Trump: The Manchurian Candidate

by James A. Russell

Hollywood has always had a vivid and creative imagination in providing entertainment that an adoring public eagerly gobbles up around the world. That imagination, however, has proven prescient on more than one occasion.

We are now in the midst of a plot foreseen by the 1962 Hollywood movie of John Frankenheimer and Frank Sinatra—The Manchurian Candidate—in which the Sino-Soviet menace threatened to manipulate the US election by using a brainwashed Korean War Congressional Medal of Honor winner to assassinate a presidential candidate. Given the ravages of the Korean War, McCarthyism, and Vietnam, the plot actually resonated with life-or-death struggles that the United States was having with Communists in Berlin, Cuba, and the Straits of Taiwan.

Today’s dastardly plot is not just entertainment for the theater-going masses.  A variation of the movie’s plot appears to have actually happened in the recent election. The Russians appear to have successfully intervened in the election and helped secure their desired outcome of a pro-Russian president. Although the character assassinations of fake news and strategic leaks in the election thankfully bore no relation to the old movie, the Russian manipulations helped in the right-wing character assassination of Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton. Propaganda became real news, aided and abetted by a ravenous media that lost the capacity to detect lie from truth.

Other curious elements of this real life plot remain loose ends. The Trump campaign’s former chairman, Paul Manafort, worked for the Russians in support of the pro-Moscow candidate in Ukraine. The Trump organization reportedly communicated with a Russian bank. The FBI apparently declined to pursue the investigation aggressively during the campaign, then refused to make their investigations public, and finally, at the last moment, publicly intervened in the campaign at the eleventh hour with “revelations” of yet more potential email scandals surrounding Hilary Clinton. Last but not least, a classic intelligence community food fight has broken out between the FBI and the CIA on the scope and objectives of the Russian involvement.

History of Disinformation

During the Cold War, both sides engaged in countless propaganda and sabotage campaigns. Particularly between the 1920s and the 1970s, the Soviets used the Communist International and other front organizations as Trojan horses in the domestic politics of the Western European and US democracies. These efforts reached their apex in the late 1970s during the debate in NATO Europe over the decision to deploy intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles to the continent to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles into Eastern Europe. We now know that the Soviets helped fund parts of the seemingly home-grown opposition in Europe’s “peace movement.” In this way Vladimir Putin learned his trade as a KGB man in Dresden, East Germany.

Vladimir Putin has simply dug into the old KGB playbook for the latest U.S. election, adding a few critical updates to the plan. After all, the digital age provided opportunities for sabotage and subterfuge not available to his KGB colleagues of yesteryear. The domestic politics of such nations as the UK, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary are also in the bull’s eye of a new Russian propaganda offensive. In the United States, Russian hackers gleefully tore down the server firewalls of both political parties and continued the drip of harmful stories against Hilary Clinton, no doubt saving material seized from the Republicans for some fateful moment in a crisis to come.

In America’s great democracy, the public is not supposed to be led around on a leash held by a few KGB thugs, unprotected by a vaunted law enforcement community and an intelligence community flush with money in the post-9/11 era of terror. The last time such an assault happened on US soil was the 9/11 attacks, and no senior government official ever took responsibility for what happened. Today, accountability has fallen by the wayside, and America’s right-wing political leaders figure that the means justify the ends in their attempt to create an authoritarian or even fascist form of government. This time around, however, the consequences for our republic and the entire world are far more serious than anything that happened on 9/11.

Russia on the March

Beginning in January 2017, a pro-Russian president may well turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s manipulations of the electorate, inviting only more mischief from Putin and his KGB cronies. The impact on security in Europe and beyond cannot be gainsaid. Russia’s playbook in the US elections were already prefigured in Western Europe with the Kremlin spreading disinformation around a Dutch referendum last spring and providing support to far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen in France. Now, the Germans are dealing with penetrations of the state security systems and phone companies in anticipation of the 2017 election with fateful implications for the resilience of western parliamentary democracies.

Russia is playing offense. America’s constitutional system of government is now on the table and at risk—an objective that Putin’s Soviet predecessors always sought but could never achieve much to their everlasting frustration. Russia’s hackers of today have accomplished what their thousands of nuclear weapons could not. Their candidate, someone who has little regard for America’s institutions or the Constitution, is about to take the oath of office.

