Leonid Bershidsky: The Upside of Russian Interference

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(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – November 8, 2016)

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

Who could expect, when the U.S. election campaign started, that Russia would end up with such a prominent part in it? At times, it looked as though Vladimir Putin was running for president, too, for all the attention Donald Trump and especially Hillary Clinton devoted to him. And though many have condemned what is seen as Russian meddling, my country may well end up playing a positive role in helping the U.S. choose its future direction, as it has done in the past.

Russian interference with U.S. domestic policies isn’t new; it has, in fact, been around for the last hundred years. The inroads Russia made invariably caused alarm and a strong pushback. But have they ended up harming or helping the U.S.?

In 1936, Wyndham Mortimer, an organizer for a weak, fractious union called the United Auto Workers, arrived in Flint, Michigan — a city that has been the subject of much discussion in this presidential campaign. As Kenneth West wrote in a history of the 1936-1937 General Motors strike — a momentous event in the history of the U.S. labor movement — Mortimer faced a discouraged and fearful workforce at GM’s Flint factory. They clung to their jobs despite horrific working conditions. They were forced to work sick, to step over comrades who’d dropped from exhaustion in 100-degree heat.

The UAW convinced them to occupy the factory and ultimately, with some help from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, won a major victory, forcing the GM management to sit down for negotiations and begin improving conditions, as well as raising pay.

Mortimer was a member of the Communist Party, which around the time of the Flint strike supported Stalin’s show trials and was subsidized and directed from Moscow. The U.S. government and, ultimately, the labor movement resented that influence, and the Communist influence eventually dissipated after World War II under heavy pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee. That, arguably, started a process of decline for U.S. unions, but not before stimulating dialogue between employers and employees and laying the foundations for a modern culture of industrial relations.

The persecution of Communists in the 1940s and 1950s made true American heroes out of some of them — people who are now revered. The recent film “Trumbo,” starring Bryan Cranston, dramatized the life story of Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo, a Communist and member of the Hollywood Ten. Trumbo received an Academy Award in 1993 for the 1953 movie Roman Holiday: He hadn’t been credited for writing it because he was on a blacklist. Trumbo and other Communists, seen as Russian agents on much better evidence than Trump today, had major influence on Hollywood culture, which remains intensely liberal to this day — to its credit, as far as I’m concerned.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet Union backed the U.S. antiwar movement. In his memoir, Colonel Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking defector to the U.S. from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, wrote:

“What will be a great surprise to the American people is that the GRU and the KGB had a larger budget for antiwar propaganda in the United States than it did for economic and military support of the Vietnamese. The antiwar propaganda cost the GRU more than $1 billion, but as history shows, it was a hugely successful campaign and well worth the cost. The antiwar sentiment created an incredible momentum that greatly weakened the U.S. military.”

That damage turned out to be imagined or short-lived: The U.S. military is the most powerful in the world. Yet the peace movement shaped the music, literature and politics of the U.S. baby-boomer generation. I doubt boomers would like that page — written under undeniable Russian influence — deleted from their past.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union sputtered and died, and for the next two decades the Russian influence on the U.S. was weak. Russia was just another third-world country, a recipient of U.S. influence, not the other way around. That may have driven the previous bittersweet experiences out of Americans’ minds, making Russia’s 2016 comeback especially uncomfortable.

There is still no public proof that the Russian government ordered or perpetrated the hacks of Democratic National Committee servers and the email accounts of Clinton aides. But there have been some non-definitive attempts at attribution by cybersecurity firms and a statement from the U.S. intelligence community, which concludes “based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” Apart from that, there are lots of stories quoting unnamed intelligence sources, like this one in Newsweek, which mentions Russian “propagandists and cyberoperatives” in the U.S. allegedly receiving payments disguised as Russian old age pensions.

I cannot read the accounts of stealth propagandizing as anything but comedy: the Russian outlets, such as the Sputnik site and the RT television channel, are well-known, and they operate openly in the U.S., catering to the crowd that doesn’t trust mainstream media. Homesick or not confidently bilingual Russian emigres watch the Russian state channels, and, having watched them, share what they see with friends. They don’t need to be paid to do it.

Even if the Kremlin didn’t hack the Democrats, its propaganda machine does its best to push the spoils of the hacks both to the U.S. audience and to the domestic one, painting the U.S. political system as more rotten and corrupt than the Putin regime.

As a result of the poisonous propaganda, amplified by all the unnamed sources and half-baked intelligence, there is an atmosphere of suspicion in which alarmist anti-Russian pieces in the mainstream press scrape the same rock bottom as the recent assertion by a Texas Republican activist that gay people were “termites” sent to the U.S. by the Soviets to destroy America’s moral fabric.

Figures on both the left, such as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the pro-Trump right, such as the Republican nominee’s friend Roger Stone, have spoken of a “new McCarthyism.”

I’m not ready to subscribe to that notion yet, if only because, as a Russian citizen, I am not merely able to work for a mainstream U.S. news organization: I’ve been welcomed by the many Americans I have interviewed while covering this campaign. These span a political spectrum from fiery progressive Liz Garst in Iowa — a person that, to me, embodies the best of Russia’s old-time influence on the U.S. — to far-right militia members in northern Florida, who are perhaps the most susceptible to the current brand of Russian propaganda.

Americans are generally nice to visitors — and uncommonly helpful to journalists — but they used to be far more suspicious of Russians while the Soviet Union was still around. Despite the best efforts of supposedly progressive Hillary Clinton, that suspicion has not yet returned. It may do so if the Russia-bashing continues after the election; I suspect it will die down somewhat as the electoral battle recedes into history.

In any case, it’s worth considering how the U.S. will internalize the real and perceived Russian meddling this year. Americans are hard-headed and used to doing things their own way; they turned the previous Russian influence campaigns, often waged with the worst of intentions, to their advantage. Can Putin’s propaganda and perhaps cyber-espionage campaign also serve a useful purpose?

I believe it can. Putin is providing a useful service to the U.S. by holding his malicious mirror to its political establishment. It’s a troll’s mirror, but it does reflect a nasty reality: A complacent, clannish elite that has written convenient rules for itself but not for the society it governs. Much of this society, both on the right and on the left, doesn’t like what it sees.

As with previous Russian attempts to change the U.S., this one should lead to a realization that it’s time to clean up U.S. democracy and make it more representative and inclusive, perhaps by stripping away some obsolete voting rules, perhaps by breaking the destructive stranglehold of the ossified two-party system.

The country I have seen this year — the big cities and small towns I’ve explored, the progressives and Second Amendment zealots I’ve met, this whole vast, great land — deserves far better than what I watched it live through. I’d like to help in my small way, and I think my country will end up helping, too, even though it may be trying to inflict damage.

Article ©2016 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved. Article also appeared at bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-11-08/the-overlooked-benefits-of-russian-interference-in-the-u-s