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The Path to Ruin

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It’s clear enough why so many voters are dismayed over the results of the recent presidential election. Trump was divisive and ill-mannered and the other major candidate, Hillary Clinton, seemed assured of the presidency. Her supporters figured they had it in the bag. No way Trump could win this. Only the narrowest of paths to an electoral college win. I thought that myself. Indeed, Hillary ended up actually winning the popular vote even while she lost the electoral college convincingly.

A lot went wrong for her campaign, especially in the waning days, including a series of scandal stories that plagued her from early on (use of a private server for government emails and the mixing of those with her personal emails and then her unilateral destruction of vast numbers of those so no one could ever get a look at them; Benghazi; fixing the Democratic primaries to freeze out her main challenger, Socialist Bernie Sanders; playing footsie with the media by receiving information before debates; badmouthing various groups of Americans in private — revealed in publicly leaked emails).

There were lots of villains for her partisans to blame her loss on, too, from evil Republicans to a scheming Russian strongman to a rogue FBI Director who alternately exonerated her, while impugning her, and hen reappeared at the end of the campaign to re-open, then re-close, an investigation he had ostensibly closed back in the summer.

Trump, her remarkably boorish opponent, was offensive on and off the stump, poormouthing large swaths of the electorate. He presented no clear evidence to would be voters that he was a thoughtful, balanced, knowledgeable candidate. Yet he trounced her in the electoral college by breaking through what had been thought, heretofore, to be an impenetrable blue wall supposedly assuring her ultimate victory . . a victory that, incomprehensibly (at least to Democrats) ended up going to the deplorable Mr. Trump.

Now comes news from unidentified government sources inside the Obama administration that the CIA has concluded Russian strongman Vladimir Putin orchestrated the release of various internal DNC and Clinton campaign emails, through Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks operation, to damage Hillary’s chances and advance Trump’s. That rightly concerns all Americans. We can’t have our elections interfered with by outside parties, especially bad actors like Putin.

Even if the votes themselves weren’t fixed (and there is zero evidence to even think that), voters’ beliefs and perceptions mustn’t be manipulated either and, arguably that is precisely what late campaign releases of those Clinton team and DNC emails by WikiLeaks did. If the evidence shows that Putin’s people were behind this, as it seems to, then this is a real problem for our democracy.

Putin may or may not have wanted Trump to win (Trump is clearly inexperienced on the geopolitical stage and is something of a loose cannon and highly susceptible to personal flattery so perhaps Putin would see him as the better person to lead an America he is keen to unseat as world leader). Despite Trump’s avowed penchant for a strong American international profile, he could easily be more manipulable than, say, Hillary Clinton might have been. But whether that entered into Putin’s actual calculations or not, Putin certainly has an interest in undermining Americans’ faith in their own system and their willingness to come together after an election is done.

Between himself and Hillary Clinton, Trump is easily the more polarizing of the two (though it was a close race for that crown, too) but his win, especially in uncertain circumstances such as those created by the suspicions of Russian help, can only further contribute to internal American discord. It already has.

This, alone, must be worth its weight in gold, or barrels of oil, to Vladimir Putin as he plays out his grand strategy of restoring Russian imperial glory by weakening historic adversaries abroad. A divided America, consumed with political infighting and unable to come together behind a leader who is broadly respected and acknowledged, can only serve Putin’s longer term interests, whatever Mr. Trump decides to do on the world stage. And if Trump blows it, the internal backbiting and calls for his impeachment that might follow can only further weaken America. The one thing Putin doesn’t want is a unified United States behind a successful, broadly respected leader. So for Putin this is a win-win. Either he shakes up our confidence in Trump’s legitimacy or he gets a president who can’t cut it on the world stage. Maybe, if he’s lucky, he gets both.

Trump’s fans and political allies have every reason to want him to succeed, of course, and many think he can. But his Democratic adversaries feel differently and now disaffection over the surprising Trump upset has taken yet another turn with the call by some from the Hillary Clinton campaign, like her former campaign chief John Podesta, for state electors who, under our system, are selected to cast their states’ votes for the next American president, to be briefed on the Russian connection.

Podesta’s camp seems to believe that, even if the electors don’t choose to reject Trump (something they could do in theory at least), the allegations about Russian meddling with the intention of handing Trump the presidency, can at least undermine the legitimacy of the administration he is now about to set up.

It certainly can do that. But whatever we think of Trump, he won this election whether anyone likes it or not and there’s no evidence the game was rigged, even if Trump, himself, opened that can of worms back when, during the campaign, he thought he might lose. But there is evidence some, like Putin, worked behind the scenes to affect the outcome.

It wasn’t an ideal election by any measure, commencing with the two major candidates we had to work with. But it was an election held according to our laws and decided by the voters according to the system that has served us for over two centuries. Stability and legitimacy are essential to a democracy and we risk undermining both if we allow partisanship and rancor to shatter our national comity now. Once you take away the air of legitimacy that enshrouds our political system, the path to a government by coup and junta is not far off. It’s a slippery one, easy to slide down and incredibly hard to climb back up.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Profile photo of Stuart W. Mirsky
Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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