Facebook ads purchased by Russia during the 2016 campaign and released by Congress this month reveal a clear intent to create havoc in the United States — and should make Americans both wary and embarrassed.
They also sent a clear message to Americans compliments of Russian President Vladimir Putin: You mess with me, I’ll mess with you.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be vulnerable to such exploitation of social media by failing to control our easily manipulated passions and by our own gullibility. And President Trump’s constant slamming of the legitimate media and his base’s eagerness to embrace the message have surely served Putin and his operatives well.
Getting inside America’s head wasn’t so much genius as it was easy. The Russian model was basically Trump’s: Listen to what people are worried about, then throw fire at it.
If immigration boiled your blood, you might have seen a Facebook ad featuring a “No Invaders Allowed” sign. Or, if racism wasn’t far from your heart, you might have seen a flag-draped coffin with the words, “Another gruesome attack on police by a [Black Lives Matter] movement activist.” If you believed that a Hillary Clinton victory would lead to a godless society, you might have seen an ad depicting Jesus arm-wrestling Satan. Satan says: “If I win Clinton Wins!”; Jesus: “Not if I can help it!”
Without leaving his chair, Putin could penetrate American psyches, reinforce biases and excite tempers in sufficient numbers to create a zeitgeist — or, preferably, a mob. He doubtless savored the taste of such power.
While true Putin strenuously dislikes Clinton, it’s not clear whether he cared about Trump one way or the other. A Russian conspiracy? Sure, but it looks increasingly likely that, except for some amateur-hour attempts by Trump’s people to get dirt on Clinton, the conspiracy was mostly among Russians.
And it seems apparent in retrospect that when hackers broke into Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee email accounts and dripped their contents, Putin was letting Clinton know what he could do: That if she were to be elected, she’d best take him into account.
Meanwhile, the Sturm und Drang of Americans against Russia has a reflexive feel to it.
“Hating Russia is like riding a bicycle,” laughs Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and international affairs professor at the New School in New York . She has argued since Trump’s election that Russia was trying to reveal America’s weakness and demonstrate how easily Putin could exert his power without having to leverage anything.
Like his U.S. counterpart, Putin isn’t really that complicated. A little experience with psychoanalysis helps some, but history helps a lot.
Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: a story President George W. Bush told me bears repeating. Putin had invited Bush to Russia following his own visit to Crawford, Tex., where the two spun around the ranch in W’s truck. I have a photo of the two seated side-by-side, grinning like boys skipping school.
Putin had noticed the Bush family’s Scottish Terrier , Barney, and wanted to show the U.S. president his own dog. As Bush recounted, a gigantic beast (a Labrador) came galloping toward him and began circling him. After a few laps, Putin smiled and said, “Bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner than Barney.”
Bush understood this moment and let it guide him in his dealings with the Russian president. He grasped that Putin hungered for respect, that he desired to be recognized as a power equal to, if not greater than, Bush. Though Bush granted Putin respect-with-distrust, his successor did not.
President Obama’s dismissiveness toward Putin, combined with Clinton’s condemnation of Russian elections as secretary of state, likely gave Putin the impetus to fight back in his own way.
In Khrushcheva’s view, Putin doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. As for everyday Russians, they find this all rather amusing. Khrushcheva notes that her former compatriots either love or hate America, with little light in between. Overwhelmingly, however, they fail to see why Americans persistently bask in their storied exceptionalism.
Many countries have seen us lie and interfere with their affairs. They’ve seen us invade nations and install military bases. Our ebullient pride in the supremacy of our goodness can be viewed by others as boastful hubris. At the end of the day, everybody wants respect, none more, apparently, than dictators and unduly elected presidents such as Putin.
Warily, we observe that they’ll do most anything to get it.