Be wary: Trump and Putin could yet bring democracy to a halt

If Russia is allowed to wield the same influence in the midterm elections as the presidential campaign, US politics may reach a point of no return.

In November next year the United States will hold its midterm elections. Every seat in the House of Representatives, and a third of the seats in the Senate, will be up for grabs. For the Democratic party the elections represent a desperately anticipated opportunity to break the Republicans’ complete control of the federal government. If historical midterm trends and the voting patterns of recent special elections hold up, Democrats have a fighting chance of winning back the House, and an outside shot at the Senate.

The Republicans will be more desperate than ever to retain their power. If the Democrats win just one chamber, the political landscape will be transformed. In addition to blocking the GOP’s legislative agenda, Democrats will forcefully scrutinise Russia’s interference with the 2016 elections and investigate President Trump’s remarkable commercialisation of his office. Impeachment of the Republican president will become a real possibility. Everything depends on the wishes of the American voters in 2018.

Or does it? There is a third, even more momentous scenario: another Russian cyber-offensive sways the outcome of a US election in accordance with the wishes of Russia, not American voters. What is being done to prevent this?

After emails revealed that Russian actors colluded with Donald Trump Jr in June 2016 as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”, it is clearer than ever that the Russian “active measures” – cyber-warfare and campaigns of propaganda and disinformation – seriously affected the 2016 elections. Fake news and bogus comments were disseminated on news and social media platforms, and cyber-attacks were used to tactically leak internal Democratic party communications. The voting systems of at least 39 states were penetrated by hackers.

There is no evidence (maybe because no voting machines have been examined) that the hackers changed vote tallies. The US may not be so lucky in 2018. According to the congressional testimony of the cyber-security expert Alex Halderman, America’s enemies could quite feasibly tamper with the voting apparatus “to invisibly cause any candidate to win”. The American intelligence community asserts that Russia, given its success in 2016, will almost certainly be back, perhaps more aggressively and potently than ever.

On Thursday the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote to its Republican counterpart, the NRCC, requesting a joint effort to protect the 2018 elections from cyber-attacks. It also asked the committee to give a “steadfast commitment” that it “will refrain from the use of any stolen or altered documents or strategic information as part of any past or potential future hack on our committee or campaigns”. The NRCC has yet to respond.

In more normal times the Russian national security threat would elicit an immediate bipartisan response. Proportionate sanctions would be imposed and maintained as a punishment and deterrent. Steps would be taken to secure and audit voting machinery and voter registration bases, with paper ballots introduced if necessary. Relevant intelligence would be collected and coordinated by federal and state authorities united by a desire to protect American voters.

But these are abnormal times. Republicans have just voted to defund the election assistance commission, the federal agency responsible for electoral security; and, whether in Washington or in state governments, they have done nothing to suggest that they view hostile election interference as a pressing and serious problem.

Then there’s Donald Trump, the Republican president. He recently tweeted that Russian interference was “all a big Dem HOAX!”, and at last week’s G20 meeting he accepted Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Russia hadn’t meddled with the US election. At the same meeting, the parties agreed to set up a US-Russian unit to guard against election hacking – a proposal so counterintuitive that even Republican senators have ridiculed it, for now.

The unstated reality here is that “Russian meddling with US elections” is a politic phrase. “Russian meddling” actually refers to Russia unlawfully participating in a US election on behalf of the Republicans. It should not be forgotten that almost a dozen Democratic House candidates were also attacked and damaged by Russian measures. Asking Republicans to stop this happening again is asking them to deprive themselves of a potentially crucial electoral ally.

It may be argued that this is all a bit too dark. Whereas many Republicans could more or less plausibly claim to have been unaware of the gravity of the 2016 attacks, that claim wouldn’t work in 2018. They would be seen to have knowingly, indeed culpably, permitted the Russians to illegally assist them. That would not be politically tenable.

The problem is that political tenability is largely determined by the electoral victors; and the Republicans, if they are the beneficiaries of a rigged midterm vote, will have the authority to decide if their own power is tenable and if it isn’t. This is a win-at-all-costs party that ruthlessly suppresses votes and gerrymanders districts; has brazenly stolen a supreme court seat; has set up an election integrity commission to combat the nonexistent problem of massive voter fraud; and (as we’re seeing in the attempted passage of the American health care act) has abandoned the basic norms of truthfulness and good faith in congressional cooperation, on which the American political system depends. If Russia is ready and willing to alter vote tallies in favour of the GOP, does anyone really believe that Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence or Donald Trump would voluntarily stop it?

The truth of the matter is that unless Republican politicians are pressured into taking prompt and effective defensive measures (paper ballots, for instance), we can look forward, in 2018, to a repetition of 2016. It will be the Democrats v the Republicans and an enormously well-funded battalion of foreign hackers and propagandists.

The beauty of this scenario, from a Republican point of view, is that collusion will not even be required. The Russian offensive last year was a dry run for future offensives. Next time round, their assistance will arrive like manna from heaven, only more effectively.

Were a de facto GOP-Moscow alliance once again to win a national US election, the incentive to repeat and, if necessary, strengthen the formula in 2020 would be even more powerful. It goes without saying that America’s old experiment with democracy will, by this point, have come to a complete halt.