Now that the election is over, America is getting a little taste of the paranoia other nations know. And it isn't pleasant.
The latest frenzy was sparked by a Washington Post story about a secret CIA assessment that it's "quite clear" Russia wasn't just trying to interfere in the U.S. election, but that it was trying to help Donald Trump win. Trump rather predictably responded by claiming such allegations were a "ridiculous" excuse to deny his "massive landslide victory." A bipartisan group of senators was less sanguine, calling for a full investigation of any election manipulation.
Previously, we had lots of circumstantial evidence of a Trump-Putin connection. First, the fact that Trump has criticized the terms on which the NATO alliance runs, and the fact that NATO is the largest obstacle to any expanding regional power play by Russia in Eastern Europe. Trump has said he could get along with Putin. Trump has continually hired people, like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who have worked for pro-Russian clients. On top of this, his proposed national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has advocated for closer relations with Russia. Meanwhile, a leading contender for Trump's secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, received Russia's "Order of Friendship" award. It's enough to give Russophobes hives.
But the latest reports have touched a nerve. And just as a matter of courtesy, you want to allow anti-Trump partisans to have their freak-out. It was a very close election. And the suspicion that a foreign power was rooting for and acting on behalf of the candidate you opposed strikes not just at your sense of the election's fairness and integrity, but encourages you to indulge in the fantasy that Trump's supporters are formally cooperating in something wicked and seditious. The word "traitor" is jumping to people's lips a little easily these days.
But we can't indulge hysteria for too long. If Russia has a hostile aim to weaken the U.S., creating the widespread belief that half the political class is actually the craven pawn of the Kremlin is almost as useful as actually subverting our democracy. America's institutions work, in part, because America's political class is able to assume the good faith and patriotism even of their partisan opponents. When deep disagreement over foreign policy priorities becomes the occasion for calling each other traitors, we are rapidly heading toward real political dysfunction.
Right now, we are dealing with shady suggestion, anonymous reports, and rumor. But even if these reports are bulletproof truth, would anyone be surprised? Of course a rival like Russia pursues its own interests. If Russia was the source of the WikiLeaks document dumping, it obviously had lots of clear motives for doing so. Perhaps it wants to see an occasional NATO critic in the White House. But it may also have simply been a low-risk way of tarnishing and weakening the political mandate of the likely winner, Hillary Clinton.
None of that means Trump is in cahoots with the Russians.
The digital age lowers the cost of spying and dramatically lowers the cost of shaping news coverage for adept hackers. And because of that, America is experiencing the kind of information suspicion that it has induced in other nations, usually at great expense.
The American government supported information campaigns as part of the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Iraqis were probably surprised when U.S. media outlets informed them that figures like Ahmed Chalabi represented their national hopes during the Iraq War. If Russian hackers can, by the act of stealing data, shape the news in other countries, then the entirety of the Kremlin's investment in its own English-language broadcaster is redundant.
But the greatest danger comes not from Russia but from ourselves. Nearly everyone in America has noticed that partisanship is so strong a passion within America's political class that it seems to efface all other things that stand in its way. You see it in the way Republicans forgave Trump for indiscretions they would have killed Clinton over. Or Democrats doing the same for Clinton. Sometimes our partisanship effaces our respect even for the rule of law itself.
If Russia can insert itself into our partisan drama, causing Republicans to either cover up foreign intervention in our politics or Democrats to exaggerate it out of opportunism, we will be sailing into the same rough seas that overwhelm and sink smaller ships of state.