The crisis of belief

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Gov. Greg Abbott has a problem.

It isn’t a scandal, but it is political. It is an intangible problem, one with momentum, and while he didn’t create it, he has played an active role in making it worse.

The problem is a crisis of belief.

Recently, former CIA director Michael Hayden described Jade Helm — and the silliness which sprang up around it — as a kind of beta test for Russian intelligence operations against the United States:

Hayden said that move gave Russians the go-ahead to continue — and possibly expand — their efforts to spread fear.

“At that point, I’m figuring the Russians are saying, ‘We can go big time,’” Hayden said of Abbott's response. “At that point, I think they made the decision, ‘We’re going to play in the electoral process.’”

Jade Helm was a military exercise held across several southern states in 2015, and Texas nationalists, secessionists and Tea Partiers became obsessed with it. Their fearful concerns mainly centered around the idea that either the military was practicing to invade, or that Jade Helm itself was the invasion. More specific conspiracy theories branched into speculation that political dissidents would be rounded up by the military or that it was a United Nations plot to seize guns.

That this idea is and always has been ridiculous did not prevent it from spreading aggressively across a steadily growing social media network of far-right Texas political extremists. It reached into the mainstream news, where it became an opportunity for Abbott to throw some convenient red meat to his base by ordering the Texas State Guard to observe a federal military exercise. The point of this order was clearly stated: to ensure “Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.”

According to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, this was a source of embarrassment for 28 percent of Texas voters, and a source of comfort for 39 percent. It was also the kind of opportunity Russian intelligence looks for in countries they target for digital propaganda operations. When you marry this situation with Russia’s weird geopolitical obsession with Texas, their direct involvement with stoking political destabilization in the U.S. via Texas makes a kind of morbid sense.

During the 2016 election cycle, a pro-secession, anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook group called Heart Of Texas built up an audience of almost a quarter million people. It invited the leadership of the Texas Nationalist Movement to team up on a series of anti-Clinton rallies in November 2016. The group declined to participate.

Heart Of Texas was eventually shut down by Facebook, following the revelation that it was not Texas secessionists running the group, but rather Russian intelligence agents via the Internet Research Agency, or IRA. (This is the Russian active-measures intelligence operation that was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.)

Before Facebook shut down the first set of Russian-linked accounts and pages, the IRA managed to use the enormous audience they’d built to organize conflicting protest events at an Islamic center in Houston: Heart of Texas stoked anti-Muslim sentiment with a “Stop Islamification of Texas” event, while another IRA group called United Muslims of America, promoted a “Save Islamic Knowledge” event. Tension between the protest and counter-protest attendees flared, and for about $200, Russian operatives fomented active discord, almost succeeding in creating civil unrest on a Houston city street.

We know Russia made direct attacks on voting technology, machines and systems in multiple states during the 2016 election cycle. Facebook was a favored vector of attack for this digital propaganda. We know these attacks — acts of asymmetric, hybrid warfare against the United States — are ongoing. We also know that the Russians sent intelligence operatives to Texas during that election.

Nathan Smith, a leader in the Texas Nationalist Movement, became a borderline folk hero to Russian state media when he attended a far-right/Nazi/fascist conference in St. Petersburg, the International Russian Conservative Forum. An active and vibrant Kremlin fantasy is that Texas could secede from the United States — and may be on the verge of doing so. All of this contributes to Abbott’s problem. Chris Hooks wrote an excellent piece for the Texas Observer following Hayden’s commentary on the ties between Jade Helm and Russian propaganda operations:

“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.”

He went on to write that while the Russians being solely responsible is the feel-good scenario, the truth is that Abbott knew what he was doing. He took advantage of a polity easily motivated by fear and used it to align, divide and fundraise.

I tend to agree with Hooks, but I am more nihilistic about it. It doesn’t matter whether the Russians created the hysteria wholesale or merely exploited a panic they saw brewing online among Texas’ far-right political activists.

The real headline is that a significant chunk of the general public ended up believing in at least the edges of a wild conspiracy theory after it was legitimized by Abbott’s grandstanding order to the Texas State Guard, and to a lesser extent, by Ted Cruz’s and Louie Gohmert’s similarly motivated pandering. These elected officials threw the same cognitive switches as Russian troll-farm operatives. Who started it all doesn’t matter — they all kept it going. It is an environmental, holistic risk to our system of government.

Since the beginning, America has faced a challenge in the politics of the paranoid. We aren’t alone in this, and many western-style democracies are beset by a steady stream of bad actors, foreign and domestic, who seek to divide by way of fear and bigotry. Russia is behind a disproportionate amount of this anti-democratic activity, and the U.S. is that country’s current favorite target.

