Given an administration this adept at manufacturing crises, it can be easy to stack scandals until you lose sight of the real problems that need solving. This is the risk of “Russiagate.” The Trump campaign’s Russia connections are probably a scandal, and the attacks on the election are undoubtedly a crisis. But there’s a caveat: Russia’s conduct, formidably strategic though it seems to have been, wouldn’t have worked without American susceptibility. Putin didn’t just hack an American election; he hacked Americans.
That’s worth saying partly because focusing too much on Russia papers over problems that are deep and homegrown, and partly because Putin isn’t, in the end, that exceptional. Russia is far from the only nation to advance its interests in ways that don’t involve troops and tanks. Jack Goldsmith, no fan of Trump, has argued that “the United States government engages in substantially similar behavior.” This is true (though this moral equivalency has limits). What’s noteworthy about the Russian disinformation effort is that it has found an ally in the American president, who spews disinformation daily. And in his supporters. And in his party, which seems poised to do little to guarantee a safe and secure election.
Whether or not we are “responding to Putin” isn’t the problem—in many ways, despite Trump’s public stance, our government has. Nor, ultimately, is what happened in Helsinki. What is more alarming is that elements of the Republican Party are converging on a pro-Russia position, even if it means sacrificing the integrity of American election. Several congressmen traveled to Russia this last Fourth of July to pose for propaganda photos despite America’s sanctions and Russia’s continued cyberattacks. The NRA, which is about as enmeshed in the GOP as an organization can be, hasn’t just been infiltrated by a Russian spy; it’s being investigated by the FBI for laundering Russian money for Republican campaigns. The administration’s response? Changing the IRS rules to allow organizations like the NRA to conceal their donors from government scrutiny.
All while the American evangelical right, much as the gun rights movement, has come to see an ally in Russia’s Christian authoritarianism. What this means is that among those Republicans who shrug at Russian meddling, a broad strain of people are tacitly or overtly grateful for Putin’s intervention, while another healthy slice simply applauds Trump no matter what. Republicans have been radicalizing for so long they no longer recognize (or care about) obviously anti-American sentiments.
Legitimate elections require maximizing access for Americans and minimizing foreign influence. That the GOP fights the former and resists the latter is deeply revealing. The party has enthusiastically pursued a “voter fraud” crisis that’s so obviously manufactured that Trump disbanded his own Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity before it could issue its report. Even so, millions of voters have been purged from voter rolls across nine states, many of them in error and without notice. Effectively, the party in power has equated “safeguarding” our election with taking away the right to vote. While Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warns that Russian cyberattacks are ongoing, and Microsoft reports catching Russia trying to hack three campaigns in 2018, the “America First” party has yet to do much about it, despite control of Congress and a bipartisan Senate bill waiting in the wings. These two stances are related: In explaining his vote against renewing election-security funds last week, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan argued that the best way to secure elections is voter ID.
Once you make this connection, the Republican base becomes that much easier to understand. Since Trump, the “values voters” have demonstrated what they in fact value: Evangelicals are now more likely to support immoral politicians than the average American. A substantial section of Alabama’s GOP supported Roy Moore even after he was accused of grooming children, suggesting that rebel pride might be more about letting a certain kind of white man do as he likes want without consequences. A GOP candidate running for Arizona state Senate has turned shooting and killing his mother into a Second Amendment selling point. In Illinois, an admitted Nazi is running for Congress as a Republican, Wisconsin is running an openly white supremacist candidate, and even Jordan retains broad Republican support despite accusations that he ignored widespread sexual abuse of wrestlers at Ohio State while working as a coach. “It’s no longer just about personal morality,” Federalist contributor D.C. McAllister said to the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. “It’s not that those things don’t matter to us. They do. But you need to think about it like a war. When you’re at the warfront, you just want the best guy next to you. You don’t care what his morality is, it’s just, ‘Can you shoot that guy over there?’ ”
The “guys” Republicans want to “shoot,” in this metaphor, are their fellow Americans. As Coppins explores, the group of Trump supporters who would like to thank Putin for his help is bigger than it should be. This is as bad as it is astonishing. It means Republicans have stopped caring about the integrity of their own elections if compromising them means winning their war.
It’s not Russia’s fault the country got to this point. The devolution of Republican interest in electoral legitimacy has been a multigenerational journey—but one stoked by its current leader without any help from abroad. First, Trump worked hard during Obama’s presidency to disseminate one message: that the president was not born in the United States, giving Obama’s opponents a way to feel that their government was illegitimate. It worked. Second, Trump spent his own presidential campaign arguing that the election would be “rigged” if he lost, setting the expectation that his supporters would have to overcome a phantom “deep state” set to stop them. Finally, crucially, Trump lies when he denies or downplays Putin’s interference in the 2016 election. It’s not that he doesn’t understand, as many a GOP congressman has tried to put it, or that he doesn’t accept it. Two weeks before his inauguration, he himself saw texts and emails from Russian military officers confirming that the Kremlin ordered the attacks. His private tete-a-tete with Putin is arguably less damaging than these public statements, which degrade trust in American intelligence.
The result is near-total synchronicity between president and his party’s voters: 88 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s conduct. It’s a devil’s bargain that will backfire. Whatever Russia does in the 2018 midterms matters, but matters less than this: The damage to America is ultimately self-inflicted. Trump has been working for a decade to undermine public confidence in American elections. It was Trump’s goal for a large swath of Americans to feel not just dissatisfied with their president or disappointed in an electoral result, but to feel robbed by an illegitimate process. He detected a simmering suspicion and activated it. He has done more than Putin ever will to intensify the division currently plaguing this country, and the GOP has fully embraced this approach.
There are, however, signs of hope. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced last week that the Department of Justice plans to notify American organizations and individuals when they are being targeted by foreign actors. The Pentagon just released funds to Ukraine to assist its defense.
It’s worth remembering, as unprecedented as much of this feels and as disturbing as it is to watch, it was not so long ago that a party’s entire apparatus was also dead set on denying the malfeasance of its president. One of Leon Neyfakh’s most interesting excavations in Slate’s Slow Burn is just how long Nixon’s party stood by him after Nixon’s wrongdoing was proved. Neyfakh describes the party as “disconcertingly comfortable with the idea of a police state run by Richard Nixon,” and Gail Sheehy says (of her reporting at the time) that many lifelong Democrats turned to Nixon in response to the social unrest of “the antiwar movement, the civil rights movements, voting blacks, denigrating our war, and then the women’s movements—I mean, it was overwhelming, they couldn’t stand it, so they gravitated toward this man who appeared to speak for them.” Then, as now, the base had a vested interest in its leader.
For those watching the GOP open-mouthed today, it may be comforting to know that even what may have seemed like an impenetrable bulwark at the time did not last forever. George H.W. Bush, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, said even after Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up was known that people were going to demand that Congress let “the man do the job he was elected to do.” Bush was wrong. But not immediately.