Perpetrators must first envisage crimes before they commit them. Often that entails a fantasy that their intended victims deserve what’s coming for having committed the same crime. Psychological projection helps dodge acceptance of moral responsibility. When the envisaged crimes are political, the fantasies projected onto opponents are often spun as conspiracy theories.
After years of loopy conspiracism from populist conservatism it is easy to overlook the fact that as primary candidate, as party nominee, and even as President-elect, Donald Trump deployed only a few of the many available conspiracy theories to denounce Hillary Clinton. The most frequently used was that she was “crooked” because she was in the pocket of “hedge-fund guys” and given unfairly favorable news coverage by “media executives.”
Clinton was accused of betraying workers by supporting free trade and undermining security by refusing to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump used every opportunity to cast Clinton as the representative of conspiring unseen elites hostile to American national interests. What some observers thought was simply coded anti-Semitism may actually have been the projection of Trump’s own bad behavior.
What we can be certain of is that major figures in the Republican Party, in all probability including Trump himself, had their emails hacked by Russian intelligence agents. During a Sunday, December 11th interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. Reince Priebus, White House Chief of Staff for the incoming Trump administration, insisted that the Republican National Committee had not been hacked yet evaded questions about the hacking of emails of major figures in the Republican Party. What this probably means is that Vladimir Putin now possesses material with which to blackmail the incoming administration.
Deploying Kompromat or compromising material to manipulate or undermine opponents has been a standard tactic in Russian politics since the Russian deep state of intelligence and military officers put Vladimir Putin in power. Political leaders deploy it in struggles with one another not just in Russia but in the other post-Soviet successor states as well.
Now, with the release of the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee by Wikileaks it has contaminated American politics as well. Kompromat may consist of information about anything, from evidence of serious crime to the merely embarrassing. The Podesta emails released by Wikileaks were embarrassing to Clinton largely because they exposed petty chit-chat and squalid political calculation.
Kompromat can also take the form of false material intermixed with real material. Planted child pornography has been used to smear dissidents who dared to challenge the Kremlin. Given Trump’s avarice, vindictiveness and impulsivity, one can only imagine what might be found in his private communications. Relationships between the Russian government and some of Trump’s campaign staff and cabinet picks might make them vulnerable to blackmail as well.
What sort of kompromat would Putin need to deploy to make Donald Trump into doing his bidding? Given the puerile hypersensitivity evident in late night twitter rampages, Moscow could force him to pay attention to any issue or event of its choosing simply by releasing a single mildly embarrassing item. Although Trump disposes of inconvenient underlings easily, material implicating family members in a serious crime would be a different matter.
To actually run Trump as an agent, Moscow would need proof of something so sinister that even partisan Republicans would find repellent. Smoking gun evidence of treason – of Trump or his subordinates coordinating the 2016 election campaign with Putin or his subordinates – might be sufficient. Trump and his inner circle might be shameless, but they need the support of the many Republicans who are still loyal to American values and institutions.
That a sitting U.S. President might be the agent of a rival great power poses profound risks to the national interests of the United States, however we chose to define them. Washington lawmakers trying to muster their courage to investigate this danger to the republic need to go beyond talking about conducting an investigation to “prevent this from happening again in future elections.” They must confront the possibility of a Manchurian Candidate in the White House. Serious investigation rather than a whitewash is crucial. If that investigation reveals the worst, then arrests and prosecutions for treason must follow.
Which brings to mind all those chants of “lock her up” at Trump’s campaign rallies, and their disciplined suppression since then. If the “crooked Hillary” trope flags Trump’s own guilty conscience, threats to prosecute and imprison Clinton reveal Trump’s nightmare of being exposed and punished. What he ought to know is that treason may carry a penalty harsher than imprisonment.
The days and weeks to come will be a crucial test of the patriotism of our national leaders and our fellow citizens. What will be weighed in the balance is whether the bloated ego of one billionaire and the irresponsibility of his populist supporters are capable of overcoming more than two centuries of American independence from foreign subversion.