From Russia, With Malice

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Russia, through its Active Measures campaign, is hard at work sowing chaos in America, including misinformation campaigns on social media designed to stoke racial discord, email hacking campaigns aimed at discrediting campaign officials, and “jangling the doorknobs” at state election websites to find vulnerabilities they can use to disrupt elections. Why? So that Americans question the validity of election results and get disillusioned with the whole process. There’s even a hastag: #RIPDemocracy.

As Franklin Foer reports at The Atlantic, Russia wants to eradicate democracy, and they’re doing a fine job of it. The problem, which plays right into the hands of the Russians, is that the United States is already too divided to do much about it.

The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them. Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, they are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork. Having hacked into the inboxes of political operatives in the U.S. and abroad, they’ve pioneered new techniques for infiltrating campaigns and disseminating their stolen goods. Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.

Problems of inattention, problems of coordination, and deep concerns about November—these themes came up over and over in my interviews for this story. Indeed, at times everyone seemed to be sounding the same alarm. H. R. McMaster, who briefly served as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, sounded it when he proposed a new task force to focus the government’s often shambolic efforts to safeguard the election. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sounded it when he realized how poorly the bureaucracy was sharing the information it was gathering about the Russian threat.

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

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