After the initial reports emerged that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the intention of aiding Donald Trump, the dismissal from Team Trump was swift and predictable. The outage from Democrats, many of whom have long suspected Russian sympathies for The Donald, was equally predictable, but there were numerous Republicans who joined them in calling for an investigation. Longtime critics of Russia such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham quickly condemned the interference, and a handful of conservatives with an interest in free and fair elections also joined the fray.
The response from most Republicans, however, was meekness with a shrug, as many congressional conservatives raised doubts about the impact of the alleged hacking or the credibility and integrity of American intelligence agencies. Much of this is a simple political calculation – the mandate of the Republican president-elect will obviously not be strengthened by revelations that his election was aided by an authoritarian KGB-alum. However, there may a more long-term aspect to the political calculus here. After watching the Russians meddle in presidential election that came down to razor-thin margins in a few states, some Republicans have to be asking: is it really a bad thing to have these guys on our side?
One of the most basic functions of any campaign, particularly in this hyper-partisan era, is gathering information on your opponent that can be used to portray them more negatively. Databases are mined, tax records are requested, business partners scrutinized, faded newspaper clippings see the light of day, and a lot of money is spent on the effort. While the impact of the resulting attack ads, one-liners, and talking points can be overstated, plenty of races on all levels have turned on information unearthed by such research.
As exhaustive and sophisticated as these efforts have become, most campaigns aren’t staging electronic Watergate operations intended to breach the internal communications of their rivals. Aside from the potential illegality of such actions, voters might not reward a campaign that peddles hacked information. Russia, however, can function as an outside information broker with hacking and electronic espionage operations that far surpass anything a campaign could bring to bear. It can also, as it did in this election, cover its tracks or at least maintain sufficient ambiguity over its role to conceal the source of the information until after election day. There is, of course, no shortage of online portals that can be used to anonymously dump enough information to affect the outcome of the race, and pinpointing the source of a hack can require a long and complicated investigative effort.
It might seem unlikely that the Republican Party will soften its position towards a historic adversary simply to garner an electronic electoral advantage. However, the power of sophisticated cyber-warfare and the ubiquity of electronic communications should be considered here. Every day, virtually every aide and every surrogate for a candidate communicates electronically, and each of those communications could potentially be accessed by a sufficiently skilled hacker and released for public consumption. Any off-color joke, insulting remark, poorly worded sentence, or half-baked policy idea by anyone in the vast universe of a presidential campaign is a potential liability.
The 2016 election, of course, more than demonstrated this. Most of the emails that were unveiled by the DNC hack, though gleefully exaggerated by the right and wildly misinterpreted by disillusioned liberal voters, were fairly innocuous. Bad ideas were proposed and unfriendly things were said about a senator from Vermont, but no crimes were uncovered. Nonetheless, the hacks may have cost Clinton the election, as the media proved itself willing and eager to dive down any rabbit hole unveiled by Wikileaks while simultaneously providing extensive negative commentary related to the investigation of Clinton’s email server.
Although it’s nice to think that Republicans would shy away from a Soviet-style leader such as Vladimir Putin, politicians from Sumerian times on have proven themselves willing and eager to alter their positions to appease people who can help them get elected. Plenty of politicians, left and right, have discovered their silence on an issue after a $50,000 check arrived at the P.O. box of their super PAC. While the extent of Russian meddling has yet to be established, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that, in an election decided by fractional percentage points in a few swing states, that the months-long theater of scandal authored by Russian hackers might have been decisive. We politely wish for a higher standard of virtue in our political leaders, but plenty of them would shrink from biting the hand that launched the phishing attack that exposed 60,000 potentially damning emails about their election opponent. It would be nice to assume that the veneration of our democratic traditions and the sanctity of elections untarnished by a murderous authoritarian would transcend partisanship, but plenty on the right have shown themselves unwilling to hurt themselves politically in the interest of defending such basic principles. After all, Russia just helped their party claim, against all odds, the biggest prize in politics. Will democratic principles really be an issue for them when that kind of power is at stake?