Reporting on the Mueller indictment, the New York Times headlined its article, in typical Gray Lady fashion, “Moscow’s Hand Swirled in U.S., but Whether It Tipped Election Is Unclear.” Presumably, an election victory due to the machinations of a foreign “hand” can hardly produce a legitimate winner, so the Times was being prudent; it isn’t committing itself on the question of the legitimacy of Trump’s election, although it does, in the very first sentence, describe the question as “one of the great unresolved questions in American political history.”
And, regardless of how many facts are gathered and analyzed, it is likely to remain so, given that the notion of “tipping” an election is, under most circumstances, vague to the point of incomprehensibility. What would it take to be able to say sensibly that an event “tipped” an election?
Perhaps one might look at the recent Virginia House of Delegates election that produced a tie vote—in accordance with a state law, the winner was determined by drawing a name (which favored the Republican). Thus, one could say that anything that induced a single Democrat not to vote that day (e.g., a sick child or, heaven forfend, an urgent appeal for help from a Russian friend) could have changed the outcome of the election; the same could be said of anything that induced a Republican who hadn’t intended to vote to nevertheless go to the polls (e.g., a canceled fishing trip). Perhaps in this sense, one could say that one of these events could have “tipped” the election. Still, the hypothesized sick child only “tipped” the election because 23,216 other voters showed up at polls and were divided right down the middle between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
The 2016 presidential election, of course, wasn’t that close, but it was a close one in the sense that if Hillary Clinton had garnered only 80,000 more votes (a small number compared to the almost 66 million votes she did receive) in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, she would have won the election. Of course, those additional votes would have had to have been allocated with surgical precision. How likely is it that a shift of that size in those three states would not be accompanied by similar shifts elsewhere in the country?
In any case, a close election is one that presumably any number of chance occurrences could have “tipped” in either direction. The chance that one could ever isolate one factor and say that it was the “crucial” one is close to nonexistent. And in any case, it would be meaningless; after all, the only reason that some Russian machination in Wisconsin, Michigan, and/or Pennsylvania could “give” Trump the victory was that he also won in Alabama, Alaska, and 25 other states. So would it really make sense to say that Russian social media messages, encouraging African-American votes in Milwaukee to vote for Jill Stein, “tipped” the election—even if it could be shown (as of course it cannot) that the Russian posts, rather than any other pro-Stein messages, caused a sufficient shift of votes from Clinton to Stein?
In any case, if the Russian effort came even close to having such a great effect on the election, then it is obvious that all our election experts, consultants, advisers, and other operatives had better drop everything and head off to St. Petersburg, to sit at the feet of the mastermind of the Russian effort, Yevgeniy Prigozhin. According to the indictment, he spent about $1.25 million per month, although some unidentified portion of that went for operations directed at Russian and other foreign (non-U.S) audiences. As for the now-famous Facebook ads, the Russians spent, according the congressional testimony of the Facebook general counsel, a grand total of $100,000; only 44 percent of the resulting “ad impressions” (i.e., the number of times the items appeared on someone’s computer screen) occurred before the 2016 election. Given that Clinton spent about $1.2 billion on her campaign, it is amazing that her operatives are still willing to show their faces on K Street.
What about the “collaborators,” i.e., those Americans who (unwittingly, the media have been careful to point out) helped the Russian effort? For the most part they were engaged in activities that they would have been engaged in any way, e.g., meetings, demonstrations, etc. It isn’t clear why the Russian-organized pro-Trump activities should have been more influential than the vastly greater number of similar, but legitimate, activities.
And then, of course, there is the unidentified political genius in Texas who told Prigozhin’s minions to concentrate on the “swing” (now “purple”) states – clearly this insight alone was worth the cost of the St. Petersburg operation, since no one else had ever noticed this particular implication of the Electoral College system for presidential campaigns.
So how should we evaluate all of this?
It is helpful to go back to what the Russian operation was really about. What the Mueller indictment makes clear (and the Times and other media tend to downplay) is that the underlying goal of the operation was to weaken U.S. and Western democracy by exacerbating tensions within democratic societies and highlighting the difficulties democratic governments are having in dealing with them. Trump and Sanders (whom the Russians liked) were attractive to them as outsiders, candidates who would seek to overturn the system in one form or another; Clinton, on the other hand, was the establishment personified.
Thus, as part of the general attempt to weaken U.S. political system, they supported the outsiders against the insiders. Unless they have a much better understanding of American politics than our experts and talking heads, they presumably agreed with the consensus view that Clinton would win. (Those American political experts who believe the Russians expected Trump to win should drop everything they are doing and go study in St. Petersburg.)
And, of course, as the indictment notes, after the election the Russians promoted both pro- and anti-Trump rallies in New York. The amount of churn in the U.S. political system since Trump’s election, as evidenced for example by the formation of a “resistance” that fundamentally contests Trump’s legitimacy as president, shows that the Russians have no reason to regret their expenditures on the Internet Research Agency, although, of course, they have no way of knowing that most of this activity wouldn’t have occurred in any case.
Mueller and the intelligence community should do all they can to understand, and lay bare, the Russian efforts to weaken democratic government in the U.S. and elsewhere. And we need to come up with methods, consistent with our own traditions of freedom of speech and the press, and open political debate, to thwart these efforts. But in our resistance to this attack on our democracy, we should beware of actions that do more to further hostile objectives than to thwart them.
When ordinary Americans unwittingly magnified Russian efforts by reposting their material on social media, and attending demonstrations they organized, the Russians no doubt felt that their investment was paying dividends. But when the Timesseriously asks whether the Russian effort “tipped” the election and produced thereby an illegitimate presidency, they hit the jackpot. The Times, and other American media, analyze to a fare-thee-well the motivations and possible effects of Facebook posts, but they resolutely ignore questions about the effects of their own actions, or how they too can magnify the effects of foreign information operations campaigns.