“If Trump wins (or comes close),” Vox’s Timothy Lee wrote on Twitter earlier this week, “liberals are going to need a better answer than writing half the electorate off as racist.”
As the possibility that Trump will indeed win (or come close) starts to look less remote, liberals are already experimenting with a different answer—one that we will almost certainly hear more of if things go badly on November 8: That the election was rigged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees Trump as a pawn in his scheme to destroy the Western-led liberal world order.
Franklin Foer made this case yesterday in a widely-shared piece for Slate, after news broke that the Russian government almost certainly had a hand in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the release of private emails that embarrassed the party on the eve of its convention:
A foreign government has hacked a political party’s computers—and possibly an election. It has stolen documents and timed their release to explode with maximum damage. It is a strike against our civic infrastructure. And though nobody died—and there was no economic toll exacted—the Russians were aiming for a tender spot, a central node of our democracy.
Foer is right about a number of things: That the Kremlin would love to see a President Trump throw a wrench into the gears of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, that Putin’s claim that he doesn’t throw his weight around in foreign elections is transparently absurd, that Obama administration should respond forcefully to this incursion, that Trump’s bizarre bromance with the Russian strongman should be an important attack-angle for Team Clinton in the fall.
But the increasingly widespread tendency among American elites to point a finger at Putin to explain the grim election landscape is deeply misguided—at best, a panicky overreaction to (relatively) standard Russian mischief, and at worst, a dangerous distraction from the rot eating away at our institutions from the inside. Masha Gessen said it best:
Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.
Trump would never have made it this far if the GOP could still function as a normal political party and filter out candidates who renounce the basic principles of democratic order. And even given the GOP’s historic abdication, Trump would have virtually no chance of making it to the White House if the Democratic Party—whose “bench” has been hollowed out by repeated midterm losses, and whose apparatus is firmly in the grips of the ethically dubious Clinton Machine—had managed to nominate someone who was not so deeply damaged, who was not so closely associated with a reviled and out-of-touch establishment, and who could prosecute a compelling and credible case against the fraudulent reality-TV caudillo-in-waiting.
The leaked emails—which, after all, only revealed the relatively banal fact that Democratic party officials favored Clinton over her socialist rival—had an impact because broad swathes of the Democratic base already view the party leadership, and its handpicked candidate, as fundamentally corrupt. And the turmoil in Philadelphia only drove liberals into hysterics because Clinton is—incredibly—losing in the polls to the most unpopular major party candidate on record.
Putin does not have as coherent an ideology as some commentators believe. He is not a grand strategist, but a wily opportunist who knows how to seize and exploit openings when they present themselves. He does what he can to move democratic opinion in Western countries whenever possible towards the forces that are most divisive, in a bid to divide Western allies and weaken Western institutions. That’s why he indirectly helped support Brexit, why he helped fund Front National, and why he pulled strings behind the scenes in a Dutch referendum on Ukraine’s place in the European Union.
But in all of these cases, Putin was taking advantage of institutions that were already decaying, and an elite cosmopolitan worldview that no longer is persuasive to a growing number of ordinary people. It’s easy to blame a revisionist Russia for the teetering of the liberal democratic order. It’s harder to repair our institutions so that they can resist.
This post has been updated for clarity.