Russian hacking theories expose the flawed “alt-center”

By in Opinions

The Democratic National Committee was hacked because of a typo. I choose to open with this piece of information to illustrate a point: whoever hacked the DNC was not exactly a genius.

After encountering a suspicious looking email, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta sought the advice of aide Charles Delavan. Delavan responded by saying the link was legitimate, meaning to say “illegitimate.” By clicking the link, Podesta opened the DNC’s email servers to hackers and caused one of the biggest media stories of 2016.

Russian Hacking - Katherine Fedoroff
This isn’t the real hacker, but you get the idea.

This wasn’t a professional, planned infiltration of the Democratic Party’s technological infrastructure. It was a simple phishing scam that worked because of a series of incompetent actions within the DNC. Any importance assigned to the DNC hackers is the byproduct of speculation and the media.

Since Wikileaks published the DNC e-mails in July 2016, conspiracy theories about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 American presidential election have run rampant, including hacked voting machines and Donald Trump being a puppet of Vladimir Putin.

Further contributing to this culture of paranoia and conspiracy was a torrent of unverifiable documents, the most famous of which was the dossier released by Buzzfeed, which claimed that Russia had compromising material that they had used to blackmail Trump.

More recently, members of Trump’s cabinet have faced controversy for meeting with Russian diplomats. On Feb. 13, Trump’s security advisor Michael Flynn resigned after it came to light that he had lied to the FBI and vice-president Mike Pence about phone calls with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak.

Attorney general Jeff Sessions has also faced backlash for meeting with a Russian ambassador during his time in the Senate. These instances of collusion between the Trump team and the Russian state should be more alarming to the public than the allegations of Russian hacking.

These events have been incorporated into a larger conspiracy narrative pushed by a handful of centrist pundits. Popular centrist democrat personalities such as Sarah Kendzior, Kurt Eichenwald and Eric Garland have all built personal brands around pushing Russia conspiracy theories.

The term “alt-center” was coined by political essayist Sam Kriss to describe this contingent of centrist conspiracy theorists. The term first appeared in a Slate article critiquing Eric Garland’s bizarre “Game Theory” tweetstorm, in which Garland claims that for the past 10 years Russia has been participating in psychological warfare against the United States.

Kriss argues that Garland’s erratic 127 tweet-long rant is emblematic of the current lack of direction of the Democratic Party. These narratives allow for establishment democrats and their supporters to ignore the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign and deflect blame onto an outside disruptive force.

If these allegations end up being true, the Democratic Party won’t have to rethink their failed policies or their weak rust belt ground game because they didn’t lose the election — Russia just stole it from them.

The people pushing these theories are ready to deal with the consequences of a Trump impeachment but are unwilling to deal with the larger implications of what these hacks say about the state of America’s institutions.

If the 2016 election was rigged by the Russian state, that speaks volumes about the health of America’s democratic institutions. At this point, the Democratic establishment is much more interested in smiting Trump than upholding faith in American democracy.

Maybe the Democrats will eventually be able to tie all this Russia stuff back to Trump in a meaningful way, but for now, many of these stories are completely unverifiable.

Considering how surreal the Trump presidency has been so far, it’s not inconceivable that there is a kernel of truth in these reports, but right now, allegations of Russian hacking are being used as a deflection for the failures of the Democratic Party.

Cole Chretien

Photo: Katherine Fedoroff