US election

Why don’t Americans care that Russia may have handpicked their president?

Putin has exposed a deep vulnerability in the American psyche that the media is refusing to confront

BY David Waywell   /  6 January 2017




Returning to work after the Christmas and the New Year is always a matter of refamiliarising oneself with routines abandoned weeks earlier under so much festive tinsel. Muscle memory takes time to return. January is a time for closing desk drawers with too much force and failing to treat that old stuck spacebar with enough of a brute thumb. The same is true of the political muscle. We have to rediscover the way we lift and shift facts whilst we wield familiar truths: that men with beards are unelectable and nobody quite knows what Brexit might mean.

Yet as we return this year, we find one of our old certainties really quite broken. America’s politics have fractured along unfamiliar lines. Republicans have stopped getting hot about Russia and communism is no longer the great defining Other that provided contrast to everything gleaming and chrome and so very all-American. Despite the evidence that points towards a concerted attack on the American electoral system, it now looks like Russia would be America’s great new ally, with Donald Trump refusing to find a bad word to say about Vladimir Putin.

The change of tone is perhaps so startling because it stands at odds with one of the driving narratives of modern American culture. From McCarthyism through to the Bay of Pigs, Nicaragua and Grenada, anti-communism helped define presidencies, as films such as The Green BeretsRed Dawn, and Rambo III sharpened the point on American’s habitual dislike of all things communist. In many parts of the States, being anti-communist remains a proud boast. It is a cornerstone of established wisdom, explaining everything from nuances of gun culture to that unique but problematic space recently carved out by Bernie Sanders, so often described (and decried) as a socialist and therefore unAmerican. Sarah Palin never actually said she could see Russia from her house (that was claimed by Tina Fey in a Saturday Night Live spoof) but it resonated, and not because it promoted Alaska as a scenic tourist destination. It was about the proximity of the old enemy in the East (though, technically, from Palin’s home, it would be the West) and how Republicans define themselves, in part, by their tangible fear of what lies beyond the cold waters.

Given the traditional barbed-wire and watchtower paranoia towards Russia and the ambitions of its leaders, it feels strange approaching American politics this cold winter and finding its defences unmanned. It makes it obvious to ask (and wonder why it hasn’t been asked more often): why is the story not bigger than it is? Why are Americans so blasé about the possibility that their president was handpicked by the Russian government? Why isn’t this the biggest political scandal to rock America since Watergate? Where, indeed, are all the white-suited spittle-lipped Boss Hogg style preachers raising their Bibles towards heaven whilst fulminating about God hating even the good ‘commies’?

Instead, here we are with America calmly entering 2017 with the hacking issue unsolved and, more surprisingly, few signs that Republicans are all that keen to see it resolved. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has proved incapable of articulating a clear response, leaving it to fringe figures, such as Jill Stein to contest results and internet curios like Keith Olbermann to rant in his faux 1950s style complete with McCarthyite levels of paranoia. ‘We have lost a war with Russia without a battle,’ he cries. ‘We are no longer a sovereign nation, we are no longer a democracy, we are no longer a free people, we are the victims of a bloodless coup.’

Hysterical as it sounds, it is at least a predictable response to the Russian hacking of the American election. What is not typical has been the approach of America’s mainstream media who have done a sombre job of maintaining the legitimacy of the process. Politicians too are now falling into line. Hillary Clinton will attend the Inauguration, as will former presidents Clinton, Bush and Carter as well as, obviously, soon to be former president Obama. Even when the process fails, it all seems to say, the process must been seen to be working.

All that is so admirable about the transition is, of course, enshrined in the American constitution and those quasi-religious documents that politicians treat as inviolate. This is perhaps how it should be, especially at times of crisis. Yet it also produces an odd disconnect. Layered into the story of the smooth transition is a confidence, verging almost on arrogance, that process contains enough safeguards. Through December, the media proclaimed the genius of the Electoral College, that safety shutoff on the path to the presidency. Yet, once it became obvious that electors would do nothing and, more importantly, could do nothing, the tone again shifted from talk of derailment to talk of a system working smoothly. The Eletoral College was providing evidence of the system working as it should. Ignored went any sense that electors were incapable of providing the independent judgement asked of them by Alexander Hamilton (in Federalist Papers: No. 68). The electors’ ‘detached and divided situation’ was meant to ‘expose them much less to heats and ferments’ of the campaign. In reality, the Electoral College merely rubber stamped the result with barely a question raised about Russia, tax returns, business conflicts, or any of the multitude of questions that are yet to be answered about this most unusual President-elect.

None of this is to suggest that Donald Trump didn’t win the election or, conversely, that Hillary Clinton did. It is merely to say that the result remains parenthesised by real doubts and, perhaps, by the inability of the media to address the core issue. The word ‘hacking’ can be misleading. Hacking does not always involve computer code. It often involves social engineering, psychology, and the ways that human beings are persuaded to act against their best interests. That is, perhaps, the greater story we are witnessing. The greatest hack of all might be psychological. Putin has exposed a deep vulnerability in the American psyche and the media are now afraid to unpick the hacking story too greatly because that would be to unpick the stuff of America’s democracy. It is that familiar form of doubt, identified by Richard J. Hofstadter in his seminal essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’.

‘For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.’

This is the paranoia of a nation taught to fear the secret motives of the rulers who rule and also those that would rule. Trump, the alt-right, Fox News, InfoWars, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and a decade of shock radio have established a reality in which every motive is questioned and every fact doubted. In response, the news media have been subdued and now suffers a collective psychosis about bias. Desperate to be fair, the networks have fallen back on convention and the familiarity of routine. News anchors make the case repeatedly. Rarely do they raise doubts about the election without also restating the validity of the result, as if to doubt the election would be un-American.

History, however, might not be quite so keen to appear so non-partisan. The conclusion of both the CIA and the FBI remains that Russia aimed to influence the American election. Going forward, history will view these months as the point where the timeline of potential American futures diverged. Nothing the Russians might have done could be said to have dramatically changed the outcome but the election was so close that nothing needed to be dramatic. The most one might currently say is that Russia nudged America’s voters into picking the ‘right man’. The release of John Podesta’s emails shaped the national debate in the closing days and kept alive a narrative that Clinton couldn’t be trusted about security, even if the emails contained very little that was harmful to the Democratic candidate.

The suspicion of Russian hacking (or, if you are sceptical, DNC leaks) does, to some extent, undermine Donald Trump’s victory. Even if they don’t cast enough doubt to invalidate his claim on presidency, there will forever be an asterisked footnote beside 2017 denoting dirty tricks.

This winter, America has watched as a familiar process has been played out yet it has also stepped back from admitting a deep and ugly truth about its own democracy. The system has been hacked, socially engineered, and made to appear trivial. It makes for a paranoid fear that the guardians of American democracy seem incapable or unwilling to accept as real.