Does Donald Trump Have a Subversive Partnership With Vladimir Putin’s Propaganda Machine?

2016-07-21T204207Z_1_LYNXNPEC6K1LW_RTROPTP_3_USA-ELECTION-REPUBLICANS
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump points at the gathered media during his walk-through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Updated | The opponent wields a “firehose of falsehood” with “a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.” He “entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience” with exaggerations and unfounded rumors. His technique is entirely new, confounding decades of conventional wisdom that says effective political messages should stay close to the truth.

Donald Trump? No, Vladimir Putin, who has piloted “a remarkable evolution in Russia's approach to propaganda,” according to a new study from RAND, a think tank based in Santa Monica, California, which has been supplying the Pentagon and CIA with ideas since 1948. Despite ignoring past principles of propaganda, RAND says, Putin has “enjoyed some success” in his main goal: undermining Western unity, and specifically its military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

His success stories: The rise of Moscow-backed right-wing “populist” movements in Europe, along with Western disunity over Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and how to deal with Syrian refugees. And now Donald Trump?

It’s hard to draw a straight line between Putin’s propaganda machine and Trump’s astonishing statement in a New York Times interview that he would come to the aid of NATO states threatened by Russia only if they have “fulfilled their obligations to us,” i.e., paid their full share of the alliance’s costs. Or that the United States should “fix our own mess” before demanding that Turkey and other authoritarian states honor the law and human rights. “How are we going to lecture when people are shooting policemen in cold blood?” he asked.

The Kremlin couldn’t have said it better itself. In the darkest days of the Cold War, Moscow was forever broadcasting news and film of cops beating up civil rights protesters and telling Washington to shut up about Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. President John F. Kennedy’s response was to move from indifference to civil rights to embracing them, according to Stanford fellow Mary Dudziak, author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Trump’s response has been to double down on the cops and exchange verbal air kisses with Putin.

Putin’s 24/7, multichannel propaganda machine can’t take credit for that. By many accounts, Trump has been wooing Russian money to pump up his business interests since the 1980s, when the keystone of Republican foreign policy doctrine was to isolate and bring down the Soviet Union. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” his son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication, cited by The Washington Post. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Since then, Trump has had only nice things to say about Putin, who has fed the candidate’s vanity with approving murmurs about his “flamboyant” personality and “talent.” In response, the candidate has called for ending “this horrible cycle of hostility” between the U.S. and Russia. Likewise, his agents gutted an anti-Russia statement on Ukraine from the Republican national platform. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has ties to Russian businessmen, according to court documents, was a lobbyist for Moscow’s Ukraine stooge Viktor Yanukovych. In March, according to Bloomberg, Trump appointed Carter Page, a New York investment banker who has worked with Gazprom, the privatized Soviet gas ministry, as a foreign policy adviser. And last December, Trump’s favorite foreign policy adviser, former Defense Intelligence chief General Michael Flynn, was an honored guest at a 10th anniversary gala in Moscow for the Russia Today TV network, which the RAND study calls “one of Russia’s primary” channels for spreading disinformation (such as the falsehood that Syrian rebels, not the Syrian regime, were responsible for chemical attacks).

In large measure, Americans have proved immune to Russian propaganda over the decades. Only when Moscow lined up behind genuine U.S. domestic dissatisfaction with official policies—civil rights, Vietnam, backing the apartheid regime in South Africa—did its interests and the voices of dissident Americans coincide. Back then, the RAND study says, Moscow was more careful about yoking its messages to widely shared sentiments.

But today, Russia’s retooled “firehose of falsehood” is effective, according to RAND authors Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”

That, according to anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats alike, is also the distinctive methodology of the GOP nominee—and, of course, his many patrons at Fox News. From his “birther” campaign questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship, to his insistence that he saw Muslim Americans celebrating the 9/11 attacks, to his bizarre echoing of a tabloid claim that rival Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved with the Kennedy assassination, Trump’s techniques and Moscow’s are indistinguishable.  

The question now is what happens when their techniques match their goals? An unholy marriage of Putin’s objectives with Trump’s became apparent again on June 17, when the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks published a vast trove of embarrassing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee—evidently by Russian intelligence agency hackers. The leak, which provoked havoc in the top echelons of the party, not to mention a new wave of infighting between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps, seemed calculated to benefit Trump, Moscow’s clear favorite in the campaign. The act of “digitally exfiltrating and then publishing possibly manipulated documents disguised as freewheeling hacktivism,”  wrote Thomas Rid, author of  Rise of the Machines, "is crossing a big red line and setting a dangerous precedent: an authoritarian country directly yet covertly trying to sabotage an American election.” 

The FBI says it is investigating the matter. If unequivocal evidence surfaces that Russia did feed Wikileaks its purloined emails—and Rid, writing on the futurist website, Motherboard, makes a convincing case—then the stunt may well backfire. Already, at least some Republican stalwarts have found yet another reason to feel queasy about Trump. Longtime party strategist Rick Wilson lit up Twitter on June 25 by urging reporters to ask the candidate: "Do you, or any of your business units have outstanding loans with Russian banks or individuals? If so, how much?"  

Hope Hicks, Trump's spokesperson tells Newsweek in an email: "Mr. Trump does not have any business dealings in/with Russia."

If elected, the mogul seems inclined to try and lift congressional sanctions on Russia imposed after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and encourage Europeans to follow suit. Trump clearly liked Britain’s exit from the European Union. Would he encourage French “populists” to pursue the same, effectively fracturing the Western alliance? And would all this encourage Putin to step up his brand of “hybrid war,” a poisonous brew of subversion and threats, against NATO’s front-line states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia? Longtime observers of Russia have no doubt about that.

“Traditional counter-propaganda approaches will likely be inadequate,” the RAND authors state, speaking of Moscow, although the same could be said for countering Trump’s fact-free broadsides. Their prescription does not give much reason for hope. It comes down to pre-emptively striking at the “firehose of falsehood” instead of wasting time refuting the distortions and outright lies, or as RAND puts it, “forewarn audiences of misinformation, or merely reach them first with the truth, rather than retracting or refuting false ‘facts.’"

That will work well with the Balts, who need little encouragement to hate Russians after more than 40 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. But will it work for the Clinton campaign and other forces arrayed against Trump and his pro-Putin retinue? According to the polls, the opinion of the American people is still up for grabs. And that’s even more frightening than Russia’s intrigues in Europe.

This story has been updated to include mention of investment banker Carter Page, who is a Trump foreign policy adviser. It has also been updated to include comment from the Trump campaign and the latest on the DNC hack and the alleged Russian connection.