“Putin has won.” This intercepted message to Kirill Dmitriev, a Kremlin crony and CEO of the state-sponsored Russian Direct Investment Fund, sent on the night Donald Trump won the presidency slipped through the heavy redactions on page 149 of Robert Mueller’s report. What lies beneath the black ink surrounding this declaration—including the identity of the sender—remains a mystery. But these three words encapsulate an almost unfathomable truth.
While the full import of the President’s cryptic ties to Vladimir Putin is not yet known, publicly available information confirms he welcomed, benefitted from, and then denied Russian interference in the U.S. election. In office, Trump continues to show Putin exceptional deference.
Some observers—and not only partisan Republicans—believe that Trump’s Russia connections are overblown. Historian Stephen Kotkin argues in Foreign Affairs that the interactions between Trump’s people and Putin’s operatives were too disorganized to be effective. As a result Russia, Kotkin claims, had if anything only a “marginal” impact on the 2016 election.
A chorus of journalists and experts who have investigated the same story paint a different picture. In his report, Mueller found that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Journalists Luke Harding and Seth Hettena depict an elaborate, multilayered Kremlin campaign. Michael Isikoff, David Corn, and Max Boot conclude that the Russian intervention was decisive. James Clapper, former Director of U. S. National Intelligence, agrees. In a new report for the Pentagon, more than two dozen security experts determine that the scope and sophistication of Putin’s “grand strategy” for global dominance is a serious threat to national security. It is one thing to argue whether Putin elected Trump. It is by now an established fact, however, that Russia actively interfered in an American election. The President’s own Director of National Intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, attests to the fact.
If most Republicans, blinded by partisanship, have lost their way in defending American interests and ideals, then Democrats must step forward. But where have they been?
The boundaries of the Democrats’ political comfort zone have barely shifted since the 2016 election, with health care eclipsing foreign policy, national security, and all other matters. For the past two years, the Democratic leadership has been content to leave Trump/Russia to Mueller. When Attorney General William Barr mischaracterized Mueller’s findings and exonerated Trump, then produced a richly redacted report, the Democrats were left issuing subpoenas and fecklessly protesting while Trump’s claims of vindication dominated the airwaves.
Trump’s base may be in lockstep with the President, but a majority of Americans are alarmed by Trump’s relationship with Putin and believe Trump is guilty of obstruction and other crimes. Yet a majority also opposes impeachment, an unnerving prospect for a Democratic Party that already fears impeachment may be its only option. The Democrats are flummoxed.
But the Trump/Russia affair poses opportunities that have nothing to do with impeachment or short-term tactical goals. Seizing these opportunities is key to confronting challenges to our national security and democracy that are bigger than Trump and will almost certainly persist beyond his tenure. It is time for Democrats to find ways to align their domestic agenda to a national one, fused to American ideals and purpose. They can do this while tackling voter suppression, big-donor control over elected officials, and foreign interference in elections.
Leading thinkers such as Jill Lepore, Yael Tamir, Robert Kagan, Francis Fukuyama, and Yascha Mounk are urging liberals and centrists to recognize the power of nationalism and get back to decent, honest, and robust patriotism. But few spell out how they can reclaim the flag to fight illiberal nationalism and ethnonational demagoguery.
The assault on democracy in the West—especially in the United States—may become the defining political story of our time. Aspects of the attack on democracy, such as presidential infringement of the law and demonization of critical media, have not yet cracked democracy’s foundations, to be sure. Trump and many of his associates are under investigation and the media retain their independence.
In three respects, however, democracy has already been eroding.
First, one of our two major parties relies increasingly on blocking access to the ballot. In 2018, severe voter suppression occurred in many states. Second, the influence of campaign donations on officeholders’ behavior is acute and growing, affording a wealthy minority undue sway over governance. This affects both Republicans and Democrats. Third, elections have been deeply penetrated by foreign actors, undermining the sovereignty of self-government. No one should believe this stops with Trump. We have every reason to conclude that the Kremlin’s larger strategic goal is to increase political polarization across the West and to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions and processes.
