Did members of the Trump campaign (and perhaps even President Trump himself) actively collude with agents of the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency?
That's an enormously important question — and one that the FBI, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a slew of journalists are striving mightily to answer. (The House Intelligence Committee is looking into it, too, but thanks to the bizarrely self-subversive behavior of its Republican chairman Devin Nunes, that investigation looks unlikely to get very far.)
Americans concerned about these very serious allegations should not delude themselves about the outcome. Perhaps investigators will uncover a proverbial smoking gun that opens senior Trump associates, and even the president himself, to criminal prosecution — and maybe such revelations will lead to Trump's impeachment and removal from office. But such an outcome is far from assured.
Indeed, the obsessive focus on finding a metaphorical silver bullet can blind us to what may well turn out to be the no-less-troubling truth about Trump, which is that there was no active (criminal or impeachable) collusion with Russia — and that instead, Trump merely surrounded himself with advisers (Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn) who have significant Russian ties because Trump legitimately admires Vladimir Putin and seeks to model his presidency on the postmodern-authoritarian style of rule that the Russian president has perfected over the past two decades.
Trump's liberal critics need to remain open to the latter possibility, because the frantic search for a single revelation that would expose the president to impeachment and prosecution is leading growing numbers of these critics to lower their defenses toward crackpot conspiracy theories that promise precisely what these critics crave. It's obviously bad for those looking into presidential misdeeds to discredit themselves by promoting and championing fanciful claims that don't pan out. But the consequences could well be broader, and much worse, than that. By contributing to the spread of nonsense throughout the media, liberals may be doing as much to advance Trump's Putinite aims as anything Russia did in the run-up to the election.
Before the postmodern era, authoritarians ruled by promulgating a single lie and enforcing it publicly with the threat of violence. But Putin has managed to exert enormous political power, as well as personally enrich himself, for nearly 18 years by taking a very different approach. Rather than spreading a fixed line of propaganda, Putin deliberately sows chaos and confusion. Not one official capital-T Truth, but numerous conflicting, equally plausible (or even a mix of plausible and implausible) truths.
In a recent highly illuminating podcast on Sam Harris' website, author Anne Applebaum explained the way Putin's government deployed this technique after a passenger jet broke up over Ukraine in July 2014, leading to nearly 300 deaths. We've since learned that the plane was shot down by Russian anti-aircraft fire on the ground. But in the days and weeks following the crash, Russian state media went out of its way to prevent any single explanation from taking hold. Here is Applebaum:
[The Russian media] didn't say, "We didn't do it." No, instead it released literally dozen of different explanations. There was one explanation that the Ukrainians shot them down because they were trying to hit Putin's plane. There was another explanation that said a lot of dead bodies were put on the plane on purpose and it was crashed on purpose to discredit Russia. Many of them were absurd. But the proliferation was such that it created mass confusion around this event. And Radio Free Europe did a very good series of interviews in Moscow just afterwards, and they asked people on the street, "Why did that plane crash?" And overwhelmingly people said things like, "Oh, we have no idea and we'll never know." "It's impossible to find out." "The truth cannot be known."
The effect of Putin and Putin's press with this multiplication of explanations was that it obfuscated the idea of truth. ... And that's very useful to a dictator. Putin doesn't want people to believe anything — because, you know, maybe somebody will print how much money he really has. ... What Putin wants is for all these stories to be undermined. If you tell lots and lots of lies, then people don't know what to believe." [Applebaum]
This phenomenon, which Applebaum describes as an effort to "pollute the information space," has played an important role in Eastern and Central European politics for years, but it came to the United States for the first time during the 2016 election. Some of it originated with Russian-controlled Twitter accounts and websites spreading what a few months later we began calling "fake news." Trump himself contributes to such pollution when he tell blatant falsehoods, links to a nonsense story at InfoWars, or lends credence to a baseless conspiracy promoted by Andrew Napolitano on Fox News.
But liberal opponents of the president also inadvertently contribute to the problem every time they promote unverified rumors and spread implausible stories of Russian intrigue and espionage in and around the Trump administration.
The danger, once again, is not that large numbers of Americans will begin believing untrue things. It's that they will begin to doubt the very possibility of ever determining what is true and what is false. Once a political culture crashes through that postmodern threshold, those in positions of power have far more freedom to act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that they are untouchable by vast swaths of public opinion. Some will call the president corrupt — but really, who can say for sure what he did or didn't do? He denies all of it unequivocally. Some say this, others say that. There are so many claims and counter-claims floating around. Shrug. Roll your eyes. Move along to the next crazy, baseless story.
That's postmodern authoritarianism in action. Putin pioneered it, and his most assiduous pupil is now practicing it from the Oval Office. Putin obviously prefers a corrupt, self-aggrandizing demagogue in the White House to a president who seeks to uphold liberal international norms and acts as the "leader of the free world." That doesn't make Trump Putin's puppet, directly manipulated by the Kremlin. It just makes him a kindred spirit.
That may well turn out to be the deeply disturbing but legally indeterminate truth at the heart of the Trump's Russia scandal. Either way, liberals need to be on guard against doing anything that unintentionally furthers his anti-liberal aims.