It’s easy to forget now, but in the lead-up to election day last year, a major focus of the U.S. media was on whether Donald Trump would accept the results of the race, or whether he would claim that the process had been rigged against him. The story was rendered moot the minute he actually won, but for a significant period of time, Trump’s potential reaction to a loss was a source of deep anxiety on the left. Some wondered if his penchant for conspiracy theories—a trait he shared with many of his followers—would lead to riots, or perhaps even destabilize the country in frightening and unforeseen ways.
I remembered that anxiety today while reading Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter thread on Assange and Wikileaks. If you missed the story, the Atlantic revealed on Monday that Donald Trump Jr. had communicated with Wikileaks via Twitter during the election. Trump Jr. responded by tweeting what he claimed was his entire correspondence with Wikileaks. It took place between September 2016 and July 2017, but Trump Jr. only responded three times, and never again after October 2016. (Read Paste’s Roger Sollenberger on how Trump used Wikileaks to attack Clinton over and over, regardless of how often his son spoke with them.) Still, Wikileaks comes out looking egregiously corrupt—in the messages, they offer to serve as Trump’s dumping ground for any negative material on Clinton, suggest mitigating the negative press on Trump’s tax returns with selective leaks, and even ask Trump to suggest publicly that Assange should be Australia’s ambassador to the U.S.
But one message in particular, sent at 6:35 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2016—election day—stood out to me. All spelling (sic):
Hi Don; if your father ‘loses’ we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred—as he has implied that he might do. He is also much more likely to keep his base alive and energised this way and if he is going to start a new network, showing how corrupt the old ones are is helpful. The discussion about the rigging can be transformative as it exposes media corruption, primary corruption, PAC corruption etc. We don’t like corruption ither and our publications are effective at proving that this and other forms of corruption exist.
Okay—remember that note. Let’s go back to Glenn Greenwald. If anyone in political media understand Assange’s motivations, it’s him. They’ve had a complicated relationship going back years, have occupied the same orbit in certain cases, like Edward Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing and subsequent escape to Russia. Greenwald, as he noted in his response to the Trump Jr. news, has both defended and criticized Assange over the years. (Even though some, like red-scare wingnut Louise Mensch, believe that Greenwald is a Russian agent who lives in “a FSB guarded safe house” and should be “extradited and jailed” for espionage.) Here’s some of what he had to say about Assange’s goal in tipping the scales to Trump after the Wikileaks/Trump Jr. news:
If we accept as true that Assange sees America as a neocorporatist regime and an “authoritarian conspiracy” (Assange's words), and his ultimate goal is to “impede its functioning” so that it will “turn against itself in self-defense” (Brady's words), so that it “leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance” (Assange's words)...well, then the idea of tilting the election to Donald Trump is really not the point at all, is it?
Now, look at this exchange between Greenwald and one of his followers following that tweetstorm:
That theory—backed up by plenty of evidence, including Assange’s own words—makes it sound like the Wikileaks founder was going after much bigger game than simply pushing Trump into the oval office. It sounds like his ideal outcome was not a Trump win, but rather a Clinton win—a narrow one, ideally—that ushered in an era of American chaos as Trump shouted the word “rigged” from the hilltops. It sounds crazy to say it, but a country where enormous swaths of the population don’t believe in the legitimacy of the president is potentially far more destabilizing than simply having a guy that many people dislike in office.
Of course, the irony here is that with each new revelation on the Trump-Russia front, that same effect is achieved—large swaths of the population don’t believe we have a legitimate president. But it’s not quite the same…with the destructive populist in office, it puts chaos on the defensive, and motivates the forces of the mainstream left to re-stabilize the country. The opposite scenario—an embattled Hillary Clinton in the White House, with the right-wing barbarians screaming at the gates—is far more conducive to the destruction of democratic institutions.
As the evidence accrues, that seems more and more like Assange’s desired outcome. He might have enjoyed Trump’s victory, and he certainly seems to have relished the role he played in achieving it, but his true goal may have been far more destructive. An incompetent, increasingly unpopular Trump in the White House is one thing, but a cheated, angry, rebellious Trump—raging outside the seat of power, with a frothing army of conspiratorial Clinton-haters at his back—is quite another.