Russia may have assumed its most central role in our discourse since the cold war, but the narratives now are not about well-matched adversaries—instead, they are about outrage. Superficially, the ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign collusion or incompetence (so far, we don’t know which) is a juicy confirmation of what the more liberal media would still like to believe: morally bankrupt leadership can’t happen here without some dastardly plot. America is uniquely immune to systemic failure. And for the conservative media, the Russia investigation is a double-edged sword: a convenient out if Trump starts getting in the way of their priorities, but also an uncomfortable reminder of how much principal their party gave away to win.
During the cold war, the narratives were political but not partisan. Standing against Russia was a clash of titans, a dangerous but noble game played with an equally powerful opponent. Inside the cold war, the greatest threat was treason—but treason meant allegiance on the other side of the ocean, not the other side of the aisle.
Under the left/right rhetoric, there is a deep resentment of Putin’s Russia. The media paints him as a master manipulator, something he surely enjoys. Congress talks about him as a dangerous opponent, though he has given no confirmation of it. The media waits breathlessly for the proof of interference in our election, proof that may never come. Yet, we resent Russia as deeply as if it already had.
Our resentment of Russia now, I think, is tied to how we fought Russia before. During the cold war, America was free to topple governments and manipulate foreign affairs without self-reflection. We had an enemy and a righteous cause, and though our enemies were not so evil as we would have liked and our cause was not so justifiable when looked at closely, the rush of patriotism prevented us from discovering that.
After the cold war, America declared itself the victor by virtue, though in reality it was a war of attrition in which our resources were more decisive than our policies. The cold war was less a moral referendum on capitalism versus communism than it was a proof that the richer system has a longer lifespan. Yet, America has gone right on intervening internationally, declaring itself the world’s micro-managing police (secret and otherwise). When we play that role internationally, we bring all the same deep prejudice we bring to it domestically, and a deep ignorance of other cultures besides.
Absent the moral drive of a single enemy, the American public has lost some patience with the tangled discord we sow abroad. But only some. We take a little too long to realize that the people we are arming hate our heavy-handed haughtiness as much as the dictators we want them to fight. We take a little too long to realize our cardboard cutouts of other nations conceal interminable diversity, though it should be obvious if we think of anyone but ourselves. We take far, far too long to understand that interfering in another country’s governance may look like subtle gamesmanship on this side of the Atlantic, but it looks like condescension and hatred on the other. We have yet to admit that every enemy America has now is one we earned.
So now we hue and cry at the idea of Russia “interfering” in our election. And what did they do, exactly? Fake news? Sure, but we’re the ones who bought it. Enable an incompetent reality star with no capacity to govern, no understanding of the world around him, and no grasp on the nuanced needs of our country? Maybe, but our Republican party and our national media did that first. Spread lies? Certainly, but we’ve been selling lies to one another for so long that we can’t tell where any of them begin. There is no evidence that actual votes were changed—our deepest anger is that we may have been manipulated into breaking our own system.
This is new for Americans. We think we’re the strongest, smartest, and most righteous international actor. We think we dictate world policy, and lead others along in our wake. We don’t know how to be just another country, filled with misunderstanding and failure, filled with discord and disagreement, and subject to all the same flaws that afflict any group of human beings.
The idea of Russian intervention in our election bothers us, I think, because we thought we were the only ones allowed to do that. Under the partisan fights, we thought American Democracy was some sort of panacea for the evils of the world, and we thought no matter how bad things got, we would always be the best of the worst. We thought we were special—and to the extent that we still do, we will push the Russia investigation forward over and over until it becomes justified or farcical.
Whatever the outcome, I doubt we’ll confront the real cause of our outrage: our own ignorance.
Image Credit: GuyDeckerStudio