OPINION
12/13/2018 08:00 am ET

The Russians Meddled In Our Democracy, But They Had All-American Help

Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at federal court in New York, U.S., on Wednesda
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at federal court in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The guilty pleas continue to pile up around the man who sits in the Oval Office. There’s obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations, lying to the FBI, setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent and using Russian sources to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

And then there’s Maria Butina, an alleged Russian spy who worked closely with the NRA. She is charged with espionage and, it was reported this week, is cooperating with authorities. Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah) Representative Kevin McCarthy and other high-ranking GOP officials simply shrug off the mounting evidence of criminality around their president.

How did the United States of America get to this moment?

It’s easy enough to say Russia, Russia, Russia. But Vladimir Putin and his cronies capitalized on American racism, on the GOP’s willingness to shred norms and chip away at democracy, on our national obsession with being armed and dangerous and our culture’s all-American greed. He couldn’t have gotten this far without a lot of help from red-blooded American citizens.  

It’s easy enough to say Russia, Russia, Russia. But Vladimir Putin and his cronies capitalized on American racism.

During the Obama years, Putin recognized that the toxin of white supremacy had taken over both the Republican Party and its base, who made political life unreasonably difficult for then-President Barack Obama. The vitriol went far beyond traditional partisanship, until even the media had to ask, “Why do Republicans hate Obama so much?” From Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) interrupting Obama’s first speech to a joint session of Congress to shout “You lie!” all the way to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to even hold hearings on the president’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the disrespect was blatant and disproportionate to any of the “sins” Obama had supposedly committed.

For eight years, the GOP signaled that it had no qualms about breaking well-established norms and undermining any precedents that might get in its way of entrenching the “pure civic poison” of minority rule. And as they did, Putin, himself a white nationalist, was watching and listening.

At the state level, the GOP had also made clear that it was more than willing to betray democracy as it gutted American citizens’ basic right to vote. In more than 20 states where the Republicans held power, voter suppression laws were specifically designed to choke off access to the ballot box for African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, the poor and the young and, in the process, skew election results to favor the GOP. What did this mean for Putin? It meant that a major party in the United States had already lowered democracy’s guardrails and was primed for subversion.

What did this mean for Putin? It meant that a major party in the U.S. had already lowered democracy’s guardrails and was primed for subversion.

And when that subversion effort began in earnest, the leaders of that major party did nothing but usher it along. In June 2016, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy confided in their colleagues that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Republican Congressman for California Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.” But Ryan did not alert the FBI, did not sound the alarm. Instead he warned his peers like a mafioso Don: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.” By October 2016, 17 U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence of the Kremlin’s interference in the election. But Mitch McConnell politically handcuffed Obama from making any aggressive moves to stop Putin.

When more evidence of Russian interference began to seep out, in 2017 and 2018, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes coordinated with Trump’s White House to sabotage the investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives. And, even though Trump had made it clear that he would meddle, harangue and fire FBI and Department of Justice personnel until he could install someone who would kneecap Robert Mueller ― whose investigations had already secured a slew of guilty pleas, prison sentences, indictments and property forfeitures worth millions ― key Republicans refused to pass legislation that would protect the special counsel’s investigation.

But it wasn’t just the GOP’s powers that be that opened the door to Russian interference and held it wide open. The party’s base is equally culpable, equally susceptible to white nationalist foreign interference. At first, that seems counterintuitive; these Americans have branded themselves God-fearing patriots. Yet, a large segment of Republican voters are comfortable with the idea of treason, as indicated by their embrace of the Confederacy and its symbols. They might insist otherwise, but the battle flag to which they cling so fiercely is a banner of treason in the pursuit of white supremacy. Indeed, a poll taken in October 2017 indicated that 79 percent of Republican voters wanted Donald Trump, who defended the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, to remain president ― even if he had indeed conspired with Russia. In other words, they wanted him to remain in office and they didn’t care if he’d committed treason to get there.

