Putin is smiling. The ex-KGB agent who has consolidated autocratic power in Russia—now sitting at the pinnacle of a large kleptocracy and counted among the world’s richest men—appears to have won a major victory over his life-long rival: the United States of America.
His covert war against the Great Democracy has finally brought major victory, perhaps even permanent and total victory. American Democracy, the great power that only several years ago again seemed on the verge of leading the world to an irreversibly integrated democratic order, is now on the ropes—and Putin smiles at the recognition that he’s played a large role in its likely impending demise. Putin’s chosen candidate sits in the Oval Office, and Donald Trump’s gigantic narcissism renders him clueless that he’s even being used as a puppet. Putin thinks back to the old days of the USSR. It turned out to be so easy to win against the United States once the worthless ideology of Marxism was thrown off. The Red Army had failed to win against the Arsenal of Democracy. Putin recalls the humiliation of losing the Cold War when the Berlin Wall came down, and popular pressure for democracy swept over the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, and even Ukraine. But now Putin smiles in satisfaction with an internal last laugh. He and his Russian covert agents have won.
American democracy is dying: not with the bang of thermonuclear war but with a whimper of internal weakness and the Russian exploitation of it. “I always knew America was soft,” Putin is likely saying to himself. “My bold dagger stabs of covert operations into the soft underbelly of America’s democratic infrastructure have killed American liberty before she even saw my attacks coming. Her intelligence apparatus may know what’s happening, but I have succeeded now in gaining control of the presidency and leading Republican senators. It’s so wonderfully ironic: I’m using the apparatus of American democracy itself to win my war against it.”
This is not too grim a picture to paint after a week that combined both the American media’s failure to take Robert Mueller’s testimony seriously and the Republican Party’s rejection of any proposed actions to respond to the grave threat of the Russian attack on democracy in all 50 states. “Moscow Mitch” McConnell refuses to defend American voting infrastructure, and President Trump of course agrees. He is Putin’s unwitting puppet, and any action to strengthen the sinews of American democracy would be counterproductive to his reelection. And indeed not only reelection: why not his appointment as president for life, about which he’s already sent up trial balloons in six so-called “jokes”? Later on, perhaps Putin will share another laugh with Trump about Mueller’s bland, crisp answers of “yes” to the questions about whether the president could be prosecuted for crimes after he leaves office. Nobody says that to Putin or Xi—because they are the models of the new autocracy that now trends quickly upward in the world. How hilarious: the idea that the leader of a government should be subject to law.
It is historically ironic that the Republican Party has become the instrument of an impending Russian victory over America. One can see how the Party of Lincoln gradually transformed to become a party that executed a “southern strategy” to capture and capitalize on the longstanding currents of racism in the United States. But the conversion of the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower—and Ronald Reagan and John McCain—to the Russian cause will surely go down as one of the greatest political reversals in history. As Robert Mueller, himself a lifelong Republican, patiently presented the evidence that his report meticulously described of the “sweeping and systematic” Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential elections, Trump House Republicans attacked his own long record of public service and his sterling reputation for integrity. From having been the most stalwart opponents of the USSR, Republicans have totally flipped under Trump to become allies of Russian autocracy. They have become what may be accurately called Russian Republicans. (One exception appears to be Representative Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas.)
The challenge to preserve democracy in America has now become very difficult. We know from the Mueller Report and from combined reports from American intelligence agencies that the core of our democracy is under sustained attack by the Russian government—its formidable espionage capabilities carried forward through a “reincarnation” of the USSR’s KGB. We know also that President Trump owes his close election to the covert intervention of Russian operatives through what the Mueller Report called both “hacking and dumping operations” and “an active measures social media campaign.” Russian intelligence has been revealed to have had extensive links and connections with Trump campaign officials. To give one example, campaign manager Paul Manafort shared detailed data and strategy with the Russians. Remember also Trump’s famous shout out, “Russia, if you’re listening?” The Mueller investigation showed Russia was indeed listening, responding within hours with new hacking to get “Hillary’s e-mails.” Is this not convincing evidence of collusion?
Yet even with all of these disclosures, the American public remains supine. Moscow Mitch McConnell shuts down any effective response by Congress, and any bill would in any event be dead on arrival in the Russian-compromised White House. Even Democrats in the House cannot find the will to impeach a president who has been shown with “substantial evidence” to have committed at least 10 counts of obstruction of justice and who conspired to violate campaign finance laws with his personal lawyer Michael Cohen in hush-money payoffs to silence former lovers—not to mention emolument violations, refusal to produce tax returns, refusal to allow witnesses to testify or provide documents to Congress, etc.
