In the flurry of discussions about "fake news" and its effect on the election, a rather important fact seems to be curiously muted in liberal circles: the Russians played us too.
Despite the recent attention to leaks from a CIA report, it's not news that the Russians were behind the Wikileaks hack. As Clinton herself pointed out in a debate, all the major federal intelligence agencies released a statement to that effect in October. What's new, among other things, is the claim that they intervened specifically to support Trump and harm Clinton. This is huge. Bigger than Watergate huge.
NPR has a handy list of 13 times that Russian hacking came up during the election, only to be brushed aside by major media outlets in favor of stories about Clinton's foundation or Trump's "wacky"tweets. As might be expected, Trump and most Republicans were eager to brush this aside, although Mike Pence didn't get the memo, apparently. Understandably, a good deal of attention to the problem of "fake news" (i.e. propaganda) has been focused on Trump's voters, who seem to live in an alternate universe when it comes to separating fact from fiction.
But the skill with which Russian intelligence played voters on the left cannot be ignored in any honest election postmortem. Of particular concern is the sophisticated way they exploited ignorance about how the Democratic Party actually works.
A basic tent of faith for Bernie-or-busters was that an all-powerful Democratic National Committee somehow "rigged" the primary process against Bernie Sanders, and that the the Wikileaks emails "proved" it. This belief was only possible if one ignored that actual dates and content of the emails. AS Kurt Eichenwald (the journalist who produced some impressive deep-dig investigative journalism about Trump during the election) pointed out back in November, this was nonsensical:
Almost every email that set off the “rigged” accusations was from May 2016. (One was in late April; I’ll address that below.) ...Once only one candidate can win the nomination, of course the DNC gets to work on that person’s behalf. Of course emails from that time would reflect support for the person who would clearly be the nominee.
...According to a Western European intelligence source, Russian hackers, using a series of go-betweens, transmitted the DNC emails to WikiLeaks with the intent of having them released on the verge of the Democratic Convention in hopes of sowing chaos. And that’s what happened—just a couple of days before Democrats gathered in Philadelphia, the emails came out, and suddenly the media was loaded with stories about trauma in the party. Crews of Russian propagandists—working through an array of Twitter accounts and websites, started spreading the story that the DNC had stolen the election from Sanders. (An analysis provided to Newsweek by independent internet and computer specialists using a series of algorithms show that this kind of propaganda, using the same words, went from Russian disinformation sources to comment sections on more than 200 sites catering to liberals, conservatives, white supremacists, nutritionists and an amazing assortment of other interest groups.) The fact that the dates of the most controversial emails—May 3, May 4, May 5, May 9, May 16, May 17, May 18, May 21—were after it was impossible for Sanders to win was almost never mentioned, and was certainly ignored by the propagandists trying to sell the “primaries were rigged” narrative.
(Yes, one of them said something inappropriate about his religious beliefs. So a guy inside the DNC was a jerk; that didn’t change the outcome.) Two other emails—one from April 24 and May 1—were statements of fact. In the first, responding to Sanders saying he would push for a contested convention (even though he would not have the delegates to do so), a DNC official wrote, “So much for a traditional presumptive nominee.” Yeah, no kidding. The second stated that Sanders didn’t know what the DNC’s job actually was—which he didn’t, apparently because he had not ever been a Democrat before his run.
So, the emails showed nothing more scandalous than the DNC doing its job, with at least one jerk taking a nasty crack at atheists, and some trash-talking (including about Obama and Dem donors, in addition to Sanders). Regrettable and highly unprofessional, but not evidence of a rigged election. And if I may: the fact that members of the DNC would be annoyed at Bernie Sanders is hardly surprising, considering he sued the organization (after his own campaign improperly accessed data), a lawsuit only dropped in April. By May, Sanders was making increasingly contradictory claims about why the party's process was unfair. It's always foolish and unprofessional to trash-talk via email, but frankly, I can understand DNC staffers taking an annoyed tone with the Sanders campaign by then.
