Let’s begin with an analogy: The United States of America is but one home (a pretty well-off home, to be sure) in a larger world neighborhood. Many of the neighbors generally share our values (Europeans and other democratically based countries), and we get along well. We help each other when we have to, but we all also understand the need to take care of our own family first. We have a few disagreements with other families, but generally, we work through the issues. There are a few miscreants in the neighborhood, though, and one of them — Russia — is behaving badly.
The United States is one big, raucous family in this neighborhood, a family whose various branches don’t always get along. Partisan issues divide the American family — health care, income disparity, aging infrastructure and how to fund repairs — but they are internal disputes. Like most families, we believe we can and should handle these disputes from the inside, and advice from even well-intentioned friends is not usually helpful. Having an unfriendly neighbor take advantage of family rifts is even worse. This is what happened when Russia worked to undermine the U.S. presidential election last year. It’s like Vladimir Putin saw the tensions and divisions in the American family, and decided to try to set fire to the family home in our moment of weakness.
The divided American family has known for a while that the neighborhood thug — Russia, and more specifically Putin — has been fanning the flames he hopes will eventually consume the United States. The consensus assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia tried to undermine our elections last year using influence operations, and that Russia broke into DNC computers to steal data as part of that effort, has been widely accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike (with the apparent exception of the Republican president). The Republicans who control both the House and Senate have agreed on the need to investigate, as have law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies (the FBI) and an independent counsel. The problem of Russia attacking our electoral process is one on which all sides of the American family should agree.
Which is why the recent revelation that Donald Trump Jr., a key player in President Trump’s campaign last year, agreed to a meeting with a Russian lawyer who he hoped had derogatory information on Hillary Clinton, is such a shock. The lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskay, offered to provide derogatory information on the Clinton campaign during the meeting with Trump Jr., ostensibly on behalf of the Russian government. Which makes it clear that Russia was hoping to go much further than just propaganda operations to undermine American democracy. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the Trump family and its advisers were willing to discuss working with the Russians to ensure that they won the election. This is something that should gravely concern all of the political branches of the American family, regardless of whom they supported for president, and regardless of what other partisan issues divide them.
That the Russian attack on American democracy remains such a partisan issue today is itself gravely disturbing. (One recent poll found that 73 percent of Republicans believe Trump did nothing wrong in connection with Russia, compared with only 13 percent of Democrats who feel that way.) There is no doubt that the 2016 campaign reached new lows in negative messaging, new nadirs of name-calling and generally bad behavior on all sides. And, of course, Trump’s victory was a profoundly dividing event in and of itself (as Hillary Clinton’s would have been if she had won). But again, those should be internal family matters. Family disagreements can be deep and damaging. An external attack on our body politic, however, should cause us to close ranks, even with family members with whom we have the most serious disagreements. This is the reasonable response to an external threat.
The latest revelations regarding a Russian lawyer offering to pass derogatory information on Clinton take us into uncharted territory. When Trump Jr. agreed to meet with the lawyer in hopes of obtaining information that could help his father win the presidency, the younger Trump betrayed the larger American family and went over to the other side. He agreed to help Putin the arsonist burn down our house. And while it will be tempting for Republicans and others critical of Clinton to engage in knee-jerk support of Trump, it is important to step back and get perspective. The American family cannot allow itself to be taken advantage of by Russia, no matter how strongly you believe in your candidate, your party or your cause. There are reasonable criticisms that can be made about Hillary Clinton — how she handled her emails while secretary of state, questions about speaking fees on Wall Street, specific policy positions she advocated — but none of these faults justify cooperating with Russia to ensure her loss. For that matter, none of Trump’s faults would have justified working with Russia to ensure that he lost, either.
Family meetings don’t usually resolve internal conflicts immediately, and likewise, neither side of the American political divide is going to have a sudden epiphany here. And so it falls upon the family elders to take the lead and set the example. America’s family elders should be the members of Congress, but to date, no leader or group of leaders has emerged to pull everyone together.
There is a bright side, however; Trump Jr.’s brazen willingness to consider cooperation with Russia to the detriment of America is a unique moment. It could be a moment in the divided family history where circumstances allow for the thinnest area of agreement, a tiny but crucial overlap in the Venn diagram of American political interests. In this small window of opportunity, Republicans, Democrats and independents can come together and responsibly call out Russia for the damage it has done. And if it turns out — as it certainly now appears — that an important member of the Trump campaign was open to the idea of accepting assistance from Russia, a foreign power hostile to the United States, then all parts of the political spectrum must join in a rebuke.
Nobody ever said being a member of a family — especially one fraught with the deep disagreements of the American family — would be fun or easy. Families bring obligations. The primary obligation of any member is to protect the family in the face of external attacks, no matter how deep the disagreements and sometimes even dysfunction that occurs within. If we as Americans cannot accept this, then Russia’s attacks will have been successful. And if Putin learns that it worked once, he will most certainly try again, until his fondest hope — the undermining of American democracy — becomes a reality.