When you think about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, what comes to mind first? To explore that question a little more, let’s engage in some Q & A on the subject.
First, why do people regard Russian meddling as a bad thing, as subversive in the purest sense? They give three reasons:
- Russian interference threw the election to Donald Trump. You hear this argument from Hillary Clinton in her more unhinged moments.
- Russian interference sows discord among our citizens. That claim focuses on divisive Facebook ads and the like.
- Russian interference poses a threat to our democracy. The third argument assumes the United States still has a democracy a foreign power would want to threaten.
Begin with the last point. If Russian interference poses such a danger to American democracy, why did the FBI not do anything about it before the election? By their own reports, they knew about Russian interference long before November – some say as early as fall 2015. Were they too busy investigating Hillary Clinton’s email server, Carter Page, or Fusion GPS? Did they have other, clandestine interests that took precedence? Or did they think Russian activities were just not that important?
If Russian interference poses such a danger to American democracy, why did the FBI not do anything about it before the election?
Not only did the FBI disdain to protect American democracy, Russians disdained to conceal their efforts to subvert it. Strangely, in light of all the fuss about their nefarious plans to undermine American democracy, we have to wonder why they undertook their efforts so openly. Social media do not function as closed spaces. Perhaps they figured that with an open campaign, they could more readily blame another country they exploit for political gain, such as Ukraine.
The FBI apparently caught the Russians shortly after they began their meddlesome ways. Given Russian skill with intelligence operations, I expect they knew the FBI had the goods. Yet they continued as before. They weren’t worried about the FBI before November 2016, when the FBI chose to say nothing, or after the election, when the FBI accused them in public and pushed President Obama to punish them with sanctions. In fact, we expect the Russians to do the same thing in 2020, even though the FBI says it is ready for them this time.
Strangely, in light of all the fuss about their nefarious plans to undermine American democracy, we have to wonder why they undertook their efforts so openly.
Did Russian efforts sow discord? Can that possibly be an actual motive for all that trouble? Most importantly, how do you marshal evidence for such a claim? When domestic discord has already reached a clamorous pitch, how would you know if a foreign party had managed to crank up the acrimony by a fraction on the hate meter? Can you find one person who said, after 2016, “Yes, after I read those Russian Facebook ads, I hated Bernie supporters – or Trump supporters, or Clinton supporters – even more than I did before.”
When you think about it, Russian interference could have had the opposite effect. We all disagree with each other, we hate those who disagree with us, until we perceive this new external threat to our country. Then we agree, “We have to stop this from happening again! We have to prevent the Russians from mucking around with our elections!” In fact, we are so set on this goal, we are willing to remove our president via impeachment, to make sure Russia, Ukraine, or any other country never tries to mess with our elections again.
The first argument, that Russians threw the election to Donald Trump, hardly merits mention. Have you ever heard anyone offer evidence for this claim? Even Hillary Clinton, who would gain most from a reasoned argument on this point, has nothing to say about it. She merely suggests she would have won a clean and fair election.
If the Russians want to pay Mark Zuckerberg to run propaganda on his website, let them do it!
In fact, you cannot marshal evidence for this claim, because the claim is not falsifiable to begin with. Evidence only matters for claims, or hypotheses, that could go either way. If you cannot say, “The Russians bought, coerced, or influenced this number of votes in Michigan,” for instance, then what is the point of saying they threw the election to Donald Trump? Who could possibly know?
So we return to the idea that Russia caused undue harm in 2016. We should thank them, and invite them back to reinvest, I mean waste their money again next year. If you see your rival doing stupid things, would you not welcome that? Wouldn’t you promote their futile behavior? After all, wasteful activities generally make one less effective, and weaker over the long run. If the Russians want to pay Mark Zuckerberg to run propaganda on his website, let them do it! Facebook’s stock price goes up, we find rare unity as we all hate on Mark, and Vladimir tries to disguise his dismay, as he realizes Facebook has scammed him again. Good luck in 2020.