The alarming response to Russian meddling in American democracy.

A mural in Vilnius depicting Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

A mural in Vilnius depicting Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

Before the election a joint public statement by the director of national intelligence and secretary of homeland security said that intelligence agencies are “confident” that the Russian government directed the hacking. That statement did little to sway supporters of Donald Trump, who heard their candidate cast doubt on that intelligence finding, and instead revel in the contents of the stolen e-mails as they hit the press. This, Mr Trump, was just more evidence that his opponent deserved the soubriquet “Crooked Hillary”.

All that has changed materially in recent days is that—thanks to reporting by the Washington Post and New York Times—we now know that the CIA briefed senior members of Congress before and after the election that, in the consensus view of intelligence analysts, the Russians’ motive was not just to undermine confidence in American democracy generally, but actively to seek Mrs Clinton’s defeat. These latest revelations have probably not changed any minds at all. Republicans who hate Mrs Clinton are still delighted that she was defeated. Democrats who loathe and fear Mr Trump have one more reason to dislike him. Outside Washington, red-blooded Americans who mostly rather dislike President Vladimir Putin (pictured), according to polls, seem to be shrugging off the latest allegations.

The problem is not that all Republicans in Congress dismiss the claim that Russia tried to meddle in the election. Committee chairmen have promised urgent hearings. “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and no friend of Russia, told reporters: “Everybody that I know, unclassified, has said that the Russians interfered in this election. They hacked into my campaign in 2008; is it a surprise to anyone?” The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, has said that he believes Russia is guilty, but then turned his fire on the Obama administration, saying that President Barack Obama’s desire for a “reset” of relations with Moscow had led him and his spy chiefs to fail “to anticipate Putin’s hostile actions.”

Congressional Republicans are stuck. They have long dreamed of unified government, in which they control both chambers of Congress and the White House, so that they can advance the sort of conservative programme that they believe will set the country on the right course. Smart and candid Republicans always conceded in private that securing the White House was hard because core elements of their programme—eg, cutting taxes for big corporations and slashing regulations—are not very popular. Now they have found a populist standard-bearer who has an astonishing ability to speak to working-class voters, notably whites living in bleak Rust Belt states, and to carry them into power on his coat-tails. Many elements of Mr Trump’s policies make thoughtful Republicans queasy to the point of misery, from his fondness for Mr Putin to his willingness to pick up the telephone and bully company bosses into keeping specific factory jobs in America, as if he were a Gaullist French president rather than leader of a free-market democracy. But many millions of those Mr Trump brought into the party are Trump voters more than they are Republicans, and they frighten and cow members of the party that he has captured.

Some may wonder if this latest squabble matters. There is no evidence of actual collusion between Mr Trump and Russia. Mr Putin’s fierce dislike of Mrs Clinton, who as secretary of state questioned the validity of the 2011 elections in Russia, is more than enough motive to want her defeated. It is unknowable whether the last-minute leaks of Democratic e-mails affected the result. Most straightforwardly, a close election is over and Democratic leaders are not questioning the result.

This squabble does matter. When the next president of America takes his oath of office in January, officers of Russian intelligence can savour a historic win. And that astonishing, appalling fact has divided, not united, the two parties that run the world’s great democracy. That should be enough to unsettle anyone.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site here.

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