Russia Understands American Politics Better Than We Do
In an election cycle where almost every national campaign failed at the basics of electoral politics, one could argue the best run political campaign was by a group of state-sponsored Russian hackers.
We may never know to what degree the Russians plotted to elect Donald Trump, or if the goal was simply to create as much chaos as possible. But even with the limited evidence we have, we already know that the Russians strategized around and acted upon a series of key political insights, all of which were very effective:
Increased partisanship means one side will never say no to a tactical advantage. Congressional Republicans on the whole probably aren’t thrilled that Russia is trying to undermine our elections—but if they’re going to intervene to elect our candidate of choice, why put up much of a fight? Sure, there are hints that Congressional Republicans will do some digging and work with Democrats to figure out the extent of the Russian interference, but that’s only after the dust has settled. A generation or two ago, you would have likely seen a more bipartisan effort in real-time to resist this kind of foreign interference. But in today’s hyper-partisan age, you can guarantee the beneficiaries of such interference will try to downplay their significance or argue that it never even happened.
When it comes to damning information, the ends justify the means. Scores of Americans would be shocked and angered beyond belief if their or their family’s private e-mails were hacked and released to the public. But when it comes to other people’s information—especially public figures like politicians and celebrities—the sympathy stops cold. The Russians knew there would never be a concerted effort to protect the privacy of those who were hacked. Even Democrats seemed pretty okay with Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns being leaked, though that too was a significant breach of personal privacy.
Political actors on the fringe—even your own fringe—can be turned against you very quickly. As former Speaker John Boehner learned in 2015, your own base can be your undoing. The Russians have actively courted leftists like those at Wikileaks who—while no fans of Donald Trump—had vested interests in seeing Hillary Clinton exposed and damaged. This in turn helped dissuade members of a nominal Democratic coalition from ever linking up with Hillary Clinton. The result: many Democratic-leaning voters—already difficult to motivate—stayed home.
Effective attacks deter effective responses. As noted by other political observers, Congressional Republicans could become targets themselves if they go too far in responding to the Russian hacks. The Russians have clearly embraced the lesson that effective lobbies like the NRA learned long ago: play along, and we go after your enemies. Fight us, and you’re going to feel the pain.
Our politics ensures that in the heat of the moment, common sense and rationality will always give way to the desire to win and take power. That geopolitical adversaries have figured out how to leverage this weakness against us will be one of the more daunting tasks in protecting our democracy for a long time to come.