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Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

The folly of ‘Russiagate’

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/file)

The election of President Donald Trump was not, we now learn, the result of a conspiracy directed from Moscow. This finding by special prosecutor Robert Mueller will change few minds. A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans now consider Russia a “critical threat.” How could they not? Lurid demonization of Russia has become a staple of American politics. We have found a potent remedy for the “enemy deprivation syndrome” to which we fell victim after the end of the Cold War a generation ago. Our search for a malignant force on which we can blame the world’s troubles has ended in triumph. Once again, as in the 1950s, everything is Russia’s fault — no matter what Mueller says.

“Russiagate” was a vivid example of the power of narrative. The story line was classic, embodied in countless Western movies: a brute tries to crush an innocent victim who only wants to live in peace. For two years, influential newspapers and television networks devoted themselves to unbroken coverage of each daily “revelation” or “bombshell,” reported breathlessly as “breaking news.” A chorus of commentators, many of them former generals or intelligence officers, certified the narrative as not only true, but proof that a hateful power is plotting relentlessly to destroy our way of life. Mueller’s report makes clear that much of this hyperventilating was either highly overblown or downright false. Russians were evidently involved in purloining emails and posting memes on Facebook, but their mass-scale attack on American democracy turns out not to have happened.

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Although the collusion story has been a white-hot Washington obsession, few Americans outside the Beltway cared about it. On the weekend after Mueller’s report was issued last month, two presidential candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Tulsi Gabbard, were campaigning in New Hampshire. After they finished their tours, journalists asked them what questions they heard most often at public meetings. Both reported that voters seem focused on income inequality, climate change and the opioid epidemic — and that they had not heard a single mention of “Russiagate.”

Why, then, did the collusion story — the charge that the Kremlin worked with Trump to rig the 2016 election — drive the political class into such a frenzy? Partly because it provided an urgently needed explanation for how Trump could have defeated Hillary Clinton. Democrats, liberal cable TV networks, and other Trump haters have trouble admitting that many voters considered Clinton uniquely repugnant, and that Trump tapped into widespread disgust at the incestuous elite she represents. The narrative of Russian intervention offered a more comforting explanation: Trump’s victory was determined not at the polls, but in Moscow.

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As long as Clinton and those who followed her off the electoral cliff believe this, they can avoid self-criticism and blame someone else for her loss. Best of all, years of relentless attacks by American pundits and politicians have turned the person they want to blame — President Vladimir Putin of Russia — into a caricature of evil. That made it possible to imagine Putin as powerful enough to decide the outcome of a presidential election in the United States. Mueller’s report is a rude shock to those who dove down this rabbit hole.

Media-driven hallucinations have shaped American political history. Spain’s 1898 destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor propelled the United States into the Spanish-American War — but 70 years later the explosion was found to have been caused by sparks from the ship’s furnace. Congress voted to plunge into war in Vietnam after Communists attacked US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin; later it became clear that no such attack occurred. As we prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, almost every important politician and media outlet parroted baseless assertions that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

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In each of these cases, the reports seemed to make sense because they confirmed what our leaders told us was true. They allowed us to believe we could turn fantasy into reality. Children love to imagine doing that. Adults should know better.

Mueller’s report forces us to accept the cruel fact that voters, not Vladimir Putin, chose our current president. Americans who never swallowed the collusion narrative are unsurprised. Yet a core of diehards will hold onto that narrative like a hound that cannot let go of a meaty bone. Just because Mueller could not find proof of a conspiracy that would hold up in court, they argue, doesn’t mean that no conspiracy existed. In their hearts, they still think Putin did it.

This form of denial might be benign if it simply added a new layer of pathos to our already bizarre political circus. Unfortunately, it has global implications. The delusion that Russians hate us and are working assiduously to rob us of our democratic birthright is dangerous. It leads to the belief that they are our irredeemable enemy, and that therefore we should not negotiate with Russia about reducing tension in Europe, limiting nuclear weapons, calming the Middle East, or anything else. As this becomes dogma, anyone in Washington who urges diplomacy with Russia is stigmatized. That is more dangerous to our security than anything that happened during the last presidential campaign.

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Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.