My doctorate in Political Science ought to have included a section on gaslighting.
Currently Russian leader Vladimir Putin is demonstrating one version of this; he is calling his invasion of Ukraine, massacre of civilians, and wanton disregard for human rights (that some are calling genocide) a “special operation.”
His ability to control Russian propagandizing media and punish truth-telling are weapons every bit as dangerous as the munitions exploding in civilian apartments, children’s schools, and community hospitals.
In the US many in the GOP wish twice-impeached Donald Trump would keep his mouth shut. Every time he renews his praise of Putin’s “genius” he runs the risk of reminding midterms voters that Republican incumbents have (with extremely rare exception) condoned and embraced Trump’s own gaslighting attacks against democracy abroad and at home.
The “GQP” refers to the Republican faction and extreme right that are celebrating Russian aggression and pushing Russian misinformation. The “Q” in reference to QAnon, which is now drifting into mainstream conservative circles. Rightwing pundits present all manner of Russian propaganda, for example: Candace Owens has pushed the Putin talking point that Russia created Ukraine and tweeted “Russian lives matter.”
News cycles are short and it is easy to forget that the majority of Americans wanted Trump convicted and barred from holding public office. Trump set Ukraine up when he tried to extort them in an attempted “arms for oppo info” deal, seeking Ukraine’s collusion in accusing Biden of graft. Despite clear evidence that Trump broke many laws and betrayed his country, Mitt Romney was the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.
Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice certainly have not helped matters. Trump and his cronies appear above federal law every bit as much as Putin and his oligarchs do in Russia.
However, there is one major difference. While large numbers of citizens and politicians in the US routinely choose dishonest narratives and political propaganda, the truth is still regularly available.
Politicians lie—Donald Trump made 30,573 lies and misleading statements while in office—which can be successful when a powerful minority prefers them and their political base pushes them.
Ignorance has been weaponized to attack the US. Putin controls the narrative in Russia, but his disinformation does not stop at the border. The Mueller Report gave a truly disturbing account of the Russian influence campaign.
A 2018 Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations report, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe,” lists Putin’s net worth as estimated between $40 billion and $200 billion (it notes: at the low end, making him the wealthiest person in Europe and, at the high end, in the world). The report makes the following 10 key recommendations, and clear steps for responding to the recommendations. What if these recommendations had been acted upon?
What if we 1) Asserted Presidential Leadership and Launched a National Response (what if the Trump team was not negligent in acknowledging and responding to the threat to national security posed by Mr. Putin’s meddling)?
What if we 2) Supported Democratic Institution Building and Values Abroad and with a Stronger Congressional Voice (Democracies with transparent governments, the rule of law, a free media, and engaged citizens are naturally more resilient to Mr. Putin’s asymmetric arsenal)?
What if we 3) Exposed and Froze Kremlin-Linked Dirty Money (Corruption provides the motivation and the means for many of the Kremlin’s malign influence operations)?
What if we 4) Subjected State Hybrid Threat Actors to an Escalatory Sanctions Regime (The Kremlin and other regimes hostile to democracy must know that there will be consequences for their actions)?
What if we 5) Publicized the Kremlin’s Global Malign Influence Efforts (Exposing and publicizing the nature of the threat of Russian malign influence activities, like the US intelligence community did in January 2017, could be an action-forcing event that not only boosts public awareness, but also drives effective responses from the private sector, especially social media platforms, as well as civil society and independent media, who can use the information to pursue their own investigations)?
What if we 6) Built an International Coalition to Counter Hybrid Threats (The United States is stronger and more effective when we work with our partners and allies abroad)?
What if we 7) Uncovered Foreign Funding that Erodes Democracy (Foreign illicit money corrupts the political, social, and economic systems of democracies)?
What if we 8) Built Global Cyber Defenses and Norms (The United States and our European allies remain woefully vulnerable to cyberattacks, which are a preferred asymmetric weapon of state hybrid threat actors)?
What if we 9) Held Social Media Companies Accountable (Social media platforms are a key conduit of disinformation campaigns that undermine democracies. U.S. and European governments should mandate that social media companies make public the sources of funding for political advertisements, along the same lines as TV channels and print media)?
What if we 10) Reduced European Dependence on Russian Energy Sources (Payments to state-owned Russian energy companies fund the Kremlin’s military aggression abroad, as well as overt and covert activities that undermine democratic institutions and social cohesion in Europe and the United States)?
We ask what if Republicans and Donald Trump’s administration had acted on (instead of blocking) the 2018 Congressional recommendations? An ugly truth emerges: the Republican base sabotaged US and global security in the years leading into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
These recommendations are not Monday morning quarterbacking. They provided accurate assessments of threats and offered actionable problem solving.
We will never know if the US could have had the savvy to stop Vladimir Putin, because the GOP undermined efforts to do so, first by refusing to acknowledge Russian support of the Trump campaign and influence in the 2016 presidential election. Then second by choosing Trump over the Constitution in every opportunity to hold him accountable for his crimes and attacks against democracy. When Putin helped the GOP get Trump the GQP sacrificed Ukraine in the process.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.