Donald Trump’s approval ratings remain dismal, yet the Democrats are 0 for 4 in congressional elections in 2017.
Not only do a majority of Americans believe that the president has tried to obstruct investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections but, by a 2 to 1 margin, Americans believe former FBI chief James Comey’s account of his firing over Trump’s version. And yet, 64 percent of Americans think that the RussiaGate investigations are hurting the country, and a majority wants Congress to focus on other issues, like the economy.
These polls tell you what you already know: The country is deeply divided, the Democrats haven’t been able to come up with a convincing way of bridging the divide, and the RussiaGate investigations are no substitute for a political platform.
It’s a long way until the mid-term elections in November 2018 and the RussiaGate investigation is still in its infancy, but already the Democratic Party is in the midst of a second round of soul-searching about its strategy.
The first round took place after Donald Trump swept to a narrow Electoral College victory last November and largely hinged on whether Sanders’ focus on economic inequality would have done better at the polls against Trump than Hillary Clinton’s more cautious centrism. This second round continues the debate on this question, but also throws in the wild cards of Russia and Trump’s potential wrongdoing.
Shortly after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a close race in Georgia this month, Democrats began to speak up about the electoral implications of RussiaGate. Reports The Hill:
In the wake of a string of special-election defeats, an increasing number of Democrats are calling for an adjustment in party messaging, one that swings the focus from Russia to the economy. The outcome of the 2018 elections, they say, hinges on how well the Democrats manage that shift.
“We can’t just talk about Russia because people back in Ohio aren’t really talking that much about Russia, about Putin, about Michael Flynn,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) told MSNBC Thursday. “They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to make the mortgage payment, how they’re going to pay for their kids to go to college, what their energy bill looks like.”
At one level, this same debate recurs every election cycle — do people care more about foreign policy questions or pocketbook issues? The answer is almost always: the economy. At another level, the debate is about whether Trump’s unpopularity can be used against him. It’s another enduring debate: take advantage of the incumbent’s negatives or field a positive alternative? As the 2004 and 2012 election results suggest, the opposition has to offer something intrinsically appealing or risk defeat.
The four recent by-elections don’t provide much to go on in terms of any serious reevaluation of strategy. They all took place in Republican-friendly areas that have yet to feel any real impact from Trump administration policies. Ossoff, in particular, did much better than his district’s partisan preferences should have dictated (6 percent better, according to the Cook Political Report). Nor did Ossoff spend a lot of time focused on Russia. He was no Sanderista, but he didn’t make Donald Trump and his transgressions a central part of his campaign. It’s hard to come to any definitive conclusions from this race or the other three.
Still, the by-elections have stimulated an important discussion. Where one comes down on the Russia vs. jobs question depends in large part on on how one assesses the reasons for Trump’s victory and whether RussiaGate can or should function as a club to beat back the Republicans in future elections.
This debate is not just about electoral strategy. It’s also about how the United States should address the current global crisis of liberalism.
Interpreting Trump’s Victory
There are two ways of understanding how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election: the triple backlash versus the triple hack.
According to the triple backlash argument, Trump benefited from a worldwide rejection of liberalism: economically, politically, and culturally. Large sections of the United States that didn’t benefit from economic globalization watched the disappearance of well-paying jobs from the Rust Belt, rural areas and small towns, and certain big cities.
These residents of America B blamed politicians from both parties for pushing economic reforms that shifted wealth upward and out of their communities. And they also blamed a range of “others” for what was wrong with the country: immigrants, people of color, social liberals. This economic-political-cultural backlash prepared the ground for a political outsider with an anti-immigrant agenda and a promise to revive America’s sunset industries.
The triple hack argument is much more focused. Trump “hacked” the system in three important ways, exploiting vulnerabilities to gain his narrow win.
The first hack was of the Electoral College. Trump didn’t care about the popular vote. He knew that he could write off large swathes of the American electorate and concentrate his forces in a few swing states. So, for instance, the campaign pulled resources out of Virginia, an otherwise important state for Republicans to win, to focus on the Midwest.
The second hack was the news media. The Trump campaign exploited the mainstream media’s fascination with the outrageous by constantly feeding it new outrages. It also generated a spate of “fake news” about Hillary Clinton that it distributed on the margins, in places like Breitbart News and through social media like Facebook and Trump’s own Twitter account. Here, Russian journalists and trolls played a role, though probably not a pivotal one.
Finally, the campaign hacked Facebook in two critical ways. It poured money into an advertising campaign tailored to the preferences of over 200 million Americans contained in three separate databases to which the campaign maintained access. And it created a “dark posts” campaign to dissuade three groups of potential Democratic voters — Sanders supporters, young women, and African Americans in urban areas — from going to the polls.
On top of the official voter suppression efforts run by the Republican Party — reducing early voting, implementing onerous voter ID laws — this “keep out the vote” campaign was remarkably effective. In Detroit, a Democratic stronghold, Clinton received 70,000 fewer votes than Obama got in his last outing. She lost the state of Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes.
