No matter how damning the evidence against Trump gets with respect to Russia, Democrats have undoubtedly fumbled how to frame it.
They don’t know how to talk about it in the most basic terms — or, much more importantly, how to connect it to larger themes and issues higher on voters’ list of concerns. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Feb. 16 indictment of three Russian entities and 13 individuals should have been a definitive turning point — and at some level, it clearly was. The possibility that President Trump might fire Mueller and shut down his investigation suddenly seems off the table. What’s more, as Marcy Wheeler noted, “This indictment offers a way for even self-interested Republicans to start acknowledging the reality of what happened.” It also potentially laid the groundwork for much more to come.
There are several events "that may one day serve as details in a larger conspiracy," Wheeler writes. "Most interesting, for the timing and location, are the twin anti-Hillary and pro-Trump events in NYC in June and July 2016." The apparent fact that there was a Russian-organized event outside Trump Tower "the day after WikiLeaks dropped the DNC emails, in particular, suggests the possibility of a great deal of coordination ... with people in the US.”
In another sense, however, the impact of Mueller's indictments has barely registered in the ongoing larger war of American politics. In part that’s because of increased polarization and a tendency for more and more issues to become absorbed into defining political identities, as described in the 2009 book "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler. (More on this below.) The more it matters who you are and who you’re against, the less room there is for new facts — even (or perhaps especially) earth-shaking ones — to make a difference in how you make sense of the world. “Alternative facts” are much to be preferred. And while “both sides do it” to some extent, authoritarians are more drawn to simplistic black-and-white explanations, more prone to epistemic closure and more willing to believe what they’re told.
But these tendencies tell only half of the story. The other half is that Republicans play chess when it comes to crafting narratives, while Democrats don’t even play whack-a-mole.
Democrats’ fumbled response
For example, the day after the Russian indictments came down, one of Trump’s sharpest congressional critics, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., continued to say it was "unknowable" whether Russian influence helped elect him — which means, we can’t know whether it mattered, so why bother? That’s what Lieu conceded, without even realizing it.
When MSNBC's Alex Witt asked him, “Did these Russian active measures affect the outcome of the election?" Lieu responded by passively answering the question before actively reframing it first.
"That is an unknowable question,” Lieu replied. “But we do know it was a very close election. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump only won in three swing states, and if those votes had been altered or changed because of the Russian influence, that could have swung the outcome.” All of Lieu's points are factually accurate, but they're rhetorically underwhelming.
He then reiterated the uncertainty while referencing the interference: “We're never really going to know the answer to that, but what we do know is Russia did do this massive interference in our democracy, and we need to make sure that does not happen again."
Instead of talking himself in circles, Lieu could instead have focused on what the indictments actually showed: how deliberate and pervasive Russian influence really was, dating back to 2014.
“That’s not the right question,” Lieu could have told Witt. “This shows better than ever that Trump won the election with the help of Russian intervention. We should be asking, ‘Could he have won without them?’ In fact, given how little we know about his finances, we don’t even know if he could have recovered from bankruptcy without Russian help. He needs to release his taxes now: We need to know what he’s hiding, and why he cares more about Vladimir Putin’s feelings than about the American people.”
My point is not to make a maximalist argument about how important Russian interference was versus other factors. Quite the opposite, in fact. Back in December, I wrote about a study published by the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.” As I argued then: “Everything matters in a close election, but that surely includes the media establishment itself, which has largely escaped serious self-reflection,” with the agenda-setting power of the New York Times as a prime example. What’s more, the impact of fake news had been exaggerated by failing to provide sufficient context: $100,000-plus of Russian-funded Facebook ads, compared to Facebook's daily total ad revenues of $96 million (or $8.8 billion total for the quarter in question).
Those Facebook ads still packed quite a punch, especially when combined with other channels of campaign influence such as the DNC hacks, the strategic release of the Podesta emails and so on, the mechanics of which remain shrouded in uncertainty. What we do know is that the Russians and the Trump campaign were strategically aligned, regardless of the details about how and why, which have yet to be adequately uncovered. The big picture is indisputable.
It’s this authoritarian alignment that Democrats ought to be focused on — and not just Democrats, but anyone concerned about the integrity of our democratic process, even (or especially) folks like me, who have long been critical of our own government’s meddling in the democratic self-governance of other countries. The evidence for Trump/Russia alignment is overwhelming, as Benjamin Wittes laid out last June, along with Jane Chong and Quinta Jurecic:
The "no collusion" defense was always a modest one that did not really deny that the Trump campaign gleefully accepted Russian aid during the campaign and promised a different relationship with Russia in a hundred public statements; it denied only that the campaign did these things in secret collaboration with Russian state actors. The defense conceded that Trump benefited from Russia’s actions, denying only that he or his people were parties to them in a covert fashion that went beyond the very visible encouragement Trump gave.
But accepting this ludicrous defense means becoming a party to near-treasonous absurdity, as the authors further elaborate:
Focusing on covert collusion risks accepting that all is okay with the Trump-Russia relationship unless some secret or illegal additional element actually involves illicit contacts between the campaign and Russian operatives. Yet it’s hard to imagine how any scandal of illegality could eclipse the scandal of legality which requires no investigation and has lain bare before our eyes for months.
Nine months later, a great deal more has been laid bare. And Mueller clearly has much more to come. One can explain it all with a “coincidence theory,” as Jason Sattler (twitter handle @LOLGOP) explains in a USA Today op-ed. But such a coincidence theory, as he describes it bit-by-bit, would put any conspiracy theory to shame.
