In early April I received a vague message and as soon as I finished reading it I knew what I was in for. “Your blog seems… interesting. I can’t quite pin it down – other than this: why so little on the Trump Russia story?” the messenger asked. The question laid enough cards on the table that it was clear he had already answered the question before he even asked.
The truth real answer for a lack of commentary on Trump and Russia is fairly simple. It’s a complex story with a lot of moving parts and even though I feel like I have a decent handle on it, setting the stage for any meaningful discussion with a broad audience takes a lot of effort. Working through all the players and pieces is difficult. And ultimately speculation is meaningless until Robert Mueller wraps up his investigation.
But for a lot of people, on both the left and the right, it’s an open and shut case that frequently confirms their worldview and conveniently matches their biases and prior assumptions.
Over a year ago I wrote about the alternate reality being built in certain circles of the liberal leaning social media sphere. A reality where the Trump-Russia story is even more sinister than the news would have you believe, the dots are already connected and they all lead back to the Kremlin. In this world the intelligence community is working diligently behind the scenes to shield American Democracy from a Kremlin backed president working closely with Putin and company to turn America into a kleptocracy with Trump at the top. And those who see this happening are patriotis valiantly fighting back.
Figures like Robert Muller aren’t just trying to answer difficult questions in the aftermath of a chaotic and turbulent election where the degree and effect of foreign intervention are debatable, they are quite literally saving American Democracy from a carefully orchestrated plot to plant a Putin friendly dictator at the very top. The narrative is simple, Putin and Trump colluded, they continue to collude, figures from Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity to Jeff Sessions and Devin Nunes are on the Kremlin’s payroll. Rod Rosenstein has a tape with Michael Cohen admitting as much, proclaiming his and the Trump administration’s allegiance to Putin. Everyone’s motives are clear and all lead to the same conclusion. In this Twitter reality the answers are clear.
In the world my accusatory friend lives in, orders flow from the Kremlin, motives have simple explanations that are always nefarious. In this world there is no possibility that the collusion was ramshackle and the intervention itself a lackluster social media effort that matches that of traditional political groups such as Turning Point USA or Media Matters. In this world there is little reckoning with the chaotic political day to day caused by a president falling under increasing scrutiny attempting to bend our institutions to his will in order to escape the very chaos he has consistently sown.
In the real world we have seen one bad decision after the next, largely the result of a president in a very high stakes situation seeking short term gains in the political day to day with total disregard for long term corrosion. In this liberal Twitter alternative reality, these actions are methodical and part of a broad plan which has thus far succeeded thanks to an elaborate disinformation campaign the outside world simply fails to see through.
In this world people like Rudy Giuliani hop on television and deliver lines given to them straight from the Kremlin while outlets like Fox take direct payment from Russian oligarchs and CNN willfully allows disinformation to propagate by elevating pro-Trump perspectives. Which conveniently allows all Trump administration talking points and perspectives to be disregarded as disinformation. While also undermining media narratives that cut against the theory to begin with.
That’s the real strength of the entire narrative, it comes with a failsafe, anyone who doesn’t buy it just bought something else – Russian disinformation. Those who don’t see this narrative, have bought the Russian line and succumb to disinformation. Either that or they are Kremlin bots, or unwitting useful idiots, spreading the disinformation everyone else fails to see through.
To my new friend, I was clearly one of the useful idiots, and the jury was out on whether or not I was something more sinister than that. He put every post Millennial Review made under a microscope. Just a few weeks later Trump bombed Syria, which gave my new friend another glimpse behind the curtain of disinformation he had put up. My posts against military intervention in the region were unwittingly contributing to a Russian disinformation campaign bent on helping sure up support for Assad and Russian interests in the region. Which they might have been, viewing Syrian intervention as unwise doesn’t have to at the behest of Russian disinformation, there are legitimate reasons to hold views that in some situations may further Russian interests.
In this case opposing intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts is a reasonable position to hold, even if some Russian interests in the region would be furthered. Just ignoring those consequences and the alternative arguments is a byproduct of a worldview that already has all the answers.
A year ago I speculated this sort of rhetoric was a sign of the fringes on the left coming unraveled. Filling in the gaps and connecting the dots of a complicated investigation and the surrounding narrative to create a simpler, somehow even more sinister story. An alternate reality that is uncomfortable and unnerving, as it details the successful plot of a foreign power to plant a friendly self-enriching dictator. It’s also simple, gets rid of the nuance, gets rid of the questions that will likely never be answered, and perfectly fits anti-Trump narratives that see him as nothing more than a machiavellian madman who only cares about himself. And there’s an argument to be made that to some degree he IS all of those things, but there are clearly arguments he’s not and a significant portion of Americans find those arguments compelling.
Reckoning with those views and the forces that foster them is important.
But in the lefty Russia conspiracy theory world, those arguments have been rebutted without a doubt. Donald Trump and his cronies are traitors beyond even Benedict Arnold, taking direct orders from the Kremlin. In this world their continued collusion and guilt are clear and can explain any number of Trump’s actions, from bombing Syria to every move Jeff Sessions makes. All of it can be tied directly to the Kremlin.