In this context it is appalling that the White House is refusing to comply with congressional requests and is ordering federal employees to ignore subpoenas. Barr has been given free rein to access and declassify intelligence information so that he can investigate the FBI for “spying” on the Trump campaign. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani is asserting: “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” Trump is even pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation to damage Joe Biden, a leading 2020 rival.
Democrats should not view threats to democracy and national security as mere partisan matters. These must be American concerns. But doing the right thing can have an electoral benefit as well.
Reclaiming America’s National-Democratic Narrative
“It’s hard to see how any party could appeal or govern these days without a strong national story,” argues columnist David Brooks. He says that the illiberal movement that brought Trump to power has one: “Their central story is that the good, decent people of the heartland are being threatened by immigrants, foreigners and other outsiders while corrupt elites do nothing.” But, he contends: “What is the Democratic national story? A void.”
Brooks is right. Today’s Democrats lack a story, and without one they will struggle to appeal and to govern. But Trump/Russia offers fresh opportunities to bolster progressive reforms by connecting them to the American saga. What is America’s story, and how does Trumpism dishonor it?
American national identity rests on the twin pillars of democratic governance and demographic dynamism. Democracy, of course, is not uniquely American, but America is uniquely democratic—a country that was founded to ensure self-government. In the 20th century, World War II and the Cold War taught Americans that freedom and security cannot be sustained in a fortress. On this, Ronald Reagan, the icon of modern conservative democracy, and Barack Obama, the champion of progressive democracy, agreed.
The vast majority of Americans abhor the betrayal of democracy at home and abroad. Over two-thirds say that “everything possible should be done to make it easy to vote,” and large majorities are alarmed by Russia’s intervention in American elections. Nearly four-fifths support NATO and reject Trump’s equivocations about defending all NATO allies.
The second pillar of American identity is its demographic openness. No nation’s composition and competitive success are as tightly tethered to infusions of human capital from around the globe. This is a truth that our presidents once recognized:
We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world. . . . Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier . . . . If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.
That was Ronald Reagan, in his parting speech to the nation in January 1989. In his 2015 speech in Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Obama espoused his nation’s demographic creed and greatness in similar terms. And Americans agree. In 2018, three-quarters said that “immigration is a good thing for the country.” A majority favors either increasing legal immigration (38 percent) or holding it unchanged (32 percent).
To be sure, the American story includes all manner of inhumanity—but it also offers the possibility for redemption. From their origins as a nation half-founded on slavery, Americans elected a young black president; from a land they strafed with munitions made in Japan, they brought forth the Vietnam-born Viet Xuan Luong, now Commanding General for the section of the U.S. Army that protects Japan from neighboring dictatorships. Such is the story of America’s democratic and demographic destiny, and its redemptive power.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, America in many ways grew more fully into its story. National politics included titanic struggles between rival governing philosophies embedded in a common national-democratic framework, including the 2008 presidential race between Obama and John McCain. The proportion of women in Congress rose from low single-digits to one-quarter between 1990 and 2017. Immigrants as a proportion of the population increased from a historic low of 4.7 percent in 1970 to 13.7 percent in 2017. The nation’s cultural complexion deepened as India and China became the leading countries of origin.
Yet the nation also deviated from the values embodied in its narrative. Ethnonational demagoguery persisted and violations of democratic norms proliferated. Partisan gerrymandering grew flagrant by both parties and the dollar’s sway over politicians swelled. Lying by high officials seemed to grow more egregious. Neither major party had a monopoly on democracy-damaging behavior, but after the ascent of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, the GOP led the way in manipulating bigotry, infringing democratic norms, championing big-donor dominance, and pursuing reckless foreign adventures.
