- - Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The liberal media are still busy spinning the collusion story. Commentators frequently speculate or imply that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin conspired with Donald Trump to have him elected as U.S. president in 2016 because Mr. Putin believes in undermining the U.S.-centered global order and weakening the American political system.

The special operation by the Kremlin was accomplished by hacking Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, leaking the information to Wikileaks, and by attacking Democratic candidate in social media. The Kremlin-favored candidate was elected, while America was defeated by Russia. As a CNN columnist wrote, “The Russians really are here, infiltrating every corner of the country, with the single goal of disrupting the American way of life.”

Victims of such “analysis” are nuanced evidence and the ability to draw important distinctions regarding Russia’s motives and capacity. Desire to influence American politics should not be confused with the ability to undermine, let alone dominate the political system of a foreign country. Russia’s willingness to showcase its cyber power cannot be viewed as evidence of the Kremlin’s capacity to “elect” a U.S. president. The media tends to hype and misrepresent Russia’s intentions and capabilities just as it misrepresented the Saddam threat during 2002-2003. Although definitive evidence concerning Russia’s overall role in American politics is not yet available and investigations of Putin-Trump’s “collusion” by Congress and Robert Mueller’s office have not yet been completed, the media’s coverage of Russia’s interference with the U.S. political system have led many to believe that the collusion indeed occurred.

Media analyst Glenn Greenwald recently compiled a list of inaccurate claims about Russia and retractions by the mainstream media — all erring on the side of exaggerating the threat posed by the Kremlin and its connection to Mr. Trump. Some examples from the list include claims by media outlets such Fortune, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, Slate and others about Russia hacking C-SPAN, the U.S. electricity grid in Vermont, attacking U.S. diplomats through a sophisticated sonic microwave weapon, creating a special secret server for communicating with Mr. Trump, bribing Trump associates through a special hedge fund, infiltrating mainstream political sites, and so on.

Public opinion polls show that, despite its many errors and retractions, the media have convinced many Americans, especially liberals and Democrats, that A) Mr. Trump had made a secret deal with Mr. Putin to be elected, and B) Russia’s impact was decisive in electing Mr. Trump the U.S. president in 2016. These conclusions in effect mean that Americans believe that the entire 2016 election was hacked and the White House is now led by Mr. Putin’s proxy. Although experts frequently challenge both conclusions, the described media coverage is making its impact because it is successfully tapping into political partisanship and emotions.

The level of U.S. polarization is now especially high with 40 percent of both Democrats and Republicans saying they belong to their party because they oppose the other party’s values. The Russia issue has contributed to this divide. The NBC poll of August 2018 found that 47 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans believe Russia poses the “greatest immediate threat” to the United States, as opposed to only 10 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican. At a Republican rally in Ohio in September 2018, some were even wearing shirts that say “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”

In the climate of ongoing Russia investigations and lacking evidence of Mr. Putin “electing” Mr. Trump, is it Russia that is responsible for the growing public divide and the perception of Mr. Trump as Mr. Putin’s agent or the media and the way it covers Russia’s role in American politics? Even if Mr. Putin is undermining the U.S. system, the media seems to be doing a good job of assisting him. By hyping the collusion story the media widen the pre-existing political divide in American society. As a result, as the columnist Reihan Salam wrote, Democrats and Republicans became their worst enemies and now seem to hate each other more than they hate the Russians.

In addition to undermining space for political dialogue at home, the collusion narrative, along with sanctions and pressures on Russia, weakens opportunities for a dialogue abroad. Russia’s officials are increasingly convinced that America’s internal polarization makes it next to impossible to engage in bilateral negotiations on issues of mutual importance such as nuclear arms control, counter-terrorism, or energy and cyber security. The dominant mood within the policy community is to wait until Washington demonstrates openness to talks. The Russian public too believes that the United States is plagued by an internal crisis and that Russia serves to U.S. elites as a scapegoat for diverting attention from American problems at home. Perhaps Russians have a point here. The U.S. media’s sensationalist coverage may be resulting from the country’s declining role in the international system and its elite’s difficulties with coming to grips with the change.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is a professor of international relations and political science at San Francisco State University.

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