The Confederate Flag and a Trump MAGA flag fly along the Lincoln Highway near a video store in Chester, West Virginia. (Photo
The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Confederate Flag and a Trump MAGA flag fly along the Lincoln Highway near a video store in Chester, West Virginia. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This shift was the result of the years Putin spent successfully cultivating key organizations and sectors of the GOP, such as the NRA and white evangelicals with his vision of racial purity and homophobia as the foundation for national strength. “Moscow has hosted international conferences on everything from neo-Nazi networking to domestic secessionists attempting to rupture the U.S.,” Politico reported in early 2017. “Meanwhile, American fundamentalists bent on unwinding minority protections in the U.S. have increasingly leaned on Russia for support — and for a model they’d bring to bear back home, from targeting LGBT communities to undoing abortion rights throughout the country.”  

Maria Butina, meanwhile, used gun rights as her ticket into Republican Party, via the NRA. In 2011, she formed a group, The Right to Bear Arms in Russia. It was a nonsensical premise (there’s no Second Amendment in Russia) but it gave her and her Kremlin contact, Alexander Torshin, who was known in conservative circles as “Putin’s emissary,” invaluable entree. Like a modern-day Mata Hari, 30-year-old Butina easily seduced a prominent Republican operative, 56-year-old Paul Erickson, who was so smitten that he contemplated accepting an offer to work for the Kremlin’s intelligence agency. He had introduced her to his well-placed colleagues in the GOP, and Butina became a fixture at Republican and NRA events, successfully pushing her Russian agenda in the heart of God-fearing, gun-toting American patriots.

This was the kind of home-grown population that was primed and ready to undermine American democracy. After Obama’s election, for example, there was an “enormous surge in the number of groups that [saw] the federal government as their primary enemy” and the sale of guns and ammunition increased by 158 percent. And, not surprisingly, 45 percent of Republicans believed the birther lie espoused by then-reality TV host Trump.  

Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd on April 21, 2013, during a rally in support of l
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd on April 21, 2013, during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/File)

Birtherism sought to undermine the legitimacy of the first black president. Worse, this effort was aided and abetted by Fox News, which repeatedly aired the lie as fact. The network, which in 2015 was listed as “the most trusted national news channel,” was, in fact, instrumental in creating an influential evidence-free zone for millions of Americans. Fox hosts, such as Sean Hannity, and shows like ”Fox & Friends,” unburdened by traditional journalistic standards of facts and proof, became a powerful pro-Russia propaganda outlet. And 40 percent of Trump voters got their news mainly from Fox.

Finally, Putin exploited the blatant greed inherent in American capitalism. Purported “successful businessman” Trump and his cronies traipsed around Russia trying to make a deal at all costs, reinforcing Lenin’s axiom that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” The Russians dangled deals in front of Trump to lure him in, watched him lie about them to the American people, and thus gained leverage over him. Trump gave the Russians the rope, and now, Putin can hang him.

It was the perfect storm. An amoral, status-seeking candidate. A major party with tattered ethics and no compunction about using stolen emails they got from Russian intelligence. GOP-engineered voter suppression targeted at the very constituencies that could keep Trump out of the White House. And a population more concerned with being white than being American, a populace so fearful of the growing diversity of the United States that they willingly overlooked all of the warning signals about the Republican nominee for president.  

The Russians dangled deals in front of Trump to lure him in and watched him lie about them to the American people. Trump gave the Russians the rope, and now, Putin can hang him.

Nearly two years in, things look bleak. But Putin has underestimated the American people and American democracy. The grassroots mobilization and massive voter turnout in the midterm elections, in which Democrats flipped 40 seats in the House of Representatives, was a line in the sand. It represented a national demand for accountability for those who put their greed and power before the needs of the nation and the people. The midterm voters’ determination to keep America from capsizing also affected statewide elections and will, eventually, put a check on the blatant voter suppression that has continually thwarted the expressed will of American citizens.

So far, the independent judiciary has still not faltered, despite the GOP’s efforts to pack it with unqualified right-wing hacks. The special counsel and the U.S. attorneys in the Southern District of New York, as well as attorneys general in several states, are systematically investigating and prosecuting those who sold out America to enrich the criminal enterprise surrounding Donald Trump. And the press has begun to dig, dig, dig, especially as it comes to grips with the threat Trump poses to journalists and the First Amendment.

Democracy will take its country back. After experiencing the corruption, brutality, and amorality of this regime, the people and their duly elected representatives will put in the safeguards to ensure that this nation never faces this kind of perfidy and darkness again.

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.

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