With Trump’s rise, the Republicans became more fully estranged from the American story. The Trump/Russia affair represents a full break. It also illuminates the dependence of America’s security on its fidelity to democracy. In the United States, unelected national security officials are highly constrained. They can issue anguished warnings, such as former DOJ counterintelligence chief David Laufman’s statement that the President is “a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States,” and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’s Congressional testimony that Russian cyber activities are the greatest threat the United States faces. But without decisive action by elected officials, Russia will continue attempts to worm its way into America’s voting rolls, social media networks, and power grid.
Putin intuits the American narrative, albeit from the perspective of an envious autocrat. He sees that a truly democratic America, full of demographic dynamism and intent on guarding fellow free societies from his encroachments, poses an insurmountable obstacle to his dictatorship at home and authority abroad. It follows that corrupting American democracy and undermining its security is his passion project. Trump and his party furnish the perfect vehicle.
The Trumpian tale—“the good, decent people of the heartland are being threatened by immigrants, foreigners, and other outsiders while corrupt elites do nothing”—warps the country’s national-democratic story. By aiding the man who tells it, Putin aims to bury the narrative that poses the single greatest ideological hurdle to autocracy’s global ascendency.
The vacuum that has resulted is now clear, and so is the Democratic riposte that should follow: The American nation is being sold out by an unpatriotic President who betrays our democracy, identity, and security while corrupt elite enablers do nothing. How can the Democrats reclaim this story and turn national turmoil into national renewal?
Targeting Ethnonationalism in the Fight for Voting Rights and Responsible Refugee and Immigration Policies
First, the Democrats can open a new front in the fight against color-coded nativism and its main political manifestations: voter suppression and restrictive immigration. Democrats armed with a forceful national-democratic narrative can show how voter suppression and bigotry betray the American story.
House Republicans such as Representative Jim Jordan not only ally with Trump on purging voters and demonizing immigrants; they also spearhead Republicans’ efforts to obscure Russian intervention. Even after Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence warned that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack” by Putin’s agents, Republicans continue to vote down new funding to protect elections from cyberattacks. “I know what we need for safe and secure elections,” Jordan asserted, “and that’s voter ID.” Not safeguards against Russian interference, but instead “voter ID,” which in practice reduces voting by citizens of color.
Putin could hardly hope for more eager collaborators. In 2016, Russia directed extensive social media campaigns to incite racial strife and spur voter suppression on Trump’s behalf. Over the past decade his trolls and bogus-news planters honed their skills in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden and other democracies with large populations of recent migrants.
The dark irony is that Putin regards Trump and his allies on the populist right in Europe as useful idiots, not ideological brethren. Contrary to widespread perceptions, Putin crushes expressions of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant intolerance at home. He treats ethnically inclusive nationalism as vital to ensuring the patriotic devotion of all citizens. Russia has its equivalents of the Charlottesville marchers, but rather than meet with presidential sympathy they come under FSB watch.
Putin’s support of nativist demagogues is reserved for countries he seeks to cripple. Ethnonationalism, like Novichok, is a poison he saves for his enemies. Trump’s eager acceptance of Putin’s aid exposes the fraudulence of Trumpian pseudo-patriotism—and allows Democrats to reveal Trump’s dual betrayal of America’s demography to ethnonationalists, and America’s democracy to Putin.
Reforming Campaign Finance and Transparency Laws to Protect Sovereignty, Security and Prestige
Liberals typically focus on how unrestricted campaign donations and corruption distort equality of representation. Putin’s attacks reveal yet another way they imperil democracy, and another instance where Democrats must awaken from their slumber.
Putin has weaponized corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Consider the money trail. Aleksandr Torshin is under investigation for possibly funneling $30 million to Trump’s campaign through the NRA. Dmitry Rybolovlev, whose jet and yacht had a habit of crossing paths with Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election, pumped $50 million into Trump’s pockets by buying his McMansion in Palm Beach for more than double its market value. A firm connected to Viktor Vekselberg paid a million dollars to Trump confidante Michael Cohen. Oleg Deripaska paid Paul Manafort $60 million—after which Manafort approached Trump and graciously offered to manage his campaign for free. Len Blavatnik contributed $2.5 million to Mitch McConnell’s GOP Senate Leadership Fund as well as $4 million to GOP presidential candidates, including $1.1 million for Scott Walker and $800,000 for Lindsey Graham. These are but a smidgen of what is already publicly known.
