Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author who has become one of the nation’s leading Russia experts and one of its most relentless and vocal critics of Vladimir Putin. She has lived her life on and off in the U.S. and Russia, but as a Jewish lesbian and mother of three children, she left Russia in 2013 and moved back to the U.S. in part because she felt threatened by the increasingly anti-LGBT climate there, one that began particularly targeting LGBT adopted families with discriminatory legislation.
Throughout the years Gessen (pictured, above) has become one of the go-to Kremlin critics for the U.S. media, publishing harshly anti-Putin reporting and commentary in numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, Harper’s and several articles about political repression in Russia for the Intercept. She has also become a virulent critic of Donald Trump, writing shortly after the election that “Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won,” while describing the critical lessons that can be learned on how to resist Trump’s autocratic impulses by studying Putin.
She now has a new article in the New York Review of Books – entitled “Russia: the Conspiracy Trap” – that I cannot recommend highly enough. Its primary purpose is to describe, and warn about, the insane and toxic conspiracy-mongering about Russia that has taken over not the fringe, dark corners of the internet that normally traffic in such delusional tripe, but rather mainstream U.S. media outlets and the Democratic Party. Few articles have illustrated the serious, multi-faceted dangers of what has become this collective mania in the U.S. as well as Gessen’s does.
To begin, Gessen details several examples of classic, evidence-free, unhinged, and increasingly xenophobic conspiracy theorizing masquerading as serious news in mainstream outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, and the Washington Post. Routine diplomatic interactions are depicted as dark and sinister if they involve Russians. When the most flamboyant, alarmist, tabloid-style Russia stories from leading news outlets collapse (as so many have), or when Trump’s actions (such as hiring numerous anti-Russia hawks for key positions) explode the “Putin’s puppet” narrative, it makes no difference to our mainstream conspiracy obsessives because – as she puts it – “such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.”
Wild, melodramatic claims about hidden Russian plotting and Trump collusion are routinely and constantly hyped by leading media outlets based on nothing but their imaginations or, at best, coordinated whispers from intelligence officials utterly insusceptible to verification, from operatives trained in disinformation. As she writes:
The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials. . . .
The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome. . . . More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump.
The crux of her article is the point that has been driving everything I’ve been writing and saying about this topic for months: that this obsession with Russia conspiracy tales is poisoning all aspects of U.S. political discourse and weakening any chance for resisting Trump’s actual abuses and excesses. Those who wake up every day to hype the latest episode of this Russia/Trump spy drama tell themselves that they’re bravely undermining and subverting Trump, but they’re doing exactly the opposite.
This crazed conspiracy mongering is further discrediting U.S. media outlets, making Washington seem even more distant from and irrelevant to the lives of millions of Americans, degrading discourse to the lowliest Trumpian circus level on which he thrives, and is misdirecting huge portions of opposition energy and thought into an exciting but fictitious spy novel – all of which directly redounds to Trump’s benefit. As Gessen puts it in the key sentence that ought to be pinned everywhere in neon lights:
Russiagate is helping [Trump]—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.
I’ve been asked often why I’ve written so much against the prevailing sentiments on Russia and Trump. It’s not just because this obsessive narrative distracts from Trump’s genuinely consequential actions or from the need to find an effective vessel for activism against über-right-wing nationalism. It’s not just because it’s driven by ugly and historically familiar anti-Rusisan xenophobia, nor because it dangerously ratchets up tensions between two nuclear-armed, traditionally hostile countries. Those things are all true, but that’s not the main impetus.
Above all else, it’s because it’s an offensive assault on reason. This kind of deranged discourse is an attack on basic journalistic integrity, on any minimal obligation to ensure that one’s claims are based in evidence rather than desire, fantasy, and herd-enforced delusions. And it’s emanating from the most established and mainstream precincts of U.S. political and media elites, who have processed the severe disorientation and loss of position they feel from Trump’s shock election not by doing the work to patiently formulate cogent, effective strategies against him, but rather by desperately latching onto online “dot-connecting” charlatans and spewing the most unhinged Birther-level conspiracies that require a complete abandonment of basic principles of rationality and skepticism.
To see how extreme this derangement has become, let’s look at the latest conspiracy theory that took hold of fringe and mainstream figures alike this weekend. It was prompted by the death of Alex Oronov, a 68-year-old Ukrainian-American whose daughter married Bryan Cohen, who is the brother of Michael Cohen, who is Trump’s personal lawyer. Got all those connections, those “dots”?
Back in the 1990s, the fever swamp of the Far Right was driven mad by Bill Clinton’s election. They were convinced he and Hillary were mass murderers, constantly ordering the deaths of political opponents and others who could incriminate the Clintons – not just Vince Foster but an endless number of remotely related people.
