A few days ago the Trump camp started pushing the idea that Hillary Clinton was “America’s Merkel”, a reference to longserving German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by many measures one of the more successful European politicians of the post-war era. Trump even personally started pushing the Twitter hashtag “#AmericasMerkel. When I started seeing this my first thought was, “How many Americans do they think have even heard of Angela Merkel, let alone see her as some awful figure in a way that tying her to Clinton would send chills down people’s spines?” For better or worse, Putin is super high profile. Netanyahu is high profile. For your average American? Merkel is not high profile.
The answer’s obvious. But it didn’t occur to me until I read this very smart piece by ThinkProgress’s Alice Ollstein. Merkel is now a big, big deal (in a bad way) on alt-right and white supremacist websites where she’s become the poster-girl for feckless politician’s who are betraying the white race. Merkel led the way on pushing an generous refugee policy vis a vis the refugee crisis emerging from Syria. It’s certainly not that no one in the US knows about this. But presidential campaigns are mass audience affairs. And this is where it’s big. This is where it’s dynamite to make Hillary Clinton into “America’s Merkel.”
It’s not surprising. We’ve seen numerous instances and evidence and examples of how the Trump campaign is awash in the world of alt-right and white nationalist Internet culture, memes and ideas.
And then there’s this.
On Sunday’s CNN State of the Union show, now deposed Trump chief Paul Manafort told Jake Tapper that “You had — you had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists. You had a number of things that were appropriate to this campaign, were part of what Mr. Trump has been talking about.”
Only this didn’t happen.
Now, spouting nonsense on a Sunday show is nothing new. But this was a certain kind of nonsense, as a sharp-eyed Hayes Brown from Buzzfeed noted. This ‘story’, albeit fake, got a huge amount of push from Russia Today and the Russian alt-propaganda network Sputnik News that I wrote about yesterday. Now if you wanted to be really ungenerous you might say Manafort was getting his talking points from someone at least east of Kiev or more plausibly that he reads a lot of Russian propaganda websites. But as Brown notes, it wasn’t just RT and Sputnik. Their stories were also “passed along on Twitter by accounts that are both pro-Trump and pro-Russian.”
Maybe it’s just that he’s awash in the Trumpite, white nationalist world where pro-Russian propaganda (specifically propaganda from Russia’s various state-backed English language propaganda networks) has become ubiquitous and he picked it up there. What’s notable is that this bit of misinformation germinated in a Russian propaganda mill and ended up on Manafort’s lips on CNN. The precise pathway it took from origination to final destination is fascinating but in some ways beside the point.
This isn’t to defend or excuse Manafort or Trump. It’s rather to distinguish what we think might be the case from what we can say with some certainty is the case. In this instance, we may not know Trump’s and Manafort’s true inner beliefs. But we can get a pretty good read of the milieu they’re operating in, the voices they’re listening to, both online and off.
And this isn’t just my inference. Recently, Fortune commissioned a social media analytics company to analyze Donald Trump’s retweets on his infamous Twitter account. They identified 2,000 “influencers” in the “#WhiteGenocide” community (yes, I’m sorry to say there’s a “#WhiteGenocide” community), and they looked at that influence matrix against Trump’s Twitter history. “Since the start of his campaign,” they found, “Donald Trump has retweeted at least 75 users who follow at least three of the top 50 #WhiteGenocide influencers. Moreover, a majority of these retweeted accounts are themselves followed by more than 100 #WhiteGenocide influencers.”
Is that a big deal? Yes, that’s a huge, huge big deal.
How can it possibly make sense to Trump and his top staffers to turn their campaign over to the head of the junk-right gonzo site Breitbart News? Do they think this is going to make winning more likely as opposed to striking a nail into whatever chance they have to turnaround a terrible trend? Who knows? A perfectly plausible answer that Trump is a committed white nationalist who simply wants to run this kind of campaign. To some extent it’s definitely true. But again, there’s speculation and then there are looser judgments that are nonetheless very edifying. And these little hints picked up by Ollstein and Brown are views into this world. A major party candidates, the nominee of the Republican party just in advance of the Fall campaign awash in the world of racist white nationalism, anti-American Russian propaganda and more. It’s quite a spectacle to behold.