With 2018 midterm elections coming up, and the investigation into Donald Trump heating up, we’re all wondering what’s in store for us in the coming months and years.
According to Michael McFaul, former Ambassador to Russia and professor of political science at Stanford, personalities matter. Apparently it’s a point of disagreement in the study of political science and history. Some feel that geopolitical events have an inevitibility to them. Others, like McFaul, feel that history turns on the personalities of a few specific individuals.
I tend to agree with McFaul.
So as I see it, predicting what Vladimir Putin might do in the next few months may be the best way to predict the future of our nation and perhaps even the world. In broad terms, there are three major paths that Putin could take (albeit with lots of variations and shades of grey in between all of them). They are:
- Do nothing.
- Repeat 2016.
- Go all in.
The first option was suggested to me when I posed this question to Clint Watts, author of Messing with the Enemy. He said that Putin would do nothing. Why would he change anything? At this point he has everything he wants. Every goal he’s ever hoped to accomplish is in play. America is weakened. He has an asset in the White House. NATO is being destabilized, both by us, and by his other efforts in Europe. Sanctions are minimal.
So don’t upset the apple cart. If he were to hack us again, or crank up the propaganda, or run lots of ads, or funnel a bunch of laundered money into more corrupt U.S. politicians, these things all might be detected. They could blow up in his face, and create irrefutable evidence which we can’t ignore, which could lead to Putin losing the wonderful status quo he has right now.
Note that “Do Nothing” isn’t quite literal. The Russian propaganda efforts have never ceased. They just wouldn’t ramp up. And there are signs that they are having success. The wide margins predicted in the blue wave have narrowed over the past several months. Liberal enthusiasm is waning, and the bots and trolls are surely playing a part.
In this scenario, delaying continues to work as it has worked so far. The GOP has such a strong grip on Congress that, while the blue wave is likely to gain some ground, it still won’t be enough. The GOP will maintain control in both houses, they’ll get another one of their guys in the Supreme Court, and nothing will change. Mueller will issue his report, but the votes simply aren’t there to impeach. Trump simply stays in power. Our enthusiasm collapses after this and Trump goes on to re-election in 2020.
Doing nothing also creates new propaganda opportunities. With some saber rattling they could work to create fear, yet do nothing at all on election day. We’ve already seen some of this saber rattling, for example there was news from the intelligence community that there are warning signs of trouble as strong now as before 9/11. And we’ve also recently refreshed the warnings that our power grid has been hacked. Trump could then say “Fake News” about any and all dire warning from the left about the midterm elections. “They said there’d be power failures. We had the best election day power ever.”
In this scenario, Putin is worried about the blue wave. The polls show it’s still there, and it’s a danger to his position. The GOP gerrymandering which stacks the deck towards the GOP could backfire, because of the narrow GOP margin in the many purple districts that gerrymandering creates. If the blue wave really happened, the Democrats could be in a position to impeach Trump, and Putin would lose his favorite chew toy. Doing nothing seems to risky, but his propaganda machine delivered America in 2016, and Putin is confident it can do it again in 2018.
So Putin cranks up the propaganda pressure on us. He applies a strong divide-and-conquer approach to breaking up the left. Story after story of scandals about all the various Democratic candidates across the country are pumped out, and they take their toll. Democratic enthusiasm wanes. A few of the scandals are even real, leading to last-minute drop outs. These same stories that divide and weaken us also embolden and energize the racist, nationalist, authoritarian Trump base.
There’s some funny business in the elections, but nothing really concrete. A power outage here or there. Random groups of people who’s voter registration disappeared. But there’s no solid evidence of any wrongdoing. How could there be, when Trump eliminated the cybersecurity czar, and the GOP voted down additional financing for state campaign security?
There’s essentially no change at all in the makeup of the house or the senate. The story continues on from here much the same way as it does in the “Do Nothing” scenario.
Go All In
There’s good news here, and there’s bad news.
The good news is, I overstated how well the previous two scenarios might work. Democratic engagement remains high. And there’s a lot of Republicans that hate Trump, and will be very uninspired to vote, or will even change sides. As for the propaganda, people are monitoring it, and we’re much better prepared than we were in 2016. One hint of this is in France, where Russia sent their same team of bots, trolls, and propagandists that they had used on American elections. But Russia lost that one. France was ready.
And that gerrymandering problem is real. There’s way too many purple districts out there that were only marginally tilted to the GOP.
