A Donald Trump voter in Texas, frustrated that the Russian influence operation during the 2016 election makes his candidate’s victory less legitimate, went and rented himself a billboard in order to tell ABC News, “The Russians Didn’t Elect Trump. I did.” That the gentleman made the choice on an individual level to vote for Donald Trump cannot be disputed. However, most reasonable observers have concluded that the manipulation of national media coverage of the presidential race via the planting of undesireable stories by the Russian government agents and proxies moved the needle on the vote totals. By controlling the ideasphere, they damaged Hillary Clinton’s image and her ability to make her own message heard, causing fewer people to vote for her.
The funny thing is, both the Trumpie Texan’s argument (the “I Did” part, anyway) and the Russian interference claim are simultaneously true; individuals who voted exercised free will in their decisions, and a powerful institution with a covert rooting interest influenced that decision for some number of voters.
Hillary Clinton supporters are the most motivated people on the planet to point out that the Russian government and Wikileaks influenced some voters’ decisions; why you may have even seen them make that very claim on various blogs. It is usually done to make the case that Clinton is rightfully aggrieved, that the election result is illegitimate, and that many non-Hillary voters were therefore duped, their choice itself meaningless except as an expression of Russian policy.
But what of the Democratic primary, and the various ways, fair and foul, that the DNC and D.C.-based party leaders in general – by far the most powerful institution involved in the primary – worked to influence perceptions? In that case, the same Clintonite voices often adopt the position that, since they decided to support Clinton, that claims of DNC interference are disproved. But the one simply does not disprove the other.
Now, there is one major difference that needs to be noted. What the Russians did in stealing the emails was clearly worse than what the Democratic leadership did. But if we move our focus from the moral standing of the institutional actors to the voters’ choice, a similarity emerges. The claim of individual choice (Nobody made me vote for Trump; I chose to) does not refute the claim that the institutional incolvement made a difference. In primaries and general elections alike, the one simply does not preclude the other.