For months she had only intimated it, or delegated the real dirty work to her surrogates and campaign staff, but at the final televised debate this week Hillary Clinton finally let loose: Donald Trump is “a puppet” of the Kremlin, she declared.
It’s worth pausing to consider just how extreme and incendiary that allegation is. For Trump to be a “puppet” of a hostile foreign power—especially Russia, arguably America’s oldest continuous adversary—would be an event of earth-shaking magnitude, unrivaled in all U.S. history. It would mean that by some nefarious combination of subterfuge and collusion, the sinister Russian leader Vladimir Putin had managed to infiltrate our political system at its very core, executing a Manchurian Candidate-style scheme that would’ve been dismissed as outlandish in even the most hyperbolic 1960s-era espionage movie script.
Trump is often accused of violating the “norms” that typically govern the tenor of U.S. presidential campaigns. And these accusations very often have validity: at the same debate, he declined to preemptively endorse the legitimacy of the election outcome, which appears to be without precedent. As everyone is now keenly aware, he’s unleashed a constant torrent of brash histrionics that defy discursive standards and violate “norms” of many kinds—You’re rigged! I’m rigged! We’re all rigged!
But Hillary too violated a longstanding norm this week with her “puppet” screed, which was the culmination of her campaign’s months-long effort to tarnish Trump as a secret Russian lackey using the kind of retrograde nomenclature (“Puppet”? Really?) that would’ve made even the most hardened old-time Cold Warrior blush. Because of Hillary’s barb, there will henceforth be a precedent for accusing a rival major-party nominee of being a stealth agent of a fearsome foreign power, based on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.
Extrapolating from Trump’s stated belief that cooperation, rather than antagonism, with nuclear-armed Russia is desirable, Hillary’s boosters have long surmised that he must therefore be under the spell of a devious foreign spymaster: it can’t be that he genuinely prefers to be friendly with Russia and forge an alliance with their military. The only tenable explanation by their lights is this harebrained mind-control conspiracy theory.
One central irony to all this is that Trump basically has the same position vis-à-vis Russia as Barack Obama. As Trump pointed out in the Wednesday night debate, Obama attempted to broker a military alliance with Putin’s Russia only a few weeks ago; it fell through after American forces in Syria bombed soldiers loyal to Assad in direct contravention of the terms of the agreement. But it was an instance of deal-making nevertheless, so if Trump is guilty of accommodating the dastardly Russian menace, Obama must be similarly guilty.
Hillary’s increasingly hostile rhetoric on the homefront also likely contributed to “nuking” the accord with Russia, as she’s repeatedly accused Putin of subverting the American electoral process by way of hacks, as well as lambasting him as the “grand godfather’’ of global extremist movements—including the U.S. “alt-right.”
It would be one thing if these fantastic claims were ever substantiated with ample evidence, but they’re just not. At the debate, Hillary attributed her theory regarding the Russian orchestration of recent hacks on her campaign and the Democratic National Committee to unnamed “intelligence professionals.” These unspecified individuals have also failed to produce tangible evidence linking Russia to Trump, or Russia to the hacks. They are also the same sorts of people whose proclamations about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq were uncritically parroted by media allies.
She launched into the “puppet” rant after moderator Chris Wallace quoted an excerpt from one of her speeches delivered to a foreign bank, which had been published by WikiLeaks. It should be reiterated that Hillary had actively concealed these speech transcripts over the course of the entire presidential campaign, and the only reason the American public can now view them is thanks to WikiLeaks. But in an effort to change the subject from her newly revealed (and damning) comments before admiring cadres of financial elites, Hillary accused the rogue publishing organization of being party to a Russian plot. “This has come from the highest levels of the Russian government, clearly, from Putin himself,” Hillary proclaimed.
What evidence has been furnished that demonstrates “Putin himself” directed such efforts? Absolutely none that we are yet aware of. One could feasibly posit that such a blithe willingness to launch baseless attacks against foreign leaders is indicative of a poor temperament on Hillary’s part; it’s exactly the kind of bluster that could escalate into hot conflict, and will likely sour the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship for years to come under a prospective Clinton Administration.
In addition to accusing Putin of hacking the U.S. election, Hillary again announced her staunch support for a “no-fly zone” in Syria, which would necessitate the deployment of thousands more U.S. ground troops to the war-torn country and provoke direct, hostile confrontation with Russia, which is sustaining its client Assad. When asked by Wallace if she would authorize the shoot-down of Russian warplanes, Hillary evaded the question. (A simple “no” would’ve been nice.)
It’s long been known that Hillary is a hawk; she is supported by many of the same neoconservatives who once gravitated to George W. Bush. But her bellicosity toward Russia, which climaxed with the “puppet” diatribe, demonstrates that her hawkish tendencies are far from conventional; they are extreme. Hillary seems to be at her most animated (and one might say, perhaps even crazed) when she is aiming ire at supposed foreign adversaries, which of late has almost entirely been Russia, Russia, Russia. (Russia was the number-one topic broached at all this year’s debates, according to a tally by Adam Johnson of the media-watchdog organization FAIR.)
The tenor of the international situation has gotten exceptionally dire. Last Friday it was reported that the CIA is preparing to launch an “unprecedented” cyberattack on Russia; relations between the two states are at a dangerous nadir not seen in decades, to the point that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that a nuclear exchange is perilously likely.
Trump, for all his faults, has long advocated a sort of détente.
So why aren’t these developments front-and-center in media coverage of the campaign? Instead, it’s still a relentless focus on Trump’s many foibles, notwithstanding what appears to be Hillary’s steady sleepwalk into a potentially catastrophic war.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.