The bizarre saga of potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has created a genuine emergency in American politics. This isn’t necessarily because of Russia’s actual actions — unless the most peculiar allegations turn out to be accurate — but because of Donald Trump’s response, and what this indicates about how he’ll govern.
Ignore the Trump “dossier” for the moment and forget the baseless conjecture about Russia hacking the U.S. voting process itself. All we need to know about Trump and the Republican Party can be found in their position on the simplest, most plausible part of the story: that Russia was behind the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and John Podesta.
Is this in fact what happened? Certainly the Obama administration did itself no favors by failing to release any of the evidence underlying the strong conclusions in the the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report. But Trump himself said at last week’s press conference, presumably based on a classified briefing, that “I think it was Russia.” Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, agreed during his confirmation hearings. There’s also the crucial dog that hasn’t barked: Unlike during the lead up to the Iraq War, no one from the intelligence agencies has been leaking doubts or claims that they’re being leaned on by the White House to provide the desired conclusion.
Under these circumstances, the reaction of anyone who actually cares about the United States has to be: We must investigate this with great seriousness and impartiality and find out exactly what happened. This requires an independent commission with sufficient funding, a broad mandate and legal authority that Congress creates but then can no longer influence.
Nothing should be less controversial than this. Whatever a nation’s political disagreements, in any functioning democracy there’s just one position on this issue: Only citizens can participate in deciding who governs it.
In every other circumstance Republicans love wrapping themselves in the flag and vowing to protect us from dastardly foreigners, even if this requires renaming the french fries in the congressional cafeteria. Few do this more than Trump himself, whose entire campaign was about the apocalyptic danger posed to us by China, Mexico, the freeloaders of NATO, Muslims from anywhere, and so on. Yet on the subject of Russia and this election he’s suddenly indifferent — even though fear of this type of foreign influence doesn’t require jingoistic xenophobia but just a rational, healthy belief in small-d democratic self-determination.
This is one of the key topics of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, the most famous political rhetoric in American history until the Gettysburg Address. “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” Washington warned, “the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Washington was particularly concerned by the “common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party” – that is, loyalty to your own faction within the country above the country overall. This, he said, “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” and allows other countries to “practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils.”
Trump and the GOP are now busy proving how prescient Washington was. Trump has not endorsed an independent investigation of any Russian actions aimed at the election, nor released the financial information that would clarify any business relationships he has with Russians or Russian banks. Moreover, he can’t even bring himself to pretend in public that any of it matters much (although it’s hard to tell whether this is because he fears we’ll find out something nefarious he did or simply because his ego can’t bear his victory being thrown into doubt). Of all of Trump’s violations of basic democratic norms, his indifference to this most basic principle of self-government is the most shocking of all.
Meanwhile, most congressional Republicans are hoping to quietly bury this issue in rigged, limited investigations that you can be sure will take so long that no one will remember what it was all about by the time they’re done. Their faction has power, and that’s all they care about.
There are, of course, endless potential quibbles with and distractions from this central reality. But none of them amount to much.
Do we know that the release of emails changed the outcome of the election? No, and it’s possible they didn’t. So what? Interference in our elections should be unacceptable under any circumstances.
Aren’t we hugely hypocritical for complaining about this, given America’s overbearing interventions in dozens of other countries? It depends on who “we” are. Yes, the CIA and U.S. political leaders have no grounds to object to this. But regular Americans do, just as regular Iranians, Guatemalans, Chileans and many, many others have every right to object to what we’ve done.
Do many of the those pushing this, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, want to use this as an excuse to start a new cold war with Russia? Absolutely. Moreover, they also embody exactly what Washington meant when he said that concern about foreign influence “must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.” McCain and company are perfectly fine with foreign influence on U.S. politics when it originates with Saudi Arabia or Israel. But if we don’t find out what truly happened, that space won’t be filled with a reasonable appraisal of our relations with Russia but with more dangerous, crazed speculation.
And finally, are elite Democrats using this subject as as excuse for their own spectacular failures? Yes, of course. But again, ignoring this won’t make them face reality; instead they’ll fall further down a comforting rabbit hole. As Bernie Sanders has said on this subject, “You gotta walk and chew bubble gum” — i.e., both investigate what happened and rebuild progressive forces around the country.
So what’s most deeply frightening about this whole story isn’t what Russia did or didn’t do. It’s that Trump’s response and the Republican blessing of it is Trump’s most powerful demonstration that absolutely all bets are off. If he’ll do this, there’s nothing he won’t do, and nothing the GOP won’t let him get away with.