Donald Trump finally acknowledged that Russia most likely hacked the Democratic National Committee and turned over stolen files to WikiLeaks. “I think it was Russia,” he said for the first time at a press conference earlier this week, though he angrily denied that Russian shenanigans swayed last year’s election. He’s right on both counts.
Until this week, though, the president-elect seemed to trust Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange more he trusted than the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. One can only imagine what Republicans would have said if Trump were a Democrat. The Ann Coulter wing would have cried treason—and worse.
“The GOP nominated the most pro-Russian U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace,” Jamie Kirchick writes in the Washington Post, “whose 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket was largely run by communists.” Indeed. Yet Trump has flipped both parties on their heads, not just the Republicans. Every Democrat from the east coast to the west is now talking about Vladimir Putin as if he’s the worst person on earth, yet they jeered when the previous Republican Party nominee for president Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Barack Obama said during a presidential debate in 2012.
It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters did not choose Trump because they’re pro-Russia. They’re fed up with the bipartisan political class. They’re sick of illegal immigration. They are tired of being told what they can say and even think. Many appreciate his stance against trade. Working class folks in the Rust Belt feel relieved that somebody is finally paying attention to them. Virtually none of these people clicked “like” on Vladimir Putin’s Facebook page.
Trump is an anomaly. If any other Republican had won the primary and the general election, we would not be having the conversation that never seems to end about Russia. Can you imagine Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio getting defensive on Putin’s behalf? It wouldn’t happen. The Republican Party has been more hawkish on Russia than the Democratic Party for 100 years. Donald Trump is the only Republican that Putin would prefer over a Democrat, and he’s the only Republican who would even briefly take Russia’s side against the FBI and the CIA.
I doubt Trump even looks at it that way. Mostly he’s just being defensive. He feels like the legitimacy of his election is being called into question, but no one with much sense thinks he won because of anything Russia did. He won because he flipped Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from the Democratic column to the Republicans for parochial reasons that are almost unique to those states. Under what theory would Russia’s DNC hack and the exposure by WikiLeaks affect votes in a handful of Rust Belt states but nowhere else?
So let’s get two things clear. Donald Trump did not hack the DNC. Vladimir Putin did. Trump is entirely innocent of that crime. Nor did he win the election because of that crime.
But no mainstream critic of WikiLeaks and the Kremlin is saying Trump did it or that he won because of it. That’s certainly not what the FBI and the CIA have been saying, nor is it what critical Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are arguing.
Trump did not need to be so prickly and defensive, and he still doesn’t seem to grasp that Putin isn’t his friend. “If Putin likes me, that’s an asset,” he said. No. It is not. Putin wants what’s good for Russia, not what’s good for the United States. Putin doesn’t “like” Trump anyway. He certainly doesn’t like Trump in the same way Trump’s base does.
The president-elect seems to find it a shame that we can’t get along with a white Christian country with its capital in Europe at a time when we’re both facing threats from radical Islamists. It is exasperating, but everyone needs understand something. Yes, Russia is Christian and white, and the smaller part of that country is on the European continent, but it does not belong to the West. Russians have defined themselves against the West for longer than any of them have been alive. When they say “the West,” they are referring to us, not to themselves. In the Russian mind, the West is a hostile Other.
Our next president won’t be any more successful resetting America’s relations with Russia than the last two presidents were, and it won’t be his fault. “Russia does not aspire to be like us,” writes Russia expert Molly McKew in Politico, “or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West — and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.”
Russian propaganda has been among the most effective in the world for at least a century. The communists used it (along with money, advisors and guns) to export their deranged revolution to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to this day some their tropes still poison the minds of far-leftists all over the world.
The Kremlin’s propaganda in the 21st century is less brazen and obvious. It’s more insidious because it’s less overtly ideological. Russia sometimes uses it to promote the positions of right-wing populists like France’s Marine Le Pen in Europe. Some of it, meanwhile, is aimed at the Western left. The very same intelligence report that details Russia’s hacking of the DNC reveals that the Kremlin broadcasts bogus anti-fracking propaganda in the United States for a reason that ought to be obvious—American fracking hurts Russia’s oil and gas industry, the only industry in the entire country that’s healthy. Some Russian propaganda, like many of the fake news stories that circulated last year, doesn’t even appear on the surface to come from Russia at all.
The purpose of the Kremlin’s disinformation is not to export Putinism to the rest of the planet. Its purpose, instead, is “to erode our values,” McKew writes, “our democracy and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.”
At some point, Vladimir Putin is going to stab Donald Trump in the front. He’s a scorpion, and that’s what scorpions do. He doesn’t have much of a choice. He’ll have to stab Trump in the front or reverse Russia’s national interests. He’d have to pitch his entire worldview over the side, a worldview that was nurtured in the Soviet Union and hardened in the KGB’s Directorate S. Which do you think is more likely?
American politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. It seems an almost quaint notion nowadays, but we need to find our way back. Donald Trump and his Republican allies should always unite behind the Democratic Party against a hostile foreign actor like Vladimir Putin for one simple reaon. Because the Democratic Party is ours. Likewise, even the most strident anti-Trump progressives need to rally behind the incoming president when the choice is between an enemy and one of ours.
Russia is using an ancient strategy against the United States—divide and conquer, or at least divide and disrupt.