Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Trump’s a Galaxy. Or is he a Sputnik?

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the age of the smartphone, it’s just too good an analogy to pass up. Increasingly, as his presidential campaign flames out, Donald Trump is the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 of American politics, a phone so hurriedly assembled that it spontaneously combusts. That would make Hillary Clinton the iPhone 7. She’s essentially the same as your current president, just harder to connect to, and with inferior e-mail security.

When I tried out this joke on Twitter last week, someone pointed out that it had already been made on “Saturday Night Live.’’ This came as no surprise. “SNL” and the presidential election have essentially fused ever since Alec Baldwin was brought in to parody Trump.

“Are you not entertained?” Baldwin’s Trump asked last weekend, just a day after the videotape of the real Trump’s sexual bragging — sorry, “locker-room talk” — had been released by The Washington Post. Well, yes and no. The American public is still fascinated by Trump, but in the way that people are fascinated by a really gruesome car crash.

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Yet it will be tragic if the history books record that Donald Trump lost the 2016 election because he confessed to, and was then accused of, sexual assault, which he then denied. Because there is a much better reason why he deserves to lose. The most shocking aspect of the Trump campaign is not the revelation that he is a serial sexual harasser, but rather the revelation that he is the dupe, if not the pawn, of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

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That the Russians are meddling in this election is now official. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the Kremlin “directed” the hacking of e-mail accounts associated with the Democratic National Committee and the party’s Congressional Campaign Committee, and the intention was “to interfere with the US election process.” It is also widely believed in Washington that Moscow is behind the ongoing release by WikiLeaks of e-mails to and from Hillary Clinton, the most recent of which were purloined from the Gmail account of John Podesta, her campaign chairman.

Oddly enough, the Russians don’t seem quite as interested in the Republican candidate’s e-mails. I wonder why. The obvious answer is that Donald Trump says nice things about Mr. Putin (“In terms of leadership, he’s getting an A”). The more exciting answer is that Trump is himself a Kremlin operative.

Writing in Slate, back in July, Franklin Foer argued that Putin has “a plan for destroying the West — and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” In The Washington Post, my old friend Anne Applebaum called Trump the “Manchurian candidate.” A day later, in The New York Times, my old foe Paul Krugman opted for the “Siberian candidate.”

Is this just a conspiracy theory cooked up by the Clinton campaign? Judge for yourself. When he hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager, Trump could hardly have been unaware of Manafort’s work for Kremlin crony Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt Ukrainian president between 2010 and 2014. Another former Trump adviser with suspiciously close ties to Moscow is Carter Page, a vocal defender of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And then there is Trump’s openly stated desire to do a “great deal” with Putin if he is elected, combined with the aspersions he has cast on NATO (“obsolete and expensive”) — not forgetting his refusal to accept that Russia is behind the cyber campaign against his opponent . . . a campaign that he himself incited back in July.

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Last Monday, at a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump read out a leaked e-mail that he claimed was from Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, which suggested that, in Blumenthal’s view, the 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented (by then-secretary of state Clinton). The crowd lapped it up. In fact, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article by Kurt Eichenwald and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website.

Think about what you have just read, and then reflect on what the Russian government has spent the past week doing in Aleppo. The Putin regime is bombing that city to rubble, killing hundreds of innocent people in the process, to keep a murderous tyrant in power. And this is what Trump admires? This is who supplies his talking points?

This election is still 22 long days away. To some, it’s become a comedy, but it’s actually a matter of life and death. As November 8 approaches, the mud-slinging will intensify. So will the cyberwarfare. And the more complicated the allegations become — the more that obscure names like Sidney Blumenthal are bandied about — the more voters will tune out and make their decision on the basis of feelings rather than facts they no longer trust.

The scariest thought of all is that, if they don’t like the ultimate result, they won’t trust that either. For proof that this election is rigged, download the Sputnik app to your smartphone today.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.