Last week, an Agence France-Presse news report published in Le Soir, a major French language daily newspaper, made the rounds on social media. The story suggested that the campaign of leading French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia. The report was immediately retweeted by right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. It was fake news as it turned out―actual fake news, not the Donald Trump variety. It was clickbait mocked up to look like Le Soir, with the intention of slandering the leading presidential contender in the upcoming French elections. Like déjà vu all over again, it provided a stark reminder that ours are not the only politics that have been under attack.
Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party as an extreme right-wing, nationalist movement. She has led the normalization of the National Front in France, and the parallel rise of right-wing populist movements cross Europe. The National Front’s anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platform in the French presidential race mirrors that of the Donald Trump campaign.
The National Front has received significant funding from a Russian bank. Marine Le Pen supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, opposes sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and proposes to pull France out of both the European Union and NATO. If Le Pen were to win the French elections beginning next month, it would change the face of Europe. She is currently in a dead heat in the first round of polling, though well behind in a projected second round runoff. If she does prevail, it would mark a dramatic victory for the cyber and information operations that Vladimir Putin has orchestrated against the West.
Russian fear of and hostility toward the West is not new and not unique to Vladimir Putin. It may not seem relevant to Americans as they consider Putin’s aggressive behavior, but Russia is a country with no natural defenses―neither oceans nor mountains―that has been surrounded over the centuries by innumerable external enemies. Only the Russian winter and spring mud enabled Russia to withstand invasions by Sweden, France and Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. If Russians seem paranoid, it is not because people haven’t been out to get them. In America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, 2,500 miles from the mainland, is our only experience with being invaded. We cannot relate to the impact on a national psyche of being invaded repeatedly over the centuries.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been in a state of demographic decline and economic turmoil, and under political siege by the West, as the European Union and NATO have each expanded into former Soviet states that once protected Russia from the west. It is no secret that Putin has trying for years to push back against western encroachment into what he terms Russia’s “near abroad,” and Russia’s efforts to influence and undermine elections across Europe over the past several decades are part of that effort.
Putin’s objectives in recent years have included (i) undermining public confidence in core democratic institutions in the advanced western democracies, (ii) building support for opposition parties that might challenge the pro-western, anti-Russian political consensus across Europe, and (iii) driving a wedge between European public opinion and the United States, which has led the alliance of western advanced industrial democracies since the end of World War II.
The election of Le Pen in France would constitute Putin’s second major victory in his cyber warfare and information operations strategy, because he is already well underway to a first victory in the United States. By all accounts, Putin’s objectives in operations against the United States have similarly been to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, as well as to undermine the widely anticipated Hillary Clinton presidency by polarizing public opinion against her and undermining her political stature such that she would be less effective once elected.
The media and political focus continues to be on whether a collaborative relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign can be proven. Last week former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated that the U.S. intelligence services had no evidence documenting such a relationship, though reiterated as well that the intelligence community believed that Putin―whose animosity toward Clinton was well known―clearly preferred that Trump win.
And for good reason. If Putin’s goals have been to undermine public confidence in and support for core democratic institutions across the U.S. public, Donald Trump has proven to be as good an agent of change as he could have hoped for. Whatever their relationship, Trump has systematically sought to undermine public confidence in our electoral system, the judiciary, the press and the intelligence services.
And it has worked. In the wake of Trump’s continuing insistence that the American electoral system is rigged and rife with voter fraud―despite the lack of any credible evidence―two-thirds of Trump supporters, and nearly half of the electorate as a whole, now apparently believe, that voter fraud is significant.
With respect to the fourth estate, Trump’s cynical campaign to brand major news outlets as purveyors of fake news ― ultimately declaring them to be enemies of the people ― has similarly worked, as recent polling suggests that 65 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of the general public have bought into Trump’s contention that reporters makes stories up out of whole cloth.
Trump’s ongoing war with the intelligence services has put Putin within reach of the Holy Grail of the Russian intelligence: driving a wedge between the U.S. intelligence services and the president, leaving the public uncertain of what information on the threats to the nation they should believe.
Putin understands well that public faith in the integrity of the election system, the independent judiciary and the free press are central to the stability of western democracies. It is what separates them from countries like Venezuela. Or, for that matter, Russia.
Most recently, in the wake of Trump’s tweets claiming that Barack Obama bugged his phone, Donald Trump and his senior strategist Steve Bannon have begun to push the narrative that there is a “deep state” that is plotting to overthrow his presidency. The deep state ― a cabal of the intelligence services in collaboration with the former president ― is a conspiracy theorists dream. It likens the United States to countries like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, where real power is widely viewed as tightly held within the military and intelligence circles. Where the deep state rules, democracy is an illusory concept.
So far, the deep state narrative has had limited traction beyond Trump’s most partisan stalwarts, though on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dutifully doubled down on it. But the Wikileaks dumping of the CIA Vault 7 documents should add credibility to the deep state narrative among conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters alike, suggesting that like the news media, the CIA is the enemy of the people.
The fake news attacks against the French elections should serve as a reminder that we actually have real enemies, and they aren’t the news media or the CIA. It may be hard for Republicans embroiled in the heat of our daily politics to keep matters in perspective, but investigating whether or not the Trump campaign was in cahoots with Russian intelligence is not about party loyalty. It is about, first and foremost, a very cunning foreign adversary who has succeeded in undermining the integrity of our election and those of our allies. And, second, it is about whether one political campaign conspired with a foreign adversary for its own political advantage. It is about the security and integrity of our democracy.
And then there is the very separate issue of Donald Trump’s conduct. Whether out of some alignment of interests with Putin ― or more likely for his own self-interested reasons ― the Manchurian President who now sits in the Oval Office has repeatedly acted to undermine core institutions of our democracy to an extent that only Vladimir Putin could have imagined. Each time he has gone off with one more unhinged attack, various Republicans have spoken out, while a far greater number have tried to sweep the significance of what he has said or tweeted under the rug. But there is nothing insignificant about any of it, and taken as a whole ― whether Russia was involved or not ― it is a big, big deal.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.