a case of what we know, what we don’t know and what we don’t have the right to know.
In 1966, a movie was released titled, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Exactly 50 years later, the battle cry appears to have morphed into: “The Russians have been here, or so it seems, and we’ve just noticed it, or we think we have. Now let’s do something about it.” In an era in which all information passes through the cloud, at the risk of plagiarizing an anonymous 14th century mystic, we might title this year’s remake, The Cloud of Unknowing. A fitting title for a film starring a self-identified “unpresident.”
The Russians were here. Or were they? And what was their motive? Seventeen intelligence agencies recently claim that it was not just to undermine the US election process, as they originally believed, but to elect Donald Trump. Or could the motive have been to reveal to the public that they are paying for 17 different intelligence agencies?
So how much do we know today, and how much will we end up unknowing in some ill-defined future? Because the rule of the game is that we can only know what someone else who is authorized to know tells us they know.
At his final year-end press conference on December 16, US President Barack Obama made it clear: “[A]t least some of the folks who’ve seen the evidence don’t dispute I think the basic assessment that the Russians carried this out.”
We can only admire the amount of unknowing in that statement. Let’s parse it.
“At least some of the folks” is doubly vague. “At least” literally means “not necessarily very many.” “Some” could be as few as two or three. This opens the door to imagining that, contrary to the president’s intent, most don’t share the view. This becomes even vaguer when we learn that the some in question “don’t dispute” it, which is not quite the same thing as saying they agree with it. Obama immediately follows with “I think,” which adds a new element of uncertainty.
Even the president, the one person authorized to know, finds himself clearly in the realm of either hearsay or impressions, or both. Then he reminds us that there is a “basic assessment,” which remains ambiguous unless we have an idea of what basic means. Even “assessment” isn’t clear. A basic one sounds very approximate. We are still in the cloud of the unknowing.
When we step outside the secret world of intelligence and into that of politics and the media, we discover that there’s a significant divergence of opinion, starting with the president-elect and his circle, who clearly haven’t yet made their basic assessment. Trump has already made it clear that, for all he knows (he’s only the president-elect), it could be a “400 pound guy” on his bed.
It has to be the Russians
On the other hand, some Republicans, such as John McCain (the former prisoner of war who shamefully did get captured) and Mitch McConnell, citing the damning fact that “the Russians are not our friends,” see that failure of friendship as reason enough to suppose that it had to be not just some Russians, but President Vladimir Putin himself. No other explanation is possible. To seal his case, McConnell quotes the director of national intelligence, James Clapper (a man who never lies, except occasionally under oath): “[A]nything else [any alternative hypothesis] is irresponsible, likely illegal, and potentially for partisan political gain.” Clapper apparently didn’t vote for Trump.
Then there is Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who claims that the trove of emails from the Democratic Party campaign did not originate in Russia. But like Obama and the 17 intelligence agencies, he refuses as a matter of principle to reveal his sources. The New York Times, with a little more subtlety than The Washington Post, guilty of a particularly slanderous neo-McCarthyist attempt to blacklist multiple independent media outfits, accuses Assange of playing into the hands of Putin’s Russia but states: “Among United States officials, the emerging consensus is that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services.” An associate of Assange, Craig Murray, claimed that the released emails were supplied to him personally by an unnamed disgruntled member of the campaign.
So, who agrees with whom? And what should a rational person believe? More to the point, what does this melodramatic scenario reveal about the institutions and political culture of the United States in this hyperreal period of history, apparently scripted by a madman, where celebrities win elections and lying has become the expected norm for political and media discourse?
Let’s start by listing the principal dramatis personae:
1: President-Elect Donald Trump, his cabinet, his family and his team
2: The Hillary Clinton campaign
3: The Democratic Party
4: President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama
5: The Republican Party
6: The Russians
7: What this author calls the respectable, conformist media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN and even Fox News
8: The non-conformist media
Trump’s position is simple. He won the election, it doesn’t matter how and now he can get on with the business of constructing America Inc. in his image. The Russians aren’t a problem. Neither are the Chinese because Trump is now in control and everyone will have to learn to live with him and be grateful, just as the Republican Party, after a massive resistance right up until the July convention, learned to live with him and now appears to be grateful.
