Each week brings more details (also here) about the tremendous scope and sophistication of Russian efforts to hijack ("meddle" is far too gentle a term by this point) the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. We now see that their objective was not merely to influence the vote in favor of their preferred candidate, but to attack the fabric of American democracy itself.
Vladimir Putin has plenty of reasons why he wants a weaker, less effective United States; some concern protecting his vast personal wealth, others have to do with his political ambitions to re-make Russia into a world power. In any case, western democracy in general and the United States in particular are in his way.
Russia waged a stunningly successful campaign by going back to their old KGB playbook. As a former KGB officer himself, Putin knows that book cold. But now he has access to communication and mass-media technology unimaginable when he was a young operative. The old game of weakening a country by supporting opposition groups met with mixed success in the past. We know now that a number of leftish organizations in the '60s and '70s did get some support from the Soviets. But they never saw the level of success seen recently when they helped elect a rancid yam with Tourette Syndrome to the Oval Office. Why was that strategy so much more effective this time around? Apart from the technology--which was largely an accelerant--there are two main reasons.
First is a new twist on the old subversion game. It is a strategic approach known as the Gerasimov Doctrine. This is a type of warfare that inverts the famous dictum of Carl Von Clausewitz, such that politics has become war by other means. The Gerasimov Doctrine, briefly put, involves spreading disinformation, distortion, but also supporting a wide range of opposing groups, even groups that would be opposed to your agenda. The goal isn't to create a new dogma or conventional wisdom but instead (and this is the really important part) to cause people to doubt their ability to know what is even real. Everything becomes so confused, so discordant, every issue so riven with competing rhetoric, that any hope of knowing what the hell is going on is crushed.
In such an environment, anyone with enough power can do whatever they please with little chance of being held accountable even if their misdeeds become public knowledge. It should come as no surprise that Steve Bannon and other Trump advisors are diligent students of Vladislav Surkov, an early contributor to what became the Gerasimov Doctrine and related political strategies. The United States, meanwhile, is struggling to cope with a new form of warfare unlike any it has seen before.
The second reason for Russia's success is that the target population is far more vulnerable. During the Cold War, a far more vigorous national press made short work of a lot of Communist propaganda efforts. They reported fairly reliably about life in the Soviet Union--so much so that many Soviet citizens got their news from Voice of America, and also managed to spot and debunk most of the disinformation aimed at the United States. People were used to a reliable press, and trust in government institutions was high. The press also successful held certain Republican government officials accountable for serious misdeeds, of which the resignation of President Nixon was only the most prominent result.
In order to prevent the press from further embarrassing the Republican Party, and in an effort to find alternate ways of influencing the general public, conservatives in the early '70s adopted a new strategy for changing the media landscape. The cutting edge of this new strategy emerged when Fox News went on the air in 1996. This conservative organ used classic propaganda techniques, inflammatory rhetoric, slanted or made-up news stories, carefully staged interviews, and potent linguistic and rhetorical tools to push the following ideological points:
- The U.S. government is the enemy of ordinary Americans, unable to do anything without wasting money or wrecking some treasured aspect of american life.
- Corporate entities, private enterprise, deregulated capitalism (free markets) is the answer to every problem.
- Minorities--especially blacks and hispanics--immigrants, Muslims, the poor, feminists, gays, liberals, artists ("Hollywood"), intellectuals, academics, etc., are the cause of all problems. They infest the government to the point that it is impossible to trust anything the government does.
- These same people are "enemies" who are not "real" Americans. They are actively seeking to destroy the United States from within.
- Most of all, "the media", particularly news media, are now the "liberal media" and can not be trusted to tell the truth about anything. Fox, naturally, is above such reproach.
The resulting erosion of trust in government, the abandonment of the national news media for a more focused information stream including conservative hate radio, etc., but centered around Fox, meant that large portions of America were being fed an information diet designed to weaken their commitment to the basic civic foundations of the United States. That trust in government institutions and the press, even tempered by the understandable skepticism inherent in the unrest of the 1960s and early '70s, generally assumed that the United States was essentially good and worth preserving. Questioning the patriotism of a dissenter was considered inappropriate (most of the time).
That popular trust was the bulwark against which Cold War propaganda failed to gain any meaningful foothold.
By eroding trust in government, by sowing suspicion and even hatred among American citizens, Fox News and their fellow travelers essentially prepared the battlefield--albeit unwittingly--for the Russians to use so successfully in 2016, and which they continue to use today.
Dwight Eisenhower's famous Farewell Address warned that the future challenges America faced could be met "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry..." While he was talking at the time about the dangers posed by the nascent military-industrial complex, clearly such measures are imperative in a war of weaponized information, especially when it comes from within.