For the many Americans desperate for any shred of hope that the incoming administration will dissolve in crisis before it can do much harm, the appearance last Tuesday night of a mysterious dossier purporting to outline Russia’s control over the president-elect through blackmail material and financial incentives felt like a gift from on high. Here, at last, was intelligence apparently confirming Trump’s fealty to Russia, topped with the vivid image of his having directed a Russian slumber party in the fetishistic defilement of a bed Obama once slept in. But while this new development might seem at first a setback to Trump, it’s hardly that simple.
Whatever structural relationship exists between Trump and Putin, there’s no question that the two share an approach to power, a method of handling political opposition, uncooperative news media, and inconvenient information. Russian journalist Masha Gessen, British filmmaker Adam Curtis, and American journalist Ned Resnikoff, to name but a few, have noted the strong parallels between the asymmetrical war Trump and his supporters have waged on journalists and democratic norms and those practiced by Putin and one of the key architects of his regime, Vladislav Surkov.
“The stage is constantly changing,” wrote Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books, describing the environment Surkov cultivates in Russia’s managed democracy. “Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
It’s a strategy that devalues verifiable facts as the atomic building blocks of truth, diluting them with an admixture of lies, rumors, and infinitely refracted suspicion. The result is an opaque and unnavigable slurry in which every assertion is disputable and the only abiding truth is power. Like spittlebug nymphs, which secrete a bubbling wad of froth around themselves so as to avoid discovery; like cephalopods, jetting ink into the water to cover their movements, Trump and Putin cultivate their own optimal environment in which visibility approaches zero.
This past week’s excitement only added to the confusion. Trump’s relationship to Russia invited scrutiny long before the release of the dossier. His embrace of Russia and Putin is an unprecedented and counterintuitive stance for a modern Republican; his campaign chairman was paid millions of dollars for advising a pro-Russian party in Ukraine; Hillary Clinton’s campaign was hampered by embarrassing emails revealed through a hack attributed to Russian agents. These are all facts. The release of the dossier, however, moved the issue away from proven fact and into the realm of rumor and allegation. Everything in the dossier, as of the time of this writing, remains completely unconfirmed, mere allegations compiled by a contractor hired by political rivals and relying on anonymous sources. In Surkovian physics, this detour serves Trump.
There’s reason to suspect that the unsubstantiated reports made it to press due to the efforts of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, with which Trump has been feuding for months. Reporters have had the briefings for months now, but held off on publishing their allegations because they were unsubstantiated. It was only when the two-page summary made it into the Daily Intelligence Briefing that CNN could assert its newsworthiness, publishing an oblique reference to the allegations that practically begged for an outlet like BuzzFeed to just go ahead and publish the source material to which it alluded.
Trump’s escalating struggle with American intelligence institutions over suggestions Putin’s interference helped win him the presidency has produced some strange bedfellows, with some of the president-elect’s critics on the left enthusiastically lining up against him with the CIA. But we do well to remember that the enemy of our enemy may not be our friend. The agency is itself no slouch when it comes to disinformation, kompromat, election meddling, and the erosion of democratic movements and institutions (to say nothing of torture and assassination). In a kaiju battle between Trump and the intelligence state, truth and transparency will likely be the first things trampled underfoot.
Here in the slurry, it’s no contradiction for the same news story that serves the interests of the spook complex to also be used to advantage by their antagonist, Trump himself. Institutional journalists thought they’d landed a rhetorical blow after the election when they reported on the glut of “fake news,” much of it generated by enterprising Macedonian teenagers, that was choking the Facebook feeds of Trump supporters. But “fake news” proved an unwieldy weapon, one that Trump easily turned, with greater effect, back against the press. “You’re fake news,” Trump told CNN reporter Jim Acosta, declining to call on him at a press conference Wednesday, before turning moments later to take a question from Breitbart about the need for journalists to reform themselves.
Smart journalists have disagreed about the wisdom of BuzzFeed‘s decision to publish the dossier. In Trump’s hands, that healthy debate was made a weakness. He berated BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” contrasting it with other outlets whose judicious restraint he found “so incredibly professional that I’ve just gone up a notch as to what I think of you.” For the moment at least, it was no longer Trump against the entire Lügenpresse; he’d managed to separate his targets from the herd.
The tussle over the dossier also provided Trump crucial cover in the short term, effectively distracting from his announcement that he will be disregarding established ethics norms; from the unfolding Senate confirmation hearings of his two most important nominees, Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson; and from the crystallizing plans to gut the Affordable Care Act and initiate a regime of mass deportation.
It’s possible, of course, that indisputable proof of some treasonous collusion between Trump and Putin will yet arise. But accusations and counter-accusations, tweets, insults, suspicions, scandalous statements — they are diversionary chaff. They are the ink-cloud, the spit-nest, the occulting sleet of misdirection. The only solid footing lies in tracking what Trump and his administration do, the policies they pursue, the orders they sign, the laws they enact, the laws they break. There is already more than enough of that to keep us all busy.