But if the emails showed no evidence of rigging, why were so many Bernie supporters convinced they did? Well, I suppose this could have something to do with it:
Bernie Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said his team was "disappointed" by the emails from the Democratic National Committee leaked through WikiLeaks, which seemed to reveal staff in the party working to support Hillary Clinton. "Someone does have to be held accountable," Weaver said during an interview with ABC News...Weaver said the emails showed misconduct at the highest level of the staff within the party and that he believed there would be more emails leaked, which would "reinforce" that the party had "its fingers on the scale."
"Everybody is disappointed that much of what we felt was happening at the DNC was in fact happening, that you had in this case a clear example of the DNC taking sides and looking to place negative information into the political process.
Weaver said that he was surprised that no one with the party had reached out to him, "given the conduct that was disclosed" in the emails. Several of the emails showed that DNC staff called Weaver names including "a liar."
A liar? Gee, I wonder where they got that impression. Maybe it has something to do with the Washington Post calling out Jeff Weaver for lying, right about the time of the emails?
So, exploiting the ignorance (whether wilful or genuine) of some of Sanders' supporters, and relying on major media outlets not to examine the emails too critically, the Russians get Jeff Weaver himself to repeat their preferred line. The "DemExit" and class action lawsuit movements of late July, fueled by breathless stories from Salon, the Intercept, and others alleging that the emails said shit they manifestly did not say, all took their toll.
And they're still taking their toll, as the very same actors who peddled these myths now claim the Democratic Party needs to remake itself according to their demands. Some of them are even claiming that the Democratic process failed because Sanders was the more "electable" candidate, against Trump, that the process should be amended to favor a Sanders-style candidate. Eichenwald has some cold water to throw on that as well:
I have seen the opposition book assembled by Republicans for Sanders, and it was brutal. Here are a few tastes of what was in store for Sanders, straight out of the Republican playbook: He thinks rape is A-OK.
...Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.
Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,’’ while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”The Republicans had at least four other damning Sanders videos (I don’t know what they showed), and the opposition research folder was almost 2-feet thick.
(The whole thing is worth a read.)
I point this out not to try to make those backing Sanders feel defensive or foolish, because it was not at all foolish to be excited about a particular candidate and to embrace and feel excited about that candidate. No, my criticism is specifically directed at those who are analyzing the Democratic Party's loss based on wishful thinking. It's the very same mindset that saw many of those same people swallowing the Wikileaks propaganda in the first place. And it's not that nobody challenged the narrative favored by Wikileaks, Russia, and Jeff Weaver. Here's an article form the time that took it apart beautifully. Yet there were, and are, those on the left, who preferred blatant fakery to cold reality. And that's concerning.
Not all of Sanders' supporters were caught up in this frenzy, and they saw the Wikileaks propaganda for what it was. The largest number of them came to support Clinton and voted for her. Some even came to like or admire her. And the Sanders candidacy brings some legitimate challenges to the Democratic party on its platforms and its messaging. There is truth to the idea that the Democrats need to work on reaching out to a new generation. Its bench is not nearly as deep as it needs to be. And it's certainly past time to beef up cybersecurity measures. I don't think that Russian interference alone caused the Democrats to lose, and it's certainly time for some Democratic soul-searching.
But while we're worrying about the effects on fake news on Trump supporters, and wondering how to challenge their insular reality, perhaps it's time to be concerned about those on the left who cling to conspiracy theory in the face of no evidence. It's not just "uneducated" or naive Trump voters. Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager of a major Dem canddiate, apparently could not or would not read the actual content. Instead he swallowed the propaganda whole and regurgitated it. That should be of concern. That some are still peddling the "DNC rigged the election" myth shows just how deeply the problem goes.
We like to think of ourselves as the "reality-based" community, but its' increasingly clear that part of the Left got badly played during this election. Any plan for moving forward must address that, or we'll be right back here again, making President Putin smile.