The Russians didn’t create the dissent behind the election’s outcome, Hill argued. Rather, like all good propagandists, they “were riding the tide of dissent. They actually did an extraordinarily good job of reading the national mood [in the United States]. And that’s because they themselves are obsessed with polling. Putin’s got armies of pollsters always looking for any hints of trouble. And his is a populist presidency. Outside of the Moscow elite and a very small urban elite, Russia is one great big blue-collar country.”
Putin, she said, “has got a very important strategic perspective that people don’t give him credit for, and then he’s a tactical opportunist. … He has a clear strategy—[America is] his main opponent and he wants to outsmart us and outmaneuver us and block things that we’re doing that he doesn’t like—and he looks at every opportunity. This presidential election campaign provided those to him in spades.”
“Clinton was eminently vulnerable and eminently exploitable,” Hill continued. “Nobody invented Anthony Weiner, did they? And Putin didn’t make the decision for Hillary Clinton to have a private [email] server.”
These days, the United States is also eminently vulnerable and exploitable. The leaked emails not only turned the strengths of an open, technologically advanced country into weaknesses, but they also landed with a thud in a nation suffering from political corruption and polarization, low public trust in government institutions, and economic stagnation.
“The Russians mirror-image and think, ‘Ah, yes. The United States is about to collapse. Look, this is the Soviet Union of the late ’80s teetering on the brink: economic collapse, overextension of foreign wars … social dislocation, dissatisfaction with the system,’” Hill explained. Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election may have been less about helping Trump win or making Clinton lose than about undermining a wobbly United States, and its image and influence abroad.
And there’s no reason to think those efforts will stop with Trump. “It may be one thing to say, ‘Hey, bring out those 30,000 emails of Hillary Clinton’s,’” Hill said, referring to Trump’s plea to Russia during the campaign. “Does he want his own 30,000 brought out? … The Russians will play dirty against him as well, and presumably he’s had enough experience in cutthroat real-estate deals ... to know that.” Putin, she added, is “going to have to test and see what kind of mettle Trump is made of. [Trump is] uncharted territory.”
Hill acknowledged that Trump is unlikely to approach Russia the way past U.S. presidents have. “I tend to look at Trump as a real-estate mogul,” she said. “You look at a building and say, ‘I’m just going to tear that down and build up something new.’ He’s not exactly Mr. Preservationist.” Trump and Putin both think about foreign policy transactionally. Trump will likely withdraw U.S. support for Syrian rebels and permit Putin to shore up Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so that the two countries can join forces against ISIS. Trump might even recognize Putin’s annexation of Crimea and remove sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. The United States under Trump might turn inward, at least initially, leaving Russia to act largely as it pleases.