Blaming Russia

by Eliot Borenstein

Part One in an ongoing series about the question of “fake news”


Is Russia engaged in a concerted effort to undermine American democracy, or are we living through a twenty-first century version of red baiting (in the absence of actual Reds)?

Perhaps we don’t have to choose.  Let’s set aside the details of Russiagate for a moment, bidding a fond farewell to the “hookers” and water sports (they’ll be back soon enough),  and think about the current media preoccupation with Russia as an enemy.

There is more than enough evidence to justify the ongoing investigations into Russia’s involvement in the Trump campaign.  And it is understandable that those who are appalled by a president who surrounds himself with fascists and white supremacists might relish the opportunity to gloat over a scandal that, at its worst, is high treason, and at its best, rank stupidity (without ruling out the possibility that it might be both).

But as much as I personally enjoy every nail hammered into what I hope will be the Trump presidency’s coffin, the current rhetoric about Russia makes me profoundly uneasy.  Particularly as the focus shifts from possible acts of collusion to Russian manipulation of American media.

First, we should acknowledge the Orwellian speed with which we as a nation have identified the enemy:  it was only five years ago that Mitt Romney was mocked relentlessly (and, I believe, justifiably), for calling Russia our number one foe.

Second, Russiagate has only intensified a lazy and dangerous habit of personalizing all of Russian policy by focusing on Putin himself.  Putin makes an easy target, since his public presentation oscillates between “1980s Bond villain” and “clueless middle-aged guy with an embarrassing eHarmony profile.”  Never a model of transparency, the Russian political system is particularly opaque to journalists and think-tankers looking for an easy shorthand (“Putin is Stalin, rebuilding the USSR”).

Third, blaming Russia lets us off the hook.  Whatever Russia’s involvement may be, Trump is a monster of our own creation.  Given his hypocrisy in manufacturing Trump products overseas and hiring foreign workers, his supporters should take comfort in the fact that Trump himself was Made in America.  Like Amway, or syphilis.

Fourth, when Americans blame Russia for their problems, they are handing an enormous victory to Russia’s propaganda system.  For years, right-wing Russian conspiracy theories have taken as an article of faith that everything bad that has happened in their part of the world (most notably, the destruction of the Soviet Union) is the work of the implacable American enemy.  Now these theories have gone mainstream, and Russian media consumers hear again and again that America would like nothing more than to dismantle the Russian Federation.

The framework for America’s evil intent is called “Russophobia,” a racist pathology that has apparently guided our actions for over a century. As I argue in my forthcoming book, the construction of Russophobia serves to reinforce the idea that Russia is at the center of world history and world affairs, and also helps avoid any local responsibility for the failings of the economy or the political system.

In the case of America, there is no shortage of ignorance about Russia, nor is it difficult to find Russia’s leaders painted as sinister (though, to be fair, Russia’s leaders sometimes make this job even easier).  But Americans, so secure in our own sense that we are the center of world affairs, if not history (who cares about history?), can go for years without paying any attention to Russia at all.  Stories of Russophobia are Russian propaganda’s way of telling viewers that Americans actually care enough to hate them.  And if Russian state television can use American accusations of Russian meddling to show our basic hostility to their country, then we are playing into the propagandists’ hands.

Finally, the overall tone of Russiagate coverage is not healthy for American democracy.  This does not mean the allegations should not be investigated—they must be.  But they are taking their toll. Now a Republican senator on the Intelligence Committee has alleged that Russian trolls are fueling the debate over NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.  If this is true, it is, as they say, deplorable, but it’s also a sideshow, which could allow critics to dismiss the entire protest as part of Russia’s attack on our media ecosystem.  Moreover, it reminds us that the troll farms’ most successful technique is not lighting new fires; it is fanning the flames that have already been lit.

The common wisdom about fear of persecution is: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

But perhaps the reverse also holds true: Just because they’re out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.


