I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about Russia and the 2020 election, thoughts that are leading me to some chilling places. You may skip over this — “Oh, Allyn’s moaning about Russia again, and it’s all ‘Fake News’ anyway” — but that’s because you’ve never asked yourself the question: “What does Russia want?” When you start asking that question, you should be terrified.
Russia interfered with the 2016 election. That’s the assessment of the American Intelligence Community, from mid-2016 until now. That’s the assessment of Robert Mueller, and volume one of the Mueller report lays out the evidence. (I am leaving aside the question about whether there was active cooperation by Americans in that interference in 2016; Mueller indicates that the evidence there is incomplete and does not rise to a level of proof necessary for prosecution and conviction. For what it’s worth, Russia was likely to interfere in the election whether there was cooperation on the American side or not, simply because Vladimir Putin absolutely hated Hillary Clinton.) The experts who have looked into the matter and have reviewed the evidence are unequivocal — Russia interfered in the 2016 election, the United States has taken no efforts to disrupt foreign interference in our elections, and foreign countries, like Russia, are likely to interfere in our elections again in the future.
There are two reasons why the United States has taken no steps to combat foreign influence on our elections.
First, the president himself forcefully denies that any interference happened in 2016 because acknowledging that interference happened would call into question the legitimacy of the election as well as his own myth that he accomplished victory, against long odds, on his own. The president is a deeply insecure individual, and winning the 2016 election is, curiously, one of the few genuine successes he has acheived in his life. He returns again and again to his victory in November 2016 — talking about the enormity of his victory, keeping Electoral College maps at hand — because it reassures him and gives him strength.
Second, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is perfectly happy with this state of affairs because Russian interference in the 2016 produced an outcome he desired. McConnell is driven by three things: his own, personal power; the Republican Party’s power; and denying the Democratic Party anything and everything. In this case, what McConnell received was power over the Senate, the power to reshape the Judiciary for fifty years by filling seats at all levels of the federal courts that he had deliberate left unfilled with Federalist Society-approved judges who would undo the 20th-century, and the power to cut corporate taxes and undo social programs that Democrats champion. When McConnell cannot achieve any of these things, because he is in the minority or because a Democrat sits in the White House, he will simply refuse to participate in governmance, and his power over his caucus is so strong that they, too, will withhold their participation, making the legislative branch non-functional. McConnell, I’ve often said, is the person who will loom largest in the histories written a century from now about the decline and fall of the United States, assuming, of course, that there is a human civilization a century out that survived the existential crisis of climate change. It’s also important to note that, in mid-2016, when evidence showed that Russia was interfering in the election, McConnell refused to join in a bipartisan effort to counter it.
In short, we have a president who refuses to accept that Russian interference happened in the 2016 election because it would tarnish his great victory, and a Senate leader who achieved his preferred political outcome because of that interference. Indeed, with an historical unpopular president who would need to replicate his 2016 Electoral College map to be reelected in 2020, both men are in the position where turning a blind eye to future interference by Russia is to their benefit — the president would get another four years in the White House and four more years of legal immunity, while the Senate majority leader would get four more years to install more right wing judges, cut taxes, and destroy the United States’ already meagre social safety net. They may be counting, then, on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
What if the president and McConnell are wrong?
This rests on a huge assumption, that it is in Russia’s best interests to intervene on the president’s behalf in the 2020 election. That assumption may be false, because it doesn’t take Russia’s motives into account.
Russian foreign policy since the late 1990s has been centered around an idea known as the Primakov Doctrine, named for Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister during the latter years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Primakov’s doctrine was centered on the idea that the unipolar American hegemony of the post-Cold War world was unacceptable; the United States could not be the world’s only superpower. The problem for Russia is that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, they were unable to project their power militarily into areas that Russia considered to be their “sphere of influence” such as the Balkans, eastern Europe, and Syria. Since directly challenging American power is impossible, the goal of the Primakov Doctrine is to disrupt the United States’ ability to project its power — destroy military alliances like NATO, weaken international organizations and trade, and, eventually, weaken internal United States politics so that it lacked the political will, even ability, to counter Russian interests.