And Trump’s supporters are simpletons who can’t see through the Russian misinformation, no need to reckon with the rise of American nationalism and the complex racial and socioeconomic factors that need sorted through. Anyone who disagrees with the narrative has succumb to Russian information as well, as has, conveniently, every arm of the American media. With the most sinister outlets such as Fox or Breitbart being partially directly funded by the Kremlin.
This view of the world obviously makes no sense, but it makes a lot of sense that to a certain number of people looking for something solid in a world full of malleable and hard to follow political narratives.
In this world it’s simple, these complex issues, the chaos, all of this is exactly the exact opposite of complex and chaotic. It’s simple and carefully orchestrated. It’s a successful intricate plot that has worked so far and continues to unfold. It’s not chaotic, it’s an elaborate plan with Putin in charge, but at least there is someone in charge. There is reason in the madness, Trump’s decisions all have one root cause, and there is no need to reckon with the moral and ethical grey area the entire investigation represents in reality.
And when it was just a phenomena of left wing circles of the internet it was definitely concerning. The total disregard for facts and reality harkens back to some of the most devastating events of the last century. When facts go out the window, so do a lot of other norms, and it usually ends badly. And there is ample reason to believe the right has constructed their own alternate reality that paints over the grey with black and white in a remarkably similar fashion to the fanciful narrative their anti-Trump counterparts have constructed.
In this world the intelligence community once again plays a pivotal role. Robert Muller and Jeff Sessions are once again pieces in a much broader plot, but instead this one, focuses on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other high level officials in the “deep state”. The media are unwitting tools in a deep state conspiracy, shielding people like Obama and Hillary from “justice”, or at its worst like CNN and MSNBC, actively spreading disinformation to throw Trump and company off their trail. In this world the investigation isn’t focused on Trump at all, in fact Robert Muller is actually working closely with Donald Trump to take down Obama, Hillary and the “deep state”.
Jeff Sessions is walking a tightrope of protecting Trump and prosecuting Obama and Hillary for infiltrating the Trump campaign with the “deep state” Muller is working so hard to dismantle. Inexplicable events such as the false Hawaiian nuclear missile warning having elaborate explanations, in that particular example Trump used the warning as cover to transfer bulk data from the NSA to Washington DC because evidence of the plot against him was obviously being destroyed by members of the “deep state”.
And the only way this knowledge comes to light is through high level leakers whose only way to communicate with the outside world is cryptic 4chan posts. Figures like QAnon and Praying Medic have amassed insane
The narratives on both the left and the right are more complex and flushed out than what I’ve laid out above. It takes a significant amount of time to get a grasp on the layers and nooks and crannies these narratives have laid out. And people spend a lot of time buying in to these alternative narratives. At their own expense, the time it takes to stay informed is precious these layers get rid of a lot of the ambiguities and questions that reality forces one to reckon with. Meaning people who buy in to these narratives are falling in to two seperate traps if they actually seek to stay informed.
Events like the false alarm in Hawaii are a great metaphor for the rest of American political life in this moment. It was a mistake that shows how out of control and chaotic political life is at this moment. For over half an hour thousands of people thought they were about to die. Mothers huddled in bathrooms with their children, with a bathtub full of water to ensure they could drink in the event of a bombing. People frantically called their loved ones as they wondered whether they would be able to speak with them tomorrow. It highlights the cost of human failing, it highlights the stakes, and most of all it highlights how out of anyone’s hands our political situation can become.
And there is undoubtedly some level of comfort in believing this was all part of an elaborate plot to take down one’s political enemies. At least in that world there is someone in control. Likewise there is undoubtedly some comfort in believing the only way Trump could get elected, engage in all sorts of unseemingly and corrupt behavior, and then potentially get away with all of it, is at the behest of a diabolical foreign dictator. Which conveniently confirms all the most sinister facets of the Trump administration and convicently answers all the questions that will likely never have a satisfying answer, such as the degree to which the chaotic Trump campaign actually colluded with the Russians and to what extent they just passively benefitted from Putin’s nefarious acts. There will be no reckoning with the social forces that propelled Trump to victory, the same forces that allowed Russian propaganda to tip the scales, if it even changed the outcome in the first place, which in reality is a very debatable proposition but not in the Trump-Putin collusion narrative offered by conspiracy theorists on the left.
Ultimately a broken clock is right twice a day and for people grasping at a way to make sense of our current political situation, these narratives are confirmed
But the desire to fill in the gaps of a complex political situation with tailor made narratives confirming both biases and preexisting beliefs, is not a new phenomena. Far from it, and it usually doesn’t end well. Whether the fact free universe ends badly as it has in the past remains to be seen and it’s future impact is certainly debatable. However, what isn’t debatable is that increasingly both sides have not insignificant factions diving deep into their own tailor made narratives will have a corrosive impact on American society. The ability to resolve our collective differences will be almost impossible without a common collection of facts with which to work through those differences. And as the factual narratives on each side veer towards pre existing assumptions and biases it will be increasingly difficult to create that common foundation of fact.
It’s no coincidence that the conspiracy narratives being driven on both the left and the right are so similar. They both spring from the same place. A desire to explain the world, which is why those explanations happen to confirm prior assumptions and biases. Because they aren’t explanations at all, but elaborate constructs built on foundations that already existed. And building those false narratives is far easier than destroying the foundations which they are built upon.