The Seth Rich conspiracy theory, a low point from the same right-wing conspiracy-industrial complex that gave us “the Sandy Hook shooting was a false flag,” is back in the news. A Yahoo! News expose by Michael Isikoff traces the Russian origins of the claims that Rich — a Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in a likely botched robbery in Washington in July 2016 — was actually offed by Hillary Clinton because he was about to blow the whistle on her supposed corruption.
This repugnant conspiracy theory, which has created untold amounts of grief for Rich’s family, has been exploited by all manner of bad actors working to help Donald Trump, including Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, former White House and adviser and Trump campaign head Steve Bannon and pundits at Fox News, most prominently close Trump friend Sean Hannity.
As soon as Isikoff’s report — which details how Russian propagandists first floated the conspiracy theory just three days after Rich’s death and continued to work steadily to promote it — was released, a rowdy debate erupted over whether or not it was fair to blame the Russians. Philip Bump of the Washington Post argued that it wasn’t, since American sources also circulated this baseless hypothesis and it was mostly American conservatives — (with Assange’s assistance) who promoted it most heavily.
This debate, however, misses the bigger picture. It’s clear that both Russian propagandists and pro-Trump (or anti-Clinton) forces are to blame for this rancid but distressingly popular work of fiction. Even more importantly, this ad hoc grassroots conspiracy to frame Clinton for Rich’s murder worked exactly as intended, and was instrumental in Trump’s shocking electoral victory in 2016. There’s every reason to believe that similar alliances between Russian propagandists and anti-democratic forces in the United States will try to pull similar stunts in 2020.
While the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was mostly promoted by American right-wingers, it’s critical to understand that the most important audience for it, perhaps surprisingly, was on the left. It was part of a larger operation, managed in large part by Russian intelligence services, to convince some supporters of Bernie Sanders, who lost the 2016 Democratic primary to Clinton, not to vote for Clinton in the general election, thereby giving a crucial edge to Trump. That propaganda campaign, without a doubt, was a smashing success for the Russia-Trump alliance.
Most the campaign to sway Sanders supporters was centered around the Russian hacking of emails from DNC officials and the Clinton campaign, and their strategic release through WikiLeaks. The idea was to stoke the impression that Sanders would or should have have won the Democratic nomination, if only the DNC hadn’t “rigged” the race or sabotaged his campaign. What the hackers found was thin gruel — mostly a bunch of emails from DNC officials griping about the way Sanders and his campaign publicly disparaged them — and there was no evidence of substantive efforts to hinder Sanders or help Clinton in any way.
But it didn’t really matter what the truth was, as good propagandists know. What matters is what people want to believe, and many devoted Sanders supporters desperately wanted to believe his loss was the result of cheating. So when the hacked emails were released, right at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention, conspiracy theories claiming that the primary campaign was “rigged” spread rapidly, unchecked by debunking from the handful of people who actually bothered to read the alleged evidence.
For those of us who were at the DNC, what happened next was unforgettable. Hundreds, likely thousands, of Sanders delegates booed everyone who stepped on stage for the first day of the convention, drowning them out and creating an unnerving spectacle of disarray for the televised broadcast. They even booed Bernie Sanders himself, when he tried to discourage the conspiracy theories. While the convention eventually recovered and Clinton gave her acceptance speech the final night in an atmosphere of relative unity, it was clear that for some small percentage of Sanders voters, the belief that they had been robbed was precious.
That’s where the Seth Rich conspiracy theory came in. It wasn’t just that it helped create an atmosphere of suspicion around Clinton. It also helped to bolster and protect the conspiracy theory that the primary was “rigged,” by giving true believers someone other than the Russians to credit for the anti-DNC conspiracy theories.
It’s critical to understand that by the time WikiLeaks released the hacked emails, it was already clear that the likely source was Russian intelligence services. Trump himself acknowledged this by publicly calling on the Russians to hack Clinton personally in the month before the big pre-DNC leak. (They tried, but were ultimately unsuccessful.) But as Assange, right-wing propagandists and apparently Russian spooks themselves understood, it would be easier for Sanders supporters to accept Russian propaganda if they believed it was coming from some other source. For example, from a DNC staff member who was dead and therefore couldn’t defend himself.
The idea that Rich, and not the Russians, was the source of the hacked DNC emails spread rapidly. As Isikoff notes, it was heavily promoted by Sputnik and RT, which are English-language Russian propaganda networks. Assange himself, who actually got the emails from Russian sources, hyped this lie about Rich in August of 2016. Even though the biggest proponents were right-wing sources, the most important audience for this claim, arguably, was Sanders supporters who were angry about his defeat and looking for reasons not to vote for Clinton in November.
Most Sanders primary voters did end up voting for Clinton in the general election, but, due to the spite sowed by these Russian-stoked conspiracy theories, a significant portion did not. A 2017 study showed that a full 12% of Sanders primary voters voted for Trump in the general election, while another significant chunk of Sanders voters threw their support behind Green Party huckster Jill Stein, who got just over 1% of the total vote.
These numbers may seem small, but they were significant in an election where Clinton easily won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College on a total margin of fewer than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The number of people who voted for Stein in those three states was significantly larger than Trump’s margin of victory. If the Sanders supporters who voted for Trump had stuck with Clinton instead, she almost certainly would have won all three states.
Now, here’s an important caveat: Without the conspiracy theory surrounding Rich’s death, would Clinton have been able to get all those Sanders supporters to back her? Probably not. They were susceptible to conspiracy theory in the first place because they were angry their beloved candidate lost, and were casting about for a reason to deny that the primary had been a fair fight. But it seems certain that the size of the sore-loser contingent was greatly amplified by the conspiracy theories. Without that aspect — say, if half the Sanders-to-Trump voters had voted for Clinton (and if others had simply stayed home) — it’s highly probable that Hillary Clinton would be president today.
The Seth Rich conspiracy theory took on a new life after the election. As more solid evidence emerged to prove that the DNC hack was the result of a Russian conspiracy, both right-wing agitators like Hannity and left-leaning Clinton-haters felt a need to deny that they’d either been duped or been complicit with a Moscow-hatched conspiracy. Eventually the theory has faded out with time, especially as special counsel Robert Mueller’s report conclusively stated that Rich had nothing to do with the DNC email hacks.
But what this new story shows is that it’s imperative that journalists and progressives not forget what happened in 2016. It is an absolute certainty that Trump and his supporters — both here at home and in secret facilities in St. Petersburg — will try to pull similar kinds of tricks in 2020. Whoever the Democratic nominee is — yes, even if it’s Bernie Sanders — that person will be subject to conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns aimed at likely Democratic voters, with the goal of discouraging turnout or encouraging spite-voting for third parties or even Trump himself.
Trump is a repulsive candidate who has no reach outside his rabidly loyal base. So his only way to win in 2020 is to divide the left, as he did — with the help of outsiders — in 2016. If people don’t learn the lessons from the DNC hack and the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, it might work all over again.