A framing expert’s advice
I asked an expert on framing, Anat Shenker-Osorio (author of "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy"), for her thoughts about why Democrats were fumbling this issue. “My assumption,” she said, “is that they're hedging their bets. Meaning, they don't want to publicly accuse Trump of something that turns out to be false if later evidence demonstrates the advantage Russia afforded Trump wasn't what sent him over the Electoral College edge. Otherwise, they risk having other accusations seem hyperbolic, and become possibly guilty of the 'fake news’ label Trump loves to affix.”
While true vindication for Trump seems extremely unlikely, there’s good reason to fear such an outcome. After all, Democrats did let both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush off the hook for their roles in two major scandals: Iran-Contra (as described by former Republican special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh in his book "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up") and the October Surprise (as described by investigative journalist Robert Parry.) With past history like this, pseudo-vindication is a very real possibility.
When I asked Shenker-Osorio how Democrats ought to frame the narrative, she said that depended on their desired end goal. “If we assume it's forcing their GOP colleagues to hold Trump accountable and proceed with impeachment, then they'd do well to start how they'd like to finish,” she said. “By this I mean, instead of saying, ‘Trump won the election with the help of Russia,’ they'd say, ‘How many impeachable offenses has Trump committed?’”
That sort of question might seem unlikely, but there’s a logic behind it. “The fact that [Trump] colluded with Russia is terrible, of course. But the purpose of framing is to move a narrative toward a desired outcome,” Shenker-Osorio said. “If Democrats remain mired in the details of the collusion and whether it landed him the White House, they then have to turn around and link this to their desired solution. Instead, they'd be better off embedding the solution inside the explanation of what happened.”
But the problem with any impeachment talk — besides Mike Pence waiting in the wings, and after him Paul Ryan — is that it comes off as “just politics” to so many Americans, while the events that would justify such a process seem increasingly remote.
“While it may be vividly fresh in elected officials' minds, the election was more than a year ago and Americans have daily problems and struggles" Shenker-Osorio said. "Over a year ago, given the pace of our news cycles, may as well have been last decade.” Democrats might do better to pivot toward the questions of how Trump's "past actions impact or ought to cause concern about his current and future actions. … Say less about him and them [Russia] and more about us — we the people.”
This ties in well with another inconvenient truth: The American people don’t care that much about the Russia scandal, whether they should or not. A recent CNN poll asking about voters' concerns found that health care (83 percent), the economy (79 percent) and gun policy (78 percent) ranked at the top as "extremely" or "very" important, followed by immigration (72 percent), taxes (67 percent) and sexual harassment (64 percent), with Trump/Russia way down the list at 45 percent. So the disconnect from voters’ more immediate concerns is strikingly clear.
To remedy this, Shenker-Osorio said, Trump's opponents might want “to frame what Trump did as calling into question his loyalties and thus his intentions. So, again, not re-litigating election results, not naming 'collusion' for its own sake but rather asking, who does Trump serve? When it comes time to decide whether our kids should get the care they deserve and our elders can retire in dignity, who will Trump serve? 'We the people' or Putin?" Ultimately, the point would be "to link his [apparent] collusion to his inability to enact policy that serves the American people.”
That's why I would argue that stating clearly that Trump won the election with Russian help is a winning place to start the framing. Trump certainly can’t forget it, and neither should we. It calls everything he does into question, and for good reason.
The authoritarian connection
But acknowledging that Trump won with Russian help is more than a foundation for reaching out to voters — crucial as that is. It’s also a foundation for activist discussions on shaping our politics going forward. Earlier, I mentioned the book "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," in the context of arguing that “the more it matters who you are and who you’re against, the less room there is for new facts.” The conventional-wisdom buzzword for this is “tribalism,” and of course the centrist pundit tribe constantly reminds us that “both sides do it.”
But the story Hetherington and Weiler's book tells is a somewhat different one that also clashes with the idea that Trump is a wild departure for the Republican Party. They describe how a range of different issues became increasingly polarized in a process they described as “worldview evolution,” with one result being a strong correlation between corporal punishment and voting Republican, visible in the following graph:
As the authors explain, they are not arguing that "preferences for disciplining children" caused individuals to vote in certain ways:
It is absurd to think that spanking children led people to vote Republican in 2004 ... Instead, support for spanking likely emanates from a particular worldview which has a range of ramifications, including political ones.
By worldview, we mean a set of connected beliefs animated by some fundamental, underlying value orientation that is itself connected to a visceral sense of right and wrong. Politics cleaved by a worldview has the potential for fiery disagreements because considerations about the correct way to lead a good life lie in the balance. Specifically, we demonstrate that American public opinion is increasingly divided along a cleavage that things like parenting styles and "manliness" map onto. We will call that cleavage authoritarianism.
While a wide range of pundits think that Trump has radically changed American politics, the vast majority of voters disagree. Authoritarians were already largely sorted into the GOP more than a decade before he decided to run in 2015, as I argued here in August 2016. Of course, GOP authoritarians in 2004 weren’t fans of Vladimir Putin the way they are today. But it’s surprisingly easy for authoritarians to change their minds — all they need is a strong leader pointing the way, backed up by a supporting media chorus. And this is precisely what’s happened to all of us — to the Republican Party and to the nation as a whole GOP — during the course and aftermath of the 2016 election.
Non-authoritarians tend to be much more difficult to organize than authoritarians are. They care a lot more about a much wider range of things, and also respect others’ rights to care about different things than they do. That’s why it’s so difficult, yet so necessary, to craft a coherent anti-authoritarian narrative we can all share, for the sake of securing America’s future. Framing the Trump-Russia scandal properly — as an unmistakable authoritarian alignment, regardless of how we may differ over the details — is a big first step toward doing that.