Matt Taibbi’s Skepticism of the Russian Hacking Coverage Is all Wrong

I have news for Matt Taibbi. When Russian mobsters crash your daughter’s wedding party and spike the punch with LSD-25, it’s not McCarthyism to be pissed off that Cousin Jethro is up on the roof with Sergei in their underwear jabbering about the Dixie Chicks and InfoWars. And it won’t do to pretend none of it matters if we can’t prove that the father of the groom was in on the whole thing.

I’ll stipulate up front that Taibbi, who spent his formative years with Mark Ames writing for The Exile and drinking and drugging in Yeltsin’s Moscow, knows more about Russia than I ever will. If Mark Ames is right, Taibbi is more fearless about Russian mobsters than I ever will be, too.

Ames claims that while he was gone [in the States] Taibbi mismanaged The Exile, running it into debt and embroiling it in a libel lawsuit with Russian hockey star Pavel Bure after Taibbi ran a prank story claiming Bure’s then girlfriend, tennis player Anna Kournikova, had two vaginas. Ames says Taibbi pushed him to take on Bure, a hero among some of Moscow’s less humor-inclined underworld figures, knowing that it might endanger The Exile and Ames’s safety, even his life. “He wanted out of The Exile and he wanted out of my shadow. He was pretty clear that he wanted The Exile to go down,” Ames says.

I don’t know why these two gentleman are both so hostile to the idea that Russia may have done something unforgivable when they decided to treat our democracy like a suitable victim for a college prank. But it doesn’t shock me that some people’s minds drift towards a combination of fear and compromise.

What I do know is that Taibbi frames the question incorrectly from the get-go when he makes it all about Trumpian collusion, as if stealing the voter rolls and using them to microtarget our electorate with fake news were not enough on its own.

Perhaps it will come off just the way people are expecting. Perhaps [Michael] Flynn will get a deal, walk into the House or the Senate surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers, and unspool the whole sordid conspiracy.

He will explain that Donald Trump, compromised by ancient deals with Russian mobsters, and perhaps even blackmailed by an unspeakable KGB sex tape, made a secret deal. He’ll say Trump agreed to downplay the obvious benefits of an armed proxy war in Ukraine with nuclear-armed Russia in exchange for Vladimir Putin’s help in stealing the emails of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and John Podesta.

I personally would be surprised if this turned out to be the narrative, mainly because we haven’t seen any real evidence of it. But episodes like the Flynn story have even the most careful reporters paralyzed. What if, tomorrow, it all turns out to be true?

One clue here is Taibbi’s sarcastic reference to the obvious benefits of an armed proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. But snideness isn’t an argument. You don’t have to agree with the bipartisan consensus view of the American Establishment that Ukraine would be better off in the E.U. than having itself carved up by a man like Vladimir Putin. You can agree with Donald Trump that Russia hasn’t gone into Ukraine and that Crimeans are happier being part of Russia. You don’t even have to want to give Ukraine “lethal defensive weapons.” After all, Obama refused to do just that.

What you can’t do is say with any credibility that Trump having the GOP change the party platform to weaken its position on Ukraine isn’t any evidence of some kind of quid pro quo.

But, look, when E. Howard Hunt graduated from fucking up democracy in Guatemala and invasions of Cuba to orchestrating half-ass break-ins of the Democrats’ party headquarters, people didn’t think it was Hunt taking it down a notch. People didn’t say it was politics as usual. What they said (for quite a while) is that “we haven’t seen any real evidence of” Nixon’s involvement and that all those pesky Washington Post reporters have proved is that Nixon Derangement Syndrome has arrived.

Or, the useful idiots said that. The folks with an olfactory sense for smoke and trouble knew that decorated CIA officers don’t run domestic operations using Cuban exiles against the national headquarters of a major party in an election year without there being something truly goddamned sinister underlying it.

But, hey if the break-in is only digital who cares if it is vastly more successful in pilfering information? Who cares if the theft is carried out by an actual foreign government. Right?

In 1974, G. Gordon Liddy goes to jail, Nixon resigns, and Hunter S. Thompson is vindicated. In 2017, Vladimir Putin receives a tongue bath from Rolling Stone and Donald Trump gets a couple of gasps of unmerited reprieve.

So, is breaking into a political party’s emails and using them to influence an election a crime or not? Is it something that Americans have a right to be angry about? Is it okay if we interrupt Putin’s murder spree for five minutes to mention that we’re displeased with him?

Or will that later on get us accused of premature anti-fascism?

Because, it seems to me that Matt Taibbi is a little too concerned about the tone, which is rich coming from a guy who cut his chops hitting New York Times Moscow-bureau chief Michael Wines in the face with a homemade horse semen pie.

When did Matt Taibbi begin giving a shit about the tone?

And this Russia thing has spun out of control into just such an exercise of conspiratorial mass hysteria.

Even I think there should be a legitimate independent investigation – one that, given Trump’s history, might uncover all sorts of things. But almost irrespective of what ends up being uncovered on the Trump side, the public prosecution of this affair has taken on a malevolent life of its own.

When did Matt Taibbi begin to sound exactly like George Will?

I’m no fan of John McCain, and I’m not above taking on his war record. And I know he never met a problem he didn’t want to bomb. But I sit up and notice when he starts making Matt Taibbi sound like Tokyo Rose:

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that a select committee must be formed to investigate every aspect of Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

“Every time we turn around, another shoe drops from this centipede,” McCain told host Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“We need to examine every aspect of it: President Trump’s priorities, and the other priorities many of us believe exist,” McCain said.