Trump has an even better reason for maintaining his denial. He knows by now that he can say the most outlandish things and the only ones who will take him to task for it are those he has defeated: the “losers.” So who cares? With their lingering sense of fair play and vestigial moral scruples—something the Republicans ditched by the roadside a generation ago—the Democrats still haven’t realized how powerful this mode of reasoning has become for Trump.
In America’s competitive culture, winners will always get the benefit of the doubt, especially if they were previously in the position of the underdog, which was the case for Trump throughout the campaign. The other unwritten rule also derived from the world of sports—a rule the Democrats seem to be unaware of—is that the worst thing a loser can do is make excuses. It’s a question of dignity.
Hillary, the Clintons and the New Democrats
Hillary Clinton’s campaign and that entire wing of the party—once known as the New Democrats—need to keep hammering on the theme of Russian tampering for two reasons.
First, to deviate attention from the rather alarming practices that were revealed in the emails—practices that targeted a fellow Democrat, Bernie Sanders. Their reasoning is simple: If people focus on the scandal of Russians reading American emails, they won’t talk about the underhanded things that were done to Bernie. And that’s even more important now that Sanders, so impressive in the primaries, has a solid moral claim to take over the leadership of the party and thus marginalize the New Democrats.
The second is that having failed to convince voters on the issues, the Democrats desperately need a new theme to use in their ongoing battle against Trump and the Republicans. The clever political marketers in the Democratic Party know that a plot line in which Trump is revealed to be a Russian puppet will excite the public. In another homage to a 50-year-old movie, Paul Krugman has already called him the Siberian candidate.
This strategy holds a further advantage: They know that a number of key congressional Republicans who are not necessarily loyal to Trump will be more than willing to follow their traditional patriotic ideology and eventually join in the campaign to weaken The Donald’s hold on the Republican Party. The more aggressive the Democrats are in pursuing that line and enlisting Republicans in the effort, the more they will save face by at least appearing to exercise a role of political leadership to which they no longer have an official claim.
The Hillary Clinton campaign desperately needs to save face, having embarrassed its generous donors—the key to all future elections. Without massive funding from largely anonymous donors, American democracy in the age of Citizens United cannot work. When the suspicion of Russian interference broke late in the campaign, Hillary’s team immediately attempted to use it primarily as a means of diverting attention from the content of the emails released by WikiLeaks.
The strategy failed partly because the Obama administration and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) dragged their feet. Trusting the polls, consistently indicating a Clinton victory, they apparently didn’t feel it was necessary before the election to insist on the idea of Russian interference. After the election, along with the “betrayal” of James Comey, it remained the best possible explanation of the defeat and became even more attractive as an excuse when the results of the popular vote showed Clinton ahead by nearly 3 million votes. The Democrats could then say she won, but the election was stolen in the Electoral College by the evil Russians.
Obama is calmly preparing his future
President Barack Obama is now principally concerned about his legacy and planning what will obviously be a prosperous future for himself and his family. He now belongs to the celebrity class and is a darling of nearly all Democrats. Like Bill Clinton before him—and unlike George W. Bush—he has every reason to expect to play a key role to play in the future of the Democratic Party.
This became evident when he surprised the party stalwarts by proposing Thomas Perez, an Obama loyalist of Hispanic (Dominican) parentage, to head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Obama has thus taken the somewhat extraordinary initiative of using an establishment figure to sideline Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim and Bernie Sanders supporter, who appeared to have the job sewn up.
The clever political marketers in the Democratic Party know that a plot line in which Trump is revealed to be a Russian puppet will excite the public.
This could be a simple act of electoral marketing. Democrats believe that Hispanics hold the demographic key to future elections. Or it may be the desire to drive a wedge between the Clintonites and the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. With the party’s future up in the air, Obama expects to play a key role as a power broker.
On the specific issue of Russia’s interference in American elections, Obama has been consistently inconsistent. He appeared for a moment to see it as a theme that had meaning only for Clinton, as a way of explaining her loss. He even hinted to Trevor Noah that he considered it an insignificant distraction. But he now appears to see the possibility for the Democrats to capitalize on the general mood of indignation that the media and the political class outside of Trump’s circle have raised.
