Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.
The chattering classes have officially lost it. On both sides of the Atlantic. Of course they’d been teetering on the cliff edge of sanity for a while, following the bruising of their beloved EU by 17m angry Brits and Hillary’s loss to that orange muppet they thought no one except rednecks would vote for. But now they’ve gone over. They’re falling fast. They’re speeding away from the world of logic into a cesspit of conspiracy and fear. It’s tragic. Or hilarious. One or the other.
Exhibit A: this week’s New Yorker. It’s mad. It captures wonderfully how the liberal-left has come to be polluted by the paranoid style of McCarthyist thinking since Trump’s victory. It’s a New Yorker for a future, dystopian America that’s been captured by the Evil Empire. The mag’s masthead is in Cyrillic and its famous dandy mascot — Eustace Tilley — has morphed into Putin. It’s now ‘Eustace Vladimirovich Tilley’. Inside the mag it’s even more feverish. A 13,000-word report, ‘Trump, Putin and the New Cold War’, is accompanied by a drawing of a deep-red, UFO-style Kremlin hovering over the White House and firing lasers into it. It’s CGI Hollywood meets House Un-American Activities in an orgy of liberal dread over Ruskies ruining the nation.
It used to be right-wingers who fretted over Russians and Reds and pinkos colonising Westerners’ lives and minds. Now it’s lefties. Trump is regularly called ‘Putin’s puppet’. He’s an ‘unwitting agent’ of Moscow, we’re told. The New York Times even called him ‘The Siberian Candidate’, echoing the title of the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, in which an American is brainwashed by Korean Communists to become an assassin. That’s how some seriously view Trump: a Putin-moulded footsoldier of Russian interests who’ll assassinate the American way of life, if not American citizens. I mean, Vanity Fair actually asks: ‘Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?’ These people need a lie down. You have to get deep into the New Yorker’s prolix report to discover that US officials still haven’t provided evidence for their claim that Putin ordered the hacking of Democrat emails in order to hurry Trump to power: ‘The declassified report [on Putin’s meddling] provides more assertion than evidence.’
But that hasn’t stopped the left McCarthyists, these Reds on the Web fearmongers, from buying into all kinds of claptrap about Putin putting Trump in the White House. In December, a YouGov survey of Democratic voters found that 50 percent of them think ‘Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Trump’. That is, White House-eyeing Putinites actually meddled with voting machines or ballot counts. There’s no evidence whatever for this. In YouGov’s words, it’s an ‘election day conspiracy theory’. A kind of delirium is spreading.
The spectre of Putinite meddling is now blamed for everything that doesn’t go the liberal elite’s way. Ben Bradshaw said it is ‘highly probable’ Russia interfered in the EU referendum. Here, ‘highly probable’ is code for ‘I don’t have a solitary shred of evidence for this but I feel it in my waters’. Even the concern over ‘fake news’, which is a problem, is being bent to this broader, swirling fear of malevolent foreigners waging war on our apparently pristine politics and media. It always uses the lingo of invasion. Meet ‘the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media,’ said a Guardian report at the weekend, about a rich bloke who’s setting up various news websites.
The Guardian piece talks about the ‘war of the bots’, including ‘Russian bots’ (‘organised by who?’, it asks, menacingly). Apparently these ‘automated bots’ on Twitter and other social-media sites — a bot being a computer programme designed to say the same stuff over and over — are pumping out political messages and hashtags that have helped to ‘change the conversation’ and boost support for the likes of Trump and Brexit. What’s really being said here is that my mind, your mind and the mind of anyone who doesn’t love the EU or think Hillary would have made a good president have been invaded by Russian bots — ‘organised by who?’ You know who! — and made to believe certain things. Richard Dawkins summed it up in a tweet about the Guardian piece: ‘Terrifying. Sinister social-media bots read minds & manipulate votes. Explains mystery of Trump & Brexit.’
Dear, dear me. What has become of these people? They really believe Putin made Brexit happen? That Ruskies tampered with vote counts in the US? That Russian computer bots ‘read minds’? They’ve lost it. They’ve gone. The very people who for years talked about the problem of conspiracy theories have become the keenest spreaders of conspiracy theories. The people who spent the past few months banging on about the ‘post-truth’ politics of Brexit and Trump have shown they don’t have the first clue what truth is. The people who posed as champions of logic have revealed themselves as peddlers of paranoia.
In his seminal 1964 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, written in the aftermath of McCarthyism, Richard Hofstadter nailed the two elements of the fearful, fact-lite political mind: first, the obsession with ‘patterns’ of behaviour that might point to a conspiracy; and second, the conviction that the entire political order is under threat from some external force. He noted that McCarthy often talked about the ‘baffling pattern’ of certain politicians’ antics, which seemed to compliment, at least, ‘the wellbeing of the Kremlin’. And he described how political paranoiacs always think civilisation itself is being menaced: ‘The paranoid spokesman traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders.’
This beautifully describes the situation today. Those opposed to the current political order now scrabble about for evidence of Putin-friendly ‘patterns’ of behaviour among Trumpites, tying together every fleeting phone call or dinner engagement into proof that the White House is primarily concerned with the ‘wellbeing of the Kremlin’. And they, too, wring their hands over the end of America or the end of Europe — ‘the death of whole worlds’, the end of everything. They have vacated the world of reason. They’re in the land of the paranoid now, and they don’t even know it.
Has the Left lost its marbles over Russia? Freddy Gray and Michael Brendan Dougherty discuss: