There has been plenty of fighting over exactly what Vladimir Putin's goal was in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. The intelligence community has concluded he favored Donald Trump, but Trump has publicly cast doubt on this, and members of his administration have regularly sought to obscure it.
In a way this all misses the point. The even-bigger motivation wasn't necessarily about Trump personally; it was about destabilizing the American system of government. “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” begins the January 2017 report from the U.S. intelligence community. Trump, by virtue of his controversial style and tendency to destroy societal norms, simply became the most obvious conduit — arguably a near-perfect one, in fact.
And this week showed just what a success it all has been for Putin.
Nearly every week we feel as though we've crossed the Rubicon, but this week outflanked the vast majority of them. The president of the United States publicly suggested his attorney general shut down an investigation of the president of the United States. Tensions between President Trump and the media boiled over at a couple Trump rallies, and the White House seemed to double down on its emerging campaign to tag the media not just as “fake news” but the “enemy of the American people.” And a growing number of Trump supporters at those same rallies seemed to be embracing a particularly bizarre, baseless and dangerous conspiracy theory known as “QAnon” — which could soon, with just one tweet from our conspiracy-theorist president, explode.
Large swaths of the country have decided that Trump is guilty of collusion and obstruction of justice. Many have also decided he is beholden to Putin — that the Russian president does have that much-discussed kompromat on Trump. There are certainly much more innocent explanations, including that Trump is merely the world's most politically powerful contrarian — a guy who can't be controlled and who is bent on getting and keeping the country's attention no matter what it takes.
But the practical implications are really the same: Whatever his reasons, we have a president who is quite happy to destabilize the system of American government — and indeed thinks that's the goal in many ways. And destabilizing it he is.
Trump's style has at once drawn his supporters to rally around him almost unflinchingly and forced others to adopt new, unfamiliar tactics. Democrats have increasingly warmed to a more extreme response to Trump, up to and including impeachment, public harassment of Trump officials, and shuttering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The media, whose job it is to promote and protect the truth, has been forced into an unusually antagonistic relationship with Trump, given his more than 4,000 misleading claims and falsehoods as president and his flouting of political and diplomatic norms. And for Trump's supporters, this has reinforced the us-vs.-them dichotomy. Everyone is digging in.
Leading that list is Trump. Mere hours after his top national security officials on Thursday emphasized their hard work to prevent a repeat of 2016 in November's election, Trump was emphasizing a positive relationship with Putin. He has also increasingly called the special-counsel investigation that seeks accountability for 2016 (and has indicted more than two dozen Russians) a “witch hunt” that is chasing after a “hoax.” And the most recent word from him also suggests he still doesn't totally buy the intel community's conclusions. Through all of it, Trump has challenged his supporters to place inordinate faith in him and to embrace his scorched-earth tactics, and they have obliged.
I've written before about how I think this all will end poorly, with no easy resolution and the distinct possibility of a full-fledged crisis. With so many people so vehemently subscribing to polar-opposite versions of the truth and prescriptions for the country's future, sometimes it seems a historic clash is inevitable. The best we can say is that the system has held strong — that the economy is buzzing along and that Trump's affronts to our allies and flirtation with our enemies hasn't actually led to the disaster that many Trump opponents have predicted.
The trouble with the state of affairs is that, if and/or when that crisis arrives, we're unusually ill equipped to deal with it, because we have almost no sense of agreement about the underlying causes and two sides with very real senses of serious political aggrievement. And that means we may have almost no real ability to come together and deal with it.