There are two Russian scandals connected to the 2016 campaign. One deserves the attention that it’s getting. The other is closer to — what’s the term I’m looking for? — fake news.
The real scandal involves the Russian hacking operation against the Democratic National Committee. This was a genuine crime — a meaningful theft, which led to a series of leaks that were touted by the Republican nominee for president often enough that we can assume that Donald Trump, at least, thought they contributed something to his victory.
The fact that members of his family and inner circle were willing and eager to meet with Russians promising hacked emails, the pattern of lies and obfuscation from the president and his team thereafter, and the general miasma of Russian corruption hanging around Trump campaign staff — all of this more than justifies special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and depending on what his team ultimately reports it might even justify impeachment.
But alongside and around this real scandal you have the other Russian efforts to influence the election and its aftermath, the outlines of which have been apparent for some time, but which have earned a new wave of agitated attention thanks to Mueller’s battery of indictments against a Russian troll farm and the various goblins, kobolds and boggarts it employed.
Their efforts added up to a lot of social media activity and a few events in meatspace, in which the Russians had the clever idea to organize demonstrators on both sides of our great American divide. Memes were distributed, millions of dollars spent, fake accounts employed — all to encourage not just the specific political goal of elevating Trump (and Bernie Sanders) and discrediting both party establishments, but the broader ambition of widening our internal fissures, inflaming our debates, and making our imperium more ungovernable at home and thus weaker on the global stage.
Such conduct is certainly worthy of indictment, legal and rhetorical. What it is not worth is paranoia and hysteria, analogies to Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 attacks, and an “America under attack”/”hacking our democracy” panic that give the Russian trolls far too much credit for cleverness and influence and practical success.
Because on the evidence we have, nothing they did particularly mattered. The DNC hack was genuinely important because it involved a real theft and introduced a variable into the campaign that would not otherwise have been present. But the rest of the Russian effort did not introduce anything to the American system that isn’t already present; it just reproduced, often in lousy or ludicrous counterfeits, the arguments and images and rhetorical tropes that we already hurl at one another every day.
And the scale of the effort — set against the scale of campaign spending and online activity and political frenzy from domestic partisans — meant that any real influence was necessarily negligible, swamped by the all-too-American sources of our national derangement.
A scan through The New York Times’ accounting of some of the Russian operations should serve to illustrate the point. The pro-Trump ads the trolls sponsored during the campaign were just clumsy variations on ubiquitous right-wing themes (“Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is”). The protests and counterprotests they ginned up after the election were marginal imitations of the all-American crowds that showed up for Trump rallies and later for the Women’s Marches.
And the operatives’ surprise at American credulity — “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people” — was itself a testament to the essentially imitative quality of their work: People believed the trolls were real Americans because so many totally real, born-in-the-USA counterparts were saying exactly the same things.
And the people who believed them, by and large, were probably not the nearly 78,000 Midwestern swing voters who officially determined the election’s Electoral College outcome, since on the evidence we have most fake news is political pornography for hyperpartisans — toxic in its own way and deserving of concern, but something driven more by panting, already-polarized demand than by nefarious, median-voter-manipulating suppliers.
In this landscape, the people obsessing about how Russian influence is supposedly driving polarization and mistrust risk becoming like J. Edgar Hoover-era G-men convinced that communist subversives were the root cause of civil-rights era protest and unrest. There were Soviet agents bent on encouraging racial conflict, just as there are Russian trolls today. But then as now obsessing over Russian influence can become a way to deny or minimize American realities that are far more important than some provocateur’s Hillary-for-prison meme.
And that is the danger for a liberalism (or an anti-Trump centrism or conservatism) that’s forever wringing its hands over how surely, surely Russian interference might have been enough to shift those crucial 78,000 votes and make Trump the president. Because even if you believe that the interaction between the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, the hacking and the WikiLeaks drip-drip did swing those votes — I’m quite sure the memes and fake accounts did not — the proper question should still be: How was it that close to begin with?
A new Cold War is not an answer to that question. (Especially since, for all the talk of Trump-the-traitor, he has moved our military posture somewhat closer to the policies the Russia hawks demand.) Neither is a theory that obsesses over tens of thousands of voters when the Americans who switched from Obama to Trump, in the Midwest and elsewhere, probably number in the millions.
The bottom line is that liberal mandarins in the West — not just in the United States — face a hard choice when it comes to the populism that gave us Trump, Brexit and right-wing parties and governments in Central and Eastern Europe. Should this re-emergent nationalism be conciliated and co-opted, its economic grievances answered and some compromises made to address its cultural and moral claims? Or is it sufficiently noxious and racist and destructive that it can be only crushed, through gradual demographic weight or ruthless polarized mobilization?
The Russia fixation, at its worst, is a way to make the second choice without admitting that you’re making it — to pretend that in trying to crush your fellow countrymen you’re really fighting traitors and subversives and foreign adversaries, to further otherize the domestic out-group by associating them with far-off Muscovy.
Trump’s election was, indeed, a sudden shock in a long-running conflict. But it does us no good to pretend the real blow came from outside our borders, when it was clearly a uniquely hot moment in our own cold civil war.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com.