In December 2018, Trump announced that he was lifting sanctions on an aluminum company owned by Deripaska, who is especially close to Putin and a key player in his attack on the United States. While Republicans defied Trump the year before to uphold sanctions on Russia, they now supported him and voted down the Democrats’ attempt to keep the Deripaska sanctions in place. McConnell led the Republican effort. Shortly thereafter, Trump transition team member Christopher Burnham was given a position on the board of Deripaska’s company—and Deripaska announced that he is investing $200 million in a mill in McConnell’s state.
Against this backdrop, Trump has advanced Russia’s most cherished goals. In addition to sanctions relief, he has threatened to withdraw from NATO, a move that the organization’s former supreme allied commander, retired Admiral James G. Stavridis, called “the gift of the century for Putin.” Trump has disclosed classified intelligence to Russian officials and regularly pushed Russian talking points on matters ranging from NATO membership for Montenegro to the war in Afghanistan. Trump has also gone to extraordinary lengths to keep his conversations with Putin secret even from his top advisors.
Russian hackers have targeted America’s most sensitive infrastructure, laying the groundwork for future attacks on financial, energy, nuclear, water, and aviation facilities. Trump’s response to Putin’s burgeoning cyberthreats has been to deny their existence, and moves that would have provoked bipartisan outrage prior to Trump now elicit anemic—if any—pushback from Republican leaders.
The sight of Republicans tripping over themselves to smear the Justice Department and the FBI on Trump’s behalf is surely a special source of satisfaction for Putin. The spectacle has elicited snickers of disbelief in Russia. As one incredulous official told me in Moscow, “We knew that Trump is ours, but who knew that Congress is as well!” Republican Senators’ vote to support lifting sanctions on Deripaska produced a burst of mirth in Russian media. Tracking Trump’s simpering loyalty to Putin has become a spectator sport in Russia.
To date, however, Democratic leaders have done little to expose the link between America’s incontinent campaign finance laws and Putin’s attacks. Instead, their critique of electoral corruption typically stays on hoary message, focusing on “greed”—grasping officials, tax windfalls for the wealthy, and excessive corporate profits. But this message has never produced a winning coalition for the overhaul of campaign finance. By grounding their case in national as well as class interests, liberals could appeal to centrists and traditional conservatives who might be less alarmed by Big Pharma’s profits than by Putin’s easy violations of national sovereignty and security.
Nor, for that matter, have the Democrats taken advantage of their opponents’ patriotic implosion to burnish their foreign policy and national security credentials. Some 2020 presidential hopefuls have made encouraging statements in speeches and on the debate stage, but Trumpism’s poisonous effect on American security and international prestige still does not figure prominently in the Democrats’ messaging.
Democrats would be foolish to allow foreign and security policy to be seen as the Republicans’ business—especially when the Republicans are no longer taking care of it. Rather than heeding calls to leave Trump/Russia to the lawyers, the Democrats should follow Senator Tim Kaine’s advice. “We can’t defeat Trump on domestic policy alone,” Kaine rightly noted after the midterms. “Democrats had a great night on Nov. 6… But these successes can obscure an important warning for Democrats in Virginia and nationally: Our party is struggling with voters on national security and the economy.” His call to action has yet to be picked up by party leaders.
Why the Russia Reluctance?
Russia is not a natural issue for 21st-century liberals. Running on social justice while ceding defense and the flag to the Republicans is ingrained in the Democrats’ post-LBJ muscle memory. Countering Russian aggression and assailing their opponents’ appeasement is particularly unfamiliar territory. The Russian threat faded at the end of the Cold War, Democrats widely believed. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” quipped Barack Obama to Mitt Romney in 2012, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Since Vietnam, liberals have also lost their taste for running on love of country. Some progressives now identify the flag with imperialism, blustering, and bigotry. Many regard the United States as more blameworthy than venerable. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent assertion that “America was never that great” captures the mentality.
