President-elect Donald Trump conceded this week that he thinks Russia was responsible for hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, though he couldn’t help but add the caveat that it “could have been others also.” Trump’s reluctance to accept the conclusions of the intelligence community on this issue until this week has always been based on the fear that it might cast a pall over his election victory.
But what if the point of Russia’s interference was not to try to pick a winner but to delegitimize the democratic process altogether? This seems far likelier than the questionable theory that Russian President Vladimir Putin preferred Trump to win. No matter how fawning Trump has been over Putin, Republicans in Congress, as well as Republican appointees who make it through confirmation in any Republican administration, are more reliably committed to a strong, assertive national defense than their Democratic counterparts. It seems naive to believe that Putin’s Russia would prefer a Republican administration — even one led by Trump — over a Democratic administration.
What Putin wants is an America that is diminished in the eyes of the world. And what better way to accomplish that aim than to make people lose confidence in America’s democratic institutions and sow seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of our democratic process, no matter who won? The Russians seem to have done a pretty good job at accomplishing that goal. If elections in the United States are not free and fair, if their outcome can be tampered with or influenced by outside intervention, if Americans themselves are no longer capable of making informed decisions, how is the U.S. any different from countries such as Russia itself? We are looking more and more like a laughingstock, and our institutions, including a free press, are becoming more vulnerable.
When the inauguration takes place next week, Americans will be more divided over the fitness and abilities of the man being sworn in than at any time in recent memory. It’s true that there were many of us who didn’t believe that Barack Obama was up to the job of leading the Free World based on his limited experience, but even his critics were, for the most part, willing to give him a chance. Obama assumed office with a 75 percent approval rating during the transition period; even George W. Bush entered office with a 65 percent approval rating despite the contentious court battle over whether he had won the election. The same can’t be said of Trump. The country remains equally divided over how he has handled his transition, 48-48 percent. More disturbing, only 37 percent of Americans approve of Trump as he enters office. The transfer of power in any democracy requires that the people accept the outcome of the election, even if they don’t particularly like it. But the resistance to Trump is worse than any I’ve seen in my 45-year history in politics. Putin must be chuckling in Moscow.
One of the most important pillars of maintaining a democracy is a free press — and here, too, Russia played a destructive role during the election. Russia’s interference in the election wasn’t restricted to hacking emails and releasing embarrassing information; the intelligence community also found evidence that Russia was behind “fake news” stories that millions of Americans tapped into online. But again, what is most worrisome about this meddling is that it has added to doubt in the minds of many Americans about the media in general.
The right distrusts the mainstream media (and has for decades), so many conservatives simply tune them out, refusing to believe anything reported by The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN or the major networks. When, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll, only 32 percent of the public trusts mass media to report news “fully, accurately and fairly,” we’ve got a problem. The media need to correct bias — or even the appearance of bias — but it is also incumbent on our political leaders, especially the president-elect, to stop bashing the media. Putin is cheering on this distrust, as are all enemies of freedom.
Democracy can only exist as long as the people trust its institutions. The greatest calamity of this election cycle has been the weakening of that trust. Putin’s aims can be accomplished only if we allow him to undermine our belief in our system.