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Did the Russians manipulate your mind?



When it comes to the 2016 election and Russian meddling, there are two kinds of people. One kind, which includes Trump, insists that, even if the Russians did meddle—which he denied for a year before kinda-sorta admitting it—it had no impact on the votes.

The other kind of person, which includes me, thinks that all those bots, trolls and fake posts indeed had a profound impact on the election, and handed it to Donald Trump.

The background of my theory is nearly thirty years of watching the systemic, sustained and mendacious attacks on both Hillary and Bill Clinton by the Republican attack machine. It began with fusillades against Hillary by such professional propagandists as Lee Atwater. Even before Bill Clinton was elected, her “I could have stayed home and baked cookies” comment put her in the conservative doghouse. How dare a woman not be content with being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen?

After Clinton was elected, the Republican attacks mounted in fury. Watergate, Vince Fostergate, Travelgate, Oval Office Trash-gate when they left—the lies went on and on. In the years since, Hillary has been portrayed as the bitch, the castrating female, “Crooked Hillary,” the liar, the deceiver, the feminazi whom Rush Limbaugh and other misogynists rail against to this day. Although she’s probably been the most investigated woman in history, nobody has ever proven she did anything wrong.

But of course, to many Republicans who are inclined to hate anything Democratic, especially a strong woman, where there’s smoke, there must be fire. But I’m not concerned with diehard Republicans, who are incapable of logical thinking. I’m concerned with the swing voters who deserted Hillary in 2016 and voted for Trump. Why did they turn against a Democratic candidate who was so capable, experienced, conscientious, and had proven her capacity to listen and learn? For the answer, I have to cite an anecdote. It’s about a friend I had, and lost. “Sean” was as liberal as they come. He agreed with me on everything: protecting the environment, higher taxes on rich people and corporations, keeping religion out of governance, equal rights for the LGBTQ community. He recognized Trump as a lying oaf, a brute, a bully, a pig. And yet he voted for Trump.

In the months leading up to the election, we had many conversations, in which he would repeat his litany of allegations against Hillary. He hated her with a passion that was rare in his otherwise gentle soul. I wondered about it, until it hit me: I was hearing, not Sean, but a tape recording of the Republican attack machine. Out of Sean’s liberal mouth came every lie, insinuation, smear and resentment that ever poured forth from Fox “News” and rightwing talk radio over the decades. And Sean, who was about 44 years old, had been inhaling this stuff for most of his adult life. He was the victim of that poison; he sincerely believed Hillary was evil, although he could cite nothing in proof of it beyond his feelings. He was told it over and over before his youthful brain was even firmly developed to think logically.

I said this to Sean. “My friend, you don’t know it, but you have been indoctrinated with a virus of hatred for Hillary, and all your resentment isn’t really yours: your brain has been hacked.”

Well, Sean exploded. He felt I was implying he wasn’t his own man—that he couldn’t make up his own mind about what he thought. I was insulting him, he told me, with my insinuation that he hadn’t developed his thought all on his own, but was instead infected with somebody else’s. And, of course, if you multiply Sean by millions, you get Donald Trump’s electoral college victory.

So when I saw yesterday’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Are Russian Bots Controlling Your Thoughts?” I thought, Finally, somebody at the Wall Street Journal is publishing the truth: that Russian bots did control people’s thoughts in the run-up to the election. Unfortunately, as I read the op-ed piece, by Eric Dezenhall, I was quickly disabused of my hope. The headline was misleading: instead, Dezenhall puts himself squarely in the Trump camp when he says that stories of Russian influence on the election “conflate correlation with causation.” He concedes that Russia did meddle, or, as Dezenhall puts it, “We know that Russia made a hearty effort to sow discord in the U.S. election by undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Thank you, Mr. Dezenhall, for stating the obvious! But then, in the next sentence, he spouts the Trump line: “But that doesn’t mean the Kremlin’s efforts played the decisive role. There’s a big difference between influencing something and controlling it.”

Think about that. “There’s a big difference between influencing something and controlling it.” What the hell does that even mean? If I interpret it literally, Dezenhall admits that Russian bots might have “influenced” the election by making voters anti-Hillary. But he’s not willing to say those bots “controlled” the voters. What is the difference between influencing someone to vote a particular way and controlling their voting? Nobody is saying that Russian agents went into the voting booths and forced people to vote Republican at gunpoint. But I don’t see how anyone can rationally state that not a single vote was changed due to the Russian lies. That defies common sense. And if one vote was changed, then others were, many others. It seems likely to me that at least 90,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio were “influenced” enough to vote for Trump over Hillary because they thought Hillary was an evil liar. And so we got President Trump.

This is the truth that Trump fears the most: that History will record his election as having been caused by the Russians. He can’t stand that: it drives him even crazier than the Mueller investigation. But that is precisely what History will say, because it’s true—and the propaganda efforts of people like Dezenhall, who attempt to muddy the waters by playing word games, will come to naught.

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