Special counsel Robert Mueller has brought criminal charges against Paul Manafort, reported the Guardian this morning. Mr. Manafort, who denies any wrongdoing, worked as campaign manager for Donald Trump during the Republican primaries but quit the campaign in August 2016 when he was found to have connections to a pro-Russian political party in the Ukraine. Rick Gates, a business associate of Mr. Manafort who remained on the campaign and worked on the Trump inaugural committee, was also charged. Manafort has given himself over to federal authorities.
The indictments open a new chapter in the Russia story -- a story that, for many, represents the most palatable explanation for Trump's surprise victory and the most conclusive case against the legitimacy of his administration. From this perspective, the new indictments bring us closer to confirming what we already suspected: that Trump's victory and the changing political landscape in America are a product of outside interference, and the surge of support for populists and outsiders a trend with no explanatory power of its own.
But security experts familiar with the Kremlin's cyber- and information-war capabilities are skeptical of the idea that Russia's recent efforts played a significant role in the outcome of the 2016 election, the rise of populist movements across the West, or indeed anything out of the ordinary in the context of ongoing geopolitical rivalries between Russia and the West.
"This is simply how nations interact," stated Mark Galeotti, coordinator of the Centre for European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague during an April interview. "It's not that I think the Russians had no role. I just think that role has been dramatically overplayed."
Instead, Mr. Galeotti believes that the rise of Trump's America and the global alt-right are cumulative results of a longstanding and widespread failure on the part of pro-globalist mainstream parties to speak for globalization's discontents.
"We now have a situation in America and the EU in which people essentially feel alienated from the political process...A certain model of representative government has essentially broken down: the model which relied on a combination of deference from below and noblesse oblige from above. People no longer feel that their voice really matters...And at the same time, we have an increasingly encapsulated political class."
It's not Putin's cyber and information wars that have caused these problems, Mr. Galeotti claims, but the other way around. There is a fundamental breakdown in America's political system that its geopolitical rivals have found an opportunity to exploit. It is the same with the rise of the populist left and resulting divisions in the Democratic Party.
"If there had not been attempts to sideline the Sanders campaign, then there would have been nothing for the Russians to leak. That is the crucial point. What made the leaks so dangerous was not that — to use the current phrase — they were fake news. They were dangerous precisely because the news was so real."
When asked to comment on Russia and the rise of populist movements in America and the EU, Ian Bond, a former adviser to NATO and Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform in London, expressed a similar opinion.
"I basically agree with Mark. The Kremlin has not created these discontents or these movements. The problems of inequality, the problems of alienation and loss of trust in the political process were there before Vladimir Putin came to power, and they have probably intensified in recent years, certainly since the 2008 economic crisis...This is the weakness of Western society. The extent to which Russia has exploited the different populist movements is variable."
The real drivers of Trump's America and right-wing populism
Speaking of his recent findings at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany, Robert Gold described how these same trends – alienation, loss of trust in the political process, and the economic crisis – has driven the trend towards right-wing fringe politics.
"It's not the case that people have become more racist, or more conservative. Instead what we find is a rational reaction against globalization and a clear economic mechanism driving the rise of right-wing populism. That said, populists are very good at binding ideas together that do not necessarily relate to each other. They take a stand on economic hardships and so forth but they tend to combine it with an ideological stance on foreigners, on issues of sexual orientation, etc., and in this way provide people with a mixed bag of policies that has an economic basis but is packaged in cultural prejudices."
This messaging only works, he goes on, if people feel that the established parties are no longer working in their interest.
A study conducted earlier this year by the Roosevelt Institute indicates that for every $100,000 that a Democratic representative received from the financial services sector, the odds that they would break party ranks to support deregulation of that sector increased by 13.9 percent. On average, Democratic representatives received between $200,000 and $300,000 from the financial services sector. A Princeton University study published in 2014 similarly shows how the private financing of America's political and parapolitical institutions (i.e. both parties and think tanks) favors private sector lobbies and special interests at the expense of a vast number of Americans.
In other words, the conditions that gave rise to Trump's election victory are correlated not only to global economic factors but to an American political system that responds more immediately to private financing than to electoral process.
To the extent that these factors have played a central role in the defining trends of the 2016 election – the rise of populist movements on the left and right, a concerted effort on the part of the DNC to sideline the Sanders campaign, and the surprise victory of the Trump campaign – the story of Russian influence, with or without collusion on the part of the Trump campaign, is largely redundant. This would be true as well with respect to the U.S. Intelligence report published in January, which advances the story on Russia's information wars as an alternative theory for a generalized loss of faith in the U.S. democratic process.
According to the experts interviewed for this article, the logic is the other way around: it was as a result of longstanding trends related to private financing exacerbated by global market forces that centrist elements in both major parties failed to connect with the 2016 electorate, giving rise to the populist wave. The extent to which Russia was then able to exploit the situation to further its own geopolitical interests appears negligible.
As Mr. Galeotti told me in April, "Contrary to the suggestion that they were jubilant, the Russians have been worried about Trump right from the beginning, because they didn't know what he stood for. They didn't know what a Trump presidency meant to them. In a way, they still don't. What has really emerged is a Trump presidency in which you never know what's going to come next — it's impossible to predict. The problem is that we are looking for a political narrative in a White House that is no longer political."
Paul Manafort, in all likelihood, will not be the last member of Trump's campaign to be charged by special counsel Mueller. But if, in the course of the investigation, the White House is seen at last to no longer represent the legitimate results of the 2016 election, it will not be because it is the product of a political process driven by private financing, but because the private financing that drives American politics is no longer beholden to any kind of electoral politics at all.
[Featured Image by Matt Rourke/AP Images]