Nobody wants to play a useful idiot (à la American liberals co-opted by communists during the Cold War). In this regard, conservatives would do well to learn from recent mistakes: in this case, the Maria Butina (accused Russian agent) drama and Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comedic shtick. Both situations demonstrate how prominent conservative political figures are vulnerable to being duped.
If you haven’t heard of these overlapping stories, Butina is a 29-year-old pro-gun Russian national who was recently arrested for penetrating the National Rifle Association allegedly on Russia’s behalf. It’s unclear just what she was up to, but there have been allegations that Russia funneled money through the NRA. Moreover, Butina hosted several leading NRA executives at “friendship and dialogue” dinners, with the goal ostensibly being to report back to Russia.
Cohen also infiltrated the conservative movement, but for slightly less sinister motives. Instead of trying to propagandize, he wanted to mock them and get a laugh at their expense for his new Showtime series, Who Is America?
Boy, did he. In one interview, Cohen, posing as an Israeli colonel and terrorism expert, gets former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh to advocate arming little kids.
“The intensive three-week Kinderguardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars. In less than a month—less than a month—a first-grader can become a first grenader,” Walsh says on camera. On purpose. Amazing.
How did Borat and Butina get prominent conservatives to do their bidding? I think there were a few reasons: sympathy for a cause, reflexive support, and the power of referrals.
In both stories, you have foreigners who are reaffirming the views of their targets. As BuzzFeed noted, Butina, who tells the story of growing up in Siberia, “found or created an irresistible persona for US conservatives.”
Likewise, in a Washington Post opinion piece, Alan Elsner of J Street suggests that Cohen’s persona as an Israeli military officer made conservatives predisposed to go along with whatever he wanted to do. “How Cohen did it says a lot about the reflexive support for Israel that many Americans—particularly many Republicans—now espouse, to the point that they’re willing to switch off their critical faculties when Israel is mentioned,” Elsner writes.
Maybe. Butina and Cohen both grasp what salesmen have always known: Referrals work. When a top NRA official introduces someone to you and you are in the conservative movement, the assumption is that the person is vetted and legit. Not talking to that person is, in a sense, a slap in the face to the person who made the referral. Likewise, when Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America introduces a documentarian to you, as he did with members of Congress, the assumption was that his guest was above board. For obvious reasons, we shouldn’t make that assumption.
Conservatives are often portrayed as un-cosmopolitan, and I suspect that having a foreigner confirm your views can lend a patina of sophistication and credibility to your cause. Moreover, movements that care about growing their ranks are, for obvious reasons, always susceptible to infiltration. You might think conservatives are exclusive or elitist, but when a young, gun-loving activist comes along, you bend over backward to welcome her into the fold.
Of course, you can’t rule out sex as a prime driver of all human activities (and errors), and sex was certainly a key factor in this story. Aside from the ability to play the long game and slowly get to know people (something Cohen couldn’t do), the fact that Butina was a 29-year-old woman didn’t hurt—especially when you consider that most of the people running conservative organizations, particularly gun groups, are men of a certain age.
Indeed, it appears she was something of a “honeytrap,” trading sex to gain access to leaders and politicians, or so the complaint alleges.
Even when she wasn’t using sex, she was using sex appeal. If you’ve seen pictures of young conservative women posing with guns, you might not be surprised to learn that Butina has similar “glamour shots.”
I don’t want to be too hard on conservatives, as anyone can fall prey to a sting operation. Just ask the liberals caught up in a James O’Keefe operation. Or go back and watch an episode of Punk’d. This type of manipulation can happen to anyone.
Still, I think that the convergence of these two stories provides some insight into our current political moment. Something about today’s conservative movement makes them vulnerable to this type of deceit. Some of it, frankly, is the craven desire for attention. People who don’t want to go on TV aren’t easily swayed by the Sacha Baron Cohen stunt. Moreover, it is telling that, in both cases, a gun group provided entrée into the larger movement.
Gun rights groups have long been reliant on rhetoric designed to shock sensibilities and “troll the libs.” As such, “first grenader” doesn’t set off the kinds of alarm bells that it normally would.
Anyone can be duped. However, some people were more vulnerable at certain times in our history than others.
During the Cold War, Soviet agents co-opted some on the American left, using them as “dupes” and “useful idiots.” In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to run the same play—except on the right. Likewise, Sacha Baron Cohen (by virtue of videos teasing his new show) also seems to have found his optimal target. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
The American left found themselves on the wrong side of history in the 1980s, and it cost them dearly. Today, the American right appears to be making a similar mistake.