vision 2020

The Biggest Threat to American Democracy in 2020 Will Be Trump, Not Russia

The enemy within. Photo: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The Trump presidency has forced America’s political Establishment to perfect the art of willful amnesia. To be a member of Congress, senior intelligence operative, or premier Beltway reporter is to be an institutionalist; one cannot perform such roles without (at least tacitly) affirming the legitimacy of the ruling regime, and the prestige of the constitutional order that empowers it. And in the Trump era, this obligation forbids the crafters of mainstream discourse from fully internalizing what they already know.

This was true long before the Mueller report went public. We didn’t need a special counsel to tell us that the president of the United States had disdain for the rule of law; Donald Trump publicly argued throughout his first two years in office that the Justice Department’s first responsibility wasn’t to uphold the law, but to protect him. Nor did we need Mueller to know that Trump had tried to undermine a counterintelligence investigation into a cyberattack on one of our nation’s major political parties; Trump publicly savaged that investigation on a near-daily basis and discouraged his former aides from cooperating with it. And we certainly didn’t need a probe into Russian interference to know that Donald Trump is willing to make common cause with criminals and leverage illicit activity for personal gain — the man has had well-documented dealings with the Mafia and publicly encouraged Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 campaign.

Nevertheless, the Mueller report’s release has strained D.C. officialdom’s capacity for cognitive dissonance. Robert Mueller is, after all, the most institutionalist of figures; his report, the most official of documents. And that report not only forced news outlets to chew once more on the cornucopia of damning facts they’d already digested, but also pieced those facts together into a unified narrative of relentless corruption.

Simply put, there is no way to reconcile Mueller’s findings with the idea that Congress should allow Donald Trump to continue being president. The most generous possible interpretation of the report is that our president is so pathologically narcissistic, he repeatedly undermined investigations into Russian election interference — even though they posed no legal threat to him — because anything that drew attention to the Kremlin’s influence campaign took some of the shine off his 2016 triumph. There is no credible argument for allowing a man who cares more about avoiding narcissistic injury than honoring the independence of federal law enforcement — or protecting the integrity of U.S. elections — to retain the powers of the presidency.

And yet, almost no one in Congress is willing to say so. Republicans have made it clear that there is nothing Trump can do (save, perhaps, for raising taxes on people who live off Fifth Avenue) that would result in Mitch McConnell’s caucus backing the president’s removal. Democrats got his message, concluded that impeachment would be quixotic and politically risky, and therefore decided to pretend that their committees will somehow excavate evidence more dispositive than that which a years-long special investigation has already produced.

Meanwhile, the president has carried on abusing his powers with reckless abandon. In recent weeks, he has implored his subordinates to violate immigration laws he does not like, (reportedly) promising them pardons should the fuzz give them any trouble for following his illegal orders. In recent days, Trump has refused to recognize Congress’s subpoena powers — a move that CNN framed as “a challenge for House Democrats.”

In sum: The man tasked with executing the laws of our country has no respect for them, and Congress is unwilling to do anything about that because our archaic Constitution was not designed to accommodate political parties of any kind — let alone polarized, ideologically coherent parties — and so the structure of our government has lost its rational basis, and is slouching toward a constitutional crisis.

But our national security agencies and major newspapers cannot report that the sitting president, his party, and the outdated Constitution that undergirds their rule have become threats to liberal democracy in the United States.

So they’re sounding the alarm about the threat posed by Russian Twitter trolls instead. As the New York Times reports:

[Kirstjen] Nielsen left the Department of Homeland Security early this month after a tumultuous 16-month tenure and tensions with the White House. Officials said she had become increasingly concerned about Russia’s continued activity in the United States during and after the 2018 midterm elections — ranging from its search for new techniques to divide Americans using social media, to experiments by hackers, to rerouting internet traffic and infiltrating power grids.


But in a meeting this year, Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, made it clear that Mr. Trump still equated any public discussion of malign Russian election activity with questions about the legitimacy of his victory. According to one senior administration official, Mr. Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his level.”


… The opening page of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, a public document compiled by government intelligence agencies that was delivered to Congress in late January, warned that “the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections.”


“Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians,” the report noted. It also predicted that “Moscow may employ additional influence tool kits — such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations or manipulating data — in a more targeted fashion to influence U.S. policy, actions and elections.”


… “We continue to expect a pervasive messaging campaign by the Russians to undermine our democratic institutions,” [DHS senior adviser Matthew] Masterson said in an interview. “We saw it in 2018, continue to see it and don’t expect it to subside.”


“For us, we recognize that the goal is to undermine confidence in the elections and sow doubt,” Mr. Masterson said.

There is no question that the Russian government played an important and malign role in the 2016 election. And DHS should certainly make a priority of preventing foreign governments from hacking the emails of American political parties or meddling with electoral infrastructure. In calling attention to Trump’s undermining of these efforts, the Times has performed a vital service.

But it is remarkable that a report detailing how our president is unwilling to contemplate policy challenges that threaten his public image or self-esteem can nevertheless posit Russian social media posts as a serious threat to good government in the U.S.

Kremlin-sponsored bot-farms and Twitter trolls will surely try to aggravate America’s racial tensions, undermine respect for our democratic institutions, and sow doubt about the legitimacy of our elections through a “messaging campaign.” But our sitting president does all those things — exponentially more effectively — through his Twitter feed on a near-daily basis.

President Trump has likened immigrants to “infesting” insects, shared a facist organization’s anti-Muslim propaganda videos, and warned that migrants are “violently changing” Europe’s culture, and will do the same to our nation’s if Democrats get their way. He has derided America’s “court system” as a threat to national security, painted much of the federal government as a corrupt deep state controlled by his enemies, and denounces the free, adversarial press at every opportunity.

Our president has publicly disputed the integrity of the 2016 and 2018 elections, accusing the Democratic Party of manufacturing millions of fraudulent votes for itself in both those contests. Last fall, he specifically accused his political opponents of trying to orchestrate an “invasion” of the United States by Central American migrants, in a bid to steal the midterm elections with illegal votes.

In other words: A man who boasts the imprimatur of the presidency, and commands the loyalty of 40 percent of the electorate, is routinely telling his followers that they cannot trust the veracity of American election results, because his political opponents are treasonous cheaters who are trying to rob Americans of national sovereignty through undemocratic means.

And we’re supposed to be terrified at the specter of anonymous Russian trolls working “to divide Americans using social media?”

Much of the Times report reads like a savage parody of the American tendency to project its internal tensions outward; to insist that all would be well in this shining city on a hill, were it not for those outside agitators. But anyone with a clear set of eyes and a working memory knows that the most pressing threat to our democracy is coming from inside the White House. Our political Establishment’s refusal to acknowledge this fact is more dangerous than the president’s failure to acknowledge the threat posed by Russian interference — not least because, were it not for the former, Donald Trump would no longer be president.

The Big Threat to Democracy in 2020 Will Be Trump Not Russia