Today in Gregwatch, the Observer’s trademarked series for enthusiasts of Governor Abbott, we have a new fan theory to discuss. First flagged by the Texas Democratic Party, it comes courtesy of Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, who told the Morning Joe podcast — yes, that’s a real thing that real people apparently listen to — that the infamous Jade Helm fiasco of 2015 was a critical moment in the chain of events that led up to the 2016 election. Around the 33:00 minute mark here, Hayden talks a little about the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine, a thesis of information warfare that Russia experts don’t think actually exists, and then continues:
“[The Russians] took their game to America in 2015. There was an exercise in Texas called Jade Helm 15, that Russian bots and the American alt-right media convinced most, many Texans was a plan to round up political dissidents. And it got so much traction that the governor of Texas had to call up the National Guard to observe the federal exercise to keep the population calm. At that point I’m figuring the Russians are saying, ‘We can go big time.’ And at that point I think they made the decision to play in the electoral process.”
These remarks were subsequently widely reported. If Abbott’s involvement in Jade Helm was a scalp that prodded the Russians to expand their efforts in American politics, that’s an incredible story. It makes him partly responsible for everything that’s happened since Trump jumped in the race — though, of course, we’ll never be able to quantify the effect Russian hacking had on the election. That’s worth thinking about, but first we have to work through a couple of caveats.
First, we have to note that the sequence of events described by Hayden is exactly wrong. No meaningful portion of Texans were convinced that Jade Helm, a real military exercise, was anything other than what it claimed to be. The issue got hardly any traction at all outside the fringe until Abbott gave it his seal of approval. It is incorrect to say Abbott “had” to call up the Texas State Guard because of widespread panic — Abbott’s involvement was the story. And ultimately, there was no evidence that any kind of state agency responded to the exercise in any way — Abbott simply said they would do something, and that got a lot of press, because he looked like an idiot.
It’s also the case that Hayden, who last held an official position in the American intelligence community in 2009, six years before Jade Helm, has no reason to know anything about this, unless someone who knows has told him. But Hayden doesn’t claim that — he uses words like “I’m figuring” and “I think.” It sounds like conjecture. And it’s also the case that Hayden is an inveterate liar. He was a top intelligence figure during the Bush administration, and has spent his retirement as an apologist for torture and mass surveillance. When the Senate torture report was finally published in 2014, the committee dedicated a special 36-page appendix to documenting the ways Hayden had lied to Congress in his official capacity. There is no reason to believe anything Hayden says about anything. He belongs in the bin.
That doesn’t mean he’s wrong about this. We know that Russian trolls have played around in Texas, through laughably bad Facebook groups and support for the Texas Nationalist Movement. It’s certainly possible that the Russian troll farms latched on to Jade Helm fear when it materialized, and possible that Hayden has heard this from his successors, though we lack support for this claim at the moment.
What’s interesting, I think, is the question of cause and effect here. The discussion about Russian involvement in American politics has been a difficult one, because people are not inclined to entertain much nuance. People tend to lean one of two ways — either the collective effect of Russian Facebook shenanigans was like a virus that infected America and made it sick, or the Russian trolls simply echoed existing dysfunctions in American politics, in which case it’s hard to know how much they really accomplished.
The first case is, in a way, soothing, because it offers the possibility that once America is rid of the sickness, things will get better. That’s the version Hayden is offering. In his telling, Russians, with the help of domestic fringe media, sowed so much havoc they fooled the good-hearted governor of Texas into embracing a conspiracy theory.
But that’s not really what happened. Some people did actually believe that Obama’s military was turning empty Walmarts into prisons, in preparation for an imminent purge. But there are always dumb and credulous people. What Jade Helm-gate signified was that the governor saw those people as his people. He was cooking red meat specifically for them. It mattered more to him what the commenters on Breitbart Texas were saying than anyone else. And the fact that Texas politics is unduly paranoid and fearful long predates 2015.
If you are reading this, Abbott is almost certainly not thinking of you as he lies awake at night. He’s thinking of the people who fear imprisonment in a FEMA concentration camp, and the people who think Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, and the people who believe George Soros is going to make gay marriage mandatory.
He’s thinking of those people because he is smart, and because they are how you win re-election in Texas. He writes fundraising appeals specifically for them. This is the natural and expected result of what happens when general elections are not competitive and the dominant party’s primary is controlled by that party’s fringe. It is a very American problem, and in a way a very mundane one.
Even if Ivan had nothing to do with Jade Helm, the episode is still evidence for the proposition that the American body politic is weak and easy to manipulate. People here will believe anything, apparently, and those in power have no qualms about using that against them. That’s been the consistent through-line of Texas politics for many years.
Consider what the staff at foreign consulates in Houston, tasked with writing reports about local American politics to their superiors, must have been thinking over the last decade. They came to observe a rich and corrupt one-party petrostate in which oligarchs hold an undue amount of political power, where traditional sources of reliable information have grown weaker, and in which a paranoid portion of the populace has turned to guns and the promise of de facto or de jure secession to insulate themselves from their imaginary enemies in the rest of the empire. Plutocrat-funded propaganda outlets like Breitbart Texas spew racial poison and unrest while the local authorities restrict voting rights and agitate against the federal government with naked and intentional lies.
I think I’d prefer to believe that the guilty party resides in Saint Petersburg, and I don’t doubt that Saint Petersburg hasn’t helped. But the more discomforting truth is that the responsible parties are our neighbors and colleagues. Foreign agitators have no power in a culture that has trust in itself and knowledge of the world, and Texas has unfortunately little of either. If you’re reading this in the land of the Tsars with some ideas for how we can do better, please feel free to reach out. Spasibo.