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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If Russia's goal in meddling in U.S. elections has been to undermine trust in the democratic process, it has already won — and the U.S. isn't even starting to take the sort of steps that might reverse that outcome.

Why it matters: Free, fair, and trusted elections are the cornerstone of the U.S.'s claim to moral authority. We're only beginning to fathom how badly Vladimir Putin has wounded the American system.

The big picture: While the U.S. government and industry has focused on defending against cybersecurity threats to election processes and voting machines, Russia has exploited our political divisions — and a U.S. president uninterested in stopping it — to sow doubt in American fundamentals.

In the 2016 election, Russian information operations, modeled on previous interference in nations like Ukraine and the Baltic states, hacked the Democratic candidate's campaign and relied on professional manipulators, gullible Americans and bots to spread propaganda.

  • The operations, and Russia's responsibility for them, have been widely confirmed by U.S. intelligence and exhaustively documented by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and the Mueller investigation.
  • "The goal was to mess with us, so that no matter who becomes president, the United States is harder to govern, and that over the long run, democracy becomes harder to sustain," media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan told NPR.

There were many calls for a 9/11-style response to the 2016 attack, but President Trump has viewed efforts to investigate and defend against Russia's threat as direct challenges to the legitimacy of his own election win.

  • After 2016, Democrats argued that Putin succeeded in helping Trump to the White House. Republicans argued in turn that Democrats who continued to talk about Russian interference were themselves helping Putin by undermining trust in elections.
  • The winner all around? Putin. Whether the Russian operations actually swayed votes doesn't matter. That Americans are fighting over the question does.

What they're saying: A C-SPAN/Ipsos survey last October found that barely half of Americans believe the 2020 elections would be conducted openly and fairly.

It's not all Putin's fault. The reasons for the distrust go beyond Russia's interference:

  • Many Democrats feel that manipulative redistricting and the Electoral College dilute the impact of their votes, particularly those of urban and minority voters.
  • The last two times Republicans took the White House from Democrats, in 2016 and 2000, they did so while losing the popular vote.
  • Republicans, meanwhile, have long argued that Democrats frequently engage in voter fraud, though actual evidence of such crimes remains slim to nonexistent.

What's next: It may be too late to try to protect trust in U.S. elections and time to start thinking about rebuilding it from the ground up.

  • That might be an impossible project for a Trump administration that has shown little interest in it — and that large parts of the electorate blame for the problem.
  • It would be a tough undertaking, too, for a potential new Democratic administration in 2021, which would inevitably be blamed by unhappy Trump voters for a range of misbehavior, real or imagined.

The bottom line: Russia set off an information bomb in 2016 that cannot be un-exploded. Putin's master strategy has been effective, and it's extremely difficult to counter.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Technology

CES was largely irrelevant this year

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Forced online by the pandemic and overshadowed by the attack on the Capitol, the 2021