Trump’s challenge is to reflect the people’s will
Most humans are far better able to see the flaws and failings of others than they are at diagnosing their own condition. And blaming people around us for troubles of our own making is an all-too-common shortcoming. The same problem is evident in the United States intelligence community’s report into alleged Russian hacking of Democratic Party internal emails.
Put aside questions over the veracity of the evidence offered. Moscow certainly had a motive to influence US voters by whatever means were at hand to pick the candidate whose presidency would best suit Russia’s strategic goals. But the report presented to the US Congress last week by director of national intelligence James Clapper seems to miss, or misdiagnose, the fundamental flaws in the US political system that president-elect Donald Trump himself had exploited to win. And by blaming those flaws on a foreign effort to sway the electorate, the intelligence report offers comfort to a US political establishment that prefers to avoid confronting the real causes of the 2016 electoral shock.
“We assess Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” said the report. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for president-elect Trump.”
It’s not hard to see why Russia prefers dealing with a reckless isolationist whose policies are likely to further diminish US global influence, but to imagine that weakening Hillary Clinton’s appeal to American voters required Russian intervention is to ignore the obvious. In 2008, she was the anointed candidate of the Democratic Party establishment, but was beaten to the party’s nomination by the upstart outsider Barack Obama. The party establishment that put her forward again in 2016 was similarly shocked by the success of her unlikely challenger, socialist senator Bernie Sanders. Clearly, millions in her own party didn’t need Mr Putin’s intervention to form a negative impression of Mrs Clinton; nor should it have surprised anyone that she failed to win after running as the status-quo candidate when so many Americans were desperately seeking change.
To imply that it required Russian intervention to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process” is similarly naive. A lack of faith in the political system’s ability to represent ordinary Americans is deeply felt and widely held, and has been decades in the making.
The intelligence report paints as sinister reporting by Russia’s state-owned media arm, Russia Today (RT). It says RT reported on US politics in ways that support claims that “US election results cannot be trusted and do not reflect the popular will”. Similarly, RT suggested that “the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham’”. The report also cited RT’s positive coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement and characterising of US politics as “corrupt and dominated by corporations”.
Russia may have its own nefarious reasons for promoting these ideas, but they are indigenous ideas and widely held. When America is about to inaugurate a president who actually lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, it doesn’t take Moscow’s propaganda to conclude that US election results “do not reflect popular will”.
The deeper crisis of representation has been obvious for years: the structure of the political system has made both parties dependent on campaign funding by billionaire donors, which is why the leadership of both parties havelong been more responsive to those donors than they are to voters. Whether the issue is health care or trade pacts or even Israel, opinion polls routinely show that the preferences favoured by voters are simply not reflected in the options chosen by their elected representatives in both parties.
The electorate’s instinct to rebel against the donor-driven establishment in the Democratic Party was evident by Mr Obama’s success in 2008 – although in that instance, Mr Obama was able to promise and deliver enough continuity to bring the donors behind him despite promising the electorate major changes.
In the 2016 campaign, Mr Sanders eschewed the corporate donor class and relied on small donations by hundreds of thousands of voters to run a campaign challenging the establishment Democrats’ complicity in a system that continues to engorge billionaires while millions suffer the effects of declining economic prospects. The popularity of his message rattled the Democratic establishment.
Mr Trump could rely on his own fortune, but relied less on advertising than on his unmatched ability to exploit the bottomless appetite of the US media for sensation and provocation to dominate the airwaves. Mr Trump offers no plausible policy remedy to the working-class despair he channelled to win election, but the grievances he championed are no less real for that. His presidency, in fact, is a symptom of the deep and profound flaws in American democracy that should be obvious to any analyst.
The cabinet of oligarchs and securocrats he is assembling suggests Mr Trump seeks to make America’s plutocracy even more authoritarian, but he’ll do so by relying on political infrastructure that has been in place for years. Restoring a system of government that reflects the will of the people is an urgent challenge, but achieving that requires understanding why a lot of the tropes cynically touted by RT - and by Mr Trump - may, in fact, resonate with the experience of millions of Americans.
Tony Karon teaches at the New School in New York
Updated: January 8, 2017 04:00 AM