Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Putin Derangement Syndrome

Vladimir Putin (Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)
Democrats fail to notice that the Russian autocrat is feckless

Americans possess an overriding optimism about human motivations: We conflate evil with efficiency. If somebody does something bad, it must be in pursuit of an end that moral methods cannot achieve. Not all ends are good or defensible, of course, but most Americans assume that evil is at least instrumentally rational. Feckless malignancy defies comprehension.

Hence the inscrutability of Vladimir Putin, a bad man who does bad things counterproductively. Because he looks and behaves like a Bond villain, we assume that Putin bends events to his will with Blofeldian trenchancy. Yet the facts expose him as a lackluster strategist and an abominable administrator. Putin is a survivor, to be sure — and, appropriately, given his enthusiasm for judo, handles himself in a pinch. His boldest plays on the world stage, however, have almost uniformly backfired; his most ambitious schemes often yield embarrass­ment. His country is backsliding and his enemies are mobilizing against him. On the merits, he’s Dr. Evil effeminately stroking Mr. Bigglesworth.

Many Democrats are, nonetheless, convinced that, from the Kremlin, this hapless autocrat manipulates events the world over — so convinced, in fact, that they believe that Russia stole the 2016 election. They can be forgiven. Partisans of the faction out of power typically embrace the analgesic effects of conspiracy rather than engaging in self-criticism, accepting the vagaries of electoral cycles, or reading a book. Consider the litany of elaborate myths that metastasized on the right during the last decade, birtherism chief among them. For these Democrats, Russiagate is simply the next iteration of Diebold voting machines, refinished with Cyrillic lettering. This mass Democratic delusion feeds and is fed by the feverish imaginings of a posse of online idiots who tweet, excrete blog posts, and occasionally hector the benighted editors of mainstream media outlets into publishing their screeds.

The sound and fury of the digital and deranged would amount to little if left to their own devices. People are often dumb on the Internet. Instead, however, it has climbed the political hierarchy and burrowed, prion-like, into the brains of the good and the great. Thus those on the left who ought to know better are fanning the conspiratorial flames. Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress regularly gives voice to Russiagate delusions. Jonathan Chait ran an entire piece of speculative fiction in New York magazine arguing that Donald Trump — Donald Trump! — could be a hyper-disciplined, longstanding Russian agent, as great as or greater than Kim Philby. Socialite documentary-maker Jack Bryan’s new film Active Measures, this election season’s answer to the execrable and hysterical Loose Change, features a bipartisan roster of graybeards that includes Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, few have contributed more to this habit of mind than Clinton has. The former nominee initially acknowledged that her campaign had lacked a compelling message, and she made the standard conciliatory gestures. After a few constitutionals through the Chappaqua woods, however, she jettisoned that approach. Instead, either seeking the approval of forlorn Democratic voters or grasping a psychological crutch, she has undertaken a haphazard international excuse-making tour, flying to exotic locations to deny any culpability for her defeat. At each stop, without fail, she raises the specter of interference and the ghost of James Comey, winking and nodding at the notion that she did not actually lose the election so much as have it stolen out from under her nose.

A cynic might say that these doyens of the Democratic establishment have encouraged conspiracy theorizing in imitation of President Trump’s fixation on his predecessor’s birth certificate. It fires up the base, after all. However, many appear to believe earnestly that the election hinged on collusion, leaking, digital advertising, surreptitiously changing vote totals, or some combination thereof. Never mind the obvious disorganization of the Trump campaign, the chaotic nature of which has been documented far and wide. Overlook the paltry number of ads purchased by Russian front groups and their ham-handed execution. Forget that there is zero credible evidence of vote totals’ being changed. Ignore that the leaked emails, although stolen, nonetheless revealed the very real venality of Clinton World.

Facing this evidentiary black hole, Democratic elites have cast about for a villain. Enter Cambridge Analytica. Before folding this year, these self-proclaimed dark artists of data managed to seize a special place in many collusion narratives, which portray them as the shady linchpin making the whole nefarious plot possible. And understandably so, the firm having brought much of this attention on itself through its incessant grandiose self-mythologizing. Cambridge Analytica’s longtime CEO, Alex Nix, approached WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, offering to serve as some sort of intermediary between Assange’s Russian paymasters and Trump Tower. Yet even Assange, a paranoid sex pest holed up in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, smelled a fraud and had the good sense to send Nix packing.

Like the technology he pushed, Nix ultimately produced nothing. The secret to Cambridge Analytica’s effectiveness, he contended, was the human mind itself. Using “big data,” the firm could travel to the darkened corners of our moral maps and identify the Big Five personality types, an old psychological heuristic that is only partially grounded in empirical evidence and not remotely cutting-edge . Cambridge claimed that it could anticipate which issues, packaged in which sets of words, could win hearts and minds.

This was all facially stupid. Social science overwhelmingly suggests that historical and contextual factors rather than personality types drive political choices. The problems with Cambridge Analytica’s methods and products are legion, but it succeeded because it convinced some mega-donors of its genius, and so political consultants figured that inviting it along might mean funding.

Skepticism piled up nonetheless. When pushed on the question of how the firm collected its data, Nix and his confederates always demurred. Asked why in modeling survey responses they relied on an outmoded heuristic, they bluffed or pivoted. Pressed to produce evidence of their claimed effectiveness, they gave inquisitors the runaround until forced by U.K. law to cough up some “psychographic” profiles. It became clear that Nix and his fellow shysters had never developed a working model of the human mind that could show any meaningful improvement over traditional campaign analytics. Finally, in testimony before a parliamentary panel, Nix was forced to admit to lying to prospective clients in order to impress them.

