Last week, the US Justice Department indicted 13 Russians and three companies for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Those indicted had gone to many lengths to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign by discouraging residents from voting, encouraging animosity between political communities, and advocating for other candidates—such as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or Jill Stein—by way of supporting political rallies and using social media.
The indictment immediately sparked questions regarding Moscow’s influence in the election: namely whether it can be held partly or entirely responsible for Trump’s unexpected win. Many Democrats have proceeded with caution, voicing dismay about Russian interference while also expressing awareness that Clinton’s campaign was flawed. Representative Brendan F. Boyle (D-PA) commented, ‘we will never be able to know for certain if the massive Russian operation was the difference between victory and defeat. But … it was a factor.’
President Trump’s supporters have been markedly less hesitant in expressing hardline opinions. Trump himself was quick to emphasize that the indictment had refrained from accusing him of collusion, tweeting: ‘The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!’ Trump’s supporters have further used the political incident to continue to criticize the Mueller investigation, dismissing it as a Democratic conspiracy to undermine Trump’s authority.
Yet examining reactions to the indictment across the partisan divide suggests that there are broader ramifications for the investigation than merely heightening partisan rancor. Underlying these discussions is a deep anxiety about the American government’s institutional impotence in the face of foreign intervention in its elections—and, more simply put, in its ability to elect a legitimate government. Beyond its initial impact on individuals charged for their crimes, the indictment has the potential to impact a much more significant issue: Americans’ very confidence in democratic government.
Trust in government in the United States has been on the decline since the 1960s. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center shows that public trust in government is currently at near-historic lows, from almost 80% in 1964 to an abysmal 18% in December 2017. The late 1960s and early 1970s in particular serve as a critical turning point for Americans’ trust in their governing institutions, as the trials of the Vietnam War, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil crisis, and the Watergate scandal helped foment discontent with the government’s ability to honestly and effectively govern.
But the loss of American naïveté regarding the government can perhaps be best traced to the Watergate scandal. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration attempted to obstruct the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the White House’s involvement in the affair. Just like today, the events of the scandal were disclosed on a daily basis, slowly revealing the extent of the administration’s criminal activities. Despite Nixon’s eventual resignation and the DOJ’s efforts to keep the administration accountable, the scandal stripped the American public of their trust in elected government. Reverberations of these events are still felt in our political climate today. As American historian Julian Zelizer wrote, ‘we still live in the era of Watergate.’
While it remains to be seen whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in 2016, the findings of the Mueller investigation and the debate that it has inevitably opened will likely further erode the public’s trust in government—just as Watergate did in the 1970s. The two scandals are inherently different in terms of their historical context and scale, yet both implicate or put elected officials into the orbit of acts of corruption, diminishing our belief in the legitimacy and integrity of our democratic system.
An ingrained fear of government, which equates reputable government with limited government, is at the heart of American politics and is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Though it is essential for the Mueller investigation to determine whether collusion took place during the 2016 election, policymakers must be aware of the need to quell a resurgence of anti-government sentiment and to shore up support for America’s democratic institutions among their constituents.
The mid-term elections in the coming months will provide the truest test for both government and civil society actors, such as Facebook and Twitter, to crack down on interfering agents and to preserve the integrity of US elections. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has said that ‘there should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential threat.’ Only through active efforts to protect free and fair elections in the US will we be able to preserve belief in democracy—the very belief that in turn supports our democratic institutions from their own decline.
Whitney McIntosh is a Research Assistant at the Stanford Program on American Democracy.