The future of a temporarily sidelined Democratic Party
The Democratic Party thus finds itself in an existential quandary. Does this election in which all three branches of government have been lost to the Republicans signify the failure and probable demise of the New Democrats, a movement set in motion by President Bill Clinton?
The New Democrats had, over the past 25 years, successfully pushed the party’s orientation toward the center-right and away from the center-left. Have they lived out their shelf-life? On the other hand, if the defeat appears as simply the result of the party’s tactical mistake of gambling on the Clinton name, can they regroup around Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama loyalists?
Their biggest claim to shame is the fact that they bet on Hillary, knowing she was deeply unpopular, and lost. The Sanders faction and the entire millennial generation of Democrats will never forgive them for that miscalculation—especially as Clinton was defeated by an even more unpopular candidate.
In the meantime, Sanders has been very active in the media since the election, suggesting a move on his part, possibly in tandem with Elizabeth Warren, to assume leadership over the party and push the official party line back to the center-left. Keith Ellison’s candidacy for head of the DNC is a key factor. The Clintons and other New Democrats will need to score major points with the Russian excuse to maintain their own credibility within the party.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party now holds a theoretical monopoly on the reins of power. But it may be an illusion. Party traditionalists are still asking the question: “Is Trump really a Republican?” If the Democrats are confused by defeat, the Republicans are bewildered by victory. Can Trump define and apply a set of policies that resonate with the traditional Republican ideology of small government, limited public investment, strong family and community values?
There are good reasons to believe that Trump will use his presidential platform to pay lip service to the traditional rhetoric of the party, while at the same time construct a mode of governance that tends toward the authoritarian and the cult of the personality. If that happens, we must wonder whether traditional Republicans won’t be tempted to revolt and use their control of Congress, seconded by Democrats, to rein Trump in or even eventually encourage—though not initiate—his impeachment on grounds of conflict of interest.
That is the biggest chink in Trump’s armor. The opportunities to neutralize or even oust Trump will abound. But it will be incumbent on the Democrats to exploit them and take the initiative of impeaching Trump. If, however, Trump manages to avert a confrontation, the challenge for Republicans will be to find a way of recovering their control of the party and the political program while allowing Trump to remain in office. Some of it depends on the level of motivation or even of courage on the part of Republican legislators. Some of it depends on Trump’s capacity of resistance.
The question of Russian interference in the election crystallizes this potential guerrilla war within the Republican Party. Barely hidden behind the issue of Russian espionage—which has the Democrats screaming with patriotic indignation—is the question of Trump’s business interests with Russia. It will undoubtedly come to the fore in the Senate hearings on Rex Tillerson’s nomination for secretary of state. But it will continue to spill over into the ongoing political debate as the links between politics and Trump’s myriad business interests begin emerging on a regular basis. The media are already preparing for the predictable tsunami that must follow November’s earthquake.
Despite serious criticism from the left that has weakened its moral authority, WikiLeaks has proved to be a remarkably stable institution. In particular Glenn Greenwald, a prominent champion of whistle blowing, has lambasted Julian Assange for showing political bias in what he has characterized as a vendetta against Hillary Clinton. Paradoxically, on the right, Trump and Sean Hannity seem to appreciate WikiLeaks’ “objectivity,” its capacity to have a real impact on events, derived from its commitment to raw (and, therefore, true) news as opposed to fake news. Nothing it has published has been tarnished by an accusation of falsehood or fakery. That explains why the Democrats were forced to blame Russia rather than WikiLeaks itself for the release of the emails.
WikiLeaks now claims publicly that its source was not the Russians, but an operative of the DNC. And though Julian Assange refuses to reveal its sources—a fundamental condition for its continuing activity—this contradiction of the CIA has managed to sow some doubt, not about Russian hacking, which practically everyone believes to be normal, but about the probable motive for leaking and publishing the emails.