Any person who died and had any kind of connection to the Clintons, no matter how remote, became part of the “Clinton Body Count.” These were people who died and whose death was ruled by the coroner to be due to “natural causes” yet were still classified by right-wing extremists as “mysterious deaths,” all for the purpose of implying that the Clintons were responsible for their deaths.
One of the primary pushers of this innuendo was the nation’s most influential radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who spent the 1990s hyping every death with any proximity to the Clintons as “suspicious.” He gleefully resurrected this theme during the 2016 campaign by claiming that people close to the Clintons were once again mysteriously dying. This is what Limbaugh told his audience in August:
I can remember reading magazines back in 1992 that catalogued all the people who the Clintons knew who had died. . . . The inherent conspiracies that were associated with this. And lo and behold, here we go again.
Limbaugh cited a Townhall article describing the deaths of three DNC-related officials and told his audience: “Since the DNC emails were leaked a few weeks ago, three people associated with the DNC have all found dead, under what could be questionable circumstances.” Limbaugh added: “This is exactly the kind of stuff we saw back in 1992 and 1993.” He then mocked the media for viewing this speculation as insane conspiracy theories, emphasizing:
A lot of people [the Clintons] know who have died, been murdered . . . . it’s amazing the cycle that exists with the Clintons . . . . How many other politicians do you know who have so many mysterious deaths associated with them?. . . . But there is a Clinton body count.
There’s now an identical – and quite profitable – Democratic cottage industry that specializes in pointing to every death of anyone with any proximity to Trump or Russia and strongly implying – with zero evidence – that they were murdered. But the difference is that it’s not confined to the fringes but is fully embraced by numerous mainstream Democratic figures. It’s not a coincidence that one of the key figures of this early 1990s anti-Clinton sickness, David Brock, is now always lurking at the center of similar yet highly lucrative insanity, but now on behalf of Democrats.
One of the most popular online conspiracists among Democrats is now the former Tory member of the UK Parliament and current Murdoch-rag-writer Louise Mensch, whose history of public humiliations and pure bigotry is far too long to chronicle.
But because she has now turned her deranged behavior to peddling any and all conspiracies about Trump and Russia, she has built a huge Twitter following among Democrats convinced that all of their critics are Kremlin spies and anyone who dies was murdered by the Putin/Trump axis to protect their conspiratorial cover-up. Here’s what this newfound liberal journalistic icon tweeted two weeks ago:
I absolutely believe that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by Putin, just as the founder of RT was murdered by Putin.
That is as flagrantly insane as the most warped versions of birther and truther fever dreams that have tragically engulfed significant portions of the U.S. population. That tweet, by itself, should disqualify her from any form of serious consideration. But Mensch is now routinely cited as some sort of credible journalistic source on Russia conspiracies by unhinged, mainstream anti-Trump fanatics such as MSNBC and Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, who will launder any insanity as long as it promotes their Tom Clancy fever dreams of Trump as a Kremlin asset.
When news of Oronov’s death broke over the weekend, Democratic Party loyalists instantly began implying, if not outright stating, that his death was really a murder, intended to silence him from exposing the Trump/Russia conspiracy. One of the leading articles pushing this evidence-free tripe was this thing called “The Palmer Report,” whose insinuations went viral because they were quickly mainstreamed by all kinds of prominent Democrats with a platform.
What is the Palmer Report? It’s a classic Fake News site created by Bill Palmer, a crazed fanatical follower of Hillary Clinton who got caught purposely disseminating fake news during the election. The site he ran during the campaign was called “The Daily News Bin,” and among other gems, that was the site that published the totally false but viral claim – based on the fraudulent assertions of MSNBC’s partisan warriors Joy Ann Reid and Malcolm Nance – that the DNC and Podesta emails WikiLeaks was publishing were forgeries.
The Palmer Report is the same Fake News site that published multiple stories claiming that the vote totals for the 2016 election were altered, causing Slate to compare it to The National Enquirer. In February, the Atlantic warned of “The Rise of Progressive Fake News,” and one of its leading examples was the “very harmful” Palmer Report.
This is where Democrats are now getting their “news” from. The Palmer Report seems to be a trusted news source for Professor Tribe. Yet it’s no better – no different – than what Macedonian teenagers or Clinton Body Count sites are churning out. But it’s being mainstreamed by prominent, establishment Democrats who have completely taken leave of their senses in the wake of Trump’s victory and show no signs of returning to anything resembling sober, grounded reasoning any time soon.
The Democrats’ favorite reporter during the 2016 campaign was Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, who outright fabricated a claim that Trump “was institutionalized in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1990,” and then when caught, claimed that it was a “signal to a source.” Not even an outright fabrication and a pitiful explanation like that hurt his standing among Democrats; if anything, it bolstered it, because it was for the Right Cause.
