That’s not a question we usually ask ourselves, but I think we should in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian operatives. Since the 2016 election, President Donald Trump has called the investigation a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Over the weekend, he twice called it “illegal.” On Tuesday, he called it a “WITCH HUNT!” But according to Mueller’s indictment, a vast criminal conspiracy deliberately sought to undermine the integrity of the election, to inflame social divisions and wage “information warfare” against the United States.
I don’t mean to suggest that in the absence of information warfare Americans would have based their votes on perfect information. All presidential elections bend facts and distort reality. But we’re not talking about acceptable political communication strategy. We’re talking about the unacceptable weaponizing of information with the intent of making it hard, or impossible, for citizen’s to tell the difference between truth and falsehood. We’re talking about attempts to poison the public sphere for the benefit of a foreign adversary. Given what we know a year into Trump’s presidency, it may be more accurate to say our consent was misinformed, or even “disinformed.”
This is not a trivial question. Consent is the bedrock of any government that is not a mafia-state, dictatorship or absolute monarchy. Consent is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. It’s the animating force behind the normative view that human rights are innate, inalienable and universal. It is central to a free, just and open society. Without consent, there is no legitimate power. The absence of consent is tyranny.
John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” was central to the founders’ thinking. In 1689, he wrote: “The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it.”
Cartoons on President Trump and Russia
Note the part I stressed about trust. To Locke, trust was the fulcrum of governments. In the distant past, he wrote, people lived in an intolerable “state of nature.” Every man was a law unto himself, the strong preyed on the weak, and the strong feared being rivaled. By trusting in a sovereign, the people gained security, but if that trust is violated, the people can revoke their consent. With trust, life is peaceful. Without trust, life is disorderly and chaotic.
Why should we trust Trump? He made more than 2,000 false or misleading statements over more than 350 days, according to a January report in the Washington Post. According to the New York Times, in December, the president told nearly six times as many falsehoods as former President Barack Obama over the previous 10 months. And, as I mentioned, Trump has called the investigation into Russia meddling a “hoax” or a “witch hunt” when it was an act of “information warfare.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone in her right mind consenting to being governed by a president who can’t speak truthfully at least half the time; who believes he’d storm a compound held by murderous gunmen; who incites violence, who attacks judges; who bilks the Treasury; and who screams “witch hunt” about an investigation that has brought indictments against half a dozen former aides. It’s hard to imagine anyone in her right mind doing that unless she wasn’t in her right mind, unless a vast criminal conspiracy manipulated her into believing otherwise.
Let’s be clear on why the Russians values Trump. Their goal was to widen divisions, erode trust and encourage the union’s unraveling from the inside. But bear in mind, to the Russians, going all-in for Trump would lead to that goal. In other words, Trump would cause chaos. Such a force, one could argue, threatens a return to a state of nature in which every person is a law unto himself, the weak fear the strong, the strong fear being rivaled.
Locke wrote: “Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man” (my stress).
Russia’s info war has no end in sight. The U.S. intelligence community fully expects it to sabotage the upcoming midterm elections. Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, told Congress Tuesday that Russia has “not paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior.” He added neither the president nor the secretary of defense has ordered him to disrupt them.
As of now, it’s probably taboo to wonder if Russia’s information warfare is part of the president’s re-election strategy. At some point, it will no longer be taboo.