As serious people do everything they can to persuade Donald Trump and his followers that they must take the Russian attack on the bedrock of our democracy seriously, they keep stressing, in the most soothing tones they can muster:
We’re not saying the Russians threw the election to Trump. We’re saying they tried to, and that’s something that must be taken seriously, however you voted…
I’ve done the same thing here, repeatedly, although with no discernible effect.
And I and others will keep on saying it, because it’s true: We don’t know, we can’t know, whether Russian meddling actually threw the election to Trump.
Of course, there’s an unstated second side to that coin. If we don’t know Putin decided the election, we don’t know that he didn’t, either.
And that’s the side of the coin that I think everyone sort of instinctively understands, and which therefore makes this conversation so difficult.
Here’s the problem: It was a close election, so close that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. That means any one of a number of factors could, by itself, account for the losing margin.
In other words, it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that all of the following elements had to be present to get Trump to an Electoral College win:
- Let’s start with the biggie: The fact that the Democrats nominated the most hated major-party nominee in modern history, except for Donald Trump himself. This is the major factor that, while it couldn’t give him the win (since he was despised even more), it kept him in the game from the start. All other factors after this are minor, but remember: the whole thing was so close that it’s possible that every minor factor had to be present as well.
- Clinton’s private server. Assuming this had to be present, she doomed herself years ago.
- Her fainting spell. Here the Russians were, working like crazy to spread rumors about her health, and a moment of human weakness hands them this beautifully wrapped gift.
- Comey’s on-again, off-again investigations. I’m not saying he was trying to sabotage the election, but if he had been, his timing couldn’t have been better.
- The anti-qualifications madness sweeping through the electorate across the political spectrum. This populist surge produced both Trump and Bernie. In this election, solid credentials were a handicap. And poor Hillary had a great resume, as resumes have historically been judged.
- The Russian operation, which gave us a drip-drip-drip of embarrassments (none of which would have amounted to anything alone) with the hacked emails, and a really masterful disinformation campaign as Russians blended into the crowd of alt-right rumormongers.
Could Trump still have won if you took away the Russian efforts — or the FBI investigations, or Hillary’s pneumonia, or any other factor? Well, we don’t know. We can’t know — an individual decision to vote a certain way is composed of all sorts of factors. I can’t give you a breakdown, with percentages, weighting every factor that goes into my own voting decisions — even though I’ve had all that practice over the years explaining endorsements. So I certainly couldn’t do it in assessing the decisions of millions of voters out there. And there’s no way to correlate the effect of any single factor meaningfully with the actual vote totals in the states Trump won.
So we don’t know, do we? The Russians think they know, which is why our intelligence establishment detected them high-fiving each other over Trump’s victory. But they can’t know, either. They certainly didn’t know they’d accomplished their goal before the vote, because they were geared up to sow doubts about the legitimacy of what they expected to be a Clinton victory.
It’s safe to say Trump wouldn’t have won if those other factors hadn’t been present. But I don’t see how we will ever know whether Russian meddling put him over the top.
And as much as anything, that is the most brilliant stroke by the Russians. The effect of what they did can’t be measured. Consequently, they have us doubting ourselves, flinging accusations about motives and completely divided in our perception of reality. We’ll probably be fighting over this for as long as this election is remembered.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I will again, for Bryan’s sake if no one else’s: In the Patrick O’Brian novels he and I enjoy so much, a favorite toast for Royal Navy officers in the early 19th century was “Confusion to Bonaparte,” or just, “Confusion to Boney.”
The ideal codename for the Russian operation messing with our election would be “Confusion to America.” Because there’s no doubt that they have achieved that…