Manufactured Bogeyman: Trump, Mainstream Media, and Russian Hacking

T
he current America media coverage in the West on the Russian-hacking scandal has largely been used to further portray President-elect Donald Trump as either an oblivious ignoramus (granted, this is not the only issue used to try to portray the President-elect in such a light) or as some oddly recalcitrant Russian patsy, being used and manipulated by a strategically superior Vladimir Putin. Part of this motivation is clearly rooted in a still bitterly disappointed progressive movement that clings to the hope some piece of information can emerge before January 20th that might derail the inauguration.

Since the possibility of recounts, voter fraud, and other such shenanigans seemed to wither and die on the vine before they could gain any real momentum, the Russian-hacking scandal is now the du jour focus for the anti-Trump brigade. Since largely domestic procedural complaints failed, perhaps an international espionage illegitimacy angle will work? The reality is this will not work and for several important reasons. It seems that mainstream media isn’t interested in covering these reasons but the larger global community should be cognizant of them.

1. The relative insignificance of the information released through hacks

It has been rather odd to see how a fact that was hugely trumpeted by progressives during the campaign is now being largely shoved under the media rug, as it were: that just about all of the massive trove of emails released by Wikileaks contained either self-evident ‘duh’ moments (the Democratic National Committee felt it needed to support Hillary over Bernie in order to have a better chance in the national election? This is news-worthy or a surprise to anyone?) or were mind-numbingly boring (exactly how many Podesta emails must we read to know that Podesta really wasn’t all that important in the election campaign?). The interesting bait-and-switch being performed now in mainstream media is that the public is being told to not focus on the content of the hacks but simply on the process: that a foreign nation allegedly engineered the release is what needs to be criminalized and anyone who benefited from it should be nullified. Creative, most certainly, but not legitimate to nullify the election because no one will be able to explicitly and quantifiably show the impact any alleged Russian hacking had on actual voter turnout. Without that crucial evidentiary connection the trail simply goes dormant.

2.The crucial aspects of Hillary’s poor performance in key-Democratic areas cannot be truly tied to Russian hacking

Three crucial states that Hillary ultimately lost were Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Inside each were three key democratic stronghold cities: Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami. Hillary handily beat Trump in all three, mostly by percentages in the high teens. A prominent victory for sure in most races. The problem, of course, is that Obama four years earlier had taken those three cities over Romney by percentages as high as EIGHTY, a truly astounding figure. This trouncing helped Obama carry those three crucial states in 2012. Hillary’s relatively modest wins there were not enough to overcome Trump’s state dominance outside of those metropolitan centers. No one can show or prove that the largely urban minority populations of Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami were demotivated to go vote for Hillary because of Wikileaks. This is because that demotivation was not instigated by the Russians but by the relatively uninspiring and indifferent attitude of the Clinton campaign. It was so confident it was going to easily capture these areas, based on the resounding victories of Obama beforehand, that it basically just bypassed them on the campaign trail again and again. This clearly proved to be a huge mistake but it had nothing at all to do with Russians engineering a Trump presidency. Thus in some ways Russian hacking is now being used to cover over fundamental strategic missteps in the Democratic campaign.

3.The overall poor turnout on both sides of the electorate places blame in other places

While Trump did indeed command a healthy electoral college victory, he did in fact lose the popular vote. This enrages many progressives (even though they went through this exact scenario 16 years ago, when Gore lost a much closer electoral college race, but won the overall popular vote against Bush) and allows them to not pay as much attention to the eternal vexation of American politics: that a mature and stable democracy seems to never motivate its voting population to participate beyond 50%. So, taking half of half, as it were, means once again America is putting into the Oval Office a person who was explicitly affirmed by barely 25% of the public. This undermines the accusation that any Russian hacking campaign was crucially impactful in the election results: it needs to be shown that the hacks either inspired Trump voters to go out or depressed Clinton voters from showing up. In real terms, as in recent Presidential elections, the electorate overall stayed remarkably and uninspiringly consistent in terms of poor participation. Thus, it is legitimate to argue Russian hacking had relatively little influence.

4.The disagreement now emerging from within the American Intelligence Community about what it all means still misses a basic point of fact

The CIA has been the agency within US Intelligence (there are 17 overall within the American system) that has spear-headed both the analysis of the alleged Russian hacking and the conclusions to be made from it. CIA analysts have continuously stated the ‘evidence’ leading back to Russian-based hacking efforts is overwhelming. While Trump still somewhat clumsily misplays this fact by trying to stubbornly deny any such evidence at all, people need to realize that the more important question is not one of process but intent. Amazingly, it seems significant players within the US Intelligence Community are starting to unknowingly or begrudgingly agree with Trump.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has maintained that the main problem in the hacking analysis is that no one has the ability to peer into the mindset of the actual actors who did the hacking. Therefore, the ability to know the true intent of the hacking is impossible to ascertain. The FBI, which usually conducts its analyses based on the higher threshold of building an actual legal case before an American court, has first agreed with the ODNI but then, receiving some criticism, has said it agrees with the overall conclusion of the CIA. This will get a lot of new press in the West but it won’t hide the fact that the FBI would NOT want to go to court with what the CIA has shown so far as ‘proof of electoral results tampering.’

There is a huge difference between being co-conspirators to undermine the institutions of American democracy and engineer an illegitimate result and simply wanting to embarrass the candidate who has spent half a dozen years publicly proclaiming anti-Russian policies and sentiments (something Hillary has done with ample media evidence to prove it). Given the shock of most media outlets during election night it is hard to imagine Russian sources were more in tune with the pulse of the American people. Which means they thought Hillary was going to win just like everybody else. Which means the hacking, if anything, was not about electing Trump pre-election but embarrassing Clinton post-election. And while that is still certainly unsavory it also does not add up to anything more than what every politically-motivated campaign ad was trying to do to each candidate all throughout the election campaign for two years.

Unfortunately, the present media circus surrounding the hacking scandal has dripped into the true corridors of power within Washington, as both the Senate and House of Representatives are demanding deeper investigations. But these investigations are going to do nothing but reveal the very astute and important divergence presently separating the US Intelligence Community: no one is ever going to be able to ‘prove’ in a legal sense that Russia explicitly compromised the American presidential election. What it did was largely akin to very powerful and well-financed PAC (political action committee) campaigns fueling anti-Clinton rumors and disinformation. But that reality is something that epitomizes nearly every election campaign at every level within America today. Just look at the recent fervor to root out ‘fake news.’ For those who analyze foreign policy closely, it is not surprising that Russia would prefer a President Trump over a President Clinton. But that does not mean the Trump Presidency now exists solely or exclusively because of Russian interference. It doesn’t. And progressives need to realize this manufactured bogeyman is not going to help them move forward as a party or strategize better in future elections.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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