In her first press conference in 275 days, Hillary Clinton on Monday suggested that Russia is working to get Donald Trump elected. With U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies investigating what they believe is a wide-ranging, covert Russian operation to disrupt the November election, Clinton told reporters that it “raises grave questions” about Russian influence.
Asked whether she thought Moscow was actively trying to help Trump, she said: “I think it’s quite intriguing that this activity has happened around the time Trump became the nominee.”
But Clinton shouldn’t be too worried. Like many of America’s political and media elites, she still doesn’t understand the game Russia is playing, or that the purpose of Moscow’s meddling isn’t to elect Trump but to undermine America’s faith in elections.
Vladimir Putin himself spelled it out in a recent interview with Bloomberg News. He denied that Russia had anything to do with the recent cyberattacks on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and the Clinton campaign. Then he said, “Does it even matter who hacked this data from the campaign headquarters of Mrs. Clinton? Is that really important? The important thing is the content that was given to the public.”
Set aside the irony of a strongman like Putin singing the praises of transparency. The important thing, from Russia’s perspective, is that emails and information Clinton and the Democratic Party wanted to keep private were released to the world. Some of those emails were embarrassing, and even led to the resignation of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the eve of her party’s convention in July.
But that was not the purpose of releasing them, any more than Russia’s broader influence operations are meant to deny Clinton the White House. The operations serve a far greater goal: to make democracy itself look bad, and to make American democracy in particular look like a sham.
Tapping Into Our Waning Confidence in Government
Clinton isn’t the only one who doesn’t quite grasp this. Over at The Fix, Philip Bump and Amber Phillips were recently at pains to assure their readers there’s almost no chance Russia could hack our elections. To sway the outcome of a national election, we’re told, Russian hackers would have to breach multiple layers of protected voter and elections systems on a massive scale all across the country. The timing would have to be perfect, a lot of people would have to be involved, and they would all have to get past complicated safeguards designed to foil any such attempt.
That’s all well and good if you’re worried that Russia will steal the election. But Bump and Phillips frame the issue wrongly. They claim the question at its root is: “Could hackers change the numbers to change our elections?” That’s not the question at all. At its root, the question is: Could Russian hackers undermine America’s confidence in elections? The answer is maybe.
At the very least, Russia is helping to amplify a trend of growing distrust in our elections. Back in March, a Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of Americans thought the election was working as it should, down from 37 percent in January. The share of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents who said the election process was working fell from 46 to 30 percent in the first three months of the year. The survey also found that 66 percent of Americans think the system is broken—almost an exact reversal of the results of the same poll in January 2008.
It’s not just elections. Trust in almost every major institution of public life is near an all-time low. A Gallup survey in June found that of 15 institutions, only three—the military, small businesses, and the police—had the confidence of more than half of those polled.
Those findings echo the results of Pew’s long-running measure of trust in government, which last year found that only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust Washington to “do what’s right.” That’s just about an historic low. When the American National Election Study first asked that same question in 1958, 73 percent said they trusted the government.
Putin Is Playing A Long Game
So Russia is tapping into a simmering discontent in the American body politic. And if Moscow can convince a significant swath of American voters that our political institutions can’t be trusted, they will have accomplished their grand purpose.
That’s because Russia’s influence operations are part of a broader strategy. As I mentioned last week, during the Cold War the Soviet Union employed what it called “active measures,” which involved planting false or misleading stories in the Western press. The immediate goal was to sow discord and mistrust in Western societies. But the larger goal was to undermine democracy itself. The Cold War, after all, was a high-stakes ideological contest between two opposing ideas about how society should be governed. The Soviet Union wanted to see Communism conquer the world, just as America wanted democracy to spread.
Today, the old contest between the United States and Russia is alive and well, but it lacks the stark ideological divide between communism and capitalism. Instead, the contest is simply about power and influence. Russia wants to weaken American hegemony and reassert itself as a major power on the international stage. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, and he wants to do something about it.
Of course, reestablishing Russia as a major world power is a generations-long undertaking. It involves diplomatic, military, and political efforts on multiple fronts. But an important part of it is psychological. What better way to weaken the American superpower than to convince Americans themselves that their democracy is corrupt and that the idea of self-government is nothing but a giant fraud?
To do that, Moscow doesn’t need to steal the upcoming presidential election by hacking into voting machines. It doesn’t need to deny Clinton the presidency or help elect Trump. It just needs to cast doubt on the process.
Some Americans, particularly Trump supporters, are open to such insinuations—even if they know Russia is behind it. During a press conference in July, Trump himself called on Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails. If the system is corrupt, who cares if it takes someone like Putin to expose the rot in American democracy?
That strain of thought in the American psyche, which is now buzzing louder than ever, is precisely what Putin is counting on.