Is Polarization Nullifying Scandals?

It may be that only Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell can change the right’s mind on Russia.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumppoliticsRepublicansRussia

It’s nearly impossible to keep up in real time with the cascade of new Trump-Russia revelations, and it’s doubtful at this point that we even know the half of it (Trumpworld can always get weirder and worse than one dares to imagine). Indeed, it will probably be some time before we understand, in any detail, what transpired between Trump and Russia during the 2016 campaign. And that’s a sobering realization, since the issue of campaign interference is by no means in the past: The shocking success of Russia’s apparent interventions on behalf of Donald Trump only make similar efforts more likely in future elections—especially depending on how, or whether, Americans respond.

Presumably, whoever coordinated Russia’s interference campaign assumed that their long-shot effort, if successful, would stick—either because Russia’s role would never be discovered, or because even if it was, the protection offered by a pro-Russian shift in presidential leadership would outweigh the costs of short- or medium-term retaliation. Anybody who colludes with a person as loudmouthed and lacking in self-control as Donald J. Trump can hardly rely on the former; it seems more likely that the latter better captures the calculus behind this bet.

This is where the political sophistication of Russia’s effort is especially striking. Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias marveled at the expert timing of last summer’s release of hacked DNC emails—indicating a level of political competence that may point to the involvement of an American in Putin’s campaign. While undeniably suggestive, that is not the only way in which Russia’s actions demonstrate a shrewd understanding of U.S. politics at present.

There’s no shortage of hand-wringing about the intensity of partisan divisions in America today, but as I’ve argued before, the nature of these divisions is for the most part poorly understood. Either the coordinators of Russia’s campaign were stupendously lucky, or they perceived the disturbing truth about asymmetric partisan extremism better than most American commentators. Consider: When America’s intelligence agencies became convinced last fall that Russia was meddling in the election, the Obama Administration privately tried to gather bipartisan support for a unified public condemnation of election intrusion, combined with a warning to state and local election officials that they should work to secure their voting systems from Russian intrusion. But according to the Washington Post, this effort was blocked by Mitch McConnell, who “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence” and effectively covered for Russia by “[making] clear to the Administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” In other words, McConnell understood perfectly well that a he-said/she-said partisan frame could fatally undermine a unified front against Russian interference—and that not only the conservative media, but also mainstream reporters paralyzed by both-sides-ism would follow his lead. If this is unfathomably cynical, it is also—purely as a matter of political strategy—peerless in its understanding of how news coverage and partisan opinion operate today.

For proof, look no further than the polling which shows that American public opinion is about evenly split on the importance of the Russia-Trump story, with views predictably falling along partisan lines. As of early July, more than 8 in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning respondents dismissed the story as a distraction, and only the end of the campaign (combined with an almost unbelievable succession of new developments) has shifted the tone of mainstream coverage of the issue.

Where might this leave us? If we take seriously the idea that polarization has created an alternative epistemic universe on the right, we face the dispiriting prospect that only conservative leaders have the power to convince the GOP rank and file that interference and collusion actually occurred. And there is some research indicating that under conditions of extreme partisan polarization, misinformation can only effectively be countered by the right messenger. It’s easy to imagine dismissals of Russian interference as “fake news” surviving intact on the right, despite the efforts of multiple top-tier newspapers, a special counsel, America’s intelligence agencies, and common sense. To put it bleakly, any reckoning with the legitimacy of the current president and the integrity of future elections depends on whether even these latest revelations can sway conservative leaders—and, in their wake, the broader public opinion that might follow their lead. So far, early signs are not good. That’s worrisome. It is also, perhaps to the delight of Putin’s inner circle, predictable.

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

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