We learned last month that Russia is, again, meddling in our elections, this time helping Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Press reporting about this information—which Sanders, some of his Democratic primary opponents, and President Trump have all spoken about—comes from American intelligence briefings.
There are some obvious explanations for why Vladimir Putin’s Russia would want to help Sanders. First, the Russians might believe—and have good reason to believe—that helping Sanders helps Trump, whose election the Russians supported in 2016. Second, Trump and Sanders are the two candidates likeliest to have Russophile policies.
But what if there is a deeper explanation? What if the real reason is to create chaos in American politics? The two men’s actual foreign policies might just be the cherry on top for Putin. Their other policies, and indeed their personalities and broad agendas, are almost tailor-made to divide and frustrate and annoy people who disagree with them.
And keep in mind that Russia has a long history of seeking to sow discord and chaos in America, and not just by interfering in political campaigns. Russian trolls have also used social media to promote political polarization beyond campaigns, supporting (for example) Black Lives Matter as well as groups opposed to it. Ditto the kneeling controversy in the NFL. Whatever the divisive issue, Russia is promoting both sides.
Let’s put in context Russia’s meddling in American affairs: Russia is struggling economically, as it is trying to challenge the American order. Hence, to weaken America’s standing, Putin needs to turn into low-cost strategies.
This is no different than what the Soviet Union used to do. Putin, after all, is a former KGB colonel. As Russia expert Leon Aron has observed, Putin might very well be a Russian patriot, but, above all, Putin is
first and foremost a Soviet patriot . . . to the core, and he should be! It was the Soviet Union that took this, essentially, street urchin from the slums of the postwar Leningrad, growing up in abject poverty and communal apartments . . . lifted him, and put him in one of the highest castes of the Soviet society, the masters of the country, the KGB.
Putin owes more or less his entire life to the evil empire, whose collapse he called the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century. It’s an empire he wants to reestablish and whose foreign policy he is restoring, including its old tactics.
In the last few years, the term “whataboutism” has become much more common in American political rhetoric. Examples abound:
-Trump is governing via executive order.
-What about when Obama did it?
-Obama bailed out the auto industry.
-What about Trump’s compensating farmers?
The term was in fact coined to explain a Soviet tactic during the Cold War. Every time the United States criticized the Soviet Union, the reds responded with whataboutism.
“Gulags? What about lynching in the South?”
“Purges? What about Jim Crow?”
“Invasion of Afghanistan? What about support for apartheid South Africa?”
The purpose of whataboutism was to draw a moral equivalence between the two enemies. In many forms, in fact, the Soviet whataboutism made America better by pricking the American conscience. Historian Robert Kagan notes that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was partially a result of Soviet whataboutism.
Putin routinely resorts to whataboutism, even when he has to stretch the facts to do it. Consider this passage from George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points:
Over the course of eight years, Russia’s newfound wealth affected Putin. He became aggressive abroad and more defensive about his record at home. In our first one-on-one meeting of my second term, in Bratislava, I raised my concerns about Russia’s lack of progress on democracy. I was especially worried about his arrests of Russian businessmen and his crackdown on the free press. “Don’t lecture me about the free press,” he said, “not after you fired that reporter.”
It dawned on me what he was referring to. “Vladimir, are you talking about Dan Rather?” I asked. He said he was. I said, “I strongly suggest you not say that in public. The American people will think you don’t understand our system.”
Putin’s meddling in U.S. elections is a more sophisticated version of the same tactic but with far greater rewards. The meddling itself has had a tremendous payoff for Putin in paralyzing American politics. (The controversy resulting from Russia’s 2016 election interference consumed much of the Trump administration’s first two years, until the Mueller report came out. And the supposed exoneration of the president in the Mueller report led to the infamous phone call one day later that set off the Ukraine scandal.)
But Putin’s stirring the pot of polarization is much more consequential—because it helps to undermine America’s belief in itself. Here’s where whataboutism and election meddling intersect: Putin certainly cares about America’s Russia policy, but it is a safe guess that he is not deeply worried about (for example) racial injustice in the United States. Yet, he “invests” in both because Trump and Sanders, just like the racial tensions Putin has promoted on social media, divide Americans, make politics dysfunctional and democracy unattractive, and bring out the worst in their critics. So Russians can once again say, “Don’t tell us about the problems of our system, what about your own problems?”
To the extent that it is true that the United States was founded upon ideas, its opponents rejoice when Americans fundamentally doubt those ideas. In a 2018 Pew survey, 61 percent of the respondents (weighted to match the nation’s demographics) said they believed that American democracy required “significant changes,” and 40 percent said it was working “not too well” or “not well at all.” The 2016 Russian political interference may just be one small factor among those driving Americans toward self-doubt. But whatever the extent, it is contributing to making democracy unattractive to Americans and non-Americans.
Russia is not the greatest threat to America—polarization is. And Putin knows that he can’t beat the United States militarily, so he is trying to make us tear each other apart.
He is right. Ron Brownstein has observed that Trump is a wartime president: war of red America and blue America. Sanders, too, will be a wartime president: war of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. As president, each man would worsen (or does worsen) the divides among Americans, leaving Putin the winner.
America needs a unifier who will tell us that we are not each other’s enemies. Putin is ultimately not really supporting either Trump or Sanders; as a former Putin adviser put it last month, “our candidate is chaos.” Let’s not give our enemy what he wants.