America has a race problem. And Russia knows it.
But does President Trump know how to help solve it or is he invested in making it worse?
The Washington Post reported Monday that Russia bought more than 3,000 ads on Facebook aimed at capitalizing on racial and other social divides in the United States. Some of the ads supported Black Lives Matter and other groups bringing attention to the tense relationship between law enforcement and people of color. Yet other ads painted these activist organizations as a rising political threat.
“These targeted messages, along with others that have surfaced in recent days, highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate U.S. political discourse while also seeking to heighten tensions between groups already wary of one another,” The Post reported.
The House and Senate intelligence committees plan to begin reviewing the Facebook ads in their investigations into Russia’s efforts to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
In a campaign during which Black Lives Matter activists regularly protested candidates' policies and the KKK endorsed Trump's plan to return the United States to yesteryear, Russia appeared to be aware of how cultural changes were. Because the Russian operatives appeared to be highlighting themes similar to the ones Trump and his supporters shared on social media, American investigators are seeking to discover whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
“Their aim was to sow chaos,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.”
The Post added that “the nature and detail of these ads have troubled investigators at Facebook, on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department, say people familiar with the advertisements, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share matters still under investigation.”
But does this intentionally divisive approach trouble the president?
After the most divisive presidential election in history, Trump promised to be a uniter in his inauguration speech.
“The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity,” he said then. “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.
But few Americans think Trump has led the way in unifying a deeply divided country. A recent Post/ABC News poll shows that most Americans — 66 percent — think Trump is showing himself to be the most divisive president in recent history.
And one of the reasons is that Trump repeatedly handles the United States' ongoing race problems in a way that many Americans find problematic. It was just a month ago when most Americans reacted negatively to the president blaming both activists and white supremacists for a tragic Charlottesville incident that led to the death of an anti-racist protester. Weeks later, the White House demanded an apology after an ESPN anchor called him a white supremacist. And nearly 6 in 10 Americans surveyed for a Quinnipiac poll think Trump has encouraged white supremacists.
With the percentage of Americans worrying a great deal about race relations being at a record high — 42 percent, according to Gallup — some are looking to the president to address these issues in a way that values all Americans — not just his base.
But by saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now” about mostly black athletes protesting racism in the United States during a speech in Alabama, a Southern state with a long history of racial tension, and then days later telling the media that his words had nothing to do with race, Trump does not seem to be on track to helping heal the deep wounds of racism.
If anything, for many his words are salt on the wounds that he first created during his campaign when he claimed that black neighborhoods in urban America were worse than war zones in developing countries.
“Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen,” he said in Akron, Ohio, in 2016, describing black communities. “You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.”
“And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out,” Trump said.
So far, Trump has been dismissive of intelligence saying that Russia meddled in the election. And as far as the country's race relations problem goes, it doesn't seem like he can “straighten it out” soon. But the Facebook ads are clear evidence that an American adversary not only grasped the racial and social dynamics of the country, but they also recognized it as a vulnerability they could exploit.
So far, their bet on Trump further sowing discontent seems to be paying off. And unless something changes, a foreign power looking to the president's supporters to cause greater division in the country could continue.