About that Russian Hacking

Hillary says Putin wants a puppet in office. Trump says Putin has no respect for Obama or for Hillary. Peggy Noonan says Putin sees American leadership as "decadent and unworthy of traditional diplomatic norms" (whatever that means). What I think is that Putin very strategically wants to take US military and moral leadership down a peg or two (or more) and its time we started talking about it.

Since WWII the US has had the upper hand on both hard power and soft: we have by far the world's strongest military and we also wield considerable influence based on our image of being relatively free of corruption and of abiding strong democratic and humanitarian values. We use both kinds of power to advance our interests and to undermine Putin's.

Putin hates that because it gets in his way. But more importantly Putin thinks it's all BS. As for hard power, he knows he can't beat us through conventional military means. But he also knows that we are loathe to really use military power under anything but extreme circumstances (or else where we can do so without risking our own lives). So he is pushing our boundaries with major (but just minor enough) incursions into Ukraine, by running roughshod in Syria and though myriad tiny infractions that serve to establish a new normal of "acceptable". (China is doing the same in the South China Sea). This chips away at our hard power, rather than confronting it directly.

The email hacking is aimed at doing the same thing, but this time its goal is to chip away our soft power. Putin thinks all leaders are just as corrupt and undemocratic as he is, but that the west gets away with it by hiding behind a veneer of holiness. Putin’s dream is to be able to point at the US President and say "pipe down, you are no better than me." (China fully supports him on that). It is not that certain people (e.g., the Clintons) fall short. It's that the aura of the west's supposed moral high ground is a hot air balloon and he wants to leak the air out of it little by little.

To challenge him, the President needs legitimacy. Since the legitimacy of the presidency depends on the legitimacy of our electoral process, Putin wants to undermine the process one leaked email at a time.

He hasn’t been able to effectively do that to Obama because Obama’s approach has been (a) to conduct himself in a way that is beyond reproach (say what you will about naïveté, Obama has been one clean cookie) but also (b) to consistently acknowledge our shortcomings as a democracy yet nevertheless to insist that we always strive toward our ideals. (I have always really appreciated and agreed with that approach.)

Hillary (and Bill) have a different view. If Trump says, "ah screw it, let's just call a spade a spade," and Obama says "yes we can strive to be more perfect", the Clinton's have always said, "you can't do good unless you have power". And if power lays with Wall Street, with Quatar and Morocco, with Hollywood, then it is what it is. Power requires money, connections and high office. And so they ride all of this while skirting a line sometimes just shy of unethical. Putin wants to expose this as a game and turn it to his advantage. He wants to bring Hillary down to his level. And maybe she has given him the opportunities.

But that logic doesn't lead you to Trump. Just the opposite.

On the hard power, Trump's approach is clearly in line with Putin. Trump basically wants us to get out of the business of protecting anything other than our own borders and then beyond that, let the chips fall where they may naturally. If that means Russia reasserts itself in Eastern Europe and Syria, China in the South China Sea, Iran vis-a-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia, North Korea vis-a-vis South Korea and Japan, then so be it. Putin is perfectly happy with that.

On the soft stuff, Putin doesn't have to bring Trump down a notch because Trump is already firmly on the bottom rung. But Trump has gone a whole lot further than that. He built his political movement on undermining the legitimacy of the President (and thereby of the Presidency which is the most potent vehicle for our soft power). Trump's more recent huffing and puffing about the election being rigged is part-in-parcel. Trump's not doing it to try to overturn a possible loss. He wants to be able to claim down the road that Hillary is illegitimate as a political tactic. Same with our courts and our financial system. From Putin's perspective, what's not to love?

Moreover, Trump fundamentally agrees with Putin's critique. He has been absolutely clear that he sees "American exceptionalism" as a bunch of hooey. Trump wants to bust the myth that America is somehow "good" because he thinks that position holds us back from fully pursuing our own interests.

Vladimir Putin is not American and has no patriotic obligation to respect our image. But Donald Trump is and he does have that obligation. I do too. So I don't see how anyone who considers themselves a patriot could support Trump. But I also see why a patriot could have a hard time with Hillary. Personally, I'd rather cling to the fiction (even if we are subjecting ourselves to four years of wrestling over the messy relationship the Clinton's have with money and politics) than to simply give up what moral high ground we have left.

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