The investigationMost are aware of the charges that Russia may have somehow tried to influence the 2016 presidential election and that Russian interests have a disproportionate influence in the operations of the Trump administration. One claim is that a Russian agency, the Internet Research Association, somehow manipulated social media to target certain groups of people in the United States to influence their vote with "fake news." Another claim is that high-level operatives, like former National Security Advisory Michael Flynn, was somehow in the pay of Russian operatives from other countries. A third claim is that Trump is deeper in cahoots with the Russians, receiving difficult to trace contributions from Russia in exchange for Trump advancing Russian interests. As I understand it, Russia isn't the only foreign power alleged to exert undue influence, but the news I've seen focuses on "Russia" and Putin.
In light of these charges, part of the investigation into Trump has to do with his, his administration's, and his campaign's dealings with Russian and other foreign operatives. The questions behind this investigation seems to be what did they know, when did they know it, and how might they be compromising national security because of it?
This investigation needs to be done, and if it uncovers illegal actions, those actions must be prosecuted. Even if what it uncovers is not illegal, it may uncover questionable dealings that should call into question the competence and good faith of the Trump administration.
Three tragic consequencesBut however necessary the investigation is, into Trump's dealings with Russia may do, I see three potentially unfortunate consequences. unfortunate, potential consequences. First, the investigation feeds into a narrative of knee-jerk anti-Russianism and hyper-American nationalism and all the unsavory historical associations that come with that narrative. Second, the investigation glamorizes Putin.
Un-reflective attacks on free speechOne concern the Russian investigation has brought out is that "fake news" bombards social media and manipulates people to vote a certain way or not to vote at all. One possible reaction to "fake news" is advocacy for more gate keeping in the distribution of information. I fear that gate keeping can be unduly strict and may limit what can be said.
It all depends on what kind of gate keeping we're talking about. The fewer and more centralized the gate keepers--and the more formal and rigid the gate keeping process--the more danger. The more diffuse the gate keepers and the more access we have to alternative, non-gate-kept information, the better. To be clear, I haven't yet seen any serious proposal that might raise concerns. The only proposal I've actually seen (and at secondhand, so I don't have a link) is combat trollery on social media so as to provide more transparency about who is providing what information and in whose interests that information is being provided.
Another red scare?The investigation revives our periodic obsessions with Russia and with anyone who may plausibly be smeared as "pro-Russian." That isn't too different from our other periodic obsessions, such as the war on terror or the anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980s. But I'd just like to point that we've seen this movie before. The sides seem to have changed a bit. Those who say "but there really is a danger" tend now to be more on the left. Those who say "this is hysteria" or "this is a nothingburger" are probably more on the right. (Here I'm using commonsense, and therefore overbroad and vague, definitions of "the left" and "the right.")
That the sides have switched doesn't mean there's no danger. I should be wary of reasoning by analogy or assuming that because two situations have one thing in common, they have other things in common. But the similarity to other campaigns about "foreign intervention" should give at least a moment's pause. Will the allegations of "pro-Russianism" go overboard and start to ruin lives? Will anyone who raises the possibility that Russia isn't as great of a danger eventually be branded as "traitors"?
Probably not. I said the similarity to concerns the US has seen about foreign intervention should give us "a moment's pause." But I wouldn't say it should give us two moments' pause.
The greater glory of PutinThe investigation serves Putin's interests. Or rather, Putin will find it easy to spin the investigation in a way that buffs up his domestic standing. Maybe Putin is a danger to the US and maybe what Trump and his friends have been doing really does compromise national security or at least signals corruption. But every revelation of how Russia engineered a "fake news" campaign or somehow influenced the 2016 election likely plays into Putin's hands. Maybe Russian experts can tell me where I'm wrong, but I strongly suspect Putin gets a lot of leverage, in the form of bragging rights, by portraying himself as the guy who messed with the American elections.
That perhaps is the most "inevitable" of the tragedies from the Russian investigation. It's obviously (to me) something that needs investigating and it's impossible to investigate in a way that won't redound to Putin's interests.