If you blink, you’ll miss our new Education Secretary’s brother meeting with a Putin representative in the Seychelles or another revelation about the former head of our Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn taking filthy lucre from a Russian cybersecurity firm to talk out of school about American intelligence operations.

And to think people were upset with Kim Philby!

But no one made Kim Philby our National Security Adviser, did they?

I don’t know what to make of Carter Page, but I was interested to see that he was the target of a major recruitment effort by Russian intelligence back in 2013, and that he was offered “empty promises” of contracts because the officers thought he was just the kind of money-hungry idiot to fall for their schemes. He somehow went from that to being named as one of Trump’s top national security advisers and allegedly getting offered a 19% stake in Rosneft in return for a lifting of sanctions.

What I can observe, however, is that Taibbi is less interested in how in the hell Carter Page wound up mentoring Donald Trump and meeting with the Russian ambassador on his behalf than he is in assuring us that no one is a dupe or an agent of the Russkie intelligence services.

Even before the vote was held last November, news outlets were noting the influence of internet bots. What they didn’t initially realize was that those bots were Russian in origin and accompanied by an army of trolls. Of course, they should have suspected this since Adrian Chen reported on it for the New York Times Magazine all the way back in June of 2015:

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes. In April, I went to St. Petersburg to learn more about the agency and its brand of information warfare, which it has aggressively deployed against political opponents at home, Russia’s perceived enemies abroad and, more recently, me…

Initially, Chen was focused on the propagation of fake news and stories that made America look bad (or Putin good), but by December of 2015 he had noticed something else:

“A very interesting thing happened,” Chen told Longform’s Max Linsky in a podcast in December.

“I created this list of Russian trolls when I was researching. And I check on it once in a while, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff,” he said.

Linsky then asked Chen who he thought “was paying for that.”

“I don’t know,” Chen replied. “I feel like it’s some kind of really opaque strategy of electing Donald Trump to undermine the US or something. Like false-flag kind of thing. You know, that’s how I started thinking about all this stuff after being in Russia.”

And here we get to the heart of the matter. Because undermining the U.S. by electing Donald Trump is what this is all about. On the one side we have Russia hacking into voter files so they can microtarget undecided soccer moms in Mahoning County, Ohio. To do this, they have armies of bots to like and retweet fake news cooked up in Macedonia and elsewhere. They have an army of trolls holed up in some complex in St. Petersburg to amplify pro-Trump/anti-Hillary messages. They have several different intelligence arms hacking into American politicos’ electronic communications and divulging only that which is damaging to Clinton.

And then on the other side we have this whimper of logic from Matt Taibbi:

These stories insist that, among other things, these evil bots pushed on the unwitting “bros” juicy “fake news” stories about Hillary being “involved with various murders and money laundering schemes.”

Some 13.2 million people voted for Sanders during the primary season last year. What percentage does any rational person really believe voted that way because of “fake news”?

I would guess the number is infinitesimal at best. The Sanders campaign was driven by a lot of factors, but mainly by long-developing discontent within the Democratic Party and enthusiasm for Sanders himself.

To describe Sanders followers as unwitting dupes who departed the true DNC faith because of evil Russian propaganda is both insulting and ridiculous. It’s also a testimony to the remarkable capacity for self-deception within the leadership of the Democratic Party.

If the party’s leaders really believe that Russian intervention is anywhere in the top 100 list of reasons why some 155 million eligible voters (out of 231 million) chose not to pull a lever for Hillary Clinton last year, they’re farther along down the Purity of Essence nut-hole than Mark Warner.

There’s always the possibility that Russia is simply deluded about the return on investment they get out of all these operations. It does look like the American Establishment still has some fighting spirit left in it, and they’ve acted swiftly to expose Trump’s associations and to cut out Michael Flynn. Maybe the sanctions won’t get lifted after all. But Trump is still the most successful acid-induced college prank ever pulled off, because the simple fact that he’s our president is a complete disaster. Our country has been atomic-wedgied on a flagpole, and our ass is exposed to the world.

If you think having a lunatic in charge of the most lethal radioactive arsenal in this sector of the galaxy is a safer bet than challenging Russia on the future of Ukraine, then keep your eye on North Korea. There’s nothing remotely funny about what Russia did here.

What we have are a lot of people who don’t want to face facts. Some think the Democrats deserved to lose because they nominated a bad candidate, or the DNC rigged the game, or they ignored the white working class, or they pushed too hard and too fast on the cultural front. And no one wants to admit that they or anyone else was duped or influenced by the (often fake) stuff they saw in their Twitter feeds or on Facebook or from troll commenters on blogs and in newspapers.

Others think that the left can’t talk about Russia without forgetting to work on making a better and broader appeal to the American public. And still others are scarred from the Cold War (like Matt “no one seems to be concerned about igniting a hot war with nuclear-powered Russia” Taibbi) that they smell McCarthyism around every corner.

The truth is, we got pantsed by Russia and we have every right to be angry as hell about it.

Only when we reach agreement on this point should we begin debating how witting the Trump campaign was about the whole thing. And, whether we can prove cooperation or not, we know the result. And, assuming we survive the result, the result cannot be replicated.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.