I often get pushback — sometimes quite angrily — when I express skepticism about the danger of Russian influence in the United States. So I want to explain why I do that.
These days you need caveats, so I’ll start with this: There’s no question that Putin opposes liberal democracy, the success of which represents the strongest possible rebuke of his corrupt authoritarian model. I don’t dispute that the Kremlin at least tried to influence the U.S. election, I think it’s quite likely that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, and I hope Mueller’s investigation gets to the bottom of it.
But I think that, at least in some circles, #KremlinGate has become somewhat of an obsession. Attention is a finite resource. And there’s a real danger, for Trump’s opponents in particular, that this narrative may become a distraction.
Putin’s meddling is a serious danger to the United States only to the extent that it exploits and exacerbates the problems that already plague our democracy. These problem are homegrown, as the last week has made perfectly clear.
Take this piece in War on the Rocks, which describes some of the end goals of Putin’s “social media” warfare: undermining citizens’ confidence in democratic governance; fomenting divisive political fractures; eroding trust in democratic institutions; and blurring the line between fact and fiction.
These may indeed be Putin’s most fervent wishes — but the problems they represent are not his doing. They are ours. We can solve them only at home. The best way to protect ourselves against the Kremlin’s pathogens is to strengthen America’s democratic immune system.
This means, in the first place, recognizing the source of the afflictions Putin exploits: Why is Americans’ trust in their institutions at historic lows? Why are we beset with gridlock in Washington? Why is our media no longer able to hold the line against the onslaught of conspirological bullshit? (Yes, there’s a lot of “fake news” that can be traced to the Kremlin. But I’d say the likes of Alex Jones have done far more to harm America’s media landscape than any of Putin’s cleverest propagandists.)
It is these structural problems, and not the Kremlin, that made for a political environment in which someone like Donald Trump can become president. These problems, of course, in addition to the others besetting 21st century America: The legacy of white supremacy, ruinous health care costs, rising income inequality, the opioid epidemic, and meaningless, low-quality jobs.
Not one word of the millions spent railing against Russia will do a thing to address any of this. And Democrats who hope that they can defeat Trump by lashing him to Putin are deluding themselves.
Here’s something Putin would really hate to hear: That Americans’ decades-long trend of increasing mistrust in their institutions has been reversed. That the American press is flourishing, not pumping out clickbait just to survive. That American young people are engaging with mainstream democracy and turning away from extremism on the left and the right. That the nation’s class and racial inequalities are being addressed, rather than being left to languish. If all of this were the case, even in part, there’s not a thing the Kremlin could do to touch us.
Americans should focus on what’s wrong with America, and leave the conspirology to Putin. There’s nothing stronger than a nation that has the self-confidence to hold itself responsible for its own problems — to face them squarely, to analyze them honestly, and to address them with boldness and imagination. An America like that would have nothing to fear from any foreign power.