So did the Russians hack the election, and if so, why, and did Trump collude with them?
Here’s what I think will come out of the Russia story when we finally get to the bottom of it.
Did the Russians hack the election? It depends on what the meaning of “hack” is.
They didn’t break into voting systems and change votes. They didn’t break into voter registration files and add or delete voters.
They did break into voter registration files and download them, and then used the information in them, together with other personal and demographic information obtained legally and illegally, to target voters with fake news and dezinformatsiya or disinformation or fabricated information.
The principal instrument for disseminating the dezinformatsiya was the internet and social media.
The Russians hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and downloaded thousands of e-mails, which they released through Wikileaks and scores of websites and social media accounts, some of which they created themselves. Some of the e-mails contained real information, which was used to compromise the Clinton campaign and sully the Democratic Party’s brand. The Russian term for such material is kompromat or compromising material. Some of these e-mails were fake and formed the basis for fake news. Mixing fake e-mails with real e-mails gave the fakes credibility.
However, the Russians worked both sides of the street. They hacked the computers of the Republican National Committee as well, but evidently didn’t find much useful information in them for compromising Trump. So they made up fake defamatory information, which they released through the Russia dossier.
Like the dezinformatsiya on Clinton, the dezinformatsiya on Trump was distributed primarily through the internet and social media.
Why did the Russians do it?
It wasn’t to elect Trump, as the Democrats fervently would like to believe.
Here’s the important point: The Russians weren’t particularly concerned over who won the election, and they were probably as surprised by Trump’s victory as the Democrats were. Their real goal wasn’t to pick a winner who they could manipulate.
Their real goal was to destabilize the United States — by polarizing the country to the point where it couldn’t function in a politically stable way and would even begin breaking up, as the former Soviet Union did (more about that in a moment).
The principal target of the attack was America’s unwritten constitutional concept — the concept of the loyal opposition.
Although it isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, the concept of the loyal opposition is what makes the American system of government work.
The concept holds that those who are out of power and politically opposed to those who are in power are not enemies of the state, but are loyal citizens who participate in governing by participating in the legislative process.
The concept requires that winners do not treat the losers as traitors or enemies, show a decent respect for their ideas, refrain from rejecting them out of hand, and make a good faith effort to fashion compromises that give both the majority and the minority factions some ownership in the outcome. The concept also requires the losers to accept the role of the loyal opposition.
That’s the way the system is supposed to work.
But if the country becomes sufficiently polarized, the system breaks down and the losers reject the role of the loyal opposition and become something else — The Resistance.
Being The Resistance is different from being the loyal opposition. You start by rejecting the legitimacy of the regime you’re opposing, regardless of how it got into power.
Once you have rejected the legitimacy of the government you do everything you can to prevent it from governing and attempt to remove it from power by using all available means. The government then starts doubting the loyalty of the losers.
The Russians probably expected Hillary would win and Trump voters would turn themselves into the resistance. In the end, Trump won and it was the Democrats. Putin can live with that.
Russian efforts to destabilize the United States may have extended to stirring up secessionist sentiment as well.
Consider the California secession affair.
Shortly after the election, a California secession movement called Yes California got its 15 minutes of fame. The movement sought to put an initiative on the 2018 California ballot that would repeal the provision of the state constitution that declares “California is an inseparable part of the United States of America, and that the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land.” The proposal also called for a second statewide vote on actual secession in March 2019.
In the weeks following the 2016 election, the proposal was getting some traction. A Reuters-Ipsos poll found that about one-third of the state’s population supported the idea of California leaving the U.S.
But the secessionist balloon deflated after it emerged that the leader of the Yes California movement, Louis J. Marinelli, lived in Russia and had ties to a organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia that supports various secessionist movements around the world with the support of the Russian government.
Russian interest in the possibility of the U.S. breaking up considerably pre-dates Marinelli. Igor Panarin, a former KGB analyst and the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s academy for future diplomats, has been predicting the breakup of the United States since the 1990s.
While the prediction didn’t pan out — the breakup was supposed to have happened by 2011 — the Russians may have concluded that the conditions that Panarin thought could lead to it were real enough, and it could still be triggered with a helping or two of dezinformatsiya intended to “deepen the contradictions” of the U.S. system — delivered via the internet and social media to targeted demographic cohorts.
As for whether or not team Trump colluded with the Russians, chances are they pricked up their ears when they were offered Russian kompromat, but concluded there wasn’t any point in colluding since the Russians were papering the internet with the stuff already. Chances are operatives in the Clinton campaign responded similarly to the dirt and kompromat the Russians were dangling before them as well.
The really important thing to come out of — OK, lets use the term — Russiagate is that the internet and social media can be used by unfriendly powers to corrupt American politics.
The internet has given every person on the planet a global stage on which to strut the content of their minds — including the content of their ids.
What the election generally and the Russian hacking in particular has shown is how the internet can be used to politicize and weaponize the collective power of individual ids in ways never thought possible.
Come 2018 this sort of stuff will be the new normal. And chances are you ain’t seen nothing yet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.