On Wednesday an editorial in The Times described Donald Trump as a “useful idiot” serving Russian interests. That may not be exactly right. After all, useful idiots are supposed to be unaware of how they’re being used, but Trump probably knows very well how much he owes to Vladimir Putin. Remember, he once openly appealed to the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Still, the general picture of a president-elect who owes his position in part to intervention by a foreign power, and shows every sign of being prepared to use U.S. policy to reward that power, is accurate.
But let’s be honest: Trump is by no means the only useful idiot in this story. As recent reporting by The Times makes clear, bad guys couldn’t have hacked the U.S. election without a lot of help, both from U.S. politicians and from the news media.
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Let me explain what I mean by saying that bad guys hacked the election. I’m not talking about some kind of wild conspiracy theory. I’m talking about the obvious effect of two factors on voting: the steady drumbeat of Russia-contrived leaks about Democrats, and only Democrats, and the dramatic, totally unjustified last-minute intervention by the FBI, which appears to have become a highly partisan institution, with distinct alt-right sympathies.
Does anyone really doubt that these factors moved swing-state ballots by at least 1 percent? If they did, they made the difference in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and therefore handed Trump the election, even though he received almost 3 million fewer total votes. Yes, the election was hacked.
By the way, people who respond to this observation by talking about mistakes in Clinton campaign strategy are missing the point, and continuing their useful idiocy. All campaigns make mistakes. Since when do these mistakes excuse subversion of an election by a foreign power and a rogue domestic law enforcement agency?
So why did the subversion work?
It’s important to realize that the postelection CIA declaration that Russia had intervened on behalf of the Trump campaign was a confirmation, not a revelation (although we’ve now learned that Putin was personally involved in the effort).
The pro-Putin tilt of Trump and his advisers was obvious months before the election – I wrote about it in July. By midsummer the close relationship between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence was also obvious, as was the site’s growing alignment with white nationalists.
Did Republican politicians, so big on flag waving and impugning their rivals’ patriotism, reject this foreign aid to their cause? No, they didn’t. In fact, as far as I can tell, no major Republican figure was even willing to criticize Trump when he directly asked Russia to hack Clinton.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It has long been obvious – except, apparently, to the news media – that the modern GOP is a radical institution that is ready to violate democratic norms in the pursuit of power. Why should the norm of not accepting foreign assistance be any different?
The bigger surprise was the behavior of the news media, and I don’t mean fake news; I mean big, prestigious organizations. Leaked emails, which everyone knew were probably the product of Russian hacking, were breathlessly reported as shocking revelations, even when they mostly revealed nothing more than the fact that Democrats are people.
Meanwhile, the news media dutifully played up the Clinton server story, which never involved any evidence of wrongdoing, but merged in the public mind into the perception of a vast “email” scandal when there was nothing there.
And then there was the Comey letter. The FBI literally found nothing at all. But the letter dominated front pages and TV coverage, and that coverage – by news organizations that surely knew that they were being used as political weapons – was almost certainly decisive on Election Day.
So as I said, there were a lot of useful idiots this year, and they made the election hack a success.
Now what? If we’re going to have any hope of redemption, people will have to stop letting themselves be used the way they were in 2016. And the first step is to admit the awful reality of what just happened.
That means not trying to change the subject to campaign strategy, which is a legitimate topic but has no bearing on the question of electoral subversion. It means not making excuses for news coverage that empowered that subversion.
And it means not acting as if this was a normal election whose result gives the winner any kind of a mandate, or indeed any legitimacy beyond the bare legal requirements. It might be more comfortable to pretend that things are OK, that American democracy isn’t on the edge. But that would be taking useful idiocy to the next level.