Does the Russian Hack Matter?
When the Facts Get Sacrificed to Politics
Back in July, when it was first reported that Russians may have been hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), I wrote about how there might indeed be an effort by the Russian government to tamper with the U.S. presidential election. Various people on both the left and the right suggested that this was not just wrong, but irresponsibly naive for believing flimsy, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. The irony here is that many other crazy theories are taken seriously, especially on the right — for instance, that Hillary Clinton was actively running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. The left had its own set of conspiracy theories about wealthy individuals secretly controlling society (though the right and the left sometimes merged on this issue, as with Trump’s final campaign ad about the cabal of international [read: Jewish] bankers who use their puppets, like Clinton, to rule over the U.S.). In contrast, my theories were pedestrian and my factual claims modest. I was simply suggesting that the reports of Russian hacking on behalf of Trump were worthy of examination.
From the left, I was accused of “left McCarthyism” for thoughtlessly invoking the old, tired stigma of Russian communism; and from the right, I was sent hate mail about how I was resisting Donald Trump as a credible candidate. I got whip-sawed.
It remains contested whether Putin, Russia, Russians from outside the government, or anyone in the U.S. outside (or even inside) the DNC hacked any emails. You would think we might be able to at least agree on something that happened here. But evidently that is not the case. There was much discussion in the press that the hacking was designed to undermine Clinton, who was widely known not to be a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. Further reporting suggested that regardless of Putin’s feelings about Clinton there was evidence that the hacking was to help Trump win and that Trump’s campaign was in touch with the Kremlin. In a December press conference, President Obama stated that he had talked to Putin during the campaign and told him to “cut it out.”
Now, Obama has imposed sanctions on Russia and released a report purporting to show evidence of the Russian hacking, while promising a more complete report will be released before he steps down from the Presidency.
So the theory still lives on. Putin’s Russia may have indeed hacked the election to help defeat Clinton and enable Trump to win the presidency. If true, the U.S. must deal with the consequences. It is incredibly disturbing that our presidential elections might have been subject to foreign manipulation, and we as a people need to find out to what extent it was happening and what we should do about it to preserve the integrity of our election system. The consequences for U.S. democracy could not be greater.
But many people do not want to hear it, the consequences to democracy be damned. Many people, on both the left and the right, seem not to be willing to allow this disturbing and disorienting development to disrupt their preferred narrative: that Clinton was a failed candidate which now requires the Democratic Party to move left; or that Trump was a legitimate leader whose successful bid to stand up for America is not an accident of Russian intervention. It sometimes sounds as if people across the political spectrum would prefer not to take the issue seriously, so as to further their political objectives to either repudiate the neoliberal Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, or to affirm Trump’s presidency as a legitimate force to move the country to the right. Why let a few facts about foreign intervention into our elections undermine a deeply ingrained pre-existing political project?
The facts of the hacking may still be contestable, but there are other facts that should be less subject to debate: Russia is not communist; Putin is an autocrat; Trump is a dangerous demagogue; and Clinton was a flawed mainstream politician who failed to feel the pulse of a disenchanted electorate in rust-belt swing states. And the hacked emails were a factor in the election. Ideology should not stand in the way of an honest examination of what has now produced a potentially undemocratic Trump presidency (regardless of whether Russian tampering was critical or not).
There is concern that today we are in an era of post-truth politics, with fake news and micro-targeting of voters with lies and outlandish conspiracy theories. That is all the more reason to keep trying to get the facts about the hacking. The integrity of the U.S. election system and the country’s democratic aspirations demand nothing less.