I suspect that the Founding Fathers - except perhaps Thomas Jefferson - could never have imagined the Internet and cyber warfare. Or that the presidential candidate of one of the nation's main political parties would be praising a ruthless foreign dictator and inviting attacks on American organizations. Yet, that is where we find ourselves with the 2016 presidential election and Russia's (or more to the point, Putin's) apparent desire to rig an American election in favor of a bombastic narcissist whose level of egomania is only exceeded by his ignorance. Of course, if America had a responsible media and a better educated populace, there would have been far less fertile ground for the rise on a toxic individual like Donald Trump. A column in the Washington Post outlines what Putin may try and the negative consequences for America. Here are highlights:
“U.S. investigates potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections.” To those unused to this kind of story, I can imagine that headline, from The Post this week, seemed strange. A secret Russian plot to throw a U.S. election through a massive hack of the electoral system? It sounds like a thriller, or a movie starring Harrison Ford.
In fact, the scenario under investigation has already taken place, in whole or in part, in other countries. Quite a bit of the story is already unfolding in public; strictly speaking, it’s not “secret” or “covert” at all. But because most Americans haven’t seen this kind of game played before (most Americans, quite wisely, don’t follow political news from Central Europe or Ukraine), I think the scenario needs to be fully spelled out. And so, based on Russia’s past tactics in other countries, assuming it acts more or less the same way it acts elsewhere, here’s what could happen over the next two months:
1. Trump, who is advised by several people with Russian links, will repeat and strengthen his “the election is rigged” narrative. The “polls are lying,” the “real” people aren’t being counted, the corrupt elites/Clinton clan/mainstream media are colluding to prevent him from taking office.
2. Russia will continue to distribute and publish the material its hackers have already obtained from attacks on the Democratic National Committee, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, former NATO supreme commander Gen. Philip Breedlove and probably others. The point will be to discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the “elite” who supposedly run it.
3. On or before Election Day, Russian hackers will seek to hack the U.S. voting system. We certainly know that this is possible: Hackers have already targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, according to The Post, and the FBI has informed Arizona officials that it suspects Russian hacking teams. Possible breaches are being investigated in several other states, and it’s not hard to imagine that many are vulnerable. The U.S. election system is decentralized and in some places frankly amateurish, as we learned in Florida in 2000.
4. The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.
5. Once revealed, the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency. Trump might emerge from the process as president after all. He will then go on, as promised at so many rallies, to “lock her up,” and of course to open a broad relation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only foreign leader he seems to truly admire. Even if Clinton remains as president, she will be tarnished.
6. More likely, the hack will fail, or never even get off the ground. But what’s the downside in trying, or even in letting it be known that it was tried? Rumors of election fraud can create the same hysteria as real election fraud. Already, Russia’s propaganda wire service, sputniknews.com, has speculated that The Post’s article on Russian electoral manipulation is a clever plot to “to hide the actual efforts at electoral manipulation” and a “good cover for vote-rigging.” That thought will be tweeted and posted and shared by a whole ecosystem of professional trolls and computer bots, over and over again until it finally shows up on authentic pro-Trump websites.
7. And what’s the downside for Trump? If he wins, he wins. If he loses — then there are all kinds of ways to make money from the “election was rigged” narrative.
Whatever happens, the political process is undermined, social trust plummets further and the appeal of American democracy, both at home and around the world, diminishes. And that, of course, is the point.
Be very afraid.