Perhaps the only defense left in the republic are a few Republican senators, including one whose plane got shot down all those many years ago by Soviet-made missiles over North Vietnam. Let’s hope that Senator McCain can muster a few of his remaining honorable Republican Senate colleagues to man the ramparts of democracy in its time of need.

Image courtesy of Donkey Hotey via Flickr.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. This article is utter nonsense by someone who should know better. If you are going to blame Russia for interfering with our electoral process, you better damn well have some hard evidence, and by that I don’t mean allegations by John Brennan and his CIA- an Agency that is invested in keeping alive the war in Syria and every other clandestine war of aggression in which it is involved (and screwing up). Sorry, but the real experts who speak with gravitas, experience and knowledge about who may have been responsible, and what the Intelligence services may or may not know, say this wasn’t a “hack”, but rather a “leak” from the inside. I have also heard some former high level Intelligence and State Department officials go further and claim that the leaker was someone in the NSA or FBI or other Intelligence agency who was so appalled and outraged by the content of the Clinton, State Department, DNC and Pedestal emails, and what they revealed of Clinton’s reckless disregard of national security and her corrupt use of the State Department for the private benefit of her family and family foundation, that they leaked them to Wikileaks for disclosure to the public. Furthermore, it is the NSA, not the CIA that has the special expertise and capability to determine the identity of the sender and source of such disclosures. See for example the recent VIPS memo in Consortium News signed by Bill Binney (who for many years was the top technical guru of the NSA, and who set up the very systems to determine hackers and leakers, Ray McGovern, Larry Johnson and others; and also the recent article by former British Ambassador Craig Murray, who has stated he has personal knowledge about the leaker.

    As for Russia’s intentions, has Prof. Russell been following Russia’s diplomatic and military moves on the ground and its Foreign and Defense Policy statements? While reading his article, for a moment I thought I was watching a video game of some hypothetical war in a parallel universe. Better to get the facts, rather than weaving more neocon fantasies of the type that got us into the war on terror in the first place and that have been destroying our democracy from within ever since.

  2. There’s nothing quite like a good old Cold-War-style American fantasy that internalizes Washington’s anti-Putin propaganda and then finds that it’s actually Putin who’s the propagandist. That’s how any US investigation into Putin’s hacking of the US election will go. Whether it’s the CIA, the FBI, the NSA — or, indeed, any or all of the 17 American intelligence organizations — undertaking the investigation, it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t find exactly what they were looking for. Anyone who’s lived through the Cold War can’t help but remember the tsunami of anti-communist propaganda that so permanently drenched Washington and the Pentagon that the fall of the Soviet empire came as a complete surprise to the whole country — and to a lot of other Westerners who relied on Washington for its version of Cold War reality.

    If anyone resembles a Manchurian candidate, it’s probably Obama. The distance between the Obama who delivered that great election night speech and the version that spoke on Inauguration Day was quite amazing. Clearly he spent the interval getting his marching papers from the Deep State.

  3. Why is Trump camp so sensitive about simple everyday things. If questions have been raised about investigating an important affair in US politics on which both major parties concur, what is wrong with looking into it. No one wants to deprive Mr. Trump of his victory, or cast doubt on his patriotism, but these guys insistence on their position is seeing dark motives in the investigation makes things difficult unnecessarily.

  4. Jim Lobe, I love your blog but can hardly believe you would let someone loose like this! Nearly every word is dynamite, and he even praises the abominable Sen. John McCain!!

    I am glad the opinions are his own, but wonder about the students he is educating;

    “The Russians appear to have successfully intervened in the election and helped secure their desired outcome of a pro-Russian president.” No evidence at all, and Trump is only as “pro-Russian” as Obama and Clinton are irrationally and violently anti-Russian, which turned off many peaceable American voters.

    A good article in consortium news by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity clearly explains hack and leak and likely Russian behavior. As for interference in US elections, nobody has mentioned the big one ie Israel, which has a completely free hand to contribute.

  5. James is certainly right on one point and that is the KGB support of the ‘peace movement’ in Western Europe in the late ’70s. While I was serving as the Director, Defense Plans at USNATO I received a code-word briefing on the KGB’s funding of the Dutch church backed peace movement.

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