Politics

Putin's Meddling Will Be Good for U.S. Democracy

Putin's 2016 trolling forced the nation to look in the mirror. It's a healthy exercise, if Americans refuse to look away.

Time to reflect.

Photographer: Alexey Smolyanyy/iStockphoto/Getty Images

As the so-called Trump-Russia story lurches on, one can see it in a few different ways: a witch hunt, the lead-up to Donald Trump's impeachment, a distraction from more important issues, a major national security threat to the U.S. It would be useful, however, to look beyond these partisan perceptions to the story's potential to make America great(er) again.

What we know about the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 exists on three levels of veracity. We know 100 percent that Russian propaganda outlets played on Trump's side against Hillary Clinton, helping spread and amplify reports that were hostile to her, including some that weren't true. We have strong circumstantial evidence that hackers who stole Democratic Party functionaries' emails were Russian or Russian-connected, and grounds to suspect that it was these hackers who provided the emails to Wikileaks (which also undermined Clinton by savoring the gradual release of the dump). We have no direct evidence of collusion or coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in trying to beat Clinton and get Trump elected (though a potentially interesting report on this front emerged last week in the Wall Street Journal).

After months of multipronged investigation and concurrent leaks, that's both a lot and not much. Not much to fuel the Democrats' hopes of displacing Trump before the end of his term. Not much, also, to show for all the resources lavished on the investigations and their media coverage. A lot, however, to tell Americans where they stand as a country -- far more than before Russian President Vladimir Putin held his troll mirror to them in 2016.

Assuming U.S. intelligence agencies are correct in their attribution of the hacks and leaks, that's essentially what he did. The Russian propaganda backed up an existing marginal news and rumor culture, replete with racial stereotypes, conspiracy theories and the deep-seated hatred of progressive causes, and helped make it more prominent. The debate on fake news forced both liberal and conservative Americans out of their news silos to look at the radical fringes of each other's newsfeeds. The hacked emails of Democratic party officials presented an ugly picture of a cronyist insider culture that rejects outside contributions even when they can be useful, as in Senator Bernie Sanders' case, and that corrupts the people at the top, undermining their connection with the party's rank-and-file. 

The mirror is still there. It’s facing America as it digests the scandal and tries to come to terms with a president who looks a lot like a wheeler-dealer from 1990s Russia, someone defined by naked contempt for rules and conventions, a taste for gaudy luxury, and a default mode of pampered irascibility.

Faced with all that in a mirror for the first time, one can easily freeze in place, unsure what to do. Perhaps that's what happened to Barack Obama when he read the intelligence reports tying the hacks and leaks to Russia. He could have backed the Clinton's campaign line -- that the revelations should be ignored because they were a hostile power's attack on the U.S. – especially since he was actively campaigning for her. Obama refrained, more worried that Russia would try to hack the actual vote -- but Putin clearly didn't have that in mind. Hackers breached computers containing voter roll information in a number of states but stopped at that, perhaps preparing to witness Democrat-run fraud -- something the Kremlin believed would happen to push Clinton through. If they had discovered it, the image in Putin's troll mirror would have grown that much nastier.

The next impulse after the stupor is to break the mirror, to attack the troll holding it. That's what's happening now, as all things Russian grow toxic and legislators consider further sanctions to punish without much regard for the broader fallout. It's a mistake for a few reasons: trolls are resistant to this kind of punishment; U.S. attacks make Putin stronger at home; and his mockery of U.S. "paranoia" resonates with Russians and even, to some extent, with Europeans.

Europe has quickly learned its lessons from what it knows about Putin's attack on the U.S. The mainstream media and political activists in France and Germany organized to map and counteract the spread of fake news during election campaigns. Governments, particularly the German one, heaped pressure on social networks to curb the fakes. On Friday, the German parliament adopted a controversial law demanding that Facebook and other networks quickly remove hate speech and false stories or face fines of up to 50 million euros ($57 million).

When he ran for president, Emmanuel Macron made sure no sensitive information was passed back and forth on email. That's why hackers who penetrated his campaign's network couldn't find anything useful, and Macron's political enemies resorted to fakes in a failed last-ditch attempt to influence voting. Macron internalized the lessons of the Clinton campaign. With many of the same progressive ideas, he triumphed against stronger opposition than she faced as a savvier -- and a cleaner -- candidate.

For German politicians in this electoral cycle, it's a big advantage that they have nothing to hide and share a culture. I'll be surprised if attackers turn up anything useful on Chancellor Angela Merkel or her top rival Martin Schulz. But Germany wants to be doubly sure, thus the new law and the decision to build up a 13,000-strong cyber army to counter attacks. 

What happened in the U.S. has made European democracies more resistant to propaganda, Russian or otherwise, and more savvy about cybersecurity. On a higher level, Trump's victory has forced these nations to look at themselves in the mirror -- and populist parties have dropped in the polls from Brest to Dresden. 

If Putin gets credit for helping to elect Trump, he should get some for Europe's rejection of populism, too. European democracy is stronger today thanks to his trolling of the U.S. in 2016.

Is the U.S. stronger, though? During his Senate hearing, former FBI Director James Comey warned that the Russians "will be back." What will the U.S. see if Putin tries the mirror trick again in a few years? 

They will probably still see a bitterly divided country, but perhaps one that's more serious about its electoral choices, one less inclined to treat politics as winner-take-all sporting event -- an approach that yielded a frustrating, flawed choice in 2016. Next time around, voters will see honesty and decency as crucial assets, and perhaps the major parties will respond to this by selecting contenders who embody them more than Trump and Clinton did. Perhaps these contenders will also be savvier when it comes to cybersecurity and, in general, modern communication. The global technology superpower needs leaders who are better, not worse, at technology than the average American.

Perhaps there will also be a more open public debate -- still contentious and aggressive, but, this time, informed by a better understanding of propaganda mechanisms and the way information spreads across social networks. The U.S. public may get smarter about how it processes information: It's getting more media literacy training than ever before.

Perhaps I'm overoptimistic and the U.S. won't learn anything from this experience except that Russians are evil. But I have faith in the U.S.: Even when I traveled the country during the 2016 election campaign, I felt its vibrant strength behind all the frustration and confusion. I rather think the lessons forced on the country by that campaign will sink in.

No one will thank Putin the troll for that, and he doesn't want America's thanks. If the U.S. public gets smarter about its political choices, Putin will be weakened: It will no longer be as easy for him to point to American democracy's flaws or to exploit them. Then, if he returns to his trolling as Comey predicted, he'll have to come up with something more sophisticated than what is essentially a cheap, simple influence campaign. 

Help sometimes comes from enemies. Sometimes they provide it unwillingly. It takes a certain perceptiveness to recognize when that happens and accept the help.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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