the national interest

Donald Trump, Julian Assange, and the Control of the Republican Mind

Donald Trump: I didn’t just shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The cruelest, most condescending, and also devastatingly correct indictment of Donald Trump’s supporters was uttered not by a member of the liberal media but by Donald Trump himself, when he mentioned that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose support. Trump’s insinuation that his fans will ignore any evidence of his guilt, however plain, has been vindicated. Perhaps no episode has demonstrated the Fifth Avenue Principle more dramatically than the case of the Russian email hack.

The very firm conclusion by 19 U.S. intelligence agencies that it was Russia that carried out the email hacks of Democratic emails, as well as the conclusion by both the CIA and the FBI that it did so in order to benefit Trump (a candidate it had openly touted for months) is inconvenient for Trump. We don’t and can’t know whether Russian hacking tipped the balance of the election, but it’s possible to believe it did; the election was extremely close, and the emails, while substantively minor, fed into the narratives of embittered Bernie Sanders supporters and generated more news stories with “Clinton” and “emails” in their headlines. Trump has thus set out to convince his supporters that Russia did not conduct the hacks.

To this end, Trump has employed many of the same techniques he used to attract attention to the cause of disputing President Obama’s citizenship. He has exploited popular distrust of institutions, portraying their documentation and conclusions to be suspicious, and promised that he alone either has obtained the real facts, or will soon get to the bottom of them. He has supplied his fans with plausible-sounding alternative suspects — the Chinese, a morbidly obese man, teenage boys — or attributed the issue to the general complications entailed by computers.

On December 31, he declared, “I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation,” and pledged to reveal his secret information “on Tuesday or Wednesday.” Wednesday came and went without the promised reveal. Trump meanwhile insisted, “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

Intelligence agencies deny that they ever delayed a briefing. But what’s remarkable about this is not that Trump misstated the facts, but that he presented an alleged delay in the intelligence briefing as evidence that intelligence can’t be trusted at the very same time Trump himself had failed to present the briefing he promised the public. The preposterousness of his reasoning is what made it such a perfect example of the Fifth Avenue Principle. Trump wasn’t nitpicking some technical aspect of the intelligence case against Russia; he was dismissing the intelligence by falsely claiming its supporters were doing the very thing Trump was in fact doing before our eyes.

Trump cited the authority of Julian Assange, who declared that the hacking might have been undertaken by a 14-year-old. For an ordinary politician, this case might have been slightly awkward, since Trump had previously called WikiLeaks “disgraceful” and called for the organization to receive “the death penalty.” The simple about-face produced no embarrassment among his supporters. Here are Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Ann Coulter in 2010 lacerating Assange as a virtual terrorist, and mocking the Obama administration’s pathetic weakness in failing to bring these enemies to justice:

Now Palin is apologizing for ever having doubted Assange. Coulter is citing Assange as a trustworthy source, and calling for him not to be jailed but honored:

On and on have conservatives followed in line. Newt Gingrich, who once called Assange “an enemy combatant,” now praises him as a “down to Earth, straight forward interviewee.” Right, Assange is just a regular, down-to-earth guy-next-door type, if you happen to live next to the Ecuadorian embassy, and your neighbor is a fugitive hacktivist libertarian with a history of rape allegations and a strange fondness for Vladimir Putin. He probably drives a pickup truck and enjoys NASCAR.

Assange turns out to be interchangeably useful in conservative discourse as either an enemy whose continued survival proves Obama’s weakness or as a trusted source whose testimony proves Obama’s dishonesty. Hannity’s logic is straightforward: Assange is taking a position opposite Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and is therefore to be trusted:

Trump made his comment about shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue during the primary, a time when he faced fierce opposition from within his party. Since then, the incentives for conservatives to oppose him have weakened, and the incentives to support his ravings, or to redirect any dissent against his liberal opponents, have grown enormously. Trump’s bizarre lies about Russia and Assange are designed not only to defend the legitimacy of his election but also to prove, once again, that his control over the supple minds of the conservative base is total.

Trump, Assange, and the Control of the Republican Mind