The CIA, according to The Washington Post, has now determined that hackers working for the Russian government worked to tilt the 2016 election to Donald Trump. This has actually been obvious for months, but the agency was reluctant to state that conclusion before the election out of fear that it would be seen as taking a political role.
Meanwhile, the FBI went public 10 days before the election, dominating headlines and TV coverage across the country with a letter strongly implying that it might be about to find damning new evidence against Hillary Clinton – when it turned out, literally, to have found nothing at all.
Did the combination of Russian and FBI intervention swing the election? Yes. Clinton lost three states – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – by less than a percentage point, and Florida by only slightly more. If she had won any three of those states, she would be president-elect. Is there any reasonable doubt that Putin/Comey made the difference?
And it wouldn’t have been seen as a marginal victory, either. Even as it was, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than her opponent, giving her a popular margin close to that of George W. Bush in 2004.
So this was a tainted election. It was not, as far as we can tell, stolen in the sense that votes were counted wrong, and the result won’t be overturned. But the result was nonetheless illegitimate in important ways; the victor was rejected by the public, and won the electoral college only thanks to foreign intervention and grotesquely inappropriate, partisan behavior on the part of domestic law enforcement.
The question now is what to do with that horrifying knowledge in the months and years ahead.
One could, I suppose, appeal to the president-elect to act as a healer, to conduct himself in a way that respects the majority of Americans who voted against him and the fragility of his electoral college victory. Yeah, right. What we’re actually getting are wild claims that millions of people voted illegally, false assertions of a landslide, and denigration of the intelligence agencies.
Another course of action, which you’ll see many in the news media taking, is to normalize the incoming administration, basically to pretend that everything is OK. This might – might – be justified if there were any prospect of responsible, restrained behavior on the part of the next president. In reality, however, it’s clear that Trump – whose personal conflicts of interest are unprecedented, and quite possibly unconstitutional – intends to move U.S. policy radically away from the preferences of most Americans, including a pronounced pro-Russian shift in foreign policy.
In other words, nothing that happened on Election Day or is happening now is normal. Democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic. This president will have a lot of legal authority, which must be respected. But beyond that, nothing: he doesn’t deserve deference, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
And when, as you know will happen, the administration begins treating criticism as unpatriotic, the answer should be: You have to be kidding. Trump is, by all indications, the Siberian candidate, installed with the help of and remarkably deferential to a hostile foreign power. And his critics are the people who lack patriotism?
Will acknowledging the taint on the incoming administration do any good? Maybe it will stir the consciences of at least a few Republicans. Remember, many, though not all, of the things Trump will try to do can be blocked by just three Republican senators.
Politics being what it is, moral backbones on Capitol Hill will be stiffened if there are clear signs that the public is outraged by what is happening. And there will be a chance to make that outrage felt directly in two years – not just in congressional elections, but in votes that will determine control of many state governments.
Now, outrage over the tainted election past can’t be the whole of opposition politics. It will also be crucial to maintain the heat over actual policies. Everything we’ve seen so far says that Trump is going to utterly betray the interests of the white working-class voters who were his most enthusiastic supporters, stripping them of health care and retirement security, and this betrayal should be highlighted.
But we ought to be able to look both forward and back, to criticize both the way Trump gained power and the way he uses it. Personally, I’m still figuring out how to keep my anger simmering – letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was an outrage, and we should never forget it.