He and his ilk were obvious liars. They took credit for Brexit, despite having done minimal work on the referendum. They claimed as clients candidates who had never hired them, and daftly boasted on camera of the firm’s cutting-edge practice of . . . hiring prostitutes to entrap political adversaries. One hardly needs advanced analytics to understand the persistence and pitfalls of the oldest profession. But, like Putin, they were self-deluding. As Cambridge Analytica has unraveled, it has become clear that its leaders kept lying and overextending themselves in pursuit of the very psychographic insight that they never possessed. To professionals, that very pursuit gave them away as amateurs and nincompoops. They believed in the product they were selling. They just hadn’t created it yet.

Like Cambridge Analytica, Vladimir Putin should have quit while he was ahead. The Russian Federation had it good under Obama. President Lead-from-Behind endorsed a toothless reboot of strategic-arms-reduction treaties, gave Putin his run of the place in Syria, and refused to arm the Ukrainians even after little green men in service to Moscow shot down a civilian airliner. For the second half of his presidency, Obama sat by idly as Russians hacked into the computer systems of most of the federal government’s most important agencies. Consider an exhausted John Kerry, looking for all the world like Boris Karloff with a diplomatic passport, praising the Russians for their role in “removing” Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. His reward: Russian hacking of the State Department so thoroughgoing that the department had to shut down its email servers.

When pushed on his permissive attitude toward Russia, Obama derisively suggested that his critics were living in the past. Hillary Clinton, long thought to be “tougher” on Putin, happily played along with the clownish “Russian reset” — complete with a prop button — and did little to push the White House to take a tougher approach to the Kremlin. Nor would she have faced much domestic political pressure from the Democratic coalition to go after Moscow had Putin had the good sense to stay out of the 2016 election.

Instead, in a fit of pique seemingly driven by his own paranoid delusions about Hillary Clinton’s power, he kicked a hornet’s nest. Gone is the passive Democratic electorate of 2016. In its place, a Russophobic mob is ready to rush the Urals at the first sign of provocation. And for its part, the Republican party remains committed to increasing defense spending in ways that directly and negatively affect Russia’s geostrategic goals. One need only look at the number of Russian diplomats booted from American shores and Russian mercenaries dis-incorporated in Syria to realize what a bungling, insanely stupid scheme Putin’s election-meddling operation was. He has mobilized the Democrats against him but finds the Republicans no friendlier than before, whatever irenic gestures the president might have made in Helsinki. Given a congenial status quo, Putin jumped with both feet onto a steel rake.

Nor has his bungling of the American election been unique: He seems to take every opportunity to sound scary, never realizing that his exaggerated bark leads NATO and the United States to strengthen their respective bites. He was asleep at the switch when his key puppet state in Kiev was consumed by an easily anticipated revolution. In 2014 his junta of thugs bungled the international rollout of Sochi, and while this year’s World Cup wasn’t as embarrassing, it still saw empty seats and a dearth of European visitors. At home and abroad, Putin huffs and puffs but lacks the lung capacity to blow over much of anything.

Why, then, given his obvious ludicrousness, does the Democratic establishment go in for these insane visions of Putin as puppet-master? Consider the asymmetry between the Republican journey through the wilder­ness after 2008 and the Democrats’ present sojourn. A decade ago, the GOP’s ideological hard Right aligned with what can politely be called its “epistemic fringe” to form an alliance against the conservative media establishment and the center Right.

These two factions, the hard Right and the center Right, disagreed with each other across a host of issues and fought each other to exhaustion through 2014, just in time for Donald Trump to come from outside the Republican fold and seize the party’s nomination. However, both the center Right and the farther Right fought Trump tooth and nail to the bitter end. Neither gave up the ghost willingly, and both remained deeply skeptical of Trump’s staying power until he defeated Clinton in November 2016.

In 2018, the ideological Left is pushing a programmatic policy agenda of a $15-per-hour national minimum wage, free public college, Medicare for all, and abolishing ICE. The center Left, by contrast, lacking ideas, has fallen back on identity politics and, most pathetically, Russian conspiracy theorizing. That bodes ill for the Democrats and perhaps for America as a whole.

With the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries already getting under way, the policy-heavy ideological fringe of the party is resurgent. Those of the center Left who recognize the fatuousness of the policies lack a robust set of alternative policies to propose. Longtime Hillary Clinton aide Jake Sullivan, writing recently in Democracy, tried to propound four points of agreement between the center Left and the rising progressive insurgency. However, under close reading, his broad and generic proposals look more like capitulation than collaboration.

So it becomes hard to see how the center Left will stave off an organized and policy-driven challenge from its progressive wing in 2020. Their mandarins’ crass appeals to identity, racial and sexual, simply will not get the job done. If anything, the pop intersectionality of the center Left — the triumph of recognition over redistribution — testifies to how intellectually and politically bereft the mandarins are.

Seen from a particular angle, conservatives might be pleased. A Corbynite Democratic party, one singularly committed to a losing program, may become unelectable and thereby leave an admittedly fractured GOP to run the show for the foreseeable future. Yet America’s fixed electoral calendar, combined with the business cycle, could wind up empowering a truly unhinged Democratic party. That would be nothing to celebrate.

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