This alleged Russian conspiracy behind Trump is fascinating. I can see where Trump is coming from in denying it, or at least in insisting that it made no difference to the result of the election. If his victory was influenced by Russian hackers it must devalue it, if not delegitimise it. It’s what a ‘bad loser’ would be bound to claim, whether it were true or not: although I’ve not noticed Clinton, who seems to have been the Russians’ main target, openly blaming Putin (yet). The secret services who are the source of the story, in common with most of the Washington establishment, hugely distrust Trump, and so might be motivated to try to destabilise him with stories of this kind. And we all know, don’t we, that you can’t ever trust ‘spooks’ generally: recruited as they are for their ability to lie and dissemble, and shown to have misled and even worked against their own governments in times gone by. That at any rate was my conclusion from the researches I did into the British secret security agencies in the last two centuries (Plots and Paranoia, 1989). Not that they always mislead, or that they don’t often do a good and essential job in protecting us; but that it is easier for them than it is for most other agencies to get up to dirty tricks if they feel it’s for the ‘security of the state’ as they conceive it. So, in this instance, I don’t blame Trump for being sceptical.
There are four questions at issue here. Firstly, was Clinton’s campaign deliberately destabilised by these means: hacking, embarrassing revelations, black propaganda (now known as ‘false news’)? Secondly, was any of this directed from the outside? Thirdly, was the Russian state complicit in it? The answers to these seem to be: certainly, probably, and possibly, in that order. But I obviously can’t know the answers to any of these questions; if indeed anyone outside the dastardly Russkis and the slippery spooks knows, or ever will.
Which leaves us with the fourth and final question: which has to do with the effects of plots and conspiracies, like the ones the Russians are supposed to have been responsible for last year, on ‘democratic’ politics. This is the one that defeated me when I was working on, for example, the ‘Zinoviev affair’ and the ‘Wilson plot’ – both anti-Labour conspiracies by right-wingers including members or ex-members of MI5 – whose objectives appear to have been successful, with a Labour election defeat and the resignation of Harold Wilson following shortly afterwards, but not necessarily as a result of these plots, with other factors clearly pertinent as well. There can be no conclusive proof in either of these cases, or in Trump’s. Post hoc does not always mean propter hoc, as history teachers are always warning their pupils (or should be). It depends on, as well as ‘evidence’, one’s general assessment of the vulnerability of people – voters – to ‘false news’ and other forms of black propaganda. It may be that most are only deceived by the propaganda that reflects views formed by other – for example material – circumstances. This is a much bigger and more complex question.
Most democrats would prefer not to believe that people’s ideas can be manipulated in this way. So would most historians; who in general, when it comes to questions of causation, would prefer great events (like Trump’s election) to be effected by greater, more general and rational causes, than the machinations of small cabals of Machiavellis, Goebbelses, Breibarts, Farages, or ex-KGB. That tends to make better books, with thick strong historical themes. And it prevents their authors being lumped in with the tribe of ‘Prince Philip as a reptilian shape-shifter’ ‘conspiracy theorists’; which would be ruination for any academic historian’s career.
But – whisper it – this doesn’t mean that conspiracy versions of some historical events, like Trump’s election, might not be true….