In the spotlight: Has Russia really hijacked US democracy with Donald Trump?


CommonSpace looks at the background to the ferocious political spat in the US over accusations of Russian tampering in the 2016 election

THE US, which vaunts itself as the world home of democracy, finds itself in another embarrassing tussle over the security of its electoral process.

Democrats and liberal commentators accuse US President elect Donald Trump of being involved with a Russian conspiracy to subvert the US elections. Trump decries his opponents and the media as part of a conspiracy to undermine his presidency.

CommonSpace looks at the first major controversy of Trump’s presidency, one that broke out before he even takes office on 20 January.

Souring Russian-US relations

The latest public spat between the US and Russia has been likened to tensions during the long freeze in relations between the US and Russia in the Cold War. The emergence of the USSR and the US as the world’s two superpowers by the end of the Second world war bred decades long and at times explosive competition in military and political might.

The collapse of the USSR and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was expected by some US policy thinkers to herald an unprecedented détente and period of global peace.

But in recent years tensions have forcefully re-emerged. Nato, the Cold War western military alliance was never disbanded and expanded into eastern Europe. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, increasingly re-asserted an independent foreign policy.

The new competition has resulted in military clashes in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine and Crimea from 2014 and Syria from 2015. International institutions, such as the UN, have increasingly been paralysed by the renewed competition.  

It is against this backdrop of renewed tensions and paranoia that the US political drama is taking place.

Russia and the resurgence of the right

Like all powerful states, Russia promotes its own geo-political interests through ‘soft’ as well as hard military power. In recent decades it has cultivated a network of media outfits to promote a friendlier view of Russia among western citizenry, as well as encouraging criticism and dissent towards western leaderships.

Like Russia, the US and Britain also engage in this activity, through a mixture of covert intelligence, media and state influence.

Russian strategists have often disseminated views from both the left and right in an attempt to destabilise western authorities. But in recent years they have courted the new nationalist movements, including those that have set-back the EU project in western Europe such as UKIP and the Front National.

During the US election Trump made more conciliatory noises about Russia than his democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who was more openly hostile to the country. Russian press operations were friendlier to the prospect of a Trump victory.

Further reading: A return to the 1930s? Trumpism and the new right explained

Accusations of Russian interference

The 2016 US election was fraught with claims of corruption and secret dealings. The FBI’s decision to re-open its investigation into Clinton’s use of security sensitive emails just 11 days before the election on 8 November 2016, was claimed by many of her supporters to have undermined her campaign.

The CIA subsequently, following Trump’s election, made repeated warnings about the vulnerability of the US electoral process to Russian interference.

Also in October the US Government announced that it believed Russia orchestrated the hacking of Democratic National Convention emails.

Leading liberal commentator Keith Olbermann condemns what he views as a Russian “coup”

The first of a subsequent slew of accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, made variously by the CIA, the US Government, Democratic opponents and elements of the media which focused on three central claims. Firstly that, Russian hackers had obtained embarrassing information from Democratic emails to undermine Clinton’s campaign, secondly that Russia sought to influence the US election through its media and ‘soft power’ efforts.

Thirdly, reports published yesterday (11 July) on Buzzfeed made a series of lurid allegations about Trump’s sex life and assert that he is vulnerable to Russian blackmail. These claims were made on the basis of one secretive source, whose report contained factual errors, and which is “unverified” according to Buzzfeed.

Trump has consistently rubbished all accusations against him, branding them “fake news” at a press conference the same day.

Is Trump Russia’s Trojan horse?

The first claim is as yet unproven (the evidence for it being withheld by the CIA), but even if true would not necessarily implicate Trump or invalidate the election. The second claim is demonstrably true, as the newsreels of Russian broadcasters will show, but not very relevant given that such practises are perfectly legal and are engaged in by many countries, not least the US, which has frequently used both soft and hard power to intervene in the politics of foreign countries.

The third and latest set of claims are, by the admission of their publishers, unverified.

Certainly, any proof of deals between Trump and Russian authorities for support during the election would be incredibly damaging, but as yet no evidence has emerged. To place this in some context, there is nowhere near the same level as evidence as there was for voting flaws and improprieties in Florida when George Bush was first elected in 2000, another famous embarrassment for the US democratic process.

President elect Donald Trump has continued to vociferously condemn the accusations

The intense atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the US’s security apparatus makes clarity impossible, but it appears that the US ‘deep state’ is in the midst of a faction fight over the future course of the country, caused by the political sea change of Trump’s victory.

The accusatory mood, exemplified by leading liberal commentator Keith Olbermann’s claims that the US will have been overthrown by Russia if Trump is inaugurated on 20 January, and Trump’s own claims of a conspiracy against him, represents the fractious state of US politics today.

Pictures courtesy of Program Executive Office SoldierDWintonAnton FomkinGage Skidmorezio fabio

Video: Youtube/GQ

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