The other day I was engaged in a conversation among people one might assume to have been entirely liberal or progressive (essentially interchangeable terms), but one of the individuals in the conversation kept making suggestions that would likely damage causes or candidates clearly on the left. The reasons given were weak, and over time, they began to remind me a lot of the anti Hillary Clinton rhetoric we see all the time from the Republicans, but dressed up in faux progressive terms.
I see that fairly often, people who claim to be on the left but who damage allies or potential allies out of a misplaced sense of purity, or a cult-like adherence to a particular candidate they have supported (and no, not just one candidate but several). But this individual had an advanced degree in a political science related field, a great deal of activist experience, and was generally regarded as an intelligent and well informed politically savvy operative.
Then, suddenly, it dawned on me.
This person didn’t have these attitudes in the past. They emerged about two years ago, maybe less. If you went out and asked, say, 30 national level activists to each name 30 other activists in this particular area of activism that they had interacted with over the previous year and considered to be professional level, you would get a lot of overlap in names, and this person would be on a bunch of lists. This person is well connected, widely liked, and most importantly, has a following as well as disciples. What I mean by that is if in a conversation anyone strongly disagreed with him, there would be others that would defend him, disdain you for your disagreements, and discredit you at the next available opportunity, even if you were having an honest disagreement, even a minor honest disagreement. This is exactly the sort of person to whom, if you wanted to manipulate a much larger group of people, you’d want to attach some sort of strings. Puppet strings, if you get my drift.
If Russian operatives interested in mucking up American politics wanted to do so at the grass roots level, it would make sense for them to identify such individuals, and recruit or manipulate them, so they are feeding out to others ideas and information that will engender significant conflict, and lead other activists, who collectively have the potential to affect elections, astray.
Until a particular moment just recently, it did not occur to me that I would actually know a person who was either an actual Russian agent, or who was somehow controlled by the Russians perhaps unwittingly. Then, I thought about this particular person, and realized two things. One, he is doing exactly what we know the Russians want people to do. Two, he is sufficiently experienced, trained, educated, and professional to not do so out of ignorance. I frequently talk to people who say things like “Hillary would be just as bad as Trump” and I know that these individuals are well meaning but have been manipulated by decades of anti-Clinton rhetoric and the recent crescendo of such information and misinformation to think this way, and I also know that they are not professional activists or trained or educated in any way to really be able to evaluate sources or to be inoculated against such rhetoric. But that is not what we have here. What we have here is someone who knows better, but is not better, someone who might be spotted as going off the rails by colleagues, but who has a sufficient number in thrall that his philosophy is not questioned as it should be.
And no, it wasn’t just that one conversation the other day. That was just the conversation that nudged me into thinking these admittedly strange thoughts I’m thinking. And no, I am not even close to certain. I can’t tell if my hypothesis, of either manipulation or compliance with a foreign power’s wishes, is even close to realistic. And that’s the thing. If I’m right, and they are good at it, I wouldn’t be able to tell. Were I prone to conspiratorial ideation, that alone would be proof that I’m right! But I’m not the latter so I can not tell if the former is the case.
Of the facts of this particular case given above, two are intentionally incorrect. This is to protect identities. The meaning of the story is not changed. You’ll just have to trust me on that.