Unreliable Narratives
The Dangers of Putin Derangement Syndrome

Writing for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi takes a look at the “Putin Derangement Syndrome” gripping certain corners of the media establishment, as journalists dig for the elusive smoking gun that will definitively prove Trump’s collusion with Russia. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth your time. A taste:

One way we recognize a mass hysteria movement is that everyone who doesn’t believe is accused of being in on the plot. This has been going on virtually unrestrained in both political and media circles in recent weeks.

The aforementioned [Louise] Mensch, a noted loon who thinks Putin murdered Andrew Breitbart but has somehow been put front and center by The Times and HBO’s Real Time, has denounced an extraordinary list of Kremlin plants.

Mensch is the most obvious example of a growing trend: the mainstreaming of cooky conspiracy theorists who argue that everyone from Jeff Sessions to Bernie Sanders should be scrutinized as a potential Russian plant. Apart from the obvious absurdity of such charges, Taibbi argues, they present a dangerous temptation to politicians:

If the Democrats succeed in spreading the idea that straying from the DNC-approved candidate – in either the past or the future – is/was an act of “unwitting” cooperation with the evil Putin regime, then the entire idea of legitimate dissent is going to be in trouble.

Imagine it’s four years from now (if indeed that’s when we have our next election). A Democratic candidate stands before the stump, and announces that a consortium of intelligence experts has concluded that Putin is backing the hippie/anti-war/anti-corporate opposition candidate.

Or, even better: that same candidate reminds us “what happened last time” when people decided to vote their consciences during primary season. It will be argued, in seriousness, that true Americans will owe their votes to the non-Putin candidate. It would be a shock if some version of this didn’t become an effective political trope going forward.

The larger danger lies in the cynical exploitation of those beliefs for political ends. At a time when the Democratic base is fired up by inflated expectations of what a Trump-Russia probe might uncover, Democratic politicians may come to the conclusion confessed by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias last week: that “propagating somewhat unhinged Russia-related conspiracy theories is probably smart politics.” And that calculation may eventually be applied to other politicians besides Donald Trump.

Of course, the temptation to traffic in conspiracy theories is not limited to the Left. In recent memory, Donald Trump himself has done more than his part to mainline wacky conspiracy theories—notably birtherism—into the body politic. But pointing fingers is no help in this situation. The fraying of norms is real, and is clearly a bipartisan problem. And it leads nowhere good.


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