The American Culture Wars Are Officially a Strategic Threat

Extreme partisanship has left America vulnerable to exploitation by a foreign power. This cannot last.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump campaign people are going to jail.

This isn’t quite the fall of the Trumpian house of cards. Paul Manafort’s indictment is very specific to him and his work in Ukraine. More information must come out before we can be certain this will lead to the White House. While the revelations of George Papadopoulos create the strongest link yet, they have not produced an indictment to date.

Yet there is an essential tale here: for the first time in modern American history, a foreign power has substantially interfered with a political campaign. It’s not that others haven’t tried. The Soviet Union tried several times to back favored candidates, especially in the turbulent 1960s and 70s. But in those Cold War cases, American candidates refused the help.

This is the first time it looks like someone said yes.

What changed?

At least three things

First, Americans grew ever more culturally and politically polarized, seeing politics as zero-sum and seeing one another as enemies.

Second, Americans en masse gave up on their own institutions that used to guard the gates against outside interference.

Finally, Americans decided that to restore institutional order on their cultural terms meant utilizing any means necessary to win elections, up to and including using foreigners to gain leverage at home.

Awakenings

The culture wars themselves are a cyclical part of American history, occurring every four generations.

The most famous cycle was the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s, a time of Christian Protestant religious revivalism.

Another Great Awakening happened around 1800-20, once more religious in nature.

Sixty years later, a Third Great Awakening brought about political populism and social activism.

Finally, in the 1960s and 70s, the twentieth century’s most recent Awakening sparked increasingly intense clashes between liberals and conservatives.

This modern Awakening has now come to a head.

Polarization

Since 1994, Pew has tracked a steady polarization of American politics as the middle ground wears away. A once-mighty middle slides toward an evermore polar left and right.

With a weak middle ground, fewer and fewer voters wanted to vote for centrist politicians or engage with mainstream media. A self-fulfilling prophecy took hold: the less centrists in media and government were rewarded, the more both sides saw the extremes gaining power and reacted by becoming more extreme themselves.

That’s exactly what’s happened in the age of Trump: the left has taken marked turn since his election. Escalating extremes have forced people to choose sides.

Trust in institutions

Which in turn undermined faith in institutions overall. Only echo chambers, small and fragmented, were seen as trustworthy. From the 1960s until now, faith in government has slipped ever lower. Even breaking it down for generations and partisanship, the slip is across the board.

That’s also been the case for media. From 1997 to 2017, Gallup showed the same thing.

It was like a set of dominoes. The Awakening’s culture wars sparked a distrust between left and right; as the two sides jostled for power, it undermined faith in the government, driving them further apart; this distrust spilled into media, making it ever harder for the United States to make rational decisions or counteract disciplined foes.

Russian exploitation

That’s exactly what the Russians exploited. Russian intel, as well as more mainstream Russian outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik News, helped propel a domestically-generated narrative that mainstream media was untrustworthy. It relied on the whatabouttism and cherrypicking already utilized by conservative and liberal echo chambers developed by Americans.

We now know they inflamed racial tensions wherever possible. Russian-linked accounts tried to “turn up the volume” on both sides of the NFL kneeling debate. They produced a “Blacktivist” Facebook page to accentuate isolated cases of racism against African Americans. They bought pro-gun and anti-Muslim ads while simultaneously funding leftist online campaigns.

None of this was designed to help either side win the American culture wars. Rather, they wanted to drive them apart enough to make cohesive geopolitical thought difficult. If the Americans were so busy tearing each other down at home, they would be less capable of making strategic decisions in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

It’s not that the Russians did — or could — swing the election to elect a puppet president. In a country as developed, as large and as powerful as the United States, that’s an impossible task.

Instead, Moscow wanted the United States distracted for as long as possible.

With Trump, it succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Russian intelligence services must have been just as shocked as many journalists as Trump barrelled through virtually every political taboo in the American book. Instead, as Trump’s election campaign went on, Russian intel continued to pour fuel onto the fire that seemed to sustain him.

Even though Trump wasn’t quite a Manchurian candidate, he was certainly what Russian intelligence wanted.

Trump openly questioned NATO, rattling European allies to the delight of Moscow.

He has yet to implement the congressional-imposed Russian sanctions package related to Ukraine.

He may yet waste valuable American power picking a fight with Iran or start a major conflict with North Korea.

In Syria, he’s outsourced the war to generals interested in only defeating the Islamic State, not in rolling back Russian power or beating Bashar al-Assad.

Win at any costs

The culture wars produced a “win at any costs” mentality for both sides, but the Republicans were more adept than the Democrats.

That opened the door for Manafort’s advancement, with his unscrupulous nature sniffing out short-term gains wherever he could. While Cold War Republicans once obsessively purged anyone with ties to Moscow, by 2016 many in the Republican Party were ready to embrace Vladimir Putin if it meant defeating Hillary Clinton and her liberal allies.

It wasn’t just the Republican Party, however: plenty on the left were ready to embrace whatever WikiLeaks dump or anti-Republican Facebook ad that affirmed their worldview.

That approach made it hard for voters to understand some of the information geared toward them was false. “Fake news” was only fake if one chose not to believe it.

Manafort’s indictment is proof enough that Russian influence reached deep into the American political system. The confusion, political tribalism, and social jockeying of the culture wars produced an environment where that was possible.

This cannot last

This is conduct unbecoming of a superpower. If outside powers can distract the United States so readily, it will invite both more interference as well as disastrous decisions. American politicians used to be mostly immune to foreign influence. Now they appear far too willing to take whatever help they can get, regardless of the motives of the giver.

That cannot last. The backlash to Russia’s interference has incensed the American left, yet it’s unclear that they would have been above the same offer had Moscow come calling.

Instead, institutions across the United States have to do the hard work of rebuilding their reputations and imposing standards. That’s starting to happen: the wild days of YouTube’s conspiracy cottage industry seem to be largely over.

Additionally, if the Republican Party fails to accomplish much legislatively, it may be proof that the winner-takes-all attitude of the party does not produce substantive results.

The fire and fury of Awakenings run out of energy; so too will this one. For the United States, that cannot come soon enough.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 1, 2017.