On November 8, 2016, Americans cast their vote for the 45th President of the United States, and — somehow — elected Donald J. Trump. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the general election, receiving 306 electoral college votes to Hillary’s 237. A decisive electoral college victory (yes, I know Clinton won the popular vote, but that is a subject for another day). Few expected Trump to win, with his comically obnoxious behavior and unprecedented ignorance. Most polls taken prior to the election gave Clinton a wide advantage, and the mainstream media all but declared her victory leading up to the election. But, by about 9:00 p.m. or so on November 8, it became shockingly clear that an anti-intellectual reality television star was going to be America’s next President. How could this happen?
Of course there are a lot of reasons Trump beat one of the most groomed candidates in the history of presidential politics. Racism, xenophobia and homophobia, along with an unlikely strain of Christian fundamentalism, all seemed to lend support to Trump. But there were also economic issues and an eroded public trust in politics — or more specifically, in politicians — and Hillary Clinton was a perfect microcosm of all those things that cause an eroded public trust in politics. And then there was Wikileaks, James Comey, and Russian interference in the election. If you listen to the die-hard Democrats, these last three things were the only reasons Clinton lost — the election was stolen by Kremlin interference orchestrated by Vladimir Putin and FBI Director James Comey.
We are now 14 months past the election, and U.S. Intelligence agencies have spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars investigating whether Russian interference influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. It is alleged, although no hard evidence has been made public, that Russian agents were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers, stealing emails and other confidential communications that would later be made public by Wikileaks. It is perhaps more clear that Russian agents may have engaged in targeted online propaganda during the campaign, although it is entirely unclear whether those agents were acting at the direction of government officials.
We now have a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, appointed to investigate collusion between Russian agents and Trump campaign officials. So far, Mueller has handed down indictments against several of Trump’s campaign staff, including Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, and more are expected in the future. But it is important to note that none of these indictments include allegations of conspiracy or collusion with Russia regarding the 2016 election. We may or may not see such allegations in the future.
There may be something to the Russiagate allegations. There are some who believe the entire “scandal” is a baseless conspiracy theory, but I’m not totally convinced. There may be something there. And if there is evidence that Russia violated international law and unlawfully interfered in our elections, we should be outraged and Russia should be sanctioned. And if our President’s campaign deliberately colluded with Russia to unlawfully interfere in our elections, they should be removed and prosecuted. But as it stands, the worst “crime” alleged against Russia is that they spread gossip on Facebook aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton — an endeavor that is not extraordinarily difficult to undertake.
Fake news — the most popular phrase of 2017 — is the real culprit (according to party-loyal Democrats) behind Hillary Clinton’s historic loss. The Russian propaganda was “fake news” that was deliberately spread on Facebook and the internet to discredit Clinton in an effort to influence people to vote for Donald Trump. Russian-generated fake news caused so many Americans to abandon Clinton in favor of the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern history that it caused perhaps the biggest upset in modern presidential election history. And Trump, the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern history, has hijacked this idea — even going so far as taking credit for inventing the word “fake” — and accused all of the mainstream media, with the possible exception of Fox News, of spreading disinformation. Every negative word ever said about Trump is “Fake News!” according to him. And this is where it starts to get a little scary.
Even before Trump took office, while Obama was winding down his last weeks as President, he signed a law authorizing an executive branch committee “to counter active measures by the Russian Federation to exert covert influence over peoples and governments.” Additionally, in a separate but related bill, an inter-agency body would be created to develop “procedures to expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.” Ostensibly, these provisions are designed to simply “expose and refute” disinformation and propaganda from foreign sources, but let’s be honest — government agencies sometimes expand their reach far beyond their originally-intended scope. So, this executive body could effectively allow for the creation of a frighteningly-Orwellian Ministry of Truth, blocking all unapproved messages, and putting forth factual information as determined by un-elected bureaucrats. This should be cause for concern.
Additionally, just this week we saw French President Emmanuel Macron introduce legislation intended to end the spread of disinformation on social media and online. The bill would allow judges to block a website or user account if it is determined — by the government — that they are publishing disinformation. Enforcement would be particularly strict during elections. The law has, understandably, generated a significant degree of opposition, but with a solid majority in parliament, Macron still has a good chance of getting it passed. This is exactly the type of response we should be worrying about.
Which brings us to the thesis of this piece. If Russia had anything to do with “hacking the election,” the purpose behind it would almost have to have been to undermine our democracy. And the reaction by Americans — mostly Democrats and Trump-haters — to this perceived wrongdoing by Russia may very well lead to a massive undermining of our democracy. The solution to securing the American people from foreign propaganda and “disinformation” can be combated by creating a governmental agency tasked with censoring content and creating and publishing counter-narrative content of its own. In essence, the humble beginnings of an authoritarian police state.
What should be even scarier than that — lest someone accuse me of being pro-Trump — is that a maniac is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the United States government. That means that an uninformed, prejudiced, and massively untruthful imbecile will be the first to oversee the curation and dissemination of government-approved media content. Trump’s behavior and attitude have frequently resembled the machinations of authoritarian leaders, and his insistence that all of this nation’s most respected news and media outlets publish nothing but fake news bodes ill for how such a newfound power might be wielded.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press, each of which has been described as a “fundamental personal right.” Nothing keeps the power structure in check better than a robust and unrestricted press. From the landmark decision of Near v. Minnesota (1931) which firmly rejected any law that sought to censor publications, also known as “prior restraint”, to the case of Miami Herald v. Tornillo (1974), which struck down a statute requiring a newspaper to publish a response from any political or public figure that the paper had previously criticized, the Supreme Court has always been openly supportive of a free and unrestrained press. The freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment are crucial to the functioning of our democracy, as stated eloquently by Justice Brandeis in the landmark case of Whitney v. California:
“Those who won our independence … believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government … Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.”
This goes beyond party lines. Whether you are a liberal, conservative, libertarian or anarchist, you should be concerned about the consequences — both intended and unintended — of following Russiagate too far down the rabbit hole. We may find out that the “solution” to Russian interference is to cede our freedom of press (and speech) to the executive branch, and whichever lunatic happens to be its current leader. Unless you found yourself cheering for O’Brian while he tortured Winston Smith in Orlwell’s classic 1984, you should be uncomfortable with the idea of our own government exercising control over what ideas to which Americans will be allowed exposure. By making Russiagate into a bogeyman that must be fought at all costs, combined with our President’s open hostility to negative news, I fear a new era of authoritarian censorship may be on the horizon, and if so, then Russia will have won.