It will be a long time into the future before we will know just what this election ultimately meant. What is perhaps more clear, even if we avoid donning the rose colored glasses of hindsight, is that the seeds that sprouted in 2016 were a long time- a- growing. They might even have been anticipated as far back as the culture wars that exploded onto the scene in the late 1960’s. More on that in a moment.
What would have certainly shocked someone brought here in a time machine from, say, 1981, was the role, even if less a prominent a role than some have suggested, that the Russians played in getting the Republican candidate elected president. We might never know if this bromance between Trump and Putin had to do with the former’s financial ties with figures in the Kremlin as the far from radical Francis Fukuyama recently suggested, if it was a dog-whistle for white supremacists Trump has disgustingly courted over the course of the election, or if it was merely a reflection of Trump’s stance of being soft on Russia compared to the much more hawkish views of Putin’s nemesis Hillary Clinton.
Yet it’s probably just as likely that Putin and his cronies were as surprised by the election outcome as most of the rest of us. That the Kremlin had no expectation of influencing the election in Trump’s favor so much as to give the United States pay back for our interference in Russian politics and elections in their backyard, most notably Ukraine.
In some sense,though, the election of 2016 wasn’t so much influenced by what the Russians did, as the entire political technology and theory that not only won Trump the election, but might end up be the best way of understanding the political universe that will emerge from his victory. This political technology was one of the many ill fated consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was here, in the former USSR, so behind the West in everything else, that truly post-modern, 21st century form of politics was created.
This politics as infowar was born when Western style, television- centric, political campaigning was adopted by a social order in a state of utter collapse. That is, when what is the worst of American politics was embraced by the disillusioned, perhaps nihilistic, former apparatchiks of the fallen Soviet Union absent the kinds of constraints of traditions and institutions that has, up until this moment at least, informed American politics.
The title of Peter Pomerantsev’ excellent book on this era Nothing is True and Everything is Possible says it all. Pomerantsev gives us an searing view into a society where all norms have collapsed. As a television producer he is most informative when it comes to revealing how the Kremlin has used the power of mass media to cling to power in the face of this collapse. It did so not (as in the era of totalitarianism) by uniting the people around an all embracing ideology, but by mastering the art of distracting and confusing the public in such a way as to shield those in power from political accountability and control by the people they rule.
The figure who is credited with pioneering this new form of politics is the Russian businessmen and “political technologist” (his term) Vladislav Surkov who has found himself in, then out, then in again, of Putin’s inner circle. Architect of the brilliant “infowar” aspects of the Russian annexation of Crimea, Surkov is also a novelist writing under pseudonyms such as Natan Dubovitsky.
In Everything is true and nothing is possible Pomerantsev discusses Without Sky a revealing short- story Surkov published on the eve the invasion of Crimea that gives us insight into his world view. It is a tale of the first “non-linear war”, the philosophy behind which Pomerantsev describes this way:
There is no holy war in Sarkov’ vision, none of the cabaret, meant to tease and confuse the West. But there is a darkling version of globalization in which instead of everyone rising together, interconnection means multiple competitions between corporations and movements and city-states. Where old alliances, NATO and the EU and the “West” are all worn out, and the Kremlin can play the new, fluctuating lines of loyalty and interest, oil and money splitting the Europe from America pitting one Western company against another and against their governments so no one knows whose interest is what and where they’re headed. (231)
Of course, Surkov did not invent such an idea of nonlinear politics and war whole cloth, but according to Pomerantsev:
… inherited… tsarists practices of co-opting anti-government forces (anarchists in the 19th century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television advertising and black PR. (64)
What Surkov and his ilk managed to do was birth a new form of authoritarianism that was adapted to 21st century conditions, which:
…instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOS, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOS of being tools of the West. (65)
This phenomenon on the American scene has been labeled post-truth politics/media an appellation that captures something, but at the same time misses what is even more important. When Trump recently tweeted that individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or stripped of citizenship the statement itself was neither true or false, but rather, (conscious or not) was a form of infowar the consequence of which was to separate even further a nationalist public and an elite media, to bait liberals into flag burning and thus “revealing” themselves as people who hate and therefore, in the eyes of arch-nationalists, hope for the destruction of the country. Every moment we were caught up in this artificial drama was one not spent in paying attention to what Trump is actually doing such as appointing the same sorts of Wall Street insiders he attacked during his campaign to major positions within his administration.
Better algorithmic filters for fake news deployed by FaceBook or any of the other major players in tech wouldn’t solve the problem that arises when one significant portion of the a country’s population thinks its founding document permits imprisonment, or worse, over burning the national symbol while another thinks that very same document protects such an act. We are in a crisis of values and meaning as much as we are in a crisis of truth, which doesn’t mean that this crisis bears no relationship with current communications technologies and their political economy or that this crisis isn’t being gamed by those with their own agendas- quite the opposite. Perhaps even more importantly, the more essential question of the day seems to be less about truth and falsehood than the increasingly fierce competition over whose ideas will be heard at all through the flood of information and misinformation under which all of us are drowning. But more on all those points another time…