Sunday, July 02, 2017

What nobody seems to have noticed about this past Friday night's bombshell about a Republican "opposition researcher" trying to obtain the contents of Hillary Clinton's private email server from Russian hackers, while claiming high-level connections in the Trump campaign, is its striking similarity to another recent story about the 2016 election:  that of the so-called "Steele memo".  Consider:
  • Both stories center on a middleman figure of questionable ethics who is nominally independent of a presidential campaign, but in practice clearly associated with it.
  • In both cases, that middleman, seeking to obtain damaging information about the opposing candidate, is happy to reach out to highly dubious sources--even at the cost of being manipulated by Russian intelligence agencies.  (This aspect of the Steele memo is rarely noted, presumably because it is widely assumed that the Russian government was entirely on Trump's side, and therefore uninterested in planting damaging information about him with Westerners.  Even if the first part of that assumption is true--and it's actually a matter of hot debate within the US intelligence community--the value to the Russians of demonstrating an ability to create and control a flow of damaging information about Trump in the event of a Trump victory should be completely obvious.)
  • In both cases, the effort foundered for lack of confirmable information, and yet took on a life of its own later on, with large segments of the press acting exactly as if the operation had in fact been a complete success, and a great deal of verifiable, damaging information obtained.
At this point, there's really no need to belabor the obvious point that the mainstream press has yet again demonstrated itself to be hopelessly partisan, adopting diametrically opposite interpretations of parallel fact patterns in a way that consistently favors the Democrats and harms Republicans.  A more interesting lesson, I think, is the extent to which partisans of both parties treat the rules around "opposition research" as a kind of kabuki theater, in which nominally independent surrogates for the parties handle the unsavory business of digging up dirt on opponents--sometimes by extremely disreputable means--while maintaining only just enough distance to satisfy legal and political obligations. 

In this sense, opposition research is similar to gerrymandering, large-donor fundraising, manipulation of ease or difficulty of voting, and many other seamy aspects of US politics:  partisanship in the US is so strong, and respect for democratic principles so weak, that "fair play" rules--such as the ones that impose limits and transparency on campaign expenditures--are uniformly treated as mere formalities to be circumvented by one's own side, and perhaps occasionally used as legal weapons with which to harass the other side.  Until those attitudes change--an unlikely prospect, given how deep-seated they are in the American body politic--American democracy will no doubt continue to be plagued with its current rampant levels of corruption and dysfunction.

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