The Future of Political Hacking

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with Fox News following the summit with President Trump in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters)
The Internet weapons that helped Trump in 2016 can easily be turned against the GOP in the future.

Picture the summer of 2024. The Republican presidential ticket is Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. The preceding years have brought increasing geopolitical tensions and even more Russian aggression in Ukraine, Syria, and the Baltics. Several times, U.S. and Russian military forces have nearly begun a military clash, spurred by aggressive flybys, violations of airspace, and gunfire on the ground in Syria. Moscow continues to overtly and covertly help Iran and other U.S. foes. The Republican party platform declares, “Russia has repeatedly chosen to behave as an adversary to American interests, and as such will face the consequences.” As seen during the first year and a half of the Trump presidency, the rest of the GOP never quite came around to President Trump’s optimistic assessment of Vladimir Putin.

The Democratic ticket is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who take a different approach: “While we recognize the long and inexcusable history of Russian misbehavior, the stakes require us to act with diligence and deliberation. We will not be rushed into a dangerous, even potentially nuclear conflict by the neoconservative warmongering chicken-hawks of past administrations. We believe that the right approach, with firm diplomacy and tough negotiation, can succeed where past administrations have failed.”

In that scenario . . . which campaign do you think Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns will aim to help?

The 2016 presidential campaign was the one in a hundred — or a thousand, or a million — where the Republican nominee for president was friendlier to Russian interests and ambitions than the Democratic candidate. We all remember Obama’s painfully naïve scoffing at Mitt Romney that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” As late as 2012, Obama’s press secretary was insisting that “the reset policy that the president pursued after he took office with Russia produced benefits for U.S. national-security interests and U.S. commercial interests.”

In 2008, Russians preferred the “more approachable” Barack Obama over John McCain, who joked that the only things he ever saw in Putin’s eyes were the letters K, G, and B. Even in the context of George W. Bush’s embarrassing “I looked into his eyes” comment about Putin, the president who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq was less likely to knuckle under to a Russian veto at the United Nations than John “Global Test” Kerry. (It will not surprise you that Kerry flip-flopped on how to handle Russia.)

Bush accused the Clinton administration of getting suckered by Russia, accepting broken promises about arms sales to Iran. Back in 1999, Bill Clinton was telling Tony Blair, “Putin has enormous potential, I think. I think he’s very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him . . . His intentions are generally honorable and straightforward, but he just hasn’t made up his mind yet. He could get squishy on democracy.”


The Senate vote about the expansion of NATO did not break neatly along partisan lines, but over the past two decades, Democrats have largely opposed research and deployment of missile-defense systems and expansions of military spending.

The Senate vote about the expansion of NATO did not break neatly along partisan lines, but over the past two decades, Democrats have largely opposed research and deployment of missile-defense systems and expansions of military spending.

Up until 2015, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to think of Russians as an ally, or friendly. Even today, just 6 percent of Republicans now describe Russia as a U.S. ally, 34 percent as friendly but not an ally. Among Democrats, 8 percent say Russia is an ally, 17 percent say it is friendly — a difference, but not an enormous one.

Maybe we’re on the verge of a permanent change, ushering in a new era in which Democrats suddenly become hardcore cold warriors, dedicated to stopping any Russian aggression by any means necessary, and Republicans just want to give peace a chance. But the reaction from Republican lawmakers this week to Trump’s comments in Helsinki suggest that most of the party still has deep-rooted suspicion of Putin and the Russian government.

Meanwhile, the Democrats didn’t, en masse, turn into loud and outspoken Putin critics after the polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, Russia’s threat to bomb Eastern European missile-defense sites in 2012, Russia’s decision to take in Edward Snowden in 2013, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, or Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Nor do you hear much from the average Democrat about the Novichok nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year.

Rank-and-file progressive activists didn’t become amateur Kremlinologists until Donald Trump came on the political scene. They didn’t really care about who met with the Russian ambassador, or who appeared on RT television, or who had deals with Russian oligarchs, until the Trump candidacy. One could argue that their sudden focus on these things suggests they don’t see Trump as villainous because he may have worked with Putin; they see Putin as villainous because he may have worked with Trump.

Perhaps the parties will permanently reverse their traditional roles, but it’s at least equally likely that political gravity reasserts itself, the Republican party drifts back into muscular, hawkish internationalism with a deep-rooted suspicion of the Kremlin, and the Democrats return to their instinctive role as a quasi-pacifist, quasi-isolationist, or at least noninterventionist party that believes almost any problem can be solved with an international summit and a United Nations resolution.

If Republicans and Democrats return to their traditional perspectives on Russia, what do you think all those Russian bots on Twitter are going to do? Whose servers do you think will be targeted in hacks? What sort of clumsy, heavy-handed messages do you think will pop up on Facebook, designed and financed by Russian intelligence operations?

Every tool used against Hillary Clinton in 2016 can just as easily be used against any Republican candidate at the future. Yes, the Russians preferred Trump in the past presidential-election cycle, but their real preferred outcome was chaos — an America that was divided, angry, suspicious, distrusting, and eager to believe the worst about anyone who disagreed with them. (Mission accomplished.)

This is why Republicans should be taking the Russian hacking and disinformation efforts extremely seriously, and should push for the best cybersecurity and firewalls possible, wherever they are needed to ensure public faith in the election process. Republicans should also call out foreign disinformation as strongly and loudly as possible. The Russians aren’t on any American’s side — and it’s foolish to pretend that the snake that bit your opponent in the last cycle could never bite you in the next one.

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