In May of 2016, two groups of protesters faced off outside the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston, Texas. One side was armed with guns, Confederate flags, and signs bearing racist slogans; the other, intent on showing solidarity with the city’s muslim population, was bolstered by numbers that dwarfed the opposition. Both, it would later be revealed by an indictment filed last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, had been spurred to show up by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm with connections to the Kremlin that specializes in the spread of online disinformation. According to the New York Times, the duelling rallies were two of 130 that had been encouraged by Russian trolls posing as American activists in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Some trolls spoke in favor of movements such as Black Lives Matter and advocated fiercely for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders; others stirred the nativist pot or denounced Hillary Clinton; others encouraged citizens to disengage and not vote at all.
When I learned about this, one man’s name popped into my head: Vladislav Surkov.
Though his stateside reputation is dwarfed by that of his boss, Vladimir Putin, Surkov has over the past two or so decades pioneered a wholly unique form of political control. After Putin seized power over Russia in 1999, he appointed Surkov to his cabinet, where the former public relations specialist put his background in Russia’s nihilistic avant-garde artistic scene to use by transforming Russian politics into a bizarre work of postmodern theater, in which Putin retained power by rendering it impossible to discern the genuine from the fake. Surkov made it known that he had a direct line to the leader of every major opposition party; he funneled money to an “anti-fascist” youth group called the Nashi, whose state-sponsored violence against dissidents looked a lot like fascism itself; he helped imprison his former boss, the oligarch Mikhail Kodorkovsky, and when the jailed Kodorkovsky turned into a wildly popular radical dissident, Surkov referred to his supporters as “democratic schizophrenics.”
In 2011, Surkov began focusing on foreign policy, after his tactics drew the ire of young Russians (he explained the move to the New York Times by saying, “I am too odious for this brave new world.” ).Of particular interest to the Russian state was Ukraine, whose peninsula of Crimea had long been viewed in Russia’s eyes as rightfully theirs. Russian TV channels in Ukraine began airing newscasts depicting neo-Nazi rallies that weren’t actually happening. This fake news began to yield real civil unrest, and soon Crimeans were asking Russia to deliver them from a threat that started out as an imaginary one. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea, and after it was all said and done, leaked emails allegedly belonging to Surkov revealed that he was behind the whole thing.
One of Surkov’s many side interests is writing, and in his work he seems to take a perverse glee in making the thinking behind his machinations explicit. Under the pen name Nathan Dubovitsky, he’s published novels and short fiction whose content is often a thinly veiled allegory for his processes of control. A translation of a Surkov profile from the independent Russian-language journal The New Times quotes him as having written, in an art review, “To be understood is simple human happiness. To be misunderstood is the privilege of genius.”
To me, this quote cuts to the core of Russia’s impact in the 2016 election. Much like Surkov’s system of control in his home country, it’s not what’s being done that’s important, it’s the fact that it’s being done at all. We’re still not fully aware of the scope of what Russia did, and how effective their efforts were. This process of speculation and interpretation has created chaos: Pundits and laypeople swipe at each other both within and across the political left and right; we’re glued to a sprawling investigation whose tendrils extend in unexpected directions; and our overly defensive president’s attempts to shift the narrative only perpetuate it.
The fact that we misunderstand the extent to which Russia meddled, and why it did, may very well be by design — and, if our current state of Russia mania was indeed an unexpected outcome, it’s something Russia may still consider favorable. To be misunderstood is the current privilege of Russia, and so, by Surkov’s logic, they’re geniuses until proven otherwise.
The Russians, of course, are not alone in their state-sponsored mendacity. The U.S. has its own track record of interfering in foreign elections and lying to its own people. But when one lie is revealed, it becomes easy to start questioning everything else. This is part of why, as the Watergate scandal unfolded, conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination took on new life, and it helps explain how, after the FBI and ATF raided gun-laden compounds in the early 90s, that the NRA could convince gun owners that the government might just come into their homes and kill them too.
The internet is, by design, democractic. Anyone can use it in (nearly) any way they’d like, to do (nearly) whatever they want. And while this means that the internet can be a genuine source of joy and meaningful social change, it can also be a powerful tool in the wrong hands, and in recent years governments have exploited the internet’s unique ability to cause individual citizens to question what’s real. In addition to Russia’s efforts to flood the zone with disinformation at home and abroad, China and Venezuela have also turned to online disinformation to strategically distract in times of crisis.
In a way, Donald Trump was right when he tweeted, “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption, and chaos within the U.S., then [...] they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” But Trump is just as guilty of doing the same, and probably more. His presidency has created dueling realities in the U.S., one in which he is an illegitimate dictator, and another in which he is actively saving the country from threats that never existed in the first place.
“Instead of waiting for the crisis to impose his decree, his decrees get him the emergencies he needs,” German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently toldThe New Yorker, which I think is about right. Trump’s alarming public statements are often directly contradicted, or at least softened to the point of warping, by his aides on the world stage. He proposes sweeping policy changes, only to retract them at the last minute. He baldly lies about his own popularity and effectiveness, which, when the media devotes massive resources towards debunking them, has the effect of creating a smokescreen under which the vaguely competent members of his administration can impose business-favoring regulations with little to no blowback.
If there’s something truly unique about Trump’s tactics, it’s that he is unafraid to be shamelessly transparent about what he’s doing, or that he may not even realize the effect he’s having at all. But, just as with our confusion about Russian hacking and trolling, the result is all the same. After all, to be understood is simple human happiness, but to be misunderstood is the privilege of genius.