Here’s another fascinating item, right at the top of the news feeds: Trump tweets, “I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.” Did the New York Times pounce on that one, or what? Let’s bring out three points, all related to the tweet, and to the way we use language, in a time when we do not care that much about how we use language:
1) We are talking about Twitter here. Twitter is where you shoot off your mouth on the internet. Trump’s has the fastest trigger, I mean twitter finger in DC. Who cares what people say on Twitter? For the New York Times to report on Twitter statements as if they were news shows a serious lack of editorial judgment.
2) Russia is a country. It occupies the northern half of Asia. It has a population of just under 150 million people. Countries do not help you win elections, nor do they hinder you. People do that. Yes, we use ‘Russia’ as shorthand for Russia’s citizens, but the distinction between a country and its citizens matters. Some shorthand words communicate less than we’d like.
3) Trump seldom thinks about what he says. He cares about what people think of him, but he also does not care. He manifestly does not measure his words. To jump on anything he says shows everyone’s readiness to play gotcha. To jump on something he tweets makes you think journalists do not know what to do with themselves.
Another president protected himself from bored journalists. Given the prevalence of gotcha, Obama edited his words carefully when he spoke, and completely ruined his natural eloquence. An exciting candidate who knew how to use words became a boring president, who used words defensively. Presidents have a lot of enemies. You can attack them, as Trump does, or you can pull into your shell.
At the end of his term, Obama perceived some people in Russia had a wonderful time f**king around with us. We do not know their connection with Russia’s government, or with the government’s intelligence services, which resemble U. S. intelligence services in that they operate largely independent of the government. We might remark on two things related to these shenanigans.
First, how in the world does messing around with social media like Facebook and Twitter influence a person’s vote? I can tell you, people vote the way they do for a lot of reasons, but what they see on social media ain’t one of them. No one tells a pollster, or herself, “I voted for so and so because a friend on Facebook persuaded me that’s what I should do.”
More tellingly, no one who is so indignant about meddlers located in Russia, or Rumania, or wherever, even bothers to explain how this kind of influence works. How exactly do these pranksters get people to change their vote, or get them to make up their minds if they are undecided? You do not see an explanation because there isn’t one!
Second, why would we respond to these actions as anything out of the ordinary? Is it because we have all become hyper-vigilant about overseas threats to the homeland since 9/11? Do we take the simple view that it’s okay for the U. S. to deploy influence techniques because we’re the good guys? Perhaps we just don’t like trespassers – get out of our backyard, and stay out!
Third, even if the shenanigans did trick some hapless voters, how could a couple of dozen low-rent public relations people carry the entire election? Mrs. Clinton spent well over half a billion dollars, lined up the best consultants and political advertising people money could buy, and she couldn’t carry the election. I wonder if the Russians focused their limited resources on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, because they forecast Clinton would blow her advantage in those states.
The remarkable thing about 2016 is not what happened on social media. It happened inside the Democratic National Committee’s servers. Hackers went in there and looted the place. It’s like looters at Walmart who go for the TV sets first. Get the good stuff, leave the groceries for last.
While Democrats talked with Christopher Steele about what he could find on Trump in Moscow, political types in Moscow rummage through Podesta’s inbox, and God knows what other files. Steele returns with a bunch of misinformation, collects his consultant’s fee from DNC, whereas eastern European hackers feed their tranche of DNC records to the notorious WikiLeaks for free. Good comeuppance for Clinton’s highly paid staff, who managed to lose the election to an oaf.
What’s even more galling for the Democrats is that these sorts of mistakes may have actually made a differency. Perhaps they influenced people’s perceptions about the party and its lead candidate, though you can’t say whether the DNC’s security problems changed people’s minds on election day. People judge mistakes more severely when they already oppose you, but forgive and forget when they think you’re the best option they have.
In Clinton’s case, to have those server problems at DNC immediately after Comey cleared her of a criminal indictment for how she handled her email from 2009 to 2013, just didn’t look good at all. It made you ask questions: “How much should we trust this team with our foreign policy, if they cannot even protect their email?” These are not questions you want voters to ask when the general election is a little over two months away.
After all that, when the election is ten days away, James Comey announces formally, in a letter to Congress no less, that he plans to reopen the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s email server, due to files his investigators found on a laptop that belongs to Clinton’s former aide. The aide’s spouse is an exhibitionist named A. Weiner. The atmospherics could not be worse. Trump is enough of a farce, as Clinton loved to point out. Now she’s trying to outrun a former congressman who likes to take pictures of his penis, to post on the internet.
People keep asking Clinton why she lost. She feels an obligation to say something. She shouldn’t. Clinton lost because she lost. You could say she lost because she’s a weak candidate, but they were both weak candidates. She lost because her opponent won 306 electoral votes, to her total of 232. She lost because she didn’t win. Yet people feel she disappointed them, and they want to know why.
She felt her turn had come in 2016, after she waited eight years for Obama to be done. In fact, you and the sitting president must be extremely popular to win what amounts to a third term for your predecessor. Clinton told all of us, “You know what to expect with me. You will get more of the same. You can’t say that about my opponent, can you?” Voters opted for unpredictability over stability. “Let’s see what happens.”
I’ve moved a bit from the headline of the day – “Russia helped me” – but that’s alright. Democrats can learn humility after they lose two in a row. They will also learn their touching faith in impeachment to rally voters is a mistake. When Trump delivers his second inaugural address, they will still ask, “What did we do wrong?”