Moscow Mitch McConnell is missing the point. But then again, in our fixation over the vulnerability of voting systems, we all seem to be missing the larger point: Russia’s effort to subvert American democracy is not dependent on changing votes on Election Day; it is based upon manipulating our hearts and minds long before our votes are cast.
Marianne Williamson hit the nail on the head when she suggested that the greatest threat facing our country is not healthcare or income inequality, but rather the ‘dark psychic force of collectivized hatreds.’ Williamson’s words echoed those of Abraham Lincoln, who closed his first speech to the nation upon assuming the presidency with a plea that Americans — consumed with resentments that had the nation perched on the precipice of a civil war — listen instead to the better angels of their nature.
Lincoln’s plea failed, and three years later he escalated his rhetoric. What was at stake, he argued in the closing words of his Gettysburg Address, was nothing less than the survival of liberal democracy — in his words, government of the people, by the people and for the people — the foundational American ideal that we too often take for granted.
The dark underbelly of American society that Williamson pointed to has been with us since the founding of the Republic. The aspirational values of liberty, justice and equality called forth in the Declaration of Independence stood in stark contrast to a Constitution that chiseled slavery, injustice and inequality into law. Much of our history as a nation has been defined by the conflict between those competing impulses.
Lacking a common ancestry, culture roots or religion, Americans are instead — at least in theory — bonded together by that foundational ideal and those aspirational principles. Patriotism — if the term has meaning beyond jingoistic saber-rattling — suggests a fealty to those principles above political party or personal self-interest. As a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, our politics depend on national politicians understanding the fragile balance between advocating for their partisan interests, and crossing the line into demagoguery, and the consequences to the nation when that line is crossed with impunity. What has set Donald Trump apart from the rest is his utter indifference to whether such a line exists. This is not a partisan statement, but rather a fact decried by Republicans — from Ted Cruz to Jeb Bush to Lindsay Graham — who condemned Trump’s willingness to cross any line and upset any norm in pursuit of his own advancement, well before he became the bane of Democrats.
Years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in the Kremlin had come to believe that the essential vulnerability of the United States lay in the hypocrisies surrounding its founding principles, and that the key to the defeat of their arch enemy lay not in military conflict, but in exposing the false premises of the myths that bind American democracy together. If those myths could be exposed, if internal conflicts and animosities could be exacerbated, and core institutions undermined, the theory went, the American colossus would crumble. A balkanized America would decline in esteem around the world, and the alliance of western democracies that confronted the Soviet Union would wither. [I explore the early roots of Putin’s war on America in a story entitled Mikhail Suslov and Putin’s War Against America, that can be found here.]
From the moment when Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev handed the keys to the Kremlin to Boris Yeltsin and turned out the lights on the Soviet empire, Americans moved on from the Cold War. Russia, however, didn’t move on; its war against the west just entered a new phase. In the eyes of many Russians — Vladimir Putin among them — George H. W. Bush’s post-Cold War vision of a “New World Order” represented little more than the subjugation of Russia to being just one more vassal state of the American empire.
Today, Putin is continuing Russia’s war with the United States under the same theory embraced by Kremlin insiders a half-century ago. Putin’s objective is straightforward. He is seeking to undermine the spread of liberal democracy, which has been the singular stated mission of American foreign policy in the post-World War II era, encapsulated in Bush’s New World Order. He is seeking to break up the alliance of western democracies that constitute a continuing threat to Russia’s dominion over what it views as its rightful domain. And he is seeking to return global politics to the Great Powers era of the 19th century when Tsarist Russia was one among a small handful of dominant nations who together managed global affairs.
Putin’s tactics in that war include propaganda, disinformation, framing narratives, spreading conspiracy theories and false news, and instigating infighting among local populations — tools that have been utilized by Russian intelligence dating back to the Soviet and Tsarist eras to destabilized Russia’s enemies — complemented and enhanced by cyber operations. The Internet Research Agency — the St. Petersburg troll farm that has been the tip of the Russian spear in Putin’s war — may have only launched its cyber war against the United States five years ago, but the cyber operations of the IRA and the Russia military intelligence arm GRU represents but the modern incarnation of a warfare and strategic doctrine dating back over 100 years.
The Internet Research Agency did not invent racism or bigotry or religious conflict or any of the other emotionally-laden levers that Russia’s intelligence operatives have used to great effect to exacerbate hatreds now animating American politics; those sources of animus are an essential part of our national story, simmering below the surface. Donald Trump has been and remains the perfect tool for amplifying Putin’s efforts for the simple reason that, like Putin, he sees leveraging the dark psychic force of collectivized hatreds as a tool to his own advancement. Trump did not inject the virus of bigotry and racism into American politics or the American psyche, but he proved early on that he would say or do anything if he believed it would advance his interests or secure the loyalty of followers, while being utterly indifferent to whether it furthered or exacerbated bigotry or racism along the way.
In his closing press conference, and again in his concluding remarks of his recent Congressional testimony, Robert Mueller tried to get Americans to sit up and listen. Volume One of the Mueller Report, as well as the indictment of the Internet Research Agency, lay out Russian actions in copious detail. As described in the report, what began as a generalized campaign by the IRA and GRU to sow disinformation, discord and doubt to undermine democratic institutions pivoted in 2016 into a campaign to support Donald Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton. Those who have shied away from reading the 400+ page report, or who continue to doubt the scope of Russian operations, should listen to the Lawfare blog podcast that provides an accessible and riveting summation.
Mueller tried on each occasion to emphasize that whether Trump is a witting asset of Vladimir Putin, or whether his campaign engaged in a legal conspiracy, misses the larger point: Vladimir Putin’s focus on wrecking havoc and sowing discord to divide Americans against each other have been wide-reaching and tremendously successful. Whether there was an impact on the vote count may be impossible to know; that Russian efforts have widened the political divide, deepened distrust and damaged faith in democratic institutions is indisputable.
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is hard. It is even harder in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual nation. McConnell complained this week that he has been smeared, that for decades he has stood up to Russia. Perhaps that was true in the past, but it is no longer true. His crime is far greater than simply blocking legislation that would provide funding to increase the security of voting machines; it is his complicity in protecting and enabling a President who has from the outset been indifferent to Russia’s efforts to destroy the fabric of our nation, and whose own actions as candidate and President have complemented and amplified those efforts.
Mitch McConnell’s highest duty is to the welfare of the nation. As Abraham Lincoln — who McConnell embraces as the epitome of Republican Party leadership, whenever it serves his interests — demonstrated in his words and his actions, when faced with forces determined to pull us apart, it is the fundamental duty of our nation’s leaders to set aside partisan differences and do whatever they can to bind us together. From the outset, Donald Trump has failed in that duty. Mitch McConnell has failed as well.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.