Nate Silver, of all people, recently tweeted that the scale of Russian involvement in the 2016 election was quite small, and its effect was not visible. Silver is of course not a Russian agent, nor should this sentiment be out of place.
After all, it seems so obvious that it shouldn’t even need mentioning in analytical circles. But it’s not often that we see an otherwise shrill and religiously anti-Republican national publication write a normal analytical opinion. It’s a signal of the scaling down of the Russian influence narrative that has been pushed for the last two years.
NPR’s essay on Russia collusion being unproven was a surprise: “Prosecutors say that [Paul] Manafort shouldn’t get any consideration for the information he has given the feds because he has been lying to them; Manafort’s lawyers say he gave the government valuable information. Nonetheless, the crimes for which the feds want Manafort to be locked up aren’t a Russian conspiracy to throw the election.”
It was followed by The Nation, no right-wing MAGA hatters, with a thorough essay discussing the differences of the ones charged, the charges, and the original narrative of the collusion story. In an absurd irony, the piece notes how Manafort might go to jail for a “crime” of ostensibly tilting the Ukrainian government towards the European Union — weaning them away from Russia:
When it comes to his work in Ukraine, Manafort, as former Fusion GPS researcher Graham Stack writes, was convicted for ‘doing the opposite of colluding with Russia.’ In Ukraine, Manafort pushed a pro-Western agenda … Internal documents released by Mueller make clear that Manafort tried to steer his client, then – Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to align with the European Union and away from Russia, or, in Manafort’s own words, promote ‘the key geopolitical messaging of how “Europe and the U.S. should not risk losing Ukraine to Russia.”‘
On former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the piece notes, “The only Russia-related criminal activity comes in Cohen’s lies to Congress about the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a failure that never got beyond a letter of intent.”
So, while Manafort and Cohen are guilty of several felonies like campaign finance misappropriation, or perjury, or even corruption, the “original sin” is still unsubstantiated. The article adds:
That Cohen was indicted for lying about a failed deal, but not for testifying that he never witnessed ‘any form of Russian collusion,’ should raise doubts that he has given Mueller anything on collusion. Mueller’s statement that Cohen gave ‘useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core’ to the Russia probe does not change that. The ambiguous wording could be interpreted either way — that information is deemed ‘useful’ does not tell us whether it is incriminating, exonerating, or neither.
This is fascinating. Ever since Trump won the election, there has been a sustained assertion in liberal sophisticate circles about active collusion between his campaign and the Russian FSB. From what we were made to believe initially, the First Directorate at the Lubyanka was active in infiltrating the random rubes across the West, had coordinated efforts with the incoming administration, and was grooming the prospective candidate as an agent of destruction of the United States.
From neocons who fled the Soviet Union and have an instinctive aversion to anything Russian, to British grifters and failed politicians, to PR agents of Georgian and Ukrainian government masquerading as information warfare experts, to social science academics looking to make a quick buck monetizing this hysteria, everyone sold the same narrative. That, eventually, slowly morphed into a new narrative that Russians were just “sowing confusion.” Now the final narrative is taking hold. It has nothing to do with Russia, and everything to do with Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating corruption in the Trump campaign and administration.
Fair enough. The second point actually makes sense. Russians are not a friendly, allied power, and they never will be. Russia, like any other great power, even though it is materially declining, has a set of interests that will automatically, forever clash with those of the United Sates. That, added to the Russian sense of victimhood and betrayal, compels them to lash out and sow distrust.
Consider the Russian interference in what Russia considers to be Moscow’s sphere of influence. It is futile to imagine that Moscow would someday be an ally. That window has been shut off since 1993. However, it was also an idiotic threat inflation to imagine the current situation to be like the 1930s, to make Russia look like Nazi Germany, and to cast Trump as a fascist and Putin as the next Hitler. It leads to what I call the “Hyperbole Trap.”
For the sake of argument, if one accepts Putin to be the next Hitler, the rational counterargument would be to go to war against him — bog him down in quagmires and crush his forces to the last man. But to reach that level, one then needs to admit, for good or for bad, that men from Manchester, or Melbourne, or Massachusetts, need to fight and die for Mariupol, Ukraine.
Yet no one is making that argument. It’s always an argument for sanctions and “empowering civil society.” Hitler wasn’t defeated with sanctions. Likewise, if Brexit, French riots, and Trump leads to fascism across Euro-Atlantic, the logical argument would be to take up arms and go to civil war. Instead, there are passionate calls to vote out the fascist Brexiters or Trump. Which fascists, throughout history, were ever “voted out?”
The second irony is what Sohrab Ahmari pointed out in his latest column. Trump’s administration, despite its rhetoric, has actually been more aggressive than both his predecessors on Russia, he writes:
President Trump didn’t help with some of his gross rhetoric and refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin. But as a matter of policy, he has proved far tougher on Moscow than President Barack Obama. Trump has armed Ukraine, bombed Russian operatives in Syria and squeezed Putin’s clients in Tehran, among other things.
Again, this is not surprising, and I wrote about it in November 2016, right after Trump won: “It is unlikely that the United States, led by Trump, will suddenly renege on American security commitments and alliance structures overnight. Geopolitical reality, converging and overarching trans-Atlantic interests, and simple structural great power rivalry will not let that happen.”
Structure, and checks and balances of a system, more often than not triumph over individual agency. We don’t live in feudal times, when a king could decide on foreign policy based on personal whims and fancies. Anyone who has actually worked in foreign policy can vouch for that — at least anyone genuine, nuanced, and unbiased.
Russians are not allies, and I have written a whole paper on that. And there has been interference in Western societies by Russian intelligence. However, the sources of our problems of polarization and social distrust, whether in Europe or in the United States, are much deeper than that. The two simple but important questions to look for in the future are these.
One: Is or was there any direct collusion between Russian intel and the Trump admin (or, in our case, Brexiters)? Two: How much interference was there in American society through social media, which the left now wants to control? Also, what empirical evidence is there to show how much of that swayed the actual vote count in the election or the Brexit vote?
Conservatives in the United States should let the Mueller investigation answer these two specific questions, because that is all that matters. However, conservatives should be also wary of changing narratives and shifting goalposts, and the grifters trying to sell a used car. As an old saying goes from where I come, “No one wants to pet a spaniel after being promised a wolf.”