Both visions are overblown (particularly the latter). But whether you fear Russians or Muslims has become a curious indicator of partisan alignments in the United States. A similar dynamic also seems to be emerging on the other side of the Atlantic.
After a fleeting reprieve, the Trump administration is yet again buffeted by controversy surrounding its contacts with Russian officials. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now joined ousted national security adviser Michael T. Flynn in apparently misleading U.S. authorities when questioned about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (For now, the substance of the conversations between the two men isn't the issue.)
On Wednesday night, my colleagues broke the story of two previously undisclosed meetings last year between Sessions and Kislyak. On Thursday, amid a media firestorm, Sessions recused himself from ongoing investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. He may now also face a fight for his job: Leading Democratic politicians are calling for his resignation — and for a special prosecutor to launch an investigation into the Trump campaign's Russia ties.
The partisan bickering in Washington mirrors a broader, deeply fractured political landscape. Overall, as a Gallup poll published last month revealed, American attitudes toward Russian President Vladimir Putin have grown more and more negative over the past decade.
But there is a pronounced partisan split, with Putin's favorability among Republicans jumping some 20 points over the course of a campaign now shadowed by allegations of Russian meddling.
Defenders of the Trump administration are already lashing out at the Democrats' supposed witch-hunt, arguing that the contacts with Kislyak — a diplomat whose job it is to meet local politicians and power-brokers — are being overplayed and that the Democratic uproar is simply a case of sour grapes.
It seems ironic that Republicans, who spent decades aggressively grandstanding on any threat posed by Moscow, now look benignly upon Putin. But, as we noted earlier, there is a genuine ideological affinity between some American conservatives and Russia's right-wing, nationalist leader.
Meanwhile, Democrats seem unconvinced about Trump's fear-mongering and promises of civilizational war with Islam: A separate Gallup poll also published last month found a huge gulf between Republicans and Democrats over Trump's attempts to halt Syrian refugee resettlement, underscoring a pronounced ideological divide over immigration and attitudes toward Muslims. A large majority of Democrats do want to see further investigations into Russian activities and disapprove of Trump's supposed friendliness toward Moscow.
Increasingly, what you choose to get animated about — the hand of Russia or the cultural danger posed by Islam — marks out your electoral choices, as well. The battle lines may be more stark in the U.S., but they've been clearly drawn on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, leading far-right politicians, including French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, have publicly stood up for Russia in the face of E.U. censure. In some cases, far-right European parties maintain direct ties to the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Le Pen's critics in the French political establishment have for weeks been pointing to alleged acts of Russian meddling in the French elections, including reports of hacking targeting Le Pen's main opponents. "This kind of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable," said Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault last month. "The French will not accept anyone dictating their [electoral] choices."
According to German officials, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long been warning about apparent Russian interference in European elections, is now Europe's "main target of fake news articles" — an online disinformation campaign some E.U. officials are connecting to Moscow.
Instead, the far-right's common rallying cries are the supposed threat of Islam and the potential death of Western culture. Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician whose far-right party will likely claim a significant chunk of parliamentary seats in elections this month, believes "Islam and freedom are not compatible" and that Islam is a "totalitarian ideology," not a faith. That intolerant view is seemingly shared by some senior Trump advisers.
But it's pretty clear what the source of greater alarm for sober-minded security experts in Western capitals is right now. (Hint: It's not Muslim immigration.) At a global security conference held in Munich last month, Vice President Pence was compelled to address the Kremlin-shaped elephant in the room. "Know this," he said, " the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable."
Even relative minnows on the continent are steeling themselves for what may come. On Thursday, Sweden's defense minister announced a reintroduction of military conscription — to counter the danger of a resurgent Russia, not to guard against Muslim immigrants as those on the far-right suggested.
“We have a Russian annexation of Crimea, we have the aggression in Ukraine, we have more exercise activities in our neighborhood," said Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist. "So we have decided to build a stronger national defense.”
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