We have now been treated to the sight of dozens of Facebook memes that played a part in Russia’s successful disruption of our electoral process. Pretty depressing. The divisive themes, the inflammatory language, the careful targeting. We’ve been had.
You have to give these trolls their due, however. They not only identified the hot-button issues that give Americans aneurysms, but they also knew the degree of subtlety required to garner lots of clicks and shares. And that would be pretty much none. The word “crude” does not convey the lack of subtlety, the almost-sci-fi exaggerations of reality in these memes.
Probably most depressing of all for me were the memes with “religious” images (if it’s not a sacrilege to use that word in describing this laughable trash)—for example, the comical, cartoonish portrayal of a red-hued Hillary, complete with devil’s horns, facing off with a pugilistic Jesus. Above the image are the words, “’Like’ if you want Jesus to win!”
This is where I have my aneurysm.
The idea that this kind of phony, 99-Cent Store, skin-deep, cartoonish “religion” could do anything other than repel and disgust an adult viewer is beyond incredible. What does this say about Americans? Are we that gullible? Are we drowning in an ocean of fake, group-think piety that allows us, on the one hand, to deny less-privileged children health care and a hot meal at school, but that makes us quite happy to send money to rich televangelists who have more in common with sideshow carnival barkers than with anything even vaguely Christian?
The Russian trolls knew the answers to those questions. They knew they had found their perfect mark: an army of insipid, “respectable” citizens who are always talking about Jesus as their personal savior but who can’t seem to recognize as a monstrous fraud a New York con-man with three wives, a bogus university, and 4000 lawsuits to his name.
Reports that Vladimir Putin was directly responsible for orchestrating this internet campaign are very believable, considering how deep his resentment of the United States runs, and the study he’s made of the issues that divide us. He understands America’s naïve, superficial, self-conscious piety very well, having first encountered it in his 2001 meeting with George W. Bush. It was a two-hour con job on Putin’s part, which included a discussion of the “miraculous” recovery of a metal cross from the burned-out ruins of one of Putin’s dachas. What American with any capacity for embarrassment can forget Bush’s subsequent pronouncement of having looked into Putin’s soul and found kinship? Talking to Putin about spirituality is like talking to a king cobra about a donation to Oxfam.
Putin understood much more about us than just our religious foibles, of course. He has been a devoted student of “confirmation bias” as a phenomenon. He certainly understood that people would endorse just about any absurd meme as long as it stoked the fires of whatever distorted opinions they had already willingly shaped for themselves. Pure twaddle on top of pure twaddle. Once any kind of real discernment goes, then it’s the more the merrier, the crazier the better.
Among all the chilling conclusions one might arrive at in the wake of this Russian internet assault, the most disturbing one is not how cyber-vulnerable we allowed our institutions to be, nor how slow the response to the attack was, nor even the lack of a more robust response. Worse than all of these is the shocking recognition of just how brilliant Putin is. With all the variables, the bewildering number of forces at work and all the possible outcomes, he played his hand boldly, with great resolve and equally great flexibility.
If Bush was no match for Putin, Obama wasn’t either. It’s hard to shake the conclusion that Putin had already taken Obama’s measure before launching the cyber disinformation campaign. He certainly noted Obama’s lack of strong support for the Ukrainian government as the Crimean invasion unfolded in 2014, and his empty “red line” threat concerning the gassing of Syrian civilians in 2013. Both events revealed a marked timidity, one that Putin readily exploited.
So America now faces this evil Russian genius, and we look around at the current cast of political personalities available to stand in our defense. Donald Trump? Be serious. It will take consistent, carefully-crafted policies to contain Putin, not some tweetstorm or a one-off launch of cruise missiles targeting Syrian locations that were warned of the attack beforehand. Erratic, severe personality disorders and a loud mouth make a cheap and easy lunch for Putin—like putting a hyena in a cage with a grizzly bear. And that’s presupposing that blackmail isn’t lurking in the background.
Anybody got Wonder Woman’s cell number?