How Russia will disrupt the midterm elections

Drawing: Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone

The objective of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election was never to elect Donald Trump — it was to create chaos. So let’s game it out. You are the head of Russian intelligence. You’re out to build on your success in 2016 and make America as impotent and divided as possible. What would you do?

Any good strategist starts with objectives. Here’s a list of possible objectives:

  • Continue to keep Donald Trump in office, because he’s been a friend to Russia.
  • Divide the Congress, so it can’t get anything done.
  • Generate the most hateful campaign news possible by inflating the worst of the truth and creating and spreading fake news.
  • Perpetuate a view of America in which each group perceives the others as evil and awful.
  • Undermine American confidence in elections.

Destabilizing tactics

To accomplish these objectives, Russia will likely employ the following tactics:

  • Continue to support trolls and fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posting false and inflammatory material to stir up division and hatred among Americans. There’s very little evidence that the social networks have been effective at shutting down these accounts — they find and turn off thousands, and thousands more appear to take their place. Whatever clever tactics the troll farms have developed to evade Facebook’s and Twitter’s troll identification efforts, they’ll deploy now, in the last month before the election. They’ll also up the volume to simply overwhelm the social networks’ defensive tactics.
  • Meddle with voting machines and more importantly, voter rolls. The New York Times Magazine published a terrifying expose of the vulnerability of the patchwork of voting systems in America. But there is less talk about an arguably more effective tactic: undermine the systems that voting officials use to determine whether voters are legitimate when they show up at the polls. The voting machines are supposed to be “air-gapped” — separate from the Internet — but the voting rolls are stored in connected devices where hacking will be easier. Do this, and you might be able to, say, mess up the rolls at key precincts that are likely to vote for a candidate you’re trying to eject. Even if these attempts aren’t completely successful, they still undermine people’s faith in the machinery of democracy.
  • Bribe politicians and then leak to blackmail them. Policing political contributions is challenging for politicians. Foreign agents will make disguised contributions to politicians on both sides, then selectively leak information about it to media to generate controversy leading up to the election.
  • Undermine faith in local election officials and the judiciary. In the Russian game plan, the more lawsuits about elections, the better. A truly evil plan would be to identify vulnerabilities in the officials most likely to be refereeing these election problems: Secretaries of State in the states involved, and judges who will be making decisions in election lawsuits. Extortion and false accusations against these officials could further erode faith in the elections.

I’d expect Russia to deploy those objectives to accomplish the following:

  • Bolster Democrats’ chances in the House. Nate Silver’s now forecasts a 77% chance that Democrats will take over a House majority. Divided government is good for America’s antagonists. Expect Russia to tilt elections so that red states stay red but the House turns blue.
  • Keep the Senate tight but Republican. Look for foreign actors to put their thumbs on the scale to unseat Nevada Senator Dean Heller and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The ideal Senate makeup for Russia is 50-50, with Vice President Mike Pence making the tie-breaking votes.

The awful politics of 2018/2019

Here’s a preview of what we could see if the Russians succeed.

  • An impeachment in the House, based on Robert Mueller’s report (finally) on Russian collusion in the 2016 election cycle. An impeachment vote strictly on party lines. When the proceedings move to the Senate, lots of arguments but eventually, a failure to convict. And with Democrats in charge of the House, you could see multiple impeachments — perhaps one for violations of the emoluments clause and another for obstruction of justice. None will clear the constitutional hurdle in the Senate, which is a two-thirds majority.
  • A vote in the Senate on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, or perhaps his replacement if he fails to survive the latest accusations, during the lame-duck session of Congress that follows the November election.
  • A lot of discussion about election interference. Hearings in Congress. More testimony by Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. But in the end, no actual action because the Congress is divided and the issue is too politically fraught.
  • A failure to agree on the actual things Congress needs to get done, such as accepting or rejecting the successor trade agreement to NAFTA, spending on transportation infrastructure like roads and airports, addressing the ballooning federal deficit, reducing the opioid epidemic, bipartisan action on immigration, and taking steps to deal with global warming.
  • Politicization of armed conflict, should America be further drawn into actual or potential wars in Syria, Israel, the South China Sea, Turkey, Korea, Pakistan, or anywhere else that an armed confrontation would demand a unified American response.

If you want America to be the opposite of great, you’d be delighted with this outcome.

It’s 9:35 am. Are you ready to start drinking yet? I hear Russian vodka is excellent.

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  1. Trying–really trying–to find the golden outline on this cloud. It feels a little too real. I wish I could argue against this forecast.

    Pass the vodka.