The president has done a great deal in the last two and a half years to achieve some of the goals of the Primakov Doctrine. His jeremiads against NATO have caused European leaders to question whether the United states will be there for them in the future. His trade wars with China and Mexico need no elaboration, nor does his disdain for the G-20. As for the third, weakening the United States’s internal politics, we have political gridlock, we have asymmetric ideological polarization, we have occasional marches in the streets of Washington and other cities and towns, we have cultural skirmishes.
The question for Russia is whether that is sufficient. Would four more years of Donald Trump in the White House and Mitch McConnell lording over the Senate really change that for the better (in Russia’s perspective) — reduce American will to project its power in the world so that Russia could assert its own will in Europe and the Middle East? Yes, there’s likely to be a recession in the near future (ie., before 2021) which, thanks to the recovery from the Great Recession (which has been long but shallow) and the tax cut bill passed in 2017 (which resulted in unnecessary deficit spending that will inhibit the ability to enact a countercyclical stimulus bill), is liable to be deep, long, and miserable. Or, the United States crashed into a depression because the debt ceiling isn’t raised and the United States defaults on its debts. There is a great deal of economic chaos that could happen, irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office, that would make the United States turn inward, leaving Russia with a free hand in the world.
But there’s another possibility.
Russia could trigger a civil war in the United States simply by intervening in the 2020 election on the side of the Democratic candidate.
Even with no active cooperation on the part of the candidate, even if the candidate went to the FBI and alerted them that this was happening, millions of people, from small town America to right wing media like Sinclair and Fox News and OANN to the Senate chamber itself, who insist today that there was “no collusion” and, in spite of the evidence, Russia did not help Donald Trump get elected would turn around and insist that the newly-elected president was illegitimate, that any actions she takes are null and invalid, that Trump is the rightful president. For the past twenty years, law enforcment has tracked the rise right wing violence in the United States. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where people who live in a right wing propaganda bubble that screams hourly that president is illegitimate, who live in a religious tradition that tells that that Donald Trump was sent by God as America’s savior, who see themselves losing the cultural war, who believe the second amendment to the Constitution demands rebellion, who feel they have no choice but to take up arms and deliver the United States from the Democratic usurper sitting in the White House. Who knows what the triggering incident would be. An assassination attempt? Bombings? An attack on the White House? Whatever happens, it could spiral out of control.
A United States in the grips of a civil war, in the throes of a depression and with millions of people starving because internal supply chains break down, is a United States powerless to stop Russian meddling in other spheres may be their best case scenario. Even a situation in which Mitch McConnell simply does not allow the Democratic president to govern — no judges confirmed, no Cabinet positions confirmed, no legislation passed (even necessary spending bills) — essentially paralyzing the executive branch, would largely eliminate the United States as a threat to Russia’s interests. Civil disorder and the breakdown of civil governance achieves the goals of the Primakov Doctrine. For Russia, the benefits to meddling in the 2020 election on the side of the Democratic candidate, are obvious. The liberal resistance to Trump has been ineffectual. The conservative resistance to a Democratic president will be anything but.
I don’t like thinking this. I didn’t like writing this. But it needed to be written, and it needed to be read. This is a warning. This is what could happen.
Russia will intervene in the 2020 election. They nave no reason not to, as there were no repercussions from interfering with the 2016 election. Interference by Russia on the side of the president and the Republican party cannot and should not be taken for granted. Russia has their own motives, and their goals and the Primakov Doctrine may be better achieved by cutting the president and the Republicans loose in 2020, even actively working to sink them, by delegitimizing civil government in the eyes of those most likely to resort to violence as a remedy.
When you stop to think what Russia wants, when you think about American political polarization and its asymmetrical nature, when you think about how easy it would be to tip the United States into anarchy and violence, you arrive at some chilling and truly dark places.
This is where I arrived. I hope I am wrong. I fear that I am right.