If you had fallen asleep in 1975 and woke up today, you’d probably think the US and the USSR were still deadlocked in a Cold War. Why? Well, there’s a lot of noise these days regarding Russian activities that threaten NATO and American interests. Here’s a short list: Russia hosts the Zapad war games, Russia left troops in Belarussia after the war games, Russia hacked 21 US states’s electoral systems, Russia only hacked 19 of 21 states’ systems, and Congressman Dana Rohrbacher asserted that Russia didn’t hack the DNC because Julian Assange has proof he won’t publish, and … well the list goes on and on.
Taken piece by piece, much of the hype over Russian subversion around the world and in various scandals involving the Trump Administration leaves one wanting more tangible proof or a proverbial smoking gun. Yet, when we view the Russian activities in the macro, suddenly the concern shifts into a more coherent strategy that should give all Americans pause, and any Cold War Rip van Winkle’s a start. Russia, like its USSR predecessor, is systematically pressing buttons to undermine the global liberal democratic order, and has recently shifted its eye towards the shores of the Land of the Free. The attention has most notably occurred through mobilization of social media troll accounts exacerbating heated debates in society like the NFL kneeling protests and the rise of the alt-right.
American trust in key institutions within its liberal democratic structure are at an all time low. Congressional confidence ratings haven’t risen above 12% in over five years, while President Trump has hovered consistently in the mid-30s for approval since his inauguration, and traditional media oscillates between 20-30% in confidence ratings. None of this is hidden from Russia, America’s long-time adversary and geopolitical rival, and it’s not sitting idly on the sidelines. It is actively seeking to sow discord in the United States.
Ironically, Russia’s greatest success in spreading disinformation in America seems to have come through the American alt-right, whose websites and personalities have seemingly adopted sympathies towards pro-Russian propaganda outlets, and seek to dismiss the investigation into Trump administration figures’ relationship to Moscow as a political witch-hunt. Such irony of right-wing politicians accusing left-wing politicians of a McCarthyism style witch-hunt shouldn’t be overlooked. So how did the paradigm shift?
President Trump’s election to the White House has solidified a shift within the American right towards an increasingly intolerant and exclusionary nationalist Christian identity, Utilizing a narrative that pits their belief in the American identity as under existential threat by the Radical Islamic terrorist movement, the alt-right has increasingly adopted a do whatever it takes approach to stopping the jihadist threat to America, which invariably diminishes the historic threat that Russian anti-democratic initiatives continue to pose to America and her interests.
Prompted by reports of widespread targeting of Christian populations in the Middle East by jihadists, right-wing outlets doubled down on framing the threat of the Islamic State as a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam (figures such as Sebastian Gorka have called it a battle between Islam and Judeo-Christian civilization). Critically, Putin has also embraced a strong image of himself as Christian, rebuking earlier Russian state trends of atheism, lessening the ideological distance between the American alt-right and Russian interests. Conspiracy theories that Obama was not born American (heavily championed by President Trump) and the theories that he is secretly a Muslim, cognitively opened some right-wing supporters to Russia narratives that its campaign in Syria was doing more to stop the Islamic State than the Obama Administration (despite abundant evidence that for months Russia was targeting American-backed rebel groups).
Another change that has lessened the ideological distance between Russia and the alt-right, is the increasingly fascist and authoritarian nature of Putin’s Russia, which is influenced by Alexander Dugin’s book, Foundations of Geopolitics. The core thrust of Dugin’s philosophy within the book is to engage in a sustained campaign of “subversion, destabilization, and disinformation spearheaded by the Russian special services” against Atlanticist (US and British) entities in order to reinstate an ethnic-Russian empire. Dugin routinely contributes to white-supremacist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s website AltRight.com.
Thus, when reports that Russia is interfering with American elections are contested, many right-wing skeptics of Russian involvement are turning to a heuristic that we’ve overcome the historic division between our countries in order to combat a shared existential threat. This is helped along by President Trump’s praising of Putin’s anti-jihadist policies in Syria and seeking of a partnership in that theater. President Trump’s embrace of Putin in Syria has driven a deep divide between intelligence agencies and the outsider President, leading to attacks on the CIA in which Trump called the organization a “disgrace.” This anti-institutional rhetoric has given Russian disinformation capabilities the perfect opening to sow further discord and erode trust within American society. But internal attacks on democratic institutions isn’t just limited to disagreements with the intelligence community. Consider President Trump’s twitter attacks on the courts following a temporary halt the President’s so-called Muslim ban.
Such sentiments from the alt-right seek to normalize far-reaching changes that would run counter to American liberal-democratic institutions like the Constitution if implemented to their fullest extent.
Russian interests and American far-right interests are aligning, and the fascist alt-right is growing increasingly violent. Russia doesn’t need to hack American electoral systems to degrade our society, it simply has to promote the far-right agenda which holds in disdain the “soft” nature of the liberalism which defines our democratic republic. With increasingly anti-pluralistic and openly fascist messaging emerging from the American alt-right, Russian desires to see the degradation of America’s democratic institutions are fulfilled with little effort.