The post-mortem is not complete. Causes for the triumph of the Republicans on November 8, 2016, are still a hot subject for debate. I have trouble speaking or writing the name of the ostensible victor, so I shall call him “The Joker.” Evil Clowns and Fools have an interesting place in history and literature. Steven King’s “It” is a great fictional example; Wyndam Earle, from Twin Peaks, is another. In real life, the serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s social avatar was Pogo the Clown; he performed at children’s parties. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in the Batman movie of 2008 is iconic. The titular head of the USA has orange hair, a vitriolic expression, and mangled grammar. We don’t really know what he’s done, but it seems bad, very bad, as he would say. He is not singularly evil, like Voldemort or Sauron, Richard III or “BOB” from Twin Peaks, but clownishly so. In homage to Ledger, I shall refer to the leader of the US as The Joker.
The question remains: why did the Russians support The Joker?
As I understand it, much of this Joker’s support came from young white males who live in their parent’s basements. They are not the unemployed white males who were displaced from factory jobs in fly-over states, nor older people nostalgic for a Potemkin Village version of the 1950s. Rather, they are diffusely angry solitary men, unable to mate because they lack live social skills, who live in cyberspace wearing dramatic avatars. Bleak black humor is the name of the game, as is destruction for fun and revenge. Electing the Joker was revenge against the 1%, the so-called elites, who have dominated US politics since its inception.
Still, what happened and why did it work? I have a pet theory based on personal experience. I believe that people affiliated with what is now Russia deliberately hacked not just email servers or voting machines, but the entire structure of the USA’s experiment with democracy by introducing toxic memes that played to our colonial heritage that included slavery and plutocracy. The Joker and his allies are bashing apart every aspect of progressive America, from science to religion, because by a small margin in the Electoral College they won a culture war between the Blues and Reds. Red values originated in the Confederacy, and have been rebranded. The new word for the mix of fascism and social media is the “alt-right”, promoting old fascist ideas with new technology. The alt-right swallowed Nazism, extended its dogma, and attacks anything they can that might be vulnerable.
The alt-right propagates fascist ideas via social media more than conventional media. The mechanism of social learning that is transmitted by the Internet is called a meme. What is a meme? The word itself has become a meme, and people now get doctorates in memetics. Actually, Richard Dawkins made up the word meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as an afterthought. The book was about genes and sociobiology. Memes are ideas or words or images transmitted and amplified by individuals as thought viruses. They are Lamarckian; they are learned, as opposed to genes that are inherited by natural selection. Pepe the Frog, Grumpy Cat, and “They’re good dogs, Brent” are memes. The alt-right are experts at memetics. Some darknet warriors are hackers or Anonymous. They enjoy slash and burn. So angry men who hung out on 4chan or used Tor for games or business were ripe for disruption, and amused by destruction. They had nothing to lose.
On the other hand, Russia had lost her Empire. She lost a huge amount of prestige, territory, and population. Vladimir Putin was a career officer in the KGB, the Soviet Intelligence Agency, from 1975 to 1998. During his tenure, the Soviet Union crumbled. What began as Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to modernize the USSR in 1985 resulted in its dissolution in 1991. Gorbachev first introduced the idea of perestroika, an open market, and decentralized economic system to replace the rigid Stalinist idea of a communist state. He also promoted glasnost, openness, for democracy and international relations. Gorbachev’s embrace of openness opened the door to the fall of the Soviet Empire. On a historical scale, the collapse of the USSR was cataclysmic. In 2005, Vladimir Putin said the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”
I have a unique perspective on this. In February 1987, I was one of 1,000 people from all over the world invited to the Kremlin to participate in a series of workshops about preventing nuclear war. Among others were Yoko Ono, Carl Sagan, the Dalai Lama, Pierre Trudeau, and the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the reception line prior to the speech, I was sandwiched between Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Yevtushenko was very tall, and at one point he picked me up and twirled me around. Everyone was happy and smiling. I had the distinct impression that our Soviet hosts were having a great time. On February 16, Mr. Gorbachev gave a long and detailed speech to everyone at the Assembly, and then he was given a globe without national boundaries by the Head of the International Council of Churches. He said that he wanted to go down in history as the man who had prevented nuclear war. My impression was that in addition to arms control, the Soviets were delighted to emerge from Stalin’s shadow and to embrace and enjoy Western culture. In fact, I think they were entertained, maybe even enthralled. We were transmitting the memes of the Beatles and the Buddha, that all you need is love. It was a fantastic party.
Later in 1987 Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement with Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 he declared that nations should be free to choose their own course without outside interference. Subsequently, he reduced Soviet military forces in the Baltic. The USSR fragmented. By the end of 1991, Gorbachev resigned as President of the USSR, which no longer existed. Instead, the USSR became 15 independent nation-states, with Russia the biggest and predominant.
I was one of many medical doctors and scientists who reached out across national boundaries to say that nuclear war is an international public health problem. I suppose that we tried to infect our Russian colleagues with progressive US idealism in medicine, music and art, environmentalism, and the “hippy” subculture. Our goal was to open up the Soviet culture to the clear light of the Enlightenment, with overtones of Haight Ashbury.
The result was the fall of the Soviet Empire, a massive loss of power, land, resources, and status. So why should many people in Russia not be angry at the cultural triumph of The West? And what better way to get revenge than to promote ideas and values that are in direct opposition to the Enlightenment values of secularism and independence written into the US Constitution right at the height of the Enlightenment?
So I think that if indeed the Russian government colluded with Julian Assange and the alt-right to support The Joker, it was a gamble. The US nuclear launch codes are now in the hands of an absurdist, a Joker backed by a base of angry and poorly educated “deplorables”. The bulls have invaded the china shops. They are undoing the infrastructure of US science, medicine, the arts, and the economy. Ronald Reagan famously invoked the vision of the US as a “shining city on a hill”, referring to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which called on nations to do good deeds that are visible, shining in light. If the Joker does not set the planet on fire, his deeds such as resigning from the Paris Climate Accords will remove the US from the light. Try thinking of Russian interference in US politics as a secondary infection rather like HIV that suppressed the normal immune system of American democracy. Without firing a single missile, tilting the 2016 even slightly to the Right in 2016 helped to elect a person determined to destroy liberal values and undermine the cultural changes of the Enlightenment.
So my theory is that intellectuals in Russia and the former USSR decided either on purpose with insight, or by instinct, to feed nascent angry populist sentiments against the privileges of inherited wealth, private education, and fast track access to good jobs and lovely homes. Harley riders and Coors drinkers gave the finger to Wellesley Hillary and Harvard Obama. As the Joker dismantles research, record keeping, environmental protection, healthcare and humanism, Russia, the former superpower, makes mincemeat of her enemy, having induced her to commit cultural suicide.
Putin may have gambled: put the nuclear codes in the hands of someone who tweets in the night, increasing the risk of nuclear war. But plant the seeds to destroy the country created in the light of reason anyway. Two empires lost.