10 responses to “Blaming Russia”

  1. esther.kingston-mann says:

    Wonderful post!

    In addition, as I see it, the success of such constructions is enhanced by the failure to refer to the US penchant for interventions in Russia and elsewhere.

  2. Lewis Siegelbaum says:

    Excellent points made here. Indeed, I found myself wondering who bears the greatest responsibility for Russophobia – old anti-communists or new Democrats, or are those the same thing?

  3. M X M says:

    Why are we not looking at Russia’s (and Ukraine’s) involvement in the Clinton campaign, of which there are copious ties? Is Russiagate purely politically motivated to scapegoat the victor of the 2016 campaign?

  4. Richard Bottoms says:

    Vladimir Putin is a racist thug, Russia was and still is an adversary of the United States. Their intrusion into our election was an act of cyber-warfare, a digital Pearl Harbor which won’t go unanswered even if Donald Trump is in his Putin’s pocket.

  5. Natalie says:

    Richards bottoms is hilarious. McQuarty is applauding from his grave 😉 I have to agree though that the Russian programmers are indeed the best in the world.

  6. Paul Werth says:

    An interesting post indeed. The point about laziness, esp., is spot on, though I would take it a step further: Anybody can make bait, but someone has to take it—that’s us (and it’s both right & left). Two curious additions: 1) just yesterday I was called from a Russian phone number and asked whether I was aware of the recall campaign against my state rep here in Nevada. The person could not explain why the call was from Russia. Weird. 2) And just today I was reading a book from 1950, “The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain” (on the period from 1815 to 1840). This was the original Cold War™, if you will. We’ve been here before, and not just after 1945.

  7. S Rosenaur says:

    I commend the author for raising a number of good points. There are some, however, that need a bit of parsing. First of all, if there is plenty of evidence to investigate Russia’s involvement in the election of Trump, we are yet to see it. The DNC and Podesta email hacking stories have no legs, as is quite apparent to anyone familiar with the so-called “evidence” presented so far. The stories of “Russian-linked accounts possibly being used” (note the weasel words) to influence elections and “spread discord and mistrust among the Americans” by purchasing $150,000 of Facebook and Google ads over a 2-3 year period are simply laughable.

    The author laments Kremlin’s supposed opacity, but that is only partially true. Perhaps the inner workings of the Kremlin power elite are rather Byzantine, but there is no opacity when it comes to the foreign policy – one only has to bother listen to what Putin, Lavrov and various spokespersons of the Foreign and Defense ministries have to say. They speak frequently, unambiguously and at length on all issues of concern to the Americans. The trouble is, their speeches and press conferences are rarely translated into English and broadcast in the non-Russian media, with very rare exceptions, and even then using only short quotes without providing the proper context and usually accompanied by tenendentious commentaries.

    The other aspect, as Prof. Steven Cohen often laments, is that the US establishment has been all but purged of real Russia experts. There is simply neither sufficient level of expertise, nor, arguably, willingness within the system to analyze and make sense of Russia’s policies these days, lest one will be accused of being a Putin stooge, so all we are left with is just more reinforcement of erroneous stereotypes and self-serving propaganda.

    Finally, putting aside Russia’s own version of hysteria-inducing media, the truth is that the Rusdians do have plenty of reasons to worry about the US hostility. One only needs to look at the ever increasing ring of NATO bases continuously creeping closer to Russia’s borders, hostile actions, such as taking over of Russian diplomatic properties, and a wholesale dismissal of Russia’s national security interests to get a sense that the US’s designs are not altogether friendly.

    With respect.

  8. gene tausk says:

    Eliot once again you are spot-on. I have been saying the same thing for some time. On another note, I am glad to hear that you will be able to devote more time to writing. You are one of the few Russia experts who I think actually knows what is going on (well….as much as anyone can know Russia). Looking forward to your book.

  9. Margarete says:

    S. Rosenauer’s comments are well-informed, though I would add that all mainstream media is “hysteria-inducing”.

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