As of now, we know that we don’t know how bad the Russian incursions into our election systems and voting technology actually were. Russian hackers have targeted our power grid. In Tennessee, a county election website was hacked on a recent low-profile election night in what felt like a two-pronged capabilities test – a denial of service attack was used to mask a simultaneous server breach.

By seizing on moments of irrational fear within a large, powerful electorate and legitimizing conspiracy theories, elected officials like Gohmert, Cruz, and Abbott achieve the same ends as Russian propaganda campaigns, but they erode government instead of politics and discourse. They create a crisis of belief.

Recently, several real emergencies have occurred in Texas in which people lost their lives: the Austin package bomber gripped an entire city in fear for nearly three weeks, injuring six and killing two plus himself. The recent school shooting in Santa Fe resulted in 10 deaths just a few months later. In both the bombings and the shooting, external forces spread misinformation more quickly than you can probably imagine.

Some were simple instances of opportunistic trolling, seeking to spread chaos. Other activity worked to shape a national conversation about media coverage of terrorism or a partisan division on gun rights. When Russian trolls or alt-right keyboard commandos engage in these battles — which are, objectively, bad for our system of government and our society in general — they are both encouraged by and take advantage of misinformation and divisive rhetoric. They amplify the living hell out of anything from an official source that furthers their discordant cause. In both actual recent emergency situations in Texas, they got just what they needed from our elected officials.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, with no official role in the Austin bombing response, went on national television and stoked unnecessary fear in the middle of an ongoing terrorist attack by contradicting federal investigators to claim that an incendiary device found at an Austin Goodwill store was the work of the bomber.

Paxton is guilty of using a desperate emergency to raise his political profile. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is enthusiastically engaged in similar work and has taken things a step further by dedicating himself to culture jamming in the wake of real human tragedy. Before Abbott presented a mixed but politically pragmatic bag of recommendations for increasing safety at Texas schools following a multi-day series of discussions, Patrick took to the airwaves to blame pretty much everything other than guns for gun violence.

If this bit of performative morality reminds you of Abbott’s solemnly dutiful deployment of the Texas State Guard during Jade Helm, I understand. There is, however, one major difference between Abbott’s fear-mongering and Patrick’s: while the governor validated suspicion of the military and the federal government, the lieutenant governor is encouraging a fear of  anyone with differing beliefs. Patrick essentially frames future school shootings as evidence of the need for a more ultra-right agenda, and hooks everything to infinitely meme-able oversimplifications and whatabouts. None of this information is useful or valuable to a citizen of this state, and most of it is divisive and destructive for little purpose other than to remind people to which team they belong.

Abbott didn’t directly cause Patrick to do this, but Jade Helm and every other bit of faux hysteria enables it. The cause of discord over discourse is furthered by every overblown outburst over federal overreach or buildup of defense against Sharia law; by every bit of tolerance of Sid Miller’s alt-right social media propaganda; by every stentorian alert about creeping socialism delivered in an official capacity. Each incident further erodes the probability of the successful transmission of information about objective reality between the government and the governed. Abbott begets Paxton begets Patrick.

This is the crisis of belief. It is a genuinely dangerous state of existence. This bad-faith dissemination of what’s cheerfully referred to as “red meat for the base” hardens behavior and deepens divisions in a polarized electorate. For a long time, this has been a cost worth incurring for the benefit of political success. The bad news is that it has always been an unfair game, and we are no longer the only ones playing.

Russia is interfering in our elections and their methods are being adopted by domestic actors. This doesn’t just endanger our politics and elections. It also endangers our ability to govern ourselves and jeopardizes the ability of governing institutions to fulfill their functions. We know this because this is how nations have destabilized foreign powers since the dawn of history.

Russian intelligence operations have specifically focused on Texas, and our elected officials should keep that in mind throughout an election cycle certain to be thick with misinformation. What if a significant portion of the public ends up geared so far towards confirmation bias that they reject any guidance provided by government channels and elected officials that doesn’t fit a hyper-political worldview? This is the crisis of belief. Jade Helm was a symptom of a deep and throbbing infection which is actively being exploited by foreign aggressors.

Shit happens, and on some day in the near future, another real crisis will occur in Texas. Lives will hang in the balance due to another mass shooting, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a hacked election or a compromised utility — maybe even a slow-motion slide towards civil unrest. In that eventual and certain emergency, the ability of elected officials to communicate about objective reality will be vital, and the will to do so will be required.

In a persistent cycle of chaos and uncertainty, the most valuable asset a campaign, candidate or government has is a constituent audience inclined to believe the truth.

Josh Berthume

Founder, Swash Labs and Rogue Metrics