Among liberals, Trump/Russia does not evoke the instinctive loathing that racial or class injustice do. The work of Jonathan Haidt and colleagues provides insight. They outline five “moral foundations of politics,” defined as care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Only the first two (care and fairness) strongly resonate with contemporary liberals. Their moral foundations are more universal. Conservatives’ affinity for loyalty, authority, and sanctity inclines them toward particularistic allegiances, including nationalism.
The Trump/Russia story is less obviously about care and fairness than it is about betrayal, subversion, and degradation. Liberals abhor the Koch brothers’ sway because it robs ordinary folks of political clout on behalf of the rich. Yet Putin’s influence, which robs America of political power on behalf of Russia, does not elicit the same reflexive revulsion.
The Democrats have lost even the vocabulary needed to attack the Republicans on Russia. The terms betrayal and disloyalty come hard to them, even as Trump grovels before a hostile dictator who helped elect him. They refrain from the patois of national interests, toughness, and honor in favor of appeals to compassion and justice. If their foes’ actions are cowardly rather than callous, or treasonous rather than barbarous, Democratic leaders have a harder time assailing them.
If Trump Republicans are Jacksonian, Democrats Should Follow JFK
Forceful truth-telling about the Russians and the Republicans would come naturally to America’s mid-20th-century liberal patriots. Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson used muscular language that simultaneously confronted despots, embraced humanitarian values, and defended a robust democratic ideology. They tied every liberal cause to a jaunty, competitive—and patriotic—vision of national mission.
Kennedy habitually linked foreign and domestic threats, often in the same sentence. In his inaugural address he spoke of “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” as “the common enemy of man.” In office, his bold addresses on civil rights appealed to national pride as well as benevolence. On the campaign trail he inveighed against “the spread of Communist influence, until it festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida; the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms—an America with too many slums, too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.”
Defeating the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of communism went hand in hand. In touting his program of aid for Latin America, Kennedy pledged “to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty” while he cautioned “hostile powers” that the United States would “oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas.”
Khrushchev drew Kennedy’s warning by merely threatening to subvert the election of free governments in Latin America. Russia has already subverted the election of a free government in the United States and continues to try to do so. With Trump and his Congressional abettors parroting Putin’s denials and showing no interest in stopping future attacks, Kennedy would expect his party to lead the charge. But current-day Democrats have mostly stayed mum, preferring to bring up the rear behind Mueller’s band of investigators.
Nor did Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, neglect to build his case for progressive causes on patriotic foundations. He attacked color-coded immigration policy as “un-American in the highest sense” as he abolished it with the 1965 Immigration Act. One can only imagine what Johnson, who pushed through the Voting Rights Act in a time of race riots and white alarm, would do with the likes of Trump.
Lacking an instinct for national security and honor, mistrustful of moral absolutes, and bereft of the language of loyalty/betrayal, post-Vietnam liberals fail to link the sellout of Americans to color-coded nativism and the sellout of America to Putin. Today’s liberals play rhetorical defense even on voting rights, accusing opponents of “cruelty” and “unfairness.” But Martin Luther King, the moral conscience of the mid-century liberal patriots, called “denial of this sacred right” what it was: “betrayal.”
Yet neither the denial of voting rights nor the aggression in Vietnam meant that America “was never that great.” King’s love of country always shone through: “[M]y beloved nation…America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in the [the] revolution of values” that he said was vital to overcoming “deadly Western arrogance.” He urged progressives to build a post-imperial vision of American exceptionalism into the national narrative. By missing his cue, post-Vietnam liberals left the flag with leaders who carried it into another disastrous foreign adventure, this time in the Middle East—and ultimately, handed it to Trump.
Do Patriotism and National Security Still Matter?
Love of country and devotion to its security still constitute essential commitments in American politics—no less than in Kennedy’s time.