American democracy is on a precipice, and maybe Putin is right. Maybe we have become too weak. Perhaps most Americans don’t follow the news or care about their democracy. Perhaps we have not taught civics sufficiently for many of our citizens to even know or understand what’s happening. We collectively distract ourselves with entertainment and fluff: reality TV shows, addictive gaming, porn, colorful drama in our personal lives, and more. Many of us just have to keep our heads down to struggle to make ends meet in a world of ever-more-rapacious capitalism that squeezes everyone to make the rich richer and leaves everyone else running in place or in danger of falling into poverty or homelessness.
In response to a citizen’s question after our Constitution had first been written, Benjamin Franklin is said (perhaps apocryphally) to have quipped that they had created “a Republic,” “if you can keep it.” Putin is smiling because at long last it looks like maybe we can’t keep it. Many of We the People don’t even know or care what We the People means, let alone whether they want to fight for it.
In the succeeding 232 years of life of the American Republic, many men and women died in battle to preserve our democratic franchise and our principles of political freedom. Including in the Civil War during which 500,000 Americans died on both sides of a conflict that eventually enabled the progress of our democratic experiment on a new foundation of racial equality. And a total estimated 1.1 million deaths of American military service members in all U.S. wars speak to one price our ancestors paid to preserve the founding principles of nation. Many more have been seriously injured or experienced the pain of losing close family members.
Now, our democratic government is facing its most perilous test since the Civil War, but it is not on a “hot” battlefield or even in a “cold” war. The threat is the lukewarm rise of apathy and inattention. As our founders feared, a foreign power has taken advantage of our freedom and is actively engaged in undermining it from within. Russia’s continuing attack on our democracy is a more serious invasion than any other physical attack in our history: from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. It is equivalent to an act of war. By stealth, Russia managed to elect its preferred candidate as president of the United States. By stealth, Russian operatives attacked our electoral infrastructure (and “they’re doing it as we sit here,” said Mueller in his testimony last week), and compromised Russian Republicans in the Senate block any response or defense.
So far, though, the American public does not much care. Many turn on Fox Propaganda or Breitbart to get a counter-story. It’s all right, they’re told in a lie-filled lullaby: the Russians are our friends. The bad guys are those immigrants, those Muslims, those liberals, those socialists, those homosexuals, those people with non-white skin, and those Democrats.
Real Americans must wake up and rally. It will be too late when Putin’s tools can be used here. It will be too late when those who speak out (as I am doing here, or as other opposition politicians or journalists do) can be simply imprisoned or even killed if and when they become too problematic. We already see a blind eye turned by President Trump abroad: no serious calling out of Putin when he blatantly sends assassins into the territory of the United Kingdom. No serious consequences for Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman for killing the American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump ingratiates himself with autocrats from North Korea and the Phillipines to Hungary, Poland, and of course Russia, saying nothing of their crimes or violations of human rights. Trump cares nothing for democracy or old-fashioned values like the rule of law or constitutional principles like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He invokes old Communist tropes like calling our most venerated, established media outlets “enemies of the people”—which instead actually reveals Trump himself to be the Russian-allied enemy of We the People.
Putin is smiling because he sees an improbable but long dreamed victory at hand. He sees the mighty democratic dream of the United States of America failing and weakening. How ironically “Make America Great Again” now rings as Putin and Trump destroy the founding ideas that made American great in the first place.
Putin smiles, too, at the skill of his intelligence operatives. They have won a cyberwar against us by covert hacking and social media. They have used the world-changing new technology of the internet invented by Americans against us. We did not discern its dark side as well or as fast as Putin and his spies did: Americans tend toward optimism. We have been naive, and we have taken our democratic form of government too much for granted.
The only question now remains whether We the People of the United States of America can somehow find the collective strength and will to stand against these Russian attacks against us. We can now see the plain truth, if only we care enough to look. The enemy is familiar. He is smiling, though perhaps his puppet is nervous: for he may vaguely realize that the American people, once engaged, can still be one of the most formidable foes of desecrators of freedom on Earth.
Eric Orts is the Guardsmark Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at The Wharton School and Executive Committee member of The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania.