Stories about Kremlin trolls and Moscow hacking U.S. elections are useful scapegoats to avoid the reality of America’s deep political dysfunction
When a poorly designed app thwarted the tallying of results in last week’s Iowa Democratic caucus, it was only a matter of time before somebody blamed the chaos on Russian machinations. That somebody was Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on FBI oversight on Feb. 5. Lee told FBI Director Christopher Wray: “I hope that the Iowa Democrats will ask for an FBI investigation on the app. I believe that Russia has been engaged in and interfering with a number of our elections …”
The United States today is in the midst of a full-blown moral panic, which without exaggeration can be called the “Russia Scare.” After Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college to George W. Bush in 2000, he and the Democratic Party did not spend years claiming that the election was stolen by American traitors working with a foreign power. But that is exactly the claim that Hillary Clinton and most Democratic leaders have made since Donald Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016. The assertion that Trump is an illegitimate president who was installed thanks to Russian interference has been the underlying theme behind the Mueller investigation and the subsequent impeachment of Trump by the Democrats in the House.
According to the Russia Scare narrative that is accepted by many if not most Democrats today, Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime altered the outcome of the 2016 election in one or more ways. That Russian trolls and hackers engaged in online mischief in 2016 is a fact. What has not been established is that their activities changed or suppressed a single vote in the 2016 election.
Russia, it is claimed, hacked Democratic National Committee files and released damaging emails to the news media that showed the Clinton campaign working with the DNC to rig the 2016 Democratic primary against Clinton’s opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders. As a result, many angry former Sanders supporters either refused to vote for Clinton in the general election or cast a protest vote for third-party candidate Jill Stein, thus depriving the Democrats of the White House.
Note the theory of cause and effect: What is alleged to have turned some Democratic voters against the Clinton campaign was the exposure of the truth about behind-the-scenes efforts by high-ranking Democrats to block Bernie Sanders. The disclosures would have been equally embarrassing if the documents had been leaked by American insiders to the press. The self-serving thesis of the Democratic establishment is that American democracy would have been stronger if the reality of maneuvers to block Bernie Sanders by influential Democrats had been successfully concealed from his followers.
A related claim holds that the Kremlin suppressed the African American vote for Clinton by using internet memes to turn African Americans against Clinton. According to “Fighting Digital Disinformation,” a document by the campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren:
These disinformation efforts did not target all Americans equally: They sought to polarize and disenfranchise particular groups—chiefly Black voters. According to one report, Black voters were targeted in an effort to get them to boycott the election and focus on other methods of political engagement. Conservatives, Muslim Americans, LGBTQ+ and younger people were targeted as well, but the number of ads purchased on Facebook related to Black politics and culture or Black identity and nationalism far outstripped other audience segments.
Other than remotely controlled Russian brainwashing, it seems, there could be no explanation of why African Americans might turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in lower numbers than for Barack Obama, the first black president. This argument, which portrays African Americans as gullible and easily tricked by subliminal messaging on social media, is patronizing, if not downright racist.
Finally, the shift of several Midwestern states into the Republican camp in the electoral college is treated as a mystery that can only be explained by the success of Russian trolls in using the internet to hypnotize working-class whites in the Rust Belt, whom the purveyors of the Russia Scare would like us to believe are as vulnerable to psychological manipulation as African Americans. But the incremental shift of these voters toward the Republican Party had been going on for decades.
What is more, the heartlands of today’s trans-Atlantic populism are former manufacturing regions suffering from deindustrialization—the American Rust Belt that gave Trump his edge, the “Red Wall” in northern England responsible for the Brexit vote and Boris Johnson’s recent electoral triumph, and similar areas in France, Italy, and Germany. Are we to sense the hidden hand of the diabolical mastermind Vladimir Putin in all of these revolts? Or should we understand right-wing populism as a predictable result of the displacement of the former base of Western center-left parties like the Democrats, Labour, and Germany’s Social Democrats—unionized, native white, private sector workers—by the new metropolitan progressive coalition of upscale professional whites, minorities, and immigrants?
Like all the best conspiracy theories, the Russia Scare narrative is invulnerable to refutation—by merely questioning it, you prove that you are either a conscious agent of the conspiracy or an unwitting dupe of the conspirators. Leading mainstream Democratic politicians now routinely accuse critics and opponents on both the right and left of being Russian stooges or operatives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked in connection with President Trump: “Why do all roads lead to Putin?” Pelosi has also called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “Moscow Mitch,” implying that he is taking orders from the Kremlin.
In 2018, Hillary Clinton told Britain’s Channel 4 News: “The real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania—that is really the nub of the question.” Hillary Clinton has described both Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein as “Russian assets”: “She’s [Gabbard] the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she’s also a Russian asset.” Gabbard is suing Clinton for defamation.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself might have admired the loaded question that Sen. Warren, along with her fellow Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, and Ron Wyden, submitted to their fellow Democrats, the House managers, during President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate:
If acquitted in the Senate, what would prevent the president from continuing to side with Putin and other adversaries instead of our intelligence community and career diplomats? And what are the implications on [sic] our national security agenda if such behavior continues unchecked?
