On August 7, 2007, Barry Lamar Bonds, left fielder for the San Francisco Giants, broke baseball’s most important record, blasting a 435 foot home run off of Washington Nationals’s pitcher Mike Bacsik over the right center wall at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. It was the 756th home run of Bonds’s career, surpassing Hank Aaron, who, 33 years prior, had made history by snatching the all-time home run record from baseball’s most famous demigod, Babe Ruth.
Barry Bonds became baseball’s undisputed all-time home run king. Well, sorta.
Bonds, as we later discovered (though had already strongly suspected), was cheating, using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids to get an edge over his competitors and to maintain peak physical performance at an age when most players are forced into retirement.
Because of the revelations of Bonds’s subterfuge, the baseball world struggled with the legitimacy of his crowning achievement. There was no dispute that he’d hit all 756 of those home runs. But was his record legitimate?
Marc Ecko, a fashion designer, purchased Bonds’s 756th home run ball for more than $750,000, pledging to donate the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But before he’d do that, he commissioned an online poll to ask baseball fans what he should do with this important and complicated piece of baseball memorabilia. Should he emblazon an asterisk on it, leave it alone, or, most outlandishly, shoot it to the moon?
Ultimately, he decided to hire a master engraver to laser cut an asterisk, and today, the ball is preserved as one of 35,000 artifacts in Cooperstown. Barry Bonds will likely never be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and history may remember the ball with the asterisk more than the man who actually hit that ball.
Bonds’s singular achievement, however, is indisputable. All 762 of his career home runs are documented on video; each one was witnessed by tens of thousands of fans. But he was still a cheater. The asterisk seemed the most appropriate way to affix a footnote to Bonds’s record-setting home run ball. Yes, he may have broken the all-time record, but only because he was breaking the rules and receiving outside help.
Donald Trump’s election poses the same dilemma for present-day America and for curators of American history. How are we to contextualize a President who won the Electoral College by 80,000 votes, even though he was crushed in the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, in light of the overwhelming evidence that a foreign government conducted asymmetrical and criminal attacks against his opponent’s campaign with the expressed intention of interfering with the election?
His numbers are real, even if the system was gamed.
Like Bonds’s home run ball, historians could solve this riddle by affixing an asterisk next to his name. Like Bonds, there’s no disputing the accuracy of Trump’s numbers, only the legitimacy of the ways in which those numbers were earned.
Americans are proud and have always been fiercely protective about the integrity of our Democratic process, even though we shouldn’t be. George W. Bush became the 43rd President because a split Supreme Court, divided by party lines, decided to suspend a recount in a state he was winning by 537 votes but would have surely lost had his opponent, Al Gore, insisted on a statewide recount instead of targeting specific counties that were most advantageous to him. In 2000, George W. Bush didn’t win the presidency because he won more votes than any of his opponents (he also lost the popular vote by more than 500,000); he won because Al Gore’s legal strategy was ill-conceived for a Supreme Court narrowly ruled by nine Justices, many of whom were appointed by Bush’s father and his father’s old boss, Ronald Reagan.
To those on the right, the idea that Trump’s victory is illegitimate seems like an unpatriotic indictment of sacred American institutions. It’s nothing more than sour grapes by people who supported a flawed candidate.
Some of the far left may agree. “Hillary Clinton’s supporters want to blame her defeat on everything except the most obvious cause, herself,” a friend of mine said yesterday. To others, Hillary’s loss has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with the Democratic Party’s marginalization of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Bernie would have won,” they claim, hyperbolically and hypothetically. Most of these folks reside in states in which Clinton dominated Sanders in their primaries, particularly California and New York, and most of whom continue to believe that the DNC somehow controls primary elections, not the states themselves. They rightly criticize the Clinton campaign for not investing adequately in the Rust Belt, conveniently overlooking, however, the fact that the Sanders campaign spent a disproportionate amount of time and money in states they ultimately lost while neglecting most of the American South. Neither campaign had a monopoly on bad strategy.
By the time Clinton secured the nomination and thanks largely to an orchestrated and well-timed release of e-mail hacks against the DNC by Russia, Sanders supporters became increasingly convinced that Clinton had cheated her way into the nomination. It didn’t matter that she received more than 3.8 million more votes than Bernie Sanders and had secured the majority of pledged delegates. Even the most innocuous e-mails became coded language of some nefarious plot. Before the DNC Convention had even kicked off, Bernie supporters demanded and then received the resignation of the Chairwoman, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz.
The well-timed Russian hacks were having a tremendous effect in Philadelphia. Bernie delegates from California unfurled an enormous banner on the floor of the convention for Wikileaks, free advertisement for a website that specializes in publishing sensitive government communications and is led by a man who is avoiding sexual assault charges by holing himself up behind the walls of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The Russian government’s cyber espionage and Assange’s assist guaranteed that the divisions of the primaries would resonate long after Clinton received the nomination, even if, at the time, no one fully appreciated the ways in which they were being manipulated by a foreign government. It was coy; it was divisive, and it was effective, particularly among those who already believed the primary was rigged against them and that Clinton was merely the embodiment of a corrupt, corporatist machine.
But it’d be a mistake to blame Bernie supporters for guaranteeing Hillary Clinton’s very narrow Electoral College loss. Clinton did a poor job responding to those accusations and assuring those voters of her shared commitment to their policies and their agenda, because she was too busy attempting to delegitimize Donald Trump. She also overlooked a Vice Presidential candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who had already proven herself to be a fierce and savvy ally and a darling of the populist wing of the party, in favor of a safer, moderate pick, the charming but boring Tim Kaine. Even though she knew it was a change election, she refused to expound on the need for change, perhaps fearing it would undercut her relationship with President Obama.
And because of that, she could never galvanize the voters that Bernie Sanders had christened “a revolution.” The Russian hacks, published on Wikileaks, reinforced that skepticism, even if, in hindsight, its revelations were rather milquetoast and inconsequential.
Russia wasn’t finished. During the general election against Trump, they hacked and then, through Wikileaks, published Clinton campaign aide John Podesta’s e-mails. Again, the content of those e-mails were banal and inconsequential, but by their very existence, they reinforced a narrative about Clinton’s penchant for secrecy. The story was unfair, exploitative, and vapid, but that made no difference.
Donald Trump relished the disclosures. He spoke about Wikileaks constantly on the campaign trial, embellishing the content of the disclosures as if they revealed evidence of criminality and treachery. He even praised Russia for their criminal cyberattacks and pled with them to uncover more of his opponent’s e-mails.
Through their strategically-timed releases, the Kremlin had been successful in covertly galvanizing and, to some extent, gas-lighting supporters of Bernie Sanders in the primary election, fracturing the type of working coalition that would be necessary in the fall by lending credibility to the idea that the primary was rigged and by fomenting resentment against Clinton for the crime of merely being the preferred Democratic candidate among people with whom she has known and worked for decades.
In the general election, the Kremlin’s hacks of John Podesta’s e-mails weren’t exactly revelatory, but that wasn’t the point. The implicit message, particularly when considered in the context of the bogus FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, was that she and her campaign could always be compromised. It didn’t matter that nothing materialized. Russia wanted to remind Americans that they were capable of sophisticated espionage, but to the American people, these hacks reinforced the narrative that Trump had been building on the campaign trial: that Hillary Clinton must have something to hide.
There is already considerable evidence of Russian interference, exclusively aimed for Trump’s benefit.
And even though there are unconfirmed reports that detail the Trump’s campaign intimate involvement and knowledge of this asymmetrical cyber-warfare, we can only know one thing for certain: Trump earned his asterisk.