Research in social psychology suggests the factors that make us feel patriotic are genetically rooted. As Adam Piore writes, patriotism is “part of a deep subconscious drive toward group formation and allegiance. . . . That’s why politicians so often invoke patriotism to demonize the other side, subtly implying that those who aren’t with us are against us.” Indeed, research has shown that conservatives are less likely to support Trump if arguments against him are presented in terms of his lack of patriotism (i.e. “he has repeatedly behaved disloyally towards our country”) rather than fairness (i.e. “his unfair statements are a breeding ground for prejudice”).
The Republicans have grasped that post-patriotism is a politically costly liberal conceit and that security against external threats always looms large in popular political calculations. Their advantage on public perceptions of patriotic devotion and its conjoined twin, toughness on national security, has buoyed them at the polls for decades.
In a 2014 study, Daniel Cox and colleagues found that the Republicans enjoyed a nine-point edge on “keeping America safe.” That advantage may have undergirded Trump’s 2016 shocker. While the Democrats led on healthcare and Social Security, voters said that terrorism and foreign policy were more important. Still, true to partisan habit, even a foreign policy and defense maestro like Hillary Clinton mostly stuck with health insurance and social justice, leaving the flag waving and tough talk on foreign threats to a candidate with no record of service to country at all.
In June 2018, even as top intelligence hands warned that the Republican President was acting like a controlled asset for Russian intelligence, Trump’s party maintained a ten-point lead on patriotism. The persistence of the gap shows how little the party of FDR and JFK has done to maintain its patriotism-and-national-security bona fides.
Patriotism and fortitude on the international stage matter most to those who vote the most. While Democrats stake their fortunes with seniors on a pledge of allegiance to Medicare, Americans 65 and over, 71 percent of whom vote, rate being “strong and decisive,” “patriotic,” and “able to command respect from other countries” as the traits they value most in a leader.
Vast majorities are alarmed by Russia’s electoral interventions and Trump’s relationship with Putin. Ten times more Americans regard Russia as an adversary than an ally, and twelve times more see Putin unfavorably than favorably. With a majority of voters believing that Trump “has weakened the United States’ position as leader of the free world,” a Democratic Party in command of the Trump/Russia story could aspire to recover support among the demographic that carried Trump over the top in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Neither Americans’ values nor the challenge of resisting “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” has changed fundamentally since Kennedy’s day. But the parties have. One is effectively in cahoots with the tyrants while the other has lost its taste for confronting them. Putin has taken advantage of both transformations to discredit democracy and degrade American leadership in the world.
Reclaiming the Nation’s Story
America’s national-democratic narrative has faced many challenges, but the story has persisted and can still bind the country together around common values and aspirations.
Cloaked in a mantle of pseudo-conservativism, a portion of the Republican Party developed a counternarrative that treats democratic institutions and demographic dynamism as obstacles to be overcome. In 2016, this climaxed in the party’s takeover by an unpatriotic ethnonational demagogue who is selling out American democracy, identity, and security, with the enablement and apparent approval of his own party.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have largely remained loyal to the nation’s story, but have neglected to tell it. Trump’s overt devotion to Putin can now help the Democrats to take back the flag for all Americans and aspirants to citizenship.
The Trump/Russia affair reveals the interdependence of democracy, demography, and security in America—and the dependence of all three on adherence to the values expressed in the national-democratic narrative. It invites—and obligates—American democrats to reclaim and renew the national story. It also paves the way for the Democratic Party to get back in the national security business.
If the Democratic Party fails to leverage our Trump-Putin problem to discredit color-coded nativism, the denomination of political influence in dollars, and violations of American sovereignty, these central drivers of democracy’s erosion will continue to do their work. We must box out ethnonationalism and halt the drift toward plutocracy. If the prospects for an international system governed by law and shaped by concern for comity and human dignity dim, the planet will become a truly unstable and dangerous place.
The mid-20th-century liberal patriots who crafted Social Security, NATO, the race to space, civil rights, and Medicare—victors in seven of nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964—show how to navigate the challenge. Let’s hope today’s Democrats are listening.