Arguments

From Putin With Love

Did the DNC email hack inadvertently call attention to a story Trump would rather not discuss?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumpRussia

In predictable ways, the DNC email hack has turned out to be the kind of story political journalists love to cover. Because it airs the private correspondence of political insiders, it’s automatically intriguing. Because it fits the existing template of pro-Bernie upstarts against a hostile pro-Hillary establishment, it seems to require very little interpretation or explanation for readers. It features a couple of eyebrow-raising nuggets (especially an apparent suggestion to make an issue of Sanders’s religious views), and even though it hasn’t turned up any evidence of a party-wide conspiracy, it can serve as a useful peg for irresistible stories about the small number of Sanders supporters who are swearing never to throw their support to Clinton. Donald Trump’s gleeful tweets about the emails suggest that he sees a political upside to the Democrats’ embarrassment. But there’s another side to the email hack, one that is likely not only to ameliorate the Democrats’ acrimony, but to invite widespread scrutiny on a topic Trump would likely rather avoid.

In Slate, Franklin Foer (who has written extensively on ties between Trump and Russia) says we should be “appalled” at Russia’s apparent involvement in the DNC hack. But in The Washington Post, Paul Musgrave dismisses outrage over the hack as “naïve”: governments, including our own, routinely interfere in foreign elections, for the simple reason that “such interventions can succeed, especially if they find willing accomplices in the targeted country.” Interventions might be overt or covert; they range from propaganda campaigns to support for coups. And research suggests that the effect is limited, but real—again, so long as such efforts find a receptive politician. (I’d press, more than Musgrave does, on the distinctions between more and less defensible examples; it’s true, for instance, that British intelligence services went to great lengths to undermine American isolationists before the U.S. entered World War II, but trying to avoid Nazi conquest is hardly geopolitics as usual.)

The context provided by Musgrave’s piece indicates that you don’t have to think Trump is a puppet of Putin in order to see why Putin would have a strong preference for him, and that he might try to enact that preference by fairly brazen means. (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time for Putin, who is hardly known for his light touch.) In fact, it may partly be the heavy-handedness of the apparent interference that really sticks in the craw, so much so that what initially seemed like a bad story for the left could end up drawing attention to a part of Trump’s record that has so far received little attention. That, at any rate, is one way to read Trump’s increasingly defensive reactions: 

Trump’s admiration for Putin, and Putin’s apparent reciprocation, should be a major campaign issue, as should the strange ties between his inner circle and a range of dictators and kleptocrats. The financial and geopolitical complexities of these stories, combined with the somewhat conspiratorial sound of them, have probably contributed to their lack of prominence in campaign coverage. And while it may be naïve to think that countries would never interfere in each others’ elections, it would take a rather jaded American electorate to be unfazed by this particular example of the practice.

To put it simply, the Trump-Russia stories have, until recently, just sounded too bizarre. But in this latest effort, Putin may have overplayed his hand. A Russian-led hack of the DNC designed to kneecap Hillary Clinton also sounds too bizarre—and yet here we are. The dawning reality of that is likely to finally call attention to a topic far more serious than what’s contained in the DNC’s emails.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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