Here are two positions an intellectually honest person can hold simultaneously:
First, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian who, though no Josef Stalin, subverts human rights and is generally antagonistic to the idealistic aims of the United States. When Republicans cozy up to this sort of person, as President-elect Donald Trump has done, they undermine the stated beliefs and values of conservatism.
Second, though there’s little doubt he wishes he could, Putin did not hack the American election. In fact, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Russians had anything to do with Trump’s victory.
Now, I understand why so many on the left want to force Republicans to choose between these two statements. They’d like to delegitimize the democratic validity of Trump’s presidency (in much the same way they did with President George W. Bush) and smear those who don’t join them in this endeavor as unpatriotic Putin-defending lackeys. Considering their own past and Obama’s accommodating attitude toward the Russians (and the Cubans, the Iranians, Fatah, Hamas and other illiberal regimes), this seems an uphill battle.
Many in the media, though—which has spent considerable time lamenting its deteriorating influence and the rise of fake news—also decided to start the new year by internalizing a partisan-driven fantasy about the Russians electing Trump with incessant coverage, deceptive headlines and misleading stories.
One recent CNN tweet read, “US officials say newly identified ‘digital fingerprints’ indicate Moscow was behind election hacking.” The number of times I’ve seen a reputable news organization use terms like “election hacking” is now incalculable. It is a lie—every time.
By “election hacking,” reporters and editors mean there might be evidence that Russians successfully phished a Democratic operative named John Podesta, who used the word “password” as his password. Although we should thoroughly investigate foreigners who illegally access American emails, this is not tantamount to infiltrating an election or undermining its legitimacy.
In November, the Washington Post ran a flimsy piece purporting that the “flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign.” Last week, it reported that a Russian-backed computer hacking operation had been found inside the system of a Vermont utility company and had penetrated the U.S. power grid. If true, this would be genuinely scary stuff. But it wasn’t true. A few days later, the Post—after much effort to save the piece—had to finally admit that “authorities say there is no indication of that so far.”
To say there is no indication that Russia tried to infiltrate the grid “so far” almost seems like someone is hoping the story might one day turn out to be true. In any event, everyone makes mistakes. But it’s difficult to imagine these sorts of pieces—hampered with numerous problems from the start—didn’t have something to do with partisan narratives about Russian influence infecting newsrooms. These kinds of pieces only weaken the impact of genuine foreign-hacking stories.
Many in the left-wing punditry have already taken to speaking about the stolen 2016 election. “The NSA Chief Says Russia Hacked the 2016 Election,” says David Corn in a headline. New York‘s Jonathan Chait asserted that not only was there “evidence that Russian intelligence carried out a successful plan to pick the government of the United States” but it was “probable that the hacks swung enough votes to decide a very tight race,” and the latter could not be “proven.”
In politics, proving something isn’t nearly as important as feeling it. So it’s not surprising that a recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russia “tampered with vote tallies”—not that it leaked real emails to the public but that it altered the outcome of the ballots in the presidential election. There is no proof of this happening, or that it was even attempted. The fact is, Democrats are now more likely to believe the Russians installed Trump into the presidency than Republicans are to have ever believed President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
It’s unsurprising that losers of an election would attempt to minimize its validity. It happens all the time. But for the same people who were lamenting our deteriorating trust in democratic institutions—all the rage not long ago—to now embrace this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric is unprecedented. It’s a lot more damaging than the Podesta hack. It also undermines genuine concerns about Russian activity. Because Russia is not our friend. (It is not today, and it was not when Dems were mocking Mitt Romney, or when Obama was promising them space.) Julian Assange is not our friend. And Russia has nothing to do with the predicament in which Democrats find themselves. A person can believe all those things.
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