First, let’s acknowledge that it is not only the Kremlin and its affiliated oligarchs that may be using the cloak of anonymity created by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to funnel money to favored Super PACs in the American political system. Yes, the National Rifle Association is in the spotlight these days for its apparent willingness to channel Russian “dark money” into the effort to elect Donald Trump in 2016. But there is no reason the Chinese or Iranian or North Korean governments, or the Islamic State for that matter, could not be doing the same—if they were so inclined and could also find useful idiots or willing cutouts.
To appreciate the ease with which the money can flow, note the difference between Super PACs, so-called social welfare organizations, and “dark money.” These days, every serious politician, multimillionaire, interest group, or ideological inclination has a Super PAC to finance and implement campaign activities that are not “coordinated” with actual candidate campaigns, so they do not count as expenditures by the campaign. More importantly, donors with deep pockets can give unlimited amounts to Super PACs, who can in turn spend a lot more on broadcast advertising over the air and online, and other campaign-like activities, than candidates themselves can typically afford to do. And when they go terribly negative in their advertising, as Super PACs often do, the candidate can (sort of) disavow them. Super PACs are often run by people who last week were staffers or campaign managers to the people whom they are now not coordinating with; they just happen to know what might be useful for the campaign or damaging to the other side (wink, wink). Super PACS are obliged to disclose their contributors.