Did the Trump campaign collude with the Russians? Who cares? That’s not the story. The story is that for the first time in history a hostile power has installed a president of the United States in office. I’m not talking about the Dossier or the fake social media attack or even the hacking before the election, and I think that the media frenzy to catch Trump or his campaign in some specific malfeasance is not on point. The point is that President Trump is acting as if he were an agent of the Kremlin. What, after all, would be on the short list of things Putin would like to see happen? The US divided into warring camps? Check. The US government—especially the State Department— crippled by incompetence? Check. The US separated from its allies and trading partners? Check. Russian aggression off the national security agenda? Check. A nuclear exchange between North Korea and the US or its allies? Icing on the cake, and all of it down to Donald.
That’s what gives the story its terrible punch. We can imagine Putin’s people eying Trump in Moscow in 2013 and scratching their heads. Can this guy, a failing businessman kept afloat by Russian money laundering, really be as naive and stupid as he seems? In Moscow he gets charmed and flattered and compromised and placed on the ready rack with the other useful idiots. I don’t think they ever imagined he would be president, but you never can tell what can happen in American politics, a famous arena of long-shot success.
Of course, when he does win the nomination, they go all out with the hacking and the information wars. Trump wins, and they break out the Champagne in the Lubianka. The press is a little reluctant to claim that the Russians made a difference in the 2016 totals, but when you compare the tens of millions of views of the fake FB pages with the extreme slimness of the margin that threw the three midwestern states to the Trump column (the oft-quoted 77K), you have to wonder. Nailing this down is a feasible analysis and I’m sure someone is already at work on it.
Did they have help targeting the ads and agitprop? Maybe, maybe not. The idiomatic mistakes made in those ads should not mislead us. The FSB-GRU probably has the political targeting skills required, and it’s not impossible that Russians have American experts who are not inferior to our best political analysts. The Russians are very good at this sort of thing. a lot better than we are, because spying and secret police work in general is what Russia has instead of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. For generations, under czar and commissar, the brightest young people were recruited into state security and espionage, and their work shows it. That Russia is now ruled by a chekhist (as such people are known, after the original Soviet secret police) is scary, but not surprising, no more than an America dominated by finance or technology people. It a wonderful irony here that Putin is everything Trump aspires to, but can never obtain, not because of American civil traditions and the rule of law, but because he’s simply not in the same class as a leader. To observe the head of a mediocre real estate company going up against a man who’s run a world power for over twenty years, crushed a Islamic insurrection, stole half a nation with impunity, and strangled Russian democracy in its cradle is to weep for American prospects.
Whether Trump is a conscious Russian agent is hard to know, since Trump seems barely conscious of anything except ratings and criticism. I doubt that he was brought into the whole plot, since he’s famously a man who can’t keep his mouth shut. He must know, however, that Putin could destroy him in an afternoon, which must concentrate his mind on advancing no policies whatever that would anger the Kremlin—and he has not. It’s true that it would be impossible now to adopt policies seen as favoring Russia, but that’s not a big deal. Trump in the White House being Trump is coup enough. Well played, FSB, well played!