Americans still clinging to the idea that their candidate lost the 2016 election because of meddling by the Russian state have much in common with victims of brainwashing cults. For them, doctrine has eclipsed reality.
Russiagate true believers are already screaming about foreign interference in the 2020 election and it hasn’t even happened yet. Months after the long-awaited special counsel’s report failed to serve up the promised evidence of “Russian collusion,” they have held fast to their conviction that President Donald Trump is a Russian asset placed in office by Vladimir Putin, and the intelligence agencies that serve as their oracles have predicted further “meddling” will occur to keep him in office. Indeed, their beliefs only grow stronger the more contrary evidence is presented, to the point where they have more in common with a cult than any other political group.
Russiagaters are back in the headlines after the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and a cluster of intelligence agencies released a joint statement on “ensuring security” for the 2020 elections on Tuesday. But to be fair, they never really left. Just last month, they were pearl-clutching about Russians on Facebook targeting Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, and before that, it was a non-story about Trump supposedly telling Russian officials he wasn’t concerned about the (still-unproven, but who’s counting) Russian interference in the 2016 election.
There’s no such thing as a negative Russiagate story, and even if Trump is ousted from office and replaced with a safely Russophobic warmonger like Biden, the election will be presented as a narrow victory over the forces of Russian meddling. If Trump wins in the absence of Russian interference, Russiagaters will claim there was a coverup. If intelligence agencies claim there was, but fail to show proof, as they did in 2016, it will be because the proof has to stay classified. If they declare there was meddling, and show reality-based proof – which hasn’t happened yet for any of the elections deemed to involve Russian meddling - then, and only then, can the story be trusted. This is not how reality works.
Such unshakeable faith is typically the domain of religion, not politics. But three years after the initial claims of Russian meddling in the US election, with the sanguine early predictions Trump would be running home to Putin within months having thoroughly collapsed, Russiagate resembles nothing so much as a fringe religious cult. The devotees of high priests Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher may not have a deity, but they have their saints – former FBI director James Comey, former special counsel Robert Mueller, and failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who continues to play the part of the martyr in interviews. On the side of evil is, of course, Vladimir Putin, portrayed as omnipotent – “Russia” is behind all domestic discord and will shut off your heat in the middle of the winter on a lark – and irresistible, with a few Facebook groups and clumsy memes somehow enough to induce black voters to elect a Russian asset.
Led by Maddow and Maher, certain mainstream media figures have set themselves up as a “priest class,” urging viewers to allow them to interpret primary sources such as the Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks in lieu of reading them themselves. CNN’s Chris Cuomo led the establishment of this caste, warning viewers the month before the election that they were not allowed to read WikiLeaks publications – that was for journalists to do. The media can thus smooth over any logical inconsistencies with the collusion doctrine and memory-hole the really inconvenient primary sources. Believers’ faith is thus protected, dissenting reports rejected (after all, if it was legitimate, it would be printed or discussed in the mainstream media), and doubters frozen out in a phenomenon cult expert Robert J Lifton calls “mystical manipulation.” In fact, most of the characteristics Lifton includes in his checklist for brainwashing cults are fulfilled by Russiagaters.
Cultists are kept from straying too far into “wrongthink” through thought-stopping techniques they are taught by other members early on. For Russiagate, this manifests in buzzwords like “fake news” and the smearing of all non-mainstream sources as unreliable. True cultists will cut entire websites out of their news diet, lest they be exposed to “Russian disinformation” carefully disguised as, say, American conservatism (Breitbart, Infowars) or peace activism (antiwar.com, the Ron Paul Institute). Even aggregators like Drudge Report have been smeared by the PropOrNot list later used, more disturbingly, by more authoritative voices like the Poynter Institute in an attempt to smear entire sections of the web as disinformation and “fake news.” Such “milieu control” keeps cultists safe in their echo-chambers.
By controlling a person’s information environment, it becomes much easier to control their thoughts. Brainwashing cults demand purity from their members, and both impure thoughts – perusing “fake news” or having civilized online chats with dissenters – and impure people must be jettisoned. If you can’t convert your friends (or family, or spouse!) to see things your way politically, ditch them, a surprising number of articles recommended around the 2016 election. This is no different than a cult demanding followers cut off family members who frown on its activities. Cults know that without a strong support system, it can be difficult to leave.
“Sacred science” is another hallmark of brainwashing cults, referring to unquestionable doctrine and the discouragement of questioning. Many elements of the Russiagate conspiracy theory – CrowdStrike’s assessment that the DNC fell victim to “Russian hacking,” delivered to the FBI without the actual server; the claim that the Internet Research Agency somehow changed voters’ minds with a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of goofy memes, many of which were posted after the election – require a complete suspension of one’s critical faculties. The Hamilton68 “Russian bot” dashboard, cited by dozens of publications to support the claim that the Kremlin is steering political conversation on social media, has seen one creator largely disavow it (“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” Clint Watts told Buzzfeed last year) and the other exposed as the leader of his own election-swaying faux-Russian bot armies. Yet the “Russian bots persuading people on social media” narrative persists, even when its targets reveal themselves to be humans.
The most disturbing element of a true brainwashing cult is “dispensing of existence,” the cult leader’s ability to determine who lives or dies (sometimes metaphorically, by being excommunicated, but sometimes literally). Russiagaters are quick to label their enemies traitors – former CIA director John Brennan infamously accused the president of treason last year, a crime that has a very specific meaning for an intelligence official who delivered “kill lists” weekly to the desk of former president Barack Obama. Brennan is not the leader of the Russiagate cult per se, but the investigation currently being conducted into the operation’s roots seems to point to the intelligence community, and recently turned into a criminal investigation.
Less powerful Russiagaters are fond of denouncing their enemies as Russians (and by extension less than human – recall former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s conviction that Russians are “genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate and gain favor,” unlike the rest of humans who are presumably trustworthy types who never lie under oath). Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have all been tarred with the Russiagaters’ brush recently, given cringe-inducing nicknames like “Moscow Mitch” and “Red Paul” for disagreeing with doctrine. In medieval times, heretics were burned at the stake; now they are “burned” on social media.
Perhaps sensing the cult’s days are numbered, Brennan recently backpedaled in his conviction that Russians stole the 2016 election. Russian meddling “changed the mind of at least one voter,” he hedged at the National Press Club last week, not long after an enthusiastic colleague caused him to cringe by cheering “Thank God for the Deep State!” Russiagate may not be over – the warning from the intelligence agencies suggests they are preparing yet another excuse in case they lose the election – but when it does end, it will be with the saddest of whimpers.