If the source was domestic as Assange claims, the scandal may even be compounded by the mysterious assassination of Seth Rich, who was murdered in Washington, DC in July. The police called it a botched robbery, but nothing was actually stolen. This has provided fodder for conspiracy theories, but given Craig Murray’s latest claim to have received the files from an American in Washington, DC, unless it is solved by the police or some kind of official commission, it will likely remain as an element of doubt that will bolster WikiLeaks’ credibility in the future.
The Russian government of course denies any involvement, although everyone believes with good reason that Moscow—like Washington—conducts hacking on a regular basis, wherever and whenever they can. After all, we know that the Americans have hacked the cellphones of Angela Merkel, François Hollande and probably every other head of state around the globe. We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised to learn that the American intelligence agencies claim to have found proof that the Russians did hack the servers in question.
But two questions remain unanswered. If they did hack the servers, were the Russians the ones who fed these hacks to WikiLeaks? And if they were the source, was it, as the CIA now claims, with the specific intention to influence the election in favor of Trump? But supposing that the Russians actually were the source for WikiLeaks, another possible explanation is that the Russians weren’t batting for Trump but on behalf of the dissident Democrat, Bernie Sanders.
RT (Russia Today), the English-speaking TV channel funded by the Russian government, routinely gives a voice to dissident but intellectually independent American journalists, thinkers and entertainers such as Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein or the political comic Lee Camp, who throughout the primaries were overwhelmingly favorable to Sanders over Clinton but who have no patience and even less respect for Trump. They were all clamoring for proof of bias at the DNC. On the Republican side, even if they were also hacked, no one suspected that the Republican National Committee (RNC) was engaging in underhanded tricks to nominate Trump.
In an ABC report on the Russian response to the current brouhaha about tampering with the election, Russian journalist Mariya Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, pertinently remarked: “What has happened is an American problem. We in Russian did not invent Donald Trump for you.”
She has a point. The US is faced with the monumental problem of coming to grips with the embarrassing question of how the nation allowed a shady, prevaricating businessman like Trump even to be considered for the presidency, let alone elect him.
The respectable establishment media
This includes The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN and even Fox News, which may actually be becoming at least moderately respectable after the departure of Roger Ailes. The theme of Russian interference in the sacred electoral institutions of the United States is a story to run with for all of them. Commercial media will always look for the easy way out to boost their ratings. Fear of the threatening Russian bear is a trustworthy, time-tested theme for the press and the media. Even a weak case for accusing Russia makes for great headlines and draws in eager readers and viewers.
The Washington Post has taken the lead in the “Russia’s the culprit” campaign, with most of the other media obediently and self-interestedly following suit. It has become the mainstream media flavor of the month for two reasons.
The first is that people respond to an atavistic fear of Russia inherited from the Cold War. The second is more subtle and more topical: This story of foreign skullduggery provides an opportunity to continue milking the drama of an extraordinarily bizarre election a full six weeks after the election has taken place. It has created an artificial suspense beyond that of the election’s result, the idea that there’s still a chance Trump may be disqualified or ousted even before his inauguration in January.
The sad truth is that everything in The Washington Post’s assault on Russia in defense of fair elections rings hollow. In an in-depth examination of how the story has unfolded in the week before Christmas, Richard Gizbert at Al Jazeera accuses The Washington Post of “treating an allegation from an anonymous source as fact.” One analyst cited in the same program, Kevin Ryan of the Harvard Kennedy School, warns us readers that they “have to be careful … to understand that this is being filtered by two different groups—one is the person relaying the information, the other is The Washington Post.”
In the same program, Gizbert reminds us that “in 1996 … US operatives openly took credit for stage-managing the election of Boris Yeltsin,” pointing out that it was the object of a cover story in Time magazine. So, the US actually had “brains on the ground” to fix a Russian election. Wouldn’t this be the appropriate time for The Post and The New York Times to recognize and highlight a double standard? But that’s old news and we must think of today’s readers. The public wouldn’t be able to process that kind of contradiction. They might even drop their indignant rage.
The non-conformist media
There are numerous non-conformist media outlets in the US that operate principally through the internet, though none that can seriously compete with corporate media to the point of influencing the talking points of the entire nation on any political, social or cultural issue. Online magazines such as The Huffington Post, Salon and Slate reach a wide audience and publish a variety of points of view, often provocative, but also tend to follow if not always conform to certain mainstream trends. And, of course, they appeal to an unrepresentative elite readership.
Ben Swann at CBS46 produces pithy and entertaining “reality checks” concerning themes in the news. He makes an important point in this one. “If the accusation is that the Russians are trying to influence the election by telling the truth, then what does that tell us about how the American media is trying to influence the election?” Often forgotten in this debate, is how the result of elections depend on different types of manipulation by the media.
The Intercept is a special case. Strongly marked by the anti-establishment investigative journalism of Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Cahill, The Intercept stands out as a truth-seeking journal with a strong editorial line that can be qualified as muckraking. It has been very active exposing through careful analysis the bias of The Washington Post and other mainstream promoters of the Russia scare. It sets very high standards. Whereas Greenwald was one of the first champions of WikiLeaks in the past, The Intercept has recently been boldly critical of WikiLeaks, accusing it of political bias.
The Intercept also takes the trouble to create perspective. Concerning the Russian scare, Jeremy Scahill and Jon Schwarz in a recent article in The Intercept remind us of the reality of politics: “HERE ARE TWO of political history’s great constants: first, countries meddling in the internal affairs of others (both enemies and “friends”); and, second, bogus charges from a faction in one country that foreigners are meddling in its internal affairs to help another faction.” In other words, the whole story is about business as usual.
On the other hand, Mattathias Schwartz also writing in the Intercept has taken the position that on the basis of what we do know about Russian hacking, we should be shocked to the point of demanding that the result of the election be called into question, leaving the possibility for the Electoral College to select a different candidate. We now know that the Electoral College has done otherwise.
In other words, outside of the mainstream media, the debate is alive and open to new hypotheses, examination of context and nuanced consideration of strategies. Russia is neither demonized nor adulated. Putin is neither assumed to be in cahoots with Trump nor disinterested with regard to American party politics. Russia’s actions are calmly analyzed in the context of history.
Make the Cold War Great Again
During the campaign, Donald Trump evoked an ill-defined golden age when America was deemed great. He implied that it may have been the 1950s, during his own childhood, when the middle class was expanding. It was an era when operators such as his father, Fred Trump, could exploit the spreading wealth to become multimillionaires, on the way to The Donald’s becoming a bona fide member of the new billionaire class.
The 1950s were indeed an age of prosperity for the white majority. They were also marked by the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the drama of McCarthyism at home. It was still the age of Jim Crow, a decade before the apogee of the Civil Rights Movement.
The paradox today is that Trump, the Republican, has been cast in the role of the suspect accomplice of the Russians, while the Democrats are playing the role of McCarthyites, crying scandal and seeking to root out the subversives, including Russian sympathizers on the left who appear united with a single goal: undermining American democracy. The paradox is further complicated by the fact that the subversive act at the heart of the scandal consisted of revealing the naked truth about how one American political party played fast and loose with the principles of democracy.
Such complexity and shifting of roles can only be confusing for a public that likes things reduced to a simple binary opposition. Trump won the presidency by simplifying his discourse to a few slogans and promising action while refusing to give detailed plans on concrete issues. All that was required for America’s return to greatness was to trust him—the proudly politically incorrect businessman—to get things done. To the amazement of Democrats, Trump’s voters not only ended up trusting an obvious liar to be the leader who could make the kinds of decisions that will get things done, but they also trusted him not to carry out many of the appalling promises he made, just to bring extremist voters to the polling booths.
The Democrats, after losing the election, belatedly acknowledged the value of both nostalgia for an ill-defined past and the attraction of simplified discourse in our hyperreal political world. They have come to see the value of exploiting the idea of a return to the 1950s, this time to revive the Cold War mentality. They have returned to the familiar enemy, Russia, but this time, not as the menace of an opposing ideology, collectivist communism, but in the form of a single and singular villain: Vladimir Putin, the evil genius who has successfully struck at the heart of our democratic processes, putting an orange-faced impostor on the throne.
It’s Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago. The message is simple: “Take democracy back from the Russians.” That’s a message even the electors in the Rust Belt should be able to understand—a message that will bring them back into the Democratic fold where they rightfully belong.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Scyther5