Donald Trump's opponents have been warning for months that his victory poses a threat to the integrity of American democracy. But the increasingly extreme and irresponsible rhetoric around the question of possible Russian attempts to influence the recent election demonstrate that his opponents do too.
Impartial observers should be able to agree on a few facts.
First of all, far from hiding his support for Russia, Donald Trump ran a campaign that explicitly called for a new relationship with our one-time Cold War rival. He questioned the continued relevance of NATO, mused about recognizing Russian claims to Crimea, and called for an alliance with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. When questioned in one of the debates about Vice President-elect Mike Pence's more hawkish posture, he explicitly disavowed his own running mate's views. Americans could not plausibly have been better informed about his intentions to pursue a more pro-Russian foreign policy.
Moreover, Russia didn't hide that they favored a Trump victory. This preference was obvious from the way Russian news sources covered the campaign, but accusations that hackers connected to the Russian government provided emails from the DNC to WikiLeaks were also raised loudly during the campaign. In one of the debates, Hillary Clinton herself wondered whether Trump was Putin's "puppet." Once again, it is impossible to argue that Americans were not informed that Putin reciprocated Trump's overtures.
But Trump won anyway. A sufficient percentage of the American people either thought he had a point about changing our Russia policy, or thought the issue wasn't important enough to justify voting for his opponent.
Does that mean debate should end over the proper direction of America's policy towards Russia? Not at all. But a debate isn't what we're having right now.
Right now, major news outlets are suggesting that Trump is a Manchurian Candidate, or implying that Russia did not merely try to influence the election but "hacked" it, even urging that the Electoral College should reject him because his ties to Russia make him unfit for office. The overwhelming tenor of coverage doesn't merely assume that where there's smoke, there's fire, but that a pro-Russian policy itself constitutes smoke.
This is a problem because it empowers bad behavior by opponents in both parties. Republican hawks have lined up to denounce Trump's proposed change of direction — but rather than make the case against it, they use claims of Russian interference in the election to presumptively shut down the very idea of a more productive relationship. And Democratic opponents of Trump lean on those same allegations to suggest that Trump's election was itself illegitimate. Indeed, the Clinton campaign has gone so far as to join calls for the electors to be briefed on Russia's involvement before they vote on Dec. 19, presumably so that they can break faith with the voters in their states if they are sufficiently disturbed.
Both parties have an incentive, in other words, to fan the flames of anti-Russian sentiment, while neither benefits from open debate on Russian policy. Nor are we likely to get a proper investigation of possible conflicts of interest, which is the real matter of importance to Americans.
After all, Russia's alleged actions are entirely unsurprising and far from unprecedented. They are not only the kind of thing that Russia has done before, they are the kind of thing that we have done before — including in Russia's neighborhood. Russia's actions may well deserve a response — but the most important response would be to make cyber security a significantly higher priority. They certainly don't merit panic about Russian intentions, or about the fragility of American institutions.
By contrast, the opacity of Trump's financial relationships does remain a serious problem, and the possibility that he is personally subject to Russian "influence" because of financial liabilities held by Russian banks could taint any attempt to improve relations between our countries. And of course if the Trump campaign actually coordinated with Russia on dirty tricks, that would be a crime amply deserving investigation, and potentially impeachment.
But at this point, there is no evidence at all of that kind of wrongdoing. That ought to matter. And it ought to be possible to investigate the possibility of corruption or criminal collusion without indulging in scaremongering about the Russian threat. Indeed, advocates of a friendlier relationship with Russia should be the first to call for such scrutiny — because an opening to Russia will only be durable if the American people believe that it rests on a solid institutional foundation and genuine mutual interest.
Meanwhile, those arguing that Russia undermined the integrity of the American electoral system need to take a good look in the mirror. Nothing Russia did or didn't do can come close to the damage that will potentially be done by exaggerating the extent and impact of that influence, much less creating a constitutional crisis in response.
And if Democrats are serious about concerns about murky presidential ties to dubious foreign governments, they might want to think a little harder about the conflicts of the person they nominate next time. Or are some authoritarian petrostates less worrisome than others?