The 2016 election has once again caused indigestion inside the federal bureaucracy, this time over whether Moscow potentially swayed voters with sinister propaganda. The CIA, or at least several of its Washington Post whisperers, says it most certainly did and with the goal of tilting the election to Donald Trump, on the basis of intel it reportedly had long before Election Day but only now decided to leak. The FBI, meanwhile, doesn’t dispute that Russian hacking occurred, but finds insufficient evidence that the interference was calculated to aid Trump.
And that’s gotten everyone buzzing. Is the CIA politicized? Is James Comey’s FBI? Our national leaders certainly are, with Donald Trump calling Langley’s conclusion “ridiculous” (a great position for an incoming president to put himself in) and recreational liar Harry Reid accusing the FBI of a coverup. It takes you back to those crucible days before the election, when contradictory claims about Hillary Clinton’s email server were oozing out of the J. Edgar Hoover building like it was a papier maché volcano and it was impossible to know what was true and what wasn’t.
The only point of consensus seems to be that Russian media did indeed try to impact our electoral process. But why? Beyond the obvious policy motivations—repealing sanctions, easing NATO influence, etc.—their larger goal was articulated by Liz Wahl, a former anchor at the Russian network RT, on CNN yesterday: “The goal of Russian media,” she said, “is to undermine faith in our institutions.” Putin’s governance is premised on an almost-cultish devotion to the state and its barebacked leader, a prioritization of wannabe king and country above self, and from that perspective it makes sense to think the best way you can undermine another country is to diminish its institutions.
If you live in Washington, you’ve probably seen posters for RT that depict Colin Powell holding a vial during his famously discredited testimony before the UN about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program, tagged: “This is what happens when there is no second opinion.” You can agree with that sentiment, as I do, and still understand Russia’s ulterior motive. They want us to distrust our government because they (wrongly) believe a distrusted government is a sign of a waning superpower.
But here’s the thing. It isn’t Russian propaganda that’s making the Western world lose faith in its institutions; those institutions did that to themselves. Moscow is at best a Johnny-come-lately riding a current that began to swell years ago. The failures of American institutions have been spectacular and thorough: big banks as agents of financial destruction that pocketed the bailout money and have been clinking champagne glasses on Wall Street ever since; big churches that have become mired in scandal and crass politics while their flocks continue to disperse; big media, imperialistic and out of touch with middle American values; big industry, fleeing the country; big government, the most discredited of all, having perpetrated two decades of bloody wars and calamitous economic interventions, culminating in Obamacare, which is currently wrecking the health sector.
The common denominator underneath all of those is “big”; hopscotch over to Europe and you can add “big superstates” to that list, as populist parties revolt against the EU. This is the story of 2016, that Western peoples increasingly feel besieged by megalith concentrations of power over which they have little control, and so they’ve settled for the nuclear option, unorthodox politicians like Donald Trump. It’s a revolt that’s incomprehensible to many of those who work in these institutions, for whom the status quo is good and the bloat is profitable.
This is why so many in Washington, weary of blinking through the telescope at West Virginia and pretending to care, have reacted to news of Russia’s hacking like their pants just burst into flames. It’s not only because Moscow’s behavior is outrageous—though it is and should be investigated—it’s because it allows them to blame a familiar enemy, one whose vanquishing will require more action on their part rather than less. Washington believes it should do everything except scale back. The “we wuz hacked” line furthers that delusion, and so the anti-big revolution will rage on.