If you believe in the triple backlash argument, you’re more inclined to push for a political program that focuses on economic inequality and job creation, particularly in depressed parts of the country. If you lean more toward the triple hack argument, you’re more likely to focus on counter-hack tactics — a better media strategy, a better way of getting out the vote, a better way of using oppositional research to undermine the opponent (even to the point of impeachment).
Because the debate over the triple backlash opens up rifts within the party, the Democrats will likely focus on technical “fixes” to recapture Congress in 2018 and regain the 80,000 votes that Clinton lost by in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in order to win the presidency in 2020. Such an approach would be wise tactically. But it would be disastrous in the long term.
Responding to RussiaGate
The investigation into Russian meddling in the American election has inevitably acquired a partisan taint. The Democrats have used it to question the legitimacy of the election and of the Trump administration more generally. Trump and the Republicans have accused their detractors of conducting a witch-hunt.
It may come out in the investigation that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. It may also come out that Trump, as president, obstructed justice by firing Comey and covering up elements of collaboration. RussiaGate might bring down Donald Trump and some of his advisers. Or it might turn out to be a series of murky, unprovable assertions.
Regardless of the Trump team’s actual involvement in the scandal, Russia tampered with the U.S. political system. Russian hackers acquired information from both major parties but decided only to weaponize the material from the Democrats to compromise its chances in the election. Hackers tried to break into 21 state electoral systems, stole nearly 90,000 voter records, and even altered voter information in at least one case. And a Russian disinformation campaign spread rumors, fake stories, and outrageous claims through a variety of media.
There is no concrete evidence that any of this interference tipped the election in favor of Trump. But it is a strange irony that American interest in RussiaGate is declining just as Congress and the media are providing revelations on a weekly basis.
For those who still don’t acknowledge Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints on this electoral intrusion, consider that the United States has not been the only country targeted in this fashion. The same pattern was evident in France, where Russian hackers and disinformation specialists attempted to discredit Emmanuel Macron in an effort to boost the chances of pro-Kremlin candidate Marine Le Pen. The Washington Post reports:
In Lithuania, 100 citizen cyber-sleuths dubbed “elves” link up digitally to identify and beat back the people employed on social media to spread Russian disinformation. They call the daily skirmishes “Elves vs. Trolls.”
In Brussels, the European Union’s East Stratcom Task Force has 14 staffers and hundreds of volunteer academics, researchers and journalists who have researched and published 2,000 examples of false or twisted stories in 18 languages in a weekly digest that began two years ago.
There is a peculiar tendency by some on the left to dismiss Russian activities because some of the media coverage has been inaccurate or over-hyped or because of a supposed effort to “demonize” Vladimir Putin as part of a campaign to revive Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Moreover, Russian interference in the political process in the West has nothing to do with old Cold War dynamics. Vladimir Putin wants to build an alliance of far-right forces — from white power activists in the United States and the National Front in France to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Euroskeptics throughout the continent — with the Kremlin as the beacon of a new post-Western right-wing nationalist order.
This is no secret plan. Putin has been very open about his worldview.
Russia poses a challenge that goes far beyond the U.S. electoral system. RussiaGate isn’t just a threat to the Democratic Party. It’s a threat to democratic politics — everywhere. And it requires not just a bipartisan response. It requires a transatlantic response.
Responding to the Crisis of Liberalism
Donald Trump has an answer for the crisis of liberalism and the triple backlash that produced his electoral victory.
He’s challenged the existing global economy by pulling the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and has promised to tear up — or significantly renegotiate — a number of other trade deals. He’s challenged the liberal administrative state by attempting to gut social welfare and the government regulatory apparatus across the board. He’s challenged liberal norms of inclusion with his travel ban, an anti-immigrant crusade, and other policies that will adversely affect women, people of color, and the LGBT community.
Vladimir Putin also has an answer for the crisis of liberalism that brought Russia to its knees in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He believes — at least instrumentally — in the three Cs: Christianity, conservativism, and Caucasians. He wants to create a reactionary, religious, and racist axis that unifies the Global North. But this is not about international cooperation. Putin thinks only in terms of Russian interests, which actually boil down to the economic interests of the oligarchs aligned with his regime.
Employing “elves” to battle Russian trolls isn’t enough. Creating commissions to track and neutralize cyberattacks is not enough. Piling revelation upon revelation about RussiaGate is not enough. These tactics are necessary but not sufficient.
Instead of talking back to the TV, we should change the channel. Progressives need to come up with our own answer to the crisis of liberalism. We can borrow from progressive economic ideas of the past (government work programs, for example, to create jobs). We can borrow from populist political tactics (which worked so well for Bernie Sanders, for example). We can even borrow from liberalism itself (the notion of an open, inclusive society). But we must also come up with bold new programs around renewable energy, the revival of community, and international cooperation.
Russia versus jobs is in some ways a false dichotomy. Progressives have to devise a comprehensive alternative that responds to both the challenge of Russia and the failures of liberalism. If we don’t, we’ll not only lose the mid-terms and the next presidential election in the United States. We’ll lose the planet.