Despite what he tells the cameras, when he’s busy behind the scenes, calculating his plans, calibrating his observations, and repeating his prayers, it’s a good bet that Vladimir Putin believes Russia pulled off a big victory over America. Tilting the US election toward Trump is quite a historical move, even if it hasn’t fully sunk in yet.
Well played, indeed! What we could call subversion, he would call protecting his national interest. Ever more abundant evidence makes the case. Among the many woes and burdens bending Hillary Clinton’s magnetic back during the 2016 campaign, his vote was very likely the straw that broke it.
Consider the alternative. If Wikileaks and the Russian government had been promoting stories about pee tapes instead of Podesta, Donald Trump would not be President today.
But the vulnerability exposed by the meddle muddle is just a symptom of deeper cultural infliction. The problem is that, rather than fortifying and modernizing our political institutions, we’ve been climbing Mount Stupid.
To prepare for this misadventure we’ve equipped ourselves with the rickety burdens of an 18th century election process and a lightbulb attitude for managing hypermedia clouds. With equivalent skill, we adapt for a world plagued by big money politics, irresponsible journalism, partisan rancor, paralyzing alienation, and grinding public apathy. Susceptibility to dirty tricksters comes with the territory.
Our campaign seasons grow ever more expensive and ridiculous. The Electoral College insults the popular vote. Shills, crackpots, blowhards, and hate-mongers amplify the broadcast of intellectual dishonesty. The polity grows ever more precariously polarized. Margins of victory become ever more hazardously thin.
We’ve become comfortably numb to the stink of celebrity-driven journalism. It rewards bluster and penalizes nuance. It invites political practices grounded in character assassination and caricature amplification. It’s a world of CACA politics, a world of our making.
This is a dangerous journey. Our media could help us navigate our way out, except that they’ve been weaponized for mass distraction. By baiting us to binge on ever more noxious programming each election season, they divert themselves from working to make our government work. We follow their lead, hungrily.
It’s no surprise that we’ve reached such fertile ground for so scandalous a Presidency.
Countless people on social media call Trump a disgrace. It’s because they’re alarmed and frightened by the prospect of the havoc he may wreak. Fear motivates contempt. Perhaps complacency should as well. If we fail to radically transform the way we run our elections, the greater disgrace would be our own.
Sixty percent of Americans say they’re embarrassed by Trump. A more shameful embarrassment would be failing to repair our election systems. We should dare ourselves to be well on our way to getting things turned around before handing over our turn as stewards of this republic. Or would we have the hutzpah to tell the next generations of Americans that the atmosphere on Mount Stupid isn’t so putrid after all?
America’s birthright — the long resilience of our democratic traditions and institutions — can’t forever save us from ourselves. Not if we keep degrading them faster than we fortify them. Ruin is ahead if we don’t wise up.
Demonizing Putin is one of the few things on which most Democrats and Republicans agree these days. It’s because CACA politics favors vindictive reactions over constructive solutions. People are fooling themselves to think that sanctioning Russia would reliably fix anything. In fact, what could it accomplish beyond saying we noticed their little intrusion?
Ordering sanctions would do nothing to prevent our next election from becoming another clown show. It would do nothing to make politicians take up the habit of giving forthright answers to voters’ biggest concerns. It would do nothing to help young people get smarter faster about how to handle the mess we’ve left them.
But the question doesn’t go away: Haven’t we been attacked? Isn’t it true that the Russians deliberately assessed and targeted the vulnerabilities of our election processes? Didn’t they seek to engineer the outcome that ultimately resulted?
As the reality of decisive Russian influence becomes plainly apparent, we’ll gain perspective. Some equate the surprise and the setback of the action with Pearl Harbor or 9/11. A richer metaphor is Sputnik. Though we’ve fallen shockingly behind at a capacity that should be important to us, the opportunity to catch up and take the lead remains available. And a good result could be achieved without war.
We’re overdue for sober conversations about what kind of vehicles we want our media to be and where we would have them carry us. We need urgent conversations about how to add real intelligence into those vehicles rather having them shaped by people in the business of applying the artificial kind.
To prepare for the next elections we could prepare bigger electorates and better-informed ones. Doing so would add new resilience into our republic’s practice of democracy. To work, voting would become more convenient and more consequential, and the habits of participation more routine. It’s even possible to speak of recalibrating the media to put us on paths that find the best in us: We could incentivize styles of political journalism that assign more celebrity to merit than merit to celebrity.
In other words, we could look for a path off Mount Stupid.
And what if we don’t? What if we simply prove the sour wisdom lamented in a Russian novel? “Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel!”
Next time, and the time after that, would Putin still try to place his vote? Would there be new candidates to welcome it?
And what if they did? Would we be able to stop them? Would we even know?
Our Russian friends? Our esteemed space race opponents? It looks like they just got the better of us, yes. But it doesn’t make them better for it. Trump gives them time and elbow room, and once again we see them proving that they have the bravest dissidents.
Russians and Americans have many interests in common. Their media are cheating them as well. However much we may dislike that, we can’t hope to help them until we’ve proven we know how to help ourselves.
There’s every reason to expect that Putin will venture to vote here again. But that won’t get him the last word. He’s only one person. We’ve got 320 million. Advantage, America.