Before we leave this election behind or reduce its outcome to a single cause in order to fashion a simple narrative, enshrining some lessons while discarding others, it’s worth noting that Donald Trump’s win, to some degree, came about because of a cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russian government.
Certainly other factors were at play: widespread socio-cultural-economic dislocation, especially in the Rust Belt, which Trump homed in on and Hillary Clinton ignored; the fears of terrorism and immigration, which Trump conflated at mass rallies; the appetite for the new; the media’s attraction to spectacle and drama; FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh hour letter to Congress; attempts at voter suppression; a sinewy backdrop of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism; and the stunningly deep hatred for Hillary Clinton among people of all ideologies and genders.
And yet, in an election so close (Clinton would have won had she earned just another 12,000 votes in Michigan, 19,000 in Wisconsin, and 70,000 in Pennsylvania), each cause of defeat might be a pivotal cause, and one of those causes was the caches of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, then provided to the press by WikiLeaks.
The first set of leaks revealed that the DNC had colluded with the Clinton campaign to weaken Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid in the primaries. This bit of news alienated many of his supporters from Clinton, in some cases irredeemably, after she won the nomination—and it seemed to support Trump’s bellowed claim (practically his campaign slogan) that the system was rigged.
Then, after the primaries, came the emails from within the Clinton campaign, a few of which made her seem two-faced, bereft of a message, and of occasionally poor judgment. Trump, and with him the press, played up all of these emails (while ignoring many others that painted a more positive picture), which lent credence to his “crooked Hillary” theme.
It’s a fair bet that these emails, and the way the campaigns played them, had some impact on the election. And that’s why it is important to remember the unusually specific conclusion, issued by the director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security on Oct. 7, that “the Russian government directed” the hacking of those emails—in fact, judging from the “scope and sensitivity” of the hacks, “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities”—and that the hacks were “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
If this assessment is true (and it reflected the unanimous judgment of the U.S. intelligence community), the Russian government—probably including Vladimir Putin himself—engaged in acts of espionage designed to disrupt an American election, help tilt its outcome to a favored candidate (or help delegitimize his opponent if she won), and thus shape U.S. policies over the next several years, perhaps especially those affecting Russian interests. This foreign-intelligence operation may not have been the main factor behind Trump’s victory, but the astonishing thing is it worked.
If this inference seems over the top, consider the curious fact that we never read any emails from inside the Republican National Committee or the Trump campaign, even though their computer servers were at least as vulnerable to hacking as Clinton’s. Judging from the internal rancor recounted in several news stories leading up to the election, some of those emails would probably have been at least as damaging.
None of this is to say, as some have suggested, that Trump is a Russian agent (“the Siberian candidate”). But it is indisputable that some of Trump’s policy ideas (on Syria and NATO in particular) do converge with Russia’s interests, as newscasters on the Kremlin-controlled Russian Television have repeatedly proclaimed; that Trump has never criticized Putin for anything, not even for the annexation of Crimea; and that he has refused even to acknowledge Russia’s role in hacking the DNC (even after hearing an intelligence briefing that did just that), while repeating many other claims, which have no factual basis whatever, about President Obama, Clinton, and various allied leaders.
Two conclusions emerge from this sordid tale. First, through our socioeconomic dependence on the internet and our failure to adopt serious security measures, we have laid ourselves wildly open to foreign infiltration and influence. Much has been written about the vulnerability of banks, power grids, water works, transportation networks, military command-control systems, and other elements of “critical infrastructure”—all of them hooked up to the internet for reasons of economy and convenience (now joined, at a growing clip, by the Internet of Things in our household appliances). But until this election, few have realized how easily hackers can steal and disseminate information for the purpose of manipulating public opinion and the democratic process.
Second, the election is over, but the manipulation may not be. If the Russians did hack the Trump campaign’s email (as they almost certainly did), they could leak—or threaten to leak—some of those over the course of his presidency, if doing so would further Moscow’s interests or impede Washington’s. One might imagine a choice bit of anti-Semitism from campaign adviser (now White House counselor) Stephen Bannon’s outbox just as Trump is trying to wrangle a deal with Israel—or some rant about the Europeans, from some top aide’s laptop, as Trump is coming around to the wisdom of keeping the trans-Atlantic alliance in place—or … the possibilities are endless.
It’s a new world, “interdependent” in ways that those who coined the term had never imagined, and though the warning signs have been flashing for decades, we have failed to take serious precautions.