One little-noted finding in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

They really did.

It started way back in 2014, when a pro-Putin oligarch in St. Petersburg set up a troll farm that manufactured fake social media identities to push stories designed to alter American public opinion. Eventually, Mueller reports, they interacted with 29 million Americans (including Sean Hannity and Donald Trump Jr., who repeatedly retweeted their fabrications). Later, Russian military intelligence, the GRU, broke into computer networks belonging to the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, stealing private communications that were strategically published to damage her campaign.

By early 2016, the Russians exclusively promoted the candidacy of Donald Trump, but that was a crime of opportunity. Before Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, the Russian efforts were not on behalf of any one candidate (although they were always anti-Clinton). The “active measures” were strictly about driving wedges between Americans, making them feel hostile and defensive.

Mueller leaves it up to us to figure out why a geopolitical adversary might want to make us hate each other, but it’s probably not because they thought it would make us great again. And while Mueller did not charge Trump or his closest associates with criminal conspiracy, he left no doubt that Russia broke many laws to help Trump win.

None of this is news, and some of it was known before the 2016 election, but that doesn’t make it less important. You could not have a president like Trump, who appeals to a narrow group of interests representing a minority of the population, unless we lived in a deeply divided country. Because he has never come close to 50 percent approval in polling since he entered public life, divided opposition is the only way a candidate like Trump can win. It’s simple math.

Division is good for Russia, it’s good for Trump and it’s good for the Republican Party, which has a hold on power that exceeds the number of people who vote for their candidates. Regardless of how Republican office holders personally feel about Trump, they certainly don’t want to spend the next year getting to the bottom of the election that put them in charge of everything, and give their real enemies – the Democrats – a political advantage.

The Russians exploited these divisions because they were there to exploit. There were no Russian trolls that I’m aware of behind the election and re-election of Paul LePage as Maine’s governor, the closest thing we have to a petri-dish experiment for Trumpism.  

LePage thrived on division, and kept stoking it for eight years. Democrats and independents played along, handing him victories in multi-candidate races.

Expect to see the same on the national stage. In the four years since 2016, the resentment between the Bernie and Hillary factions inside the Democratic Party is still a thing. Partisans on both sides believe their intramural differences matter as much or more than their common differences with Trump. It wouldn’t take much to drive them even further apart.

What makes us vulnerable to this? It could be a sense of pessimism that pervades modern life – a nostalgia for the past and a lack of confidence in the future that characterize so much of our politics.

A couple of years ago the World Economic Forum published a series of surveys that tested the perceptions of people in different countries on a number of measures, which they compared to the actual figures.

Americans were hardly the most pessimistic people in the world, but we were consistently near the top on every question.

When asked whether the murder rated had changed since 2000, 78 percent of Americans told the surveyors that it was either higher or had stayed the same. Only 13 percent answered correctly that it had dropped – significantly.

We were just as wrong about the frequency of terrorist attacks in the 15-year periods before and after 9/11 (most people said there had been more since 2001, but actually there were fewer). And we were way off when asked to estimate the number of foreign-born inmates in our prisons. The average estimate was 32 percent, but the actual number was less than 6 percent.

Pessimists think they are realistic – even when they ignore reality. Believing only the evidence that supports your view makes you a perfect mark for a conman.

Excessive optimism leads to error, too – think of the Titanic, the Donner Party or the people who bought mortgage-backed securities .

Pessimism is just as much of a trap. We should all be able to recognize that Russia exploited a weakness by deepening division and distrust, but it didn’t create them. We did that to ourselves.


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