For as long as Donald Trump has been in office, the nebulous opposition known as the Resistance has been waiting for the Russia Thing to blow up in the president's face. After all, special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of alleged collusion between the Kremlin and Trump's presidential campaign has already resulted in convictions for multiple former Trump advisors, including disgraced former general Michael Flynn. For many progressives as well as NeverTrump conservatives and centrists, the notion that Russian interference won Trump the 2016 election is a powerful, tantalizing prospect to cling to in a dark and strange time.
But Democrats' problems didn't begin when the Kremlin started taking an interest in American agitprop. In a paper out this month from the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), UMass-Boston professor emeritus Thomas Ferguson and two colleagues, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, offer lots of evidence for new ideas about how Trump pulled off the upset of the century. Among other things, they assembled a massive database documenting a late, possibly pivotal infusion of shadowy, barely legal campaign cash—a.k.a. dark money—and detailed the candidate's own willingness to invest his personal wealth in a desperate final push. They also found he received a higher percentage of small-donor donations than Barack Obama did in 2012. They emphasized how much better American alt-right media operations seem to be at reaching Americans than Russians. And they bemoaned a long-term trend away from unionization in some of key swing states, where the emergence of a debt-fueled economy that didn't work for the middle class helped put Trump over the top.
For some perspective on just how little the onset of the Trump era may ultimately have to do with the political machinations of Vladimir Putin—and how much of it was about entrenched corporate interests going all-in on Trump—I called up Ferguson for a chat. Here's what we talked about.
VICE: If a late wave of dark money, along with Trump's own donations, was so important in the election, why aren't more people paying attention to it?
Thomas Ferguson: I don't claim to know what's in the minds of reporters. The truth is the press is terrible on money issues. You've got website after website that claim to do all kinds of detailed voting statistical analysis, and there's nothing equivalent to that on political money. My take is it's a hard subject, and the truth is the publishers of most mainstream publications would just as soon not have it heavily discussed.
It took us almost a year to process this stuff. These [donors] don't give you their real names or they give you seven versions of them. And it's all legal. Somebody should have looked, long ago, at the money coming in after [Steve] Bannon and [Kellyanne] Conway took over [the campaign].
What did that infusion of cash you spotted late in the race actually look like? Where did it come from and where did it go?
Some of it is through super PACs and other parts of it are through the campaign. But it's pretty obvious what they did. The day after Bannon and Conway took over, the Washington Post printed what they were going to do, which was focus on a few industrial states and other states where they thought they could get white working-class voters. And they did exactly that. They stayed focused on it.
They were much better targeted than the Clinton campaign. We all know that.
You point out Trump actually did very well with smaller-dollar donors. How do you explain that? Just his populist rhetoric? And how much did it matter?
Nobody wins on small-donor cash. As late as May, he's telling reporters he doesn't need big money. And then they quickly found out as they make the transition to [the general election] that they do need the money. At that point, Reince Priebus and [Paul] Manafort go out and start, with the tin cup, getting a bunch of money. They get a lot of folks. But nothing like what they need, and it stops and they get stuck again. And then this last wave comes in.
With the small-donor stuff, in the very last stages of the race, that tailed off a bit. But it still added up to a tremendous sum that was just jaw-dropping. [A colleague] and I have been looking at the American National Election Studies. And you can just see how angry people were—they weren't buying into this We should be grateful because the recession is over, and Barack Obama has brought us back. So when a guy comes along and says, "I'll spend my own money," they just went for it. It's bait and switch. It's that simple.
Who were these people taking a chance on Trump when he looked doomed in the polls? That infusion of money, even after re-reading your report, is hard for me to make sense of.
I think it's one of the greatest out-of-the-money options in world history, basically, and they thought they could pick it up cheap. And they'd at least take a flier on it. By comparison, Silicon Valley looks almost sedate next to some of the private-equity guys.
Leaving aside, as you do, the possibility that some kind of deal was struck with Russians—which is probably not going to show up in data—can you explain your beef with how little we know about Russian internet targeting and trolling? Why are you so skeptical Russian internet trickery played a big role in this outcome?
Everybody has been remarkably unforthcoming about [the] data [here]. I'm not sure I believe Facebook and everyone else. I don't understand why Congress has not held them to much harder standards on that, although I in fact quite well understand it and suspect you do, too. We're looking here at murky evidence, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that some more might pop out. But on the face of it, we're talking about $100,000 in Facebook, some Twitter stuff, a bunch of trolls in Macedonia, and then a bunch of other stuff spread around. It's a very tiny amount. Our big point, is the obvious one, it's not original: This stuff is mostly made in America. That stuff is nearly all coming from homegrown right-wing sources.
How do we know we even have a full accounting of the internet mayhem here, though?
We don't, and we say that. But Breitbart and all these other [domestic] sources [of right-wing propaganda] were up for years. They were way practiced. And it just doesn't matter if some Kremlin folks… are bouncing back off Steve Bannon's [output] when Bannon and company are doing 24/7 for three years in advance.
You talk a good bit about voter suppression in your paper. Even if we purged the internet of "fake news" and prevented outside interference of any kind, this would still be a problem and maybe even get worse over time, right?
I think voter suppression needs more attention. We are way over-invested in what I call, technically, "overdetermined models of voting" [as opposed to] undetermined stuff that actually affects it, including money. There's an imbalance here that is deeply troubling to me.
Is the imbalance that the basic obvious thing that we have always known—how hard it is to vote on one hand, the money spent on the other—determines outcomes more than outside events like collusion?
We quoted it in the paper—there was talk about how it was really the Russians who turned down voter turnout in North Carolina. I know a lot about that case. The notion that that was the Russians was crazy. You can't possibly compete with local election officials who are determined to push down African American turnout. That just struck me as so crazy I could hardly believe it.
When Trump goes into a place, he talks jobs, and prosperity, and [Hillary Clinton] comes in with 40-point plan for this, that, and everything else. Other people who did the measurements say this was the campaign that had the lowest level of pure issue discussions ever since the time they started measuring, which was 2000. [Bernie] Sanders showed you what you could bring out when you talked like that. It's obvious that the basic issue in the US is not financial reform or telecom monopoly or something like that—those are important issues. But the basic issue is what are you going to do with this vast low-wage economy and the collapse of public services. Democrats need to address that if they want to have people vote for 'em. They can't just sort of cut corners on stuff and offer, "We'll give you marginal differences from Republicans."
And they can't just blame their problems on Russian hacking or Russian interference.
Oh for God's sake, yes. Yeah.
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