On elections, political violence and WikiLeaks

Between 2006 and 2010, I ran a campaign against non-trustworthy e-Voting technology. I’m Dutch and there was a time when voting in the Netherlands was entirely done on computers – computers that could just as easily be programmed to be honest vote-counters as they could be programmed to subtly lie about the election results. With no paper record to go back to, the country was stuck trusting a small group of programmers. There were essentially no checks and balances. After this successful campaign, these computers disappeared and the country is back to voting on paper. Which isn’t perfect, but at least offers a better chance of detecting and/or correcting manipulations. And the possible manipulations that apply to a paper-based process don’t scale the way attacks on electronic systems do.

We campaigned saying the systems were hackable and non-transparent. What I feared (but did not often say) was that we would soon see a more chaotic world with nation-state level cyber-attacks against voting systems, changing the election results or causing people to no longer trust the result. (When I did talk about this, I was considered outlandish and paranoid back then.) I’ve long been a pessimist, and I generally think the peace and stability that we in the West have become used to are going to disappear much more quickly than people think.

I believe our world is unjust, our ecosystems are dying in preventable ways and we are urgently in need of lots of change. I have even called myself a revolutionary at times, but I also feel that if you still have the institutions of democracy (almost no matter how imperfect), you’re probably better off making/forcing change within this democracy as opposed to violently overthrowing the existing order. After all, if history is any guide, the odds of getting something even worse in return are significant. Political violence within a society is always bloody and ugly.

So: for a society to lose trust in election results is generally a Bad Thing™, because when trust in an election outcome is gone, the threat of violence is always in the air.

 

All the above is especially true in the powder keg that is the contemporary United States. Corporations have long been able to buy legislation services outright, and the middle class has been very effectively strip-mined for their remaining wealth. Large sections of the population work multiple insecure jobs if they have work at all, having insufficient access to health care, with no money to raise their kids or save for retirement. Many people are very angry and trapped in intentional filter bubbles of fake news, causing them to be angry at each other instead of at the banks and corporations that put them there. All while a myth called “The American Dream” effectively keeps people that do a little better from feeling any empathy towards the “losers” down below.

Say what you will, but for someone who shits in a golden toilet, Donald Trump understood the level of anger of the common American very well. He and his cronies have risen to power like all fascists before them: promise authoritarian rule, blame immigrants or racial minorities for problems and generally foster sexism, racism and nationalism. The increased tensions among Americans, combined with rampant deregulation and his government’s apparent disinterest in actual governing will only make the problems of the average American worse. But he’s counting on a hyper-polarised, angry, badly misinformed and increasingly scared populace to only get more angry at each other. Scared angry people are the root of his power, after all.

Before his surprise win, Trump was simultaneously blowing every sexist, racist, nationalist, anti-environmental and authoritarian dog whistle and regular whistle ever produced. What is of interest here is that he was clearly and openly signalling that he preferred to get to power through elections, but that he by no means excluded the use of “justified” political violence if the election result were to favor Hillary. Among his messages were (essentially) “Vote for me or she is going to appoint the judges (or maybe you can shoot her),” the threat to lock up his political opponent, the Duterte-esque “I could shoot someone and not lose voters” and “I will respect the election result if I win,” along with a refusal to denounce card-carrying, out-in-the-open, violent Nazis who were delighted to finally have a dog in the race. With Trump, the credible threat of political violence was part of the ticket in a way that it hadn’t been in a long time.

In the US context, there are legitimate reasons and ways to doubt an election outcome. If a race is particularly close, a candidate can ask for a recount to make sure there were no errors. Note that in the US an election with a correct outcome is not an honest election. There is way too much gerrymandering, voter intimidation, voter roll purging and manipulation of the information environment to call any US election honest. As much as these problems need urgent addressing: the greater good (in my opinion, anyway) strongly demands of politicians on election night to accept an outcome unless they have legitimate reasons to ask for a recount. It is (or was, until now) understood that no matter how heated the debate had been, there needed to be a great degree of civility and due process around the election result, precisely to prevent violence.

 

I was part of WikiLeaks in 2010: Among other things I helped release the “Collateral Murder” video that showed gun footage of a US helicopter crew killing a group that included US journalists and the people who came to help them when they were shot. WikiLeaks has on many occasions done the world a favor by releasing documents that show us what the world is really like, as opposed to what our governments tell us it is like. But in the election campaign of 2016, it sometimes became hard to distinguish between the Twitter feeds of Breitbart, WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. It was clear to me that Julian had picked a candidate and was helping the campaign, no matter how hard both sides denied it. As much as I like and respect some of the people who work or have worked for WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks itself wasn’t my cup of tea anymore. It was certainly legitimate to publish the e-mails that show how the Sanders campaign was sabotaged by the DNC. It was just the way things were presented that really didn’t work for me anymore. But who am I to tell someone he cannot campaign against a candidate who wants him “droned,” even if in a two party system (fix needed) this means he’s effectively campaigning for someone that I think is even worse?

 

A few days ago, the Twitter DM messages between WikiLeaks (Julian himself?) and Donald Trump Jr. were published. Assuming these are real (nobody has claimed the contrary), they show WikiLeaks asking for tax returns so as to be seen as more impartial, wanting Donald Sr. to publish a URL (which he did) and wanting for Julian to become the Australian ambassador (nope). It certainly busts the “there was never any collusion between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign” rhetoric from both sides, but that doesn’t shock or surprise me. What does shock me is this message:

“Hi Don if your father ‘loses’ we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred—as he has implied that he might do.”

Note that there were never any serious indications of manipulations or fraud contra Trump, so this shows WikiLeaks essentially egging on the Trump campaign to cross the Rubicon. Of course history went the other way. We’ll never know what would have happened and whether this would have had any influence.

But given all the preceding rhetoric, WikiLeaks (Julian or whoever else sent the messages) has to have known that calling for a baseless challenge of the outcome is essentially the same as asking the Trump campaign to call on its base (which includes a large number of newly emboldened and staggeringly well-armed Nazis) to take to the streets. This was neither journalism, nor support of a political campaign. This was being a cog in the machine of a fascist uprising. That never happened because the Nazis took a shortcut and won the election. Crazy world.