The Washington Post Column

How Russia could spark a U.S. electoral disaster

The headline: “U.S. investigates potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections.” To those unused to this kind of story, I can imagine that headline, from The Post this week, seemed strange. A secret Russian plot to throw a U.S. election through a massive hack of the electoral system? It sounds like a thriller, or a movie starring Harrison Ford.

In fact, the scenario under investigation has already taken place, in whole or in part, in other countries. Quite a bit of the story is already unfolding in public; strictly speaking, it’s not “secret” or “covert” at all. But because most Americans haven’t seen this kind of game played before (most Americans, quite wisely, don’t follow political news from Central Europe or Ukraine), I think the scenario needs to be fully spelled out. And so, based on Russia’s past tactics in other countries, assuming it acts more or less the same way it acts elsewhere, here’s what could happen over the next two months:

1. Donald Trump, who is advised by several people with Russian links, will repeat and strengthen his “the election is rigged” narrative. The “polls are lying,” the “real” people aren’t being counted, the corrupt elites/Clinton clan/mainstream media are colluding to prevent him from taking office. Trump will continue to associate himself with Brexit — a vote that pollsters really did get wrong — and with Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician who now promotes Trump (and has, incidentally, just been offered his own show on RT, the Russian state-sponsored TV channel).

2. Russia will continue to distribute and publish the material its hackers have already obtained from attacks on the Democratic National Committee, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, former NATO supreme commander Gen. Philip Breedlove and probably others. The point will be to discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the “elite” who supposedly run it. As we have learned in multiple countries, even benign private conversations and emails can, when published in a newspaper, look sinister. Speculation seems ominous; jokes menacing. Almost any leak of anything is damaging.

3. On or before Election Day, Russian hackers will seek to break into the U.S. voting system. We certainly know that this is possible: Hackers have already targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, according to The Post, and the FBI has informed Arizona officials that it suspects Russian hacking teams. Possible breaches are being investigated in several other states, and it’s not hard to imagine that many are vulnerable. The U.S. election system is decentralized and in some places frankly amateurish, as we learned in Florida in 2000.

4. The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.

5. Once revealed, the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency. Trump might emerge from the process as president after all. He will then go on, as promised at so many rallies, to “lock her up,” and of course to open a broad relation with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, the only foreign leader he seems to truly admire. Even if Clinton remains as president, she will be tarnished. At least a part of the country will assume she is illegitimate, that the elites/Clinton clan/mainstream media stole the election from “the people.”

6. More likely, the hack will fail, or never even get off the ground. But what’s the downside in trying, or even in letting it be known that it was tried? Rumors of election fraud can create the same hysteria as real election fraud. Already, Russia’s propaganda wire service, sputniknews.com, has speculated that The Post’s article on Russian electoral manipulation is a clever plot “to hide the actual efforts at electoral manipulation” and a “good cover for vote-rigging.” That thought will be tweeted and posted and shared by a whole ecosystem of professional trolls and computer bots, over and over again until it finally shows up on authentic pro-Trump websites.

7. And what’s the downside for Trump? If he wins, he wins. If he loses — then there are all kinds of ways to make money from the “election was rigged” narrative. He could start a media company focused on the conspiracy. He could start a national movement. He could make movies. He could be a hero. Whatever happens, the political process is undermined, social trust plummets further and the appeal of U.S. democracy, both at home and around the world, diminishes. And that, of course, is the point.