Franklin Foer: Russiagate was not a hoax
Kilimnik, too, has become an old and familiar face in American politics, one that appears in election after election. During the 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, passed polling information to him. Although this fact turned up in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election, nobody has ever explained why Kilimnik wanted this polling information or what he might have done with it. Now here he is, back again, front and center in 2020. The new report says that—in addition to providing kompromat to OANN—Kilimnik, Derkach, and others “met with and provided materials to Trump administration–linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials.”
All of that helps explain why my second reaction was If I know this already, and none of it seems to matter, then something is seriously wrong with the American political system. If the link between Russian security services and the stories about the Biden family was bleedingly obvious at the time, why did anyone go along with it? Why were American journalists, American politicians, and the American president’s advisers messing around with Russian intelligence agents?
The problem is not only the outgrowth of the peculiar climate created by Donald Trump—however simple and satisfying such an explanation might be. Think, for a moment, about why the Russian state indulges in this kind of activity, year in and year out, despite the political costs and the risk of sanctions: Because it’s very cheap, it’s very easy, and a lot of evidence suggests that it works.
For decades now, Russian security services have studied a concept called “reflexive control”—the science of how to get your enemies to make mistakes. To be successful, practitioners must first analyze their opponents deeply, to understand where they get their information and why they trust it; then they need to find ways of playing with those trusted sources, in order to insert errors and mistakes. This way of thinking has huge implications for the military; consider how a piece of incorrect information might get a general to make a mistake. But it works in politics too. The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn’t very hard) that large numbers of Americans—not only Fox News pundits and OANN broadcasters but also members of Congress—are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it. As long as it suits their partisan frames, and as long as it can be used against their opponents, they don’t care who invented it or for what purpose.
As a result, supplying an edited audiotape or a piece of false evidence to one of the bottom-feeders of the information ecosystem is incredibly easy; after that, others will ensure that it rises up the food chain. Russian disinformation doesn’t succeed thanks to the genius of Russians; it succeeds thanks to the sharp partisanship of Americans. Russian disinformation works because Americans allow it to work—and because those same Americans don’t care anymore about the harm they do to their country.