And now, every time a Russian dies, mainstream Democratic sites instantly imply with zero evidence that they were murdered by Putin and possibly Trump to cover up something or other. Even when the autopsy rules that they died of natural causes, the conspiracies persist, indeed are often bolstered – just as Louise Mensch “absolutely believes” Putin murdered Andrew Breitbart despite the coroner’s findings.
TPM’s Josh Marshall this weekend pronounced Oronov’s death a “startling new development” – just as Limbaugh and right-wing sites do for every Democrats’ death. The liberal journal The Washington Monthly – echoing the innuendo tactics of the right-wing fever swamps focused on the Clinton Body Count – added: “Was it a heart attack, as seems to be implied? Or something else? . . . . Someone might want to figure out the actual cause of death.”
Is it possible all these people were killed by Putin and Trump to ensure their conspiracy remains hidden? Anything is “possible” – in the same sense that it’s possible that Bill and Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster and multiple Arkansas state troopers murdered. But since there’s no evidence for it, responsible, rational people don’t go around spouting it and trying to lead others to believe it.
When DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered in 2016, his family was furious and sickened by the attempt to exploit his death by implying that he was murdered by the Clintons for political reasons. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Oronov’s family just did the same thing, denouncing the theories laundered by TPM, the Palmer Report and other Democrats as “total bullshit” and noting that Oronov “died of a prolonged illness,” only “after three months at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.”
But as Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith noted last night, the denunciation of this conspiracy theory by Oronov’s family received only a tiny fraction of the attention which the viral stories implying he was murdered received.
This happens over and over and over. Totally fraudulent stories about Russia are published on the internet. Those who do it – including the leading media outlets and their journalists – receive endless benefits: exploding follower counts on social media, gushing praise from their peers, media appearances, profitable traffic for their sites. But then when the stories fall apart and are debunked, as they so often are, the debunking is shared by virtually nobody, and there is zero accountability or cost to their reputations because their false stories were peddled for a Good Cause.
The most obscenely transparent charlatans and grifters have built a huge social media following over the last year by feeding Democrats an endless stream of increasingly unhinged, insane conspiracy theories about Trump and Russia. That Trump is a Manchurian Candidate recruited by old Soviet leaders and installed in the White House as a 30-year-plan – or that any critics of Democrats are on the payroll of Putin – are completely acceptable theories which many of the Democrats’ most beloved commentators endorse literally on a daily basis.
Part of it is exciting: they get to center themselves as intrepidly uncovering an international Moscow-led plot to infiltrate the U.S. Part of it is self-excusing: it explains why Democrats have failed without having to confront the party’s fundamental corruption. Part of it is personally enriching: just as was true of the Clinton years, these conspiracies have created a whole stable of new media stars, and the crazier they are, the bigger their following will be.
But whatever the motives, what’s most damaging is how mainstreamed it’s all become. These are the same circles which endlessly rail against misleading reports from Fox News and right-wing radio, and the dangers of Fake News. And yet – in the name of stopping Trump and winning the New Cold War – they are the most enthusiastic disseminators of exactly what they denounce.
The most ironic part of it all is that they are achieving exactly the opposite of what they convinced their followers they are doing: they are strengthening Trump, not weakening him, by poisoning and corroding all of the institutions that – if they had any credibility – could effectively check him.
Ultimately, what makes Gessen’s article so important – aside from the fact that partisan smear artists cannot dismiss her on the ground that she loves Putin and works for the Kremlin – is that it focuses on the key point: namely, that this fixation on primitive conspiracy-mongering is just a slothful way of avoiding the real work of meaningfully opposing Trump. As she explains, this bottomless, ultimately pointless obsession with Russia has utterly crowded out effective strategies for opposing Trump, and has obscured many of the truly damaging policies he is implementing with little notice:
Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.
Indeed, even the most plausible plank of the story – that the Russians were behind the hacking of Podesta and the DNC – has been widely accepted as Truth despite no evidence from the U.S. Government. As Gessen notes: “A later building block in the story, which has become its virtual cornerstone, is the joint intelligence report on Russian interference in the campaign, which was released in December and is, plainly, laughable.”
Worst of all, our discourse is being drowned by irrational, highly corrosive delusions and feverish conspiracy theorizing – not just from Trump, who built his political career on a racist and deranged conspiracy theory about Obama’s true birthplace, but also from those who have anointed themselves leaders of the Resistance against him. How can one credibly denounce Trump’s birtherism or his fact-free accusation that Obama ordered his wiretapping if one is simultaneously spreading the most blatantly evidence-free claims and conspiracies or venerating those who have built their new platforms based on feeding hungry partisans flagrantly fraudulent “reporting”?
The Russia narrative dominates national discourse, as it has for months, and becomes progressively more removed from evidence. As Gessen concludes: “What is indisputable is that the protracted national game of connecting the Trump-Putin dots is an exercise in conspiracy thinking. That does not mean there was no conspiracy. And yet, a possible conspiracy is a poor excuse for conspiracy thinking.”