The US political and media establishment is in a state of mounting frenzy over alleged Russian interference in the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. The source of what has been called a “swell” of “circumstantial evidence” is the CIA, an agency which has been known to interfere with an election or two itself, and isn’t really a paragon of honesty.
And what exactly are the claims made by these Putin-did-it stories? That were it not for Russian chicanery, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by five million and not almost three million? That displaced machinists on the banks of Lake Erie were so incensed by the Podesta emails that they voted for Trump instead of Clinton? That Putin was pulling FBI director James Comey’s strings in his investigation of the Clinton emails? That those scheming Russians were clever enough to hack into voting machines but not clever enough to cover their tracks?
It’s strangely reminiscent of the days of the Red scare, minus the Reds.
"It’s probably a near-universal feature of human psychology that it’s easier to blame others for our problems than look inward for their origins."
Each of those questions opens up an interesting line of inquiry. Though it’s not gone unremarked upon, the fact that the loser of the popular vote has won the election for the second time in 16 years is an entirely home-grown disgrace. It would be nice if we spent at least as much time talking about how the electoral college, a bizarre institution originally designed to protect the power of slaveholders, perverts democracy. But it is widely considered an immutable feature of our political system.
Julian Assange denies that the Russian government was the source of the hacked emails to and from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta that WikiLeaks published. Of course, there’s no way of knowing if he’s telling the truth – but regardless of their source, how much influence did they have on the election outcome?
We can never know, but it sure seems like only a handful of connoisseurs read through them. And those who did discovered precisely how cynical and empty the Clinton operation was, like the moment where campaign manager Robby Mook asks Podesta and several other senior operatives “where we landed exactly on trade. Is she going to say she supports it?” (“it” presumably being the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Clinton supported as secretary of state but came to oppose for electoral reasons).
The displaced machinists in the industrial midwest, whose votes helped put Trump in the White House, believe that free trade deals are responsible for their economic woes and they never trusted Clinton’s turn against the TPP. But that was Clinton’s campaign for you, bereft of principle and pathologically concerned with “optics” at the expense of substance.
They were so confident of their inevitable victory that they wrote off the old industrial states in favor of luring upscale suburbanites who normally vote Republican. They hoped they would be so revolted by Trump that they would vote for her, but they didn’t.
It’s easy to blame the FBI for the trouble that the private email server scandal caused the Clinton campaign, but the decision to set that up was hers and no one else’s. It was entirely consistent with her long history of secrecy, of trying to evade public scrutiny for her actions, one of the reasons that so many people dislike her.
Of course there are questions about our voting machines. The American balloting system is a chaotic mess, with an array of state and local authorities conducting elections under a vast variety of rules using technologies ranging from old-fashioned paper ballots to sleek touch-screen devices.
The former take forever to count, and the latter are unauditable – we can have no idea whether the counts are accurate. The whole system is a perfect example of a quote attributed (probably falsely) to Joseph Stalin: “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” It’s not a system that inspires trust, but we barely discuss that.
It’s probably a near-universal feature of human psychology that it’s easier to blame others for our problems than look inward for their origins. Democrats would rather point to shady foreign operators than think about why Clinton will not be the one taking the oath on 20 January.
The establishment Republicans who’ve joined the bandwagon demanding inquiries into Russian interference apparently prefer that, too. It’s better than figuring out how their party nominated a volatile loose cannon who will become president in a little more than a month.
And Americans across the political spectrum are happy to use Putin to distract them from reflecting on how baseless our self-image as the world’s greatest democracy is. But as with many psychological defenses, these sorts of evasions are very damaging to long-term health.