Collusion is Happening in Broad Daylight

Collusion is defined as “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” We’ve been talking about collusion for more than a year now, but we haven’t stopped to ask what we should do if the 2016 election outcome was influenced in ways that are neither secret or illegal.

Russian operatives have been accused of attempting to hack into voting machines, but no evidence has been given to show that any of those attempts succeeded. We believe that voter records were stolen, but no one is accused of using those records to cast any fraudulent votes. Emails from the Democratic National Committee were stolen and then released to the public, causing much embarrassment but no stolen votes.

There’s no evidence that any attempt to change vote tallies succeeded. Hanging chads and a Supreme Court intervention aside, Americans go to the polls (or, more often, don’t) to choose their own leaders. Almost nobody has suggested that those choices were not accurately recorded. Russia’s interference did not happen on Election Day. It must have happened earlier, when Americans were deciding whether and for whom to vote.

Let’s speak frankly for one cotton-picking minute. Russia did not hack an American election. They hacked our national psyche, leading us to hack our own elections. Nobody voted for one candidate, only to have it recorded for a different candidate.

The collusion took place in broad daylight. Votes were not stolen — confidence was. Americans have been losing confidence in their leaders and their institutions for decades. We can’t blame foreign powers for most of it. Russia’s design appears to have been simply to accelerate and direct the damage we were already doing to ourselves.

Campaigns have gotten nastier. Funding sources for political ads have gotten murkier. Political scorekeeping has become an end in itself. As a result of each of these, governing has become more difficult.

As government has gotten less effective, critics and skeptics have gained power. Conservative talk radio sounds more convincing. Fox News and others provide aid and comfort to those who despise most of what our government does.

Funding government has become increasingly unpopular. Raising taxes reliably invites citizen revolt. As government is forced to do less, its unpopularity increases. The cycle is vicious. We’ve been racing on this treadmill since Howard Jarvis led a taxpayer revolt in California with Proposition 13 in 1978.

Not quite 40 years later, Russia saw an opportunity to sow discord between citizens using social media. Disdain for President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton may have provided the project’s original impetus. The Russians’ original goal could have had almost nothing to do with the election’s outcome, so long as Americans’ hatred for one another and suspicions about their own government increased.

Don’t think this dynamic concerns only conservatives. Anyone who thought my use of “cotton-picking” was culturally insensitive, that’s part of the same problem. It doesn’t matter who wins elections if the citizens can be made ungovernable. That must have been the original plan. Sow discord. Amplify suspicions. Disseminate disgust.

Those plans probably began long before Donald Trump descended his gold-plated staircase in 2015. It’s possible that Trump saw a very similar opportunity in the chaotic Republican candidate field and the aggressively restless electorate. He could see a way to heighten his celebrity by burglarizing the nightly news.

His quotes would be more colorful. His positions more outrageous. His rallies more energetic. He didn’t need to win an election to make himself more famous. He’d always found ways to monetize his fame, so a presidential campaign was a no-lose proposition.

Whether Russia and Trump ever met to share common cause is practically moot. Every time the president attacks the independent press, he is doing from the inside what Russia cannot do from outside. Every time Congress passes a tax cut or expands a war without paying for it, the vicious cycle accelerates. Every Supreme Court ruling that makes it easier to hide the money used to influence voters, the opportunities for mischief expand.

Russia has barely had to lift a finger. We’ve done it to ourselves.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.