Senator John Kennedy is not an idiot. He may be a useful one, from the Kremlin’s perspective. But objectively, the Louisiana Republican has nothing in his résumé that suggests a large cavity inside his cranium.
Kennedy earned the highest honors at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and he was executive editor of the Virginia Law Review at the not-too-shabby University of Virginia law school.
So how does a certified nerd – one of the elites of the elite – end up peddling Russian-backed disinformation on national television not once, but twice? And more importantly, what can the sane population of democracy-loving citizens do about it? (Apart from voting him out of office, which may be tricky in a state that Donald Trump won by a margin of 20 points in 2016.)
First, the facts about this fact-free member of the self-styled world’s greatest deliberative body. Kennedy popped up on Fox News last week and was asked a simple question by Chris Wallace. Who was responsible for the hacking of Democratic emails in the 2016 election: Russia or Ukraine?
This is not a difficult question. As they say in legal circles, it is settled law: the conclusion of the entire US intelligence community is that the guilty party is in Moscow, not Kyiv.
But what do the intelligence agencies, with their annual budget of more than $50bn, actually know? As Senator Kennedy saw it, not much.
“I don’t know,” he told Fox News. “Nor do you. Nor do any of us.”
This was obviously something of an embarrassment to the senator, or his staff, so a day later he appeared on CNN to say he was wrong. “I’ve seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it,” he admitted.
But that was so last week. Kennedy reappeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday to reconsider his reconsidered remarks.
“I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election,” he said, in flat contradiction of well, everyone with a brain. Among those brain-driven people is Fiona Hill, the former Russia hand in the Trump White House, who warned Congress just last week that this Republican line of attack was entirely what Vladimir Putin wanted.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” she said.
This is sadly not just a tale about a moronic senator on a couple of Sunday talkshows. It cuts to the heart of our democratic process, as new tools of technology are combined with good old-fashioned propaganda, disinformation and corruption.
Kennedy’s lies did not appear out of thin air. They were concocted by a Russian government that has trashed Ukraine to justify its invasion and annexation of Crimea, as well as its everyday corruption and general commercial pillaging. They were propagated by the consistently pro-Russian stooge who sits in the Oval Office, who tweeted his encouragement at Kennedy on Monday.
“Thank you Great Republican @SenJohnKennedy for the job he did in representing both the Republican Party and myself,” said Donald Trump, as he helpfully confused his own interests with his party and Putin’s crypto-criminal state.
So what can you do about this plague of disinformation as we lurch towards elections on both sides of the Atlantic that feature politicians who mimic or partake in Putin’s propaganda?
You can seek out truth-telling media – the kind that has no problem calling out the liars as liars
The only antidote to a campaign of lies is a campaign of truth. And there are many organizations dedicated to propagating truth: they are called the news media.
You can share truth the way a Louisiana senator shares lies: with your friends and your pseudo-friends on social media. You can seek out truth-telling media – the kind that has no problem calling out the liars as liars.
And if you really feel like fighting for your own democracy, you can even pay for the truth that journalists deliver on a daily and hourly basis. It’s cheap, to be honest. Not least because the alternative is so very costly to the values we all hold dear.
Another senator, in another era, liked to say: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have served as a New York senator, but he worked for both Republican and Democratic presidents. The truth is neither a partisan choice nor a product of a certain time and place. It is as priceless as it is timeless.