So that’s the good news. What’s the bad news? The bad news is that Putin ought to be able to see all of this too. Putin could look at his options and see that the blue wave may come, and Trump would be out on his ear. How is this bad news? Because if Putin sees this as possible, he’ll do everything he possibly can to avoid it. Think about it: a blue wave would mean heavy sanctions against Russia for years to come. It would mean we would work to repair NATO, and drum up international support against Russia. This would be a huge setback for Russia.
More importantly, it would be a huge setback for Putin, and possibly even the end for him. Those sanctions would be against a great many Russian oligarchs. These are Putin’s real constituency. If they’re all pissed off at him, he would be out on his ass. No amount of ballot-stuffing could keep him in office, and who would pay to stuff them anyway? Not the oligarchs.
If this is the future he sees, Putin won’t risk a Do Nothing approach, or a Repeat 2016 approach. As proud as he is of his team, they lost France. Putin can not afford to lose 2018 because Russia’s future, and more importantly Putin’s future, are riding on it.
Another factor that’s different between 2016 and 2018 is that in 2016 Obama was president. On October 31, 2016, Obama picked up the Red Phone (a rare and serious move) and told Putin to back off with the hacking or risk military action. This may have been a motivation in 2016 to do less than Putin otherwise could have, but in 2018, with Trump in office, there’s no danger of this happening at all.
So Putin goes all in. He does every single thing he can to subvert the 2018 midterm elections. Hackers alter voter rolls across the country. There are massive power failures on election day. They hack voting machines directly. They hack counting machines. They hack the systems that report data back to the states. Their efforts are bold, and even perhaps careless. The evidence of Russian attacks is everywhere, and undeniable.
If it works, if hacked election results say that Trump wins, then Trump says “I won”. But if the hacks fail, Trump looks at the obvious evidence trail Russia left behind and says “look at how much damage Russia has done. These election results are not valid. We have to suspend the results until we can fix this.”
There are hints that this scenario is already in play. Trump tweeted that Putin is actually going to help the Democrats. This is laughable and nonsensical. Yet it makes perfect sense if he’s preparing for the possibility of declaring a blue wave election invalid. And since that tweet, other news outlets have pushed the story as a legitimate possibility.
Another hint comes from those same warning signs that I described in the Do Nothing scenario as saber rattling. In this scenario, these are very real warnings of what’s to come.
Of course there would be a huge outcry. But Trump and the GOP could keep things tied up in court for years, during which they would continue to increase their authoritarian rule. Marshall law. Suspension of our basic civil rights in the interest of maintaining order. It’s all possible.
There’s one key element that would need to be in place for this to work: Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. If he’s in place, Trump may have the margin he needs to end the Mueller investigation, and to win cases on the suspension of election results. And if Kavanaugh isn’t quite enough, these tactics will buy enough time for other changes to happen on the Supreme Court. Deaths or sudden unexpected scandals that lead to impeached justices.
If Trump has all three branches in his pocket, what could stop him?
This is the nightmare scenario. It’s a path to the end of the rule of law in this country. A path to the end of this country as we know it. A lot of people will say I’m crazy, and to be honest it certainly feels crazy. I’m not claiming this is the likely path. I laid out some good defenses of the other scenarios. But this scenario must be on the table.
One key observation here: which path Putin chooses does not depend on reality. It depends on Putin’s perception of reality. If he’s confident in his propaganda machine, and Trump’s power to delay and confuse, he could very easily choose the Do Nothing or Repeat 2016 approaches.
But if he perceives these as risky, uncertain paths, with a significant chance of losing, leading to great harm to Russia and himself, then he may feel he has nothing to lose and everything to gain from the Go All In scenario.
Partly this is a matter of how far ahead Putin thinks. He’s clearly smarter than Trump. But he’s not a chessmaster. He’s generally described as reactionary (this whole mess started when Putin became disgusted with American meddling back when we passed the Magnitsky act).
Maybe I give him too much credit, but I think Putin is smart enough to see the possibility of the pendulum swinging the other way in America, and how bad that would be for Russia and for him. What’s not known is how much likelihood he might attach to these various paths. A reactionary would Do Nothing as long as he’s sitting pretty and he believes it will continue. But that same reactionary, seeing a lot of bad outcomes by sitting on his hands, would want to Go All In.
I don’t know which path he’ll take. No one will know until it happens, perhaps not even Putin himself. But we should be ready for any of them.