Russia’s objective in the U.S. has already largely been achieved

That desired outcome has seen some significant success. That’s not primarily due to Russia, certainly, but it is to Russia’s benefit now as it engages in an effort to seize Ukraine. A divided America has political factions seeking unity with foreign allies instead of domestic partners.

We can track the evolution of that divide by starting with a small component of Russia’s interference effort in 2016. Material stolen from Clinton’s top adviser, John Podesta, included innocuous references to pizza. Once published by WikiLeaks, a cadre of conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters plucked out this detail and used it to construct a theory that Clinton and other top Democrats were engaged in systematized child abuse, centered at a pizza place in DC It’s not important how that logical leap was made, but it is important to remember how that idea spread at the time of the 2016 election. Pizzagate. One propose showed up at the pizza place with a rifle to free the kids he believed were being abused in the basement that doesn’t exist.

That theory never went away. Instead, it was folded into QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims predicated on the idea that the Trump administration was fighting a covert war against an international cabal of satanic pedophiles that included elites from American politics and entertainment. QAnon was vague enough to present a conspiracy theory buffet from which people could sample, but its core assertion — that the powerful were engaged in evil — was near-universal.

On Thursday, PRRI released new research showing how widespread that belief remains. In its analysis, some 16 percent of the American public adheres to some component of the QAnon belief system. That’s tens of millions of Americans who say that they agree to some extent with statements like “The government, media, and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.”

It’s still a small minority, certainly. But these are not tepid, milquetoast assertions.

That emails stolen by Russia and released in the context of the 2016 election were catalysts for this shows the broad — and likely unexpected — success of the Russian ploy. The idea was to inject and amplify discord; an email about pizza certainly would not have been expected to do so quite that effectively. But the most important aspect of this, particularly given the divide in how Americans have responded to Russia’s aggression, is how Americans were primed to believe something so bizarre and toxic about one another.

Shortly before the 2016 election, Pew Research Center released data showing the long-term growth in partisan hostility in the United States. More than half of members of one party viewed the other party very unfavorably; 9 in 10 viewed the party unfavorably to some extent. Most supporters saw the other party as “posing a serious threat to the country.” Later Pew polling found that partisanship was seen as a far bigger divide in the United States than race, gender or religion — and a widening one. The Russian effort was meant to heighten that division, but it was a division that was already well-established.

After four years of Trump’s presidency — during which his central political strategy was to widen, not narrow, that gulf — he left office with a paroxysm of literal violence, the sort that about 1 in 6 Americans told PRRI they agreed with in theory. A YouGov poll conducted shortly after President Biden took office identified a remarkable component of partisan belief: More than half of Republicans viewed Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies; 4 in 10 Democrats returned the sentiment.

Consider what that means. A large portion of the public, weighted to the political right, claim to see the opposition not as fellow Americans with divergent viewpoints but, instead, as enemies. A smaller subset still thinks that violence will be needed to protect the nation against those perceived opponents.

I was speaking with someone on Wednesday, before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, who asked what had happened to the idea that Americans generally stood united on issues of foreign policy in times of crisis. That YouGov poll immediately came to mind: If you see yourself as engaged in a political struggle against domestic enemies, why wouldn’t you seek out international allies in that fight? If you think, for example, that Russia is on your side in questions of politics and culture — as has been reinforced for Republicans for nearly a decade — and that Democrats aim to undermine the country, why not ally with Russian President Vladimir Putin against President Biden?

In January, YouGov polling found that most Republicans viewed Putin unfavorably — but to a lesser extent than they did Biden or other leading Democrats.

All of this is embodied in Trump, of course, who even on Wednesday night continued to praise Putin’s tactics as smart. His presidency was marked by precisely the sort of trade-offs that are now common in partisan debates domestically: He preferred the company of flattering, tough-guy autocrats to the criticisms and cajoling of American allies. That has trickled down — particularly to louder voices on the right who are often seeking to appeal to his base. (In PRRI’s polling, one largely unifying characteristic of QAnon adherents was their approval of Trump.)

I’ll note that this is enabled, in part, by the existence of conversational ecosystems in which rhetorical and ideological bunkering is enabled. If you are intrigued by QAnon, there have long been communities to foster that. If you are a strong supporter, there are mainstream outlets that will reinforce and amplify those views. In the past, Americans shared a broad understanding about what was unfolding in the world — an understanding that wasn’t always accurate, certainly, but one that meant the country was operating from a shared platform. That’s no longer the case. Someone who is immersed in Telegram chats about QAnon is not going to view Biden’s policy efforts in a way at all similar to someone who watches MSNBC.

The result is an increasingly divided country—one divided not simply in terms of how the United States moves forward together but divided almost geopolitically. Divided as though two nation-states are competing for the same territory and, as in the Civil War itself, seeking out international alliances.

It’s a result that Russia couldn’t have hoped to achieve when it first started plotting its interference efforts in 2014, and it’s a result that country Russia specific benefits at this precise moment.

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