In her campaign document “Fighting Digital Disinformation,” Sen. Warren asserts without evidence that the president of the United States—who assassinated one of Iran’s highest ranking officials, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike on Jan. 3 of this year—has somehow invited Iran and China, as well as Russia, to throw U.S. elections in favor of the Republican Party:
Disinformation erodes our democracy, and Democrats must have a plan to address it. Donald Trump has welcomed foreign interference in our elections, inviting interference from a host of countries that have an interest in the outcome, including Iran and China.
Once today’s hysteria ebbs, historians of the future are likely to view the Russia Scare of 2016-20 as the latest of a series of moral panics in American history, in which adherents of one party accused their political rivals of being conscious agents of a hostile foreign power. In the 1790s and 1800s, many Federalists claimed that Jeffersonian Republicans were part of a trans-Atlantic conspiracy orchestrated by French revolutionary radicals. In the 1830s, the rise of Jacksonian populism inspired the foundation of the Anti-Masonic Party, whose members blamed Democratic victories on Masonic conspiracies. Around the same time, the Native American (“Know-Nothing”) Party viewed Catholic immigrants as pawns in a plot by the Vatican to overthrow democracy in America. A few generations later, the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion convinced industrialist Henry Ford and others of a global Jewish conspiracy.
The United States was agitated by Red Scares after World War I and in the early Cold War. The liberal historian Leo P. Ribuffo coined the term “Brown Scare” to describe moral panics based on the delusion that the United States is about to be taken over from the right by fascists. The first Brown Scare, during World War II, led to the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, in which the Roosevelt administration prosecuted 33 isolationists and minor far-right figures for sedition under the Smith Act; after the wave of hysteria ebbed, the government dropped all charges in 1946.
Even paranoids have real enemies. In every panic about foreign subversion there has been some genuine foreign subversion. Jefferson and his fellow Republicans in the 1800s were not trying to replace American democracy with bloodthirsty Jacobin dictatorship, but the French emissary Edmond-Charles Genet—“Citizen Genet”—did recruit American privateers to fight for revolutionary France and encouraged the formation of pro-French Democratic-Republican societies. Catholic immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere in the 1830s were not Jesuit-controlled secret agents, but Pope Pius IX did denounce liberalism and democracy. There really were a few Nazi spies and sympathizers in the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, even though most opponents of American intervention in World War II did not belong to either category. There were Soviet spies and agents of influence during the Cold War, and the Soviets did attempt to exploit American debates over the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and civil rights; but anti-Vietnam war activists in the United States were not Russian or Chinese communist puppets. Today, Russian internet trolls, whether for political or commercial reasons, play only a marginal role in online American political controversies without actually creating them or determining their outcomes.
“The paranoid style in American politics” is an often-repeated phrase that was the title of a famous essay by the historian Richard Hofstadter in Harper’s Magazine in 1964. But Hofstadter, by focusing on conspiracy theories by nonelite outsiders like agrarian populists, deflected attention from episodes of conspiracy-mongering among the well-educated and affluent elites of Northeastern cities. The “Know-Nothing” nativists of the Native American Party of the 19th century, for example, were not ignoramuses. They tended to be well-born Anglo-American Protestant patricians and professionals who were alarmed by the threat to their status and political power posed by Irish Americans and other European immigrants along with Southern and Western agrarians. The phrase “know nothing” does not refer to limited education. If someone was asked whether he belonged to the Native American Party by a stranger, who could be a Roman Catholic, one was supposed to say, “I know nothing of any such party” and walk away, rather like initiates of Yale’s “Skull and Bones” when asked about their membership, as legend has it.
The technocratic progressive culture of today’s metropolitan, professional class Democrats may predispose them to the belief that unlike them, less-educated Americans are vulnerable to psychological manipulation. If politics is viewed as a clash of equally legitimate interests and values, which requires compromise on all sides, then the interests and values of the well educated should have no more weight than those of the non-college-educated majority. But if politics is defined as identifying the true public interest on the basis of empirical data and pure logic, then those who disagree are likely to be seen as dangerously irrational and perhaps dupes of sinister forces at home and abroad.
Ever since the Federalist Party that dominated Congress in 1798 enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in order to prosecute and imprison editors and journalists of the rival Republican Party, unscrupulous American politicians have been quick to invoke foreign threats as an excuse to silence their critics and opponents. Long after today’s Russia Scare is a historical footnote, new moral panics about alleged foreign subversion will be manipulated by political parties for their own ends. We can hope that tomorrow’s Americans will follow the counsel of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), written at the height of the post-World War I Red Scare:
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition … But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution.