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Politics | The Atlantic
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The U.S. Election Russia Wants
“Please move.” The white woman doesn’t raise her voice; she’s got her shirt on inside out and she’s aiming a cellphone at the taco truck vendors parked on her street. She wants them gone, and they’re telling her to go back inside. “Okay, baby girl,” she says. “Vamonos. I’ll call ICE.” “Stupida bitcha,” comes a reply.A video of the confrontation, filmed outside a house in Dallas last spring, soon went viral, with the title “racist woman talking about shes gonna call ICE ON US FOR SELLING FOOD IN DALLAS WHEN WE HAVE PERMIT.” Within weeks, it had more than 170,000 views.This is the new face of Russian propaganda. In 2016, the Kremlin invested heavily in creating memes and Facebook ads designed to stoke Americans’ distrust of the electoral system and one another. But now, after nearly four years under a president whose divisive rhetoric and policies have inflamed voter anger on issues such as race, inequality, and his own conduct, the Russian government is still interfering, but it doesn’t need to do much creative work anymore. The taco-truck video wasn’t fabricated in some St. Petersburg workshop. It was a real video of a real incident, made in America—and all Russia had to do was help it spread with its Twitter trolls.Luckily for the Russians, then, the two current front-runners for the presidency, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both polarizing figures—and they’re both candidates Russian trolls sought to promote in 2016, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller found. This time, the Democratic field is crowded and squabbling, but it includes no hawkish, long-established Hillary Clinton to tear down. If the election does end up being a Trump-Sanders face-off, one of the Kremlin’s favored candidates from 2016 is guaranteed a win. They are far apart ideologically but nearly equally suited to the Kremlin’s interests, both in being divisive at home and in encouraging U.S. restraint abroad. Both Sanders and Trump profess to want to refocus the U.S. inward—a message that clearly appeals to many Americans. But that doesn’t mean that the Russian propaganda machine is slowing down; it’s just aimed at a new target. [Read: The Sanders doctrine]Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who has studied Russian information operations, told me, “Systems like this don't tend to stop simply because their reason for being no longer exists. They find new reasons for being.” In this case, building on their 2016 successes and worsening divisions in the United States.Linvill offered me a list of reasons why the Kremlin still wants to interfere in U.S. politics, despite the fact that we’re already doing such a great job of dividing ourselves. Russia’s goals include depressing voter turnout and making it more difficult for the eventual winner to govern by sowing doubts about the electoral process.The Kremlin might also still have a preference for Trump, if only because Russian leaders now know what to expect from him, said Alina Polyakova, the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Sanders, for his part, has declared Russian interference “unacceptable” and expressed support for sanctions on the country, but he has also voted against a bill that would impose them because it included Iran too.No matter what, Polyakova said, “a U.S. that’s mired in its own domestic problems and not engaged in the world benefits Moscow.” That’s where the videos come in.Americans are now the chief suppliers of the material that suspected Russia-linked accounts use to stoke anger ahead of U.S. elections, leaving Russia free to focus on pushing it as far as possible. Linvill has seen Russian trolls shift tactics to become “curators more than creators,” with the same goal of driving Americans apart. “The Russians love those videos,” he said, “because they function to make us more disgusted with one another.” He and a colleague have traced viral tweets about the Dallas incident to Russia-linked accounts that Twitter has since suspended.[Read: The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president]America’s largely self-inflicted political condition has provided a stunning return on investment for the Russian government, which began orchestrating—as far back as 2014—what Mueller later called a conspiracy of “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes,” including the 2016 presidential election. Mueller laid bare the extent of the conspiracy led by a St. Petersburg-based organization called the Internet Research Agency. The IRA was the nerve center of the interference operation, with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars dedicated to what it internally referred to as “information warfare” against America, with Facebook ads, fake Twitter personas, and even efforts to organize real-world protests.Meanwhile, the irony is that the specter of Russian interference itself has become a tool to discredit political enemies online. “The biggest effect that I think foreign disinformation has had on our conversations is the perception that if someone disagrees with you, they’re a Russian troll,” Linvill said. “When, in fact, they probably just are somebody that disagrees with you.” Twitter, for instance, at one point suspended an account supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement as a suspected Russian troll. Wired later identified the user: an American living in Florida.The IRA was already setting up fake social-media accounts and sending operatives to the United States two years before the 2016 election. It operated English-language Twitter accounts that circulated made-up news stories—about a salmonella outbreak in New York, for instance, or a chemical explosion in Louisiana, neither of which had happened, Linvill said. These days, Russian internet operatives barely deal in outright fabricated news stories, he said, and those early efforts failed because they were easily debunked. When the campaign started, the IRA wasn’t focused on supporting any particular candidate so much as targeting Hillary Clinton. This meant boosting not only Trump (by establishing Facebook accounts such as “Clinton FRAUDation” and “Trumpsters United”) but also, incongruously, Sanders. (A BuzzFeed investigation found one Russian Tumblr account, 4mysquad, that posed as a black activist and celebrated Sanders as “not some old White man who just decided that #BlackLivesMatter yesterday. He’s BEEN fighting.”) Mueller later found that the clear preference for Trump developed over time.[Read: The Russian conspiracy that won’t die]Mueller’s investigation led to indictments of some IRA operatives—which meant little, since they were in Russia, beyond the reach of American law, and turning their attention to the 2018 midterm elections. The organization was still creating memes, and it got an even bigger budget, according to Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank. But it also began using more of what Americans themselves were putting on the internet, seizing on divisive debates about immigration, gun control, and police shootings of unarmed black men, using real news stories to highlight genuine anger and dysfunction in American politics.Now in 2020, the president and his political rivals have spent years locked in battle over things such as the Mueller investigation, impeachment, and America’s very institutions and role in the world. Russian trolls can largely just watch the Americans fight among themselves, and use fictitious Twitter personas to offer vigorous encouragement, as they did with the taco-truck video. They will keep prodding the same bruises in American society, or encouraging cries of electoral fraud if there’s a contested Democratic primary or a tight general election.The U.S. doesn’t need Russians to erode faith in its elections—one buggy app at the Iowa caucus did that just fine, prompting the president’s campaign manager to wonder on Twitter whether the caucus was “rigged.” Trump is both a cause and effect of existing American lack of faith in institutions, which he encourages with frequent reference to the “deep state.” And Sanders gets authentic support for his criticism of political and economic elites, which the Russia-linked accounts also promote.Even as the U.S. by virtue of its political divisions has made Russia’s job easier in some ways, it has made Russian operations more difficult in others. The Mueller investigation and congressional scrutiny have made people more aware of Russia’s activities since 2016, Brookie said. Social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook have grown more active at suspending suspicious accounts—even to the point of accidentally suspending real people spreading polarizing messages.Still, although Brookie didn’t want to understate the threat of Russian interference, he maintained that American domestic disinformation is worse than anything the IRA could do. Of the Russians at this point, he said: “They could spike the football and say, ‘Mission accomplished.’”
Bernie Sanders Gets a Pass
LAS VEGAS—Faced with signs that Bernie Sanders is consolidating his position as the clear front-runner in the Democratic race, the presidential candidates last night chose to focus most of their fire instead at the new guy onstage: Michael Bloomberg.The withering criticism, especially that of Elizabeth Warren, left Bloomberg visibly staggered at times and reflected an undeniable imperative for his opponents’ campaigns: His unprecedented TV-advertising blitz across the states voting in March threatens to catapult him past all of them as the principal alternative to the Vermont senator, who has taken a solid lead in the latest national polls. But the consistent focus on Bloomberg, especially during the debate’s highly contentious first hour, meant Sanders was left relatively off the hook.Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that anything that unfolded on the debate stage will impede his march toward an expected victory in Saturday’s caucuses here—where Bloomberg won’t even be on the ballot. Appearing on MSNBC after the debate, Joe Biden declared that “Bernie’s going to get vetted in a way he never has been before.” That moment may be coming, but it certainly didn’t arrive last night.Compared to earlier debates, Sanders did face more questions about his agenda and record from both his rivals and the moderators. Between them, they introduced arguments against Sanders’s candidacy that may resonate more loudly down the road, in particular when they questioned whether his calls for a “political revolution” can build a winning coalition against President Donald Trump.Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made that case most persistently, saying at one point that Democrats risk defeat if they offer voters “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil.” Even Warren, who has been remarkably reluctant to draw contrasts with Sanders even as he has eclipsed her as the favorite of the party’s most liberal voters, asserted that Democrats “are worried about gambling on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country.”But compared to the hazing Bloomberg received, Sanders escaped with many fewer bruises or bumps. He was confident and unyielding, if sometimes hectoring, in defending his agenda and ideology, and the focus never stayed on him for long. One of the night’s most telling moments came when the moderators asked Biden if Americans would elect a candidate who identifies as a socialist, as Sanders does, and the former vice president somehow managed to answer the question without ever mentioning (much less challenging) his opponent. “The other five tore each other apart while Bernie skated,” one Democratic pollster, who is not affiliated with any campaign, texted me after the debate.[Read: Bloomberg’s beating]Bloomberg’s exchanges with Sanders—with Bloomberg insisting that Sanders can’t win and needling him over his ownership of three houses, and Sanders, in turn, denouncing Bloomberg as the embodiment of corruption in the political system—seemed to pulse with the most mutual hostility. But all of the candidates pummeled the billionaire, over everything from his treatment of women to his record as mayor and from his prior history of supporting Republicans to his delay in releasing his income-tax returns. At points, Bloomberg was effective touting his policy plans (especially on climate), but he buckled in defending his record.As my colleague Russell Berman described, Warren was his most potent and relentless interrogator. In a lengthy back and forth over the nondisclosure agreements signed by women who worked for him, Warren delivered so many blows so fast that a boxing referee might have stopped the fight. He was, at one point, left to sputter in defense that he signed the agreements “probably because some women didn’t like some jokes I told.” It’s a safe bet Warren and his other opponents won’t let him forget those words.If Bloomberg’s unsteady performance reverses the gains he’s generated with his spending onslaught—as of last Friday, he’d spent $100 million on TV ads in California, Texas, and Florida alone—the turnabout could help any of the other candidates regain ground in the race. But it still leaves them the challenge of slowing Sanders, who has been buoyed by a wave of positive polls since his narrow victory last week in New Hampshire.Sanders has established himself as the front-runner by posting significant leads among young people and the most liberal voters, a more modest advantage among white voters without a college degree, and a potentially expanding lead with Latinos. (In several polls, Sanders has also reduced, or even eliminated, Biden’s lead with African Americans.) These increases translate to support from, at most, a little over 30 percent of the Democratic Party so far.Meanwhile, the constituencies more resistant to Sanders—particularly moderates, older voters, and college-educated white voters—have splintered among the remaining candidates. In a national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week, for example, Sanders attracted a higher share of progressives than any other candidate won among moderates; he won more non-college-educated white voters than any other candidate; and he attracted far more younger people (under age 45) than anyone else drew among older voters. As last night suggested, Sanders’s competitors still seem to be focused more on emerging as the alternative to him than on challenging him directly.That pressure encouraged a kind of all-against-all quality to the debate. Anyone trying to map the direction of attacks between the candidates would have quickly produced something like a spiral graph. At one point, Warren delivered a rapid-fire denunciation of the health-care plans from Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Sanders. Later, in a tour de force of cutting concision, she encapsulated her differences with Sanders (too revolutionary), Biden and Klobuchar (too clubby with Senate Republicans), and Buttigieg (too cozy with billionaires) in just three sentences.Buttigieg and Klobuchar, meanwhile, lacerated each other in bitterly personal terms. (“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” she insisted at one point.) There’s an electoral logic to the two targeting each other: In the New Hampshire exit poll, Klobuchar finished first and Buttigieg a close second among both college-educated and older voters. But their animosity seems to extend to a personal distaste that transcends any political logic.It took the moderators to remind the candidates of the big picture as Sanders establishes some separation from the field. Chuck Todd asked a question that I believe will become a frequent topic of conversation among Democrats in the weeks ahead: Do you believe the party should nominate the candidate who arrives at the July convention with the most delegates, even if no one has the 1,991 delegates required for a first-ballot victory? All of the contenders effectively said no, except for Sanders—who insisted “the will of the people should prevail.”With those answers, the candidates chasing Sanders pointedly left themselves room to resist his nomination at the convention if he arrives with a plurality, but not a majority, of the delegates. But by and large, they did surprisingly little to reduce the odds that Sanders will, in fact, arrive in Milwaukee with more delegates than anyone else.
The Atlantic Politics Daily: The United States of Jeff Bezos
It’s Thursday, February 20. In today’s newsletter: We’re talking about another billionaire (but not this one or that one). Plus: Russian trolls have a next favorite candidate.*« TODAY IN POLITICS »(CLODAGH KILCOYNE / REUTERS)The United States of Jeff BezosOne uber-rich white billionaire may have been thoroughly filleted on the Democratic debate stage last night, but another, one not mounting a presidential run, may be the one whose actions send a larger message about the condition of American democracy.This week, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced that he would drop $10 billion on a fund to combat climate change—immediately making the world’s richest man also the world’s biggest climate-change philanthropist. (How will he spend the money? TBD.)But Franklin Foer writes, Bezos’s gift may not exactly be a good thing for the country, or for the world: In a healthy democracy, the world’s richest man wouldn’t be able to painlessly make a $10 billion donation. His fortune would be mitigated by the tax collector; antitrust laws would constrain the growth of his business. Instead of relying on a tycoon to bankroll the national response to an existential crisis, there would be a national response. By just about any definition, $10 billion is a lotttt of money coming from one person.I tried to wrap my head around it—by looking at some of my favorite things in the world: sweeping policy plans citing similarly huge numbers.1. The Green New Deal, a Bernie Sanders-backed climate plan that’s en vogue on the left, would endeavor to decarbonize the U.S. economy—and would dedicate trillions toward climate investment.2. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax—a 2 percent tax on multi-millionaires—has become such a rallying cry for her candidacy that “two cents!” is a popular chant at her campaign rallies. If enacted, it would make the tax code a whole lot more redistributive, as my colleague Annie Lowrey writes, raising about $200 billion per year.3. If I had to choose one phrase that encapsulates the fissures within the 2020 Democratic primary, it’s probably this: Medicare for All. Support for single-payer health care has become something of a litmus test for the party’s left flank. Are Warren and Sanders, the plan’s biggest cheerleaders, being realistic about its cost?To borrow from my colleague Robinson Meyer: Billions? In this climate??—Saahil Desai*« IDEAS AND ARGUMENTS »(TOD​D HEISLER / THE NEW YORK TIMES)1. “Sanders escaped with many fewer bruises and bumps.”With former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg on the debate stage last night, most of his primary rivals seemed to have forgotten who the front-runner is; Bernie Sanders essentially skated through unscathed. Ron Brownstein runs through the next scenarios.2. “Willful, preventable ugliness is always a problem to one degree or another.”A new draft executive order, informally known as “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” is making the rounds. Good use of government resources; bad use of government resources? Andrew Ferguson debates.3. “Dignity binds together progressives and moderates opposed to Trump. It can also bring together constituencies who now find themselves opposed to each other.”The denial of dignity—respect, honor, and self-worth—is the unifying theme among Americans in the Trump era, the writer E.J. Dionne argues: To drive out Trumpism, Democrats need to build a movement on the dignity of the American worker.*« EVENING READ »(MIKHAIL SVETLOV / JOE RAEDLE / DREW ANGERER / KATIE MARTIN / THE ATLANTIC)Russian trolls have a next favorite candidateRussia is reportedly interfering again, backing President Trump’s re-election. But the foreign government meddling doesn’t need to do much to get its other wish: dividing the U.S.The Special Counsel investigation uncovered Russia’s work to boost Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 election. This time, there’s no Hillary Clinton. The . Democratic field is squabbling. Both Sanders and Trump profess interest in focusing the U.S. inward.But that doesn’t mean Russians have less of a reason to interfere this year, Kathy Gilsinan reports. “Luckily for the Russians, then, the two current front-runners for the presidency, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both polarizing figures,” she writes.So what are Russia’s motives this time around?* Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an editor on the Politics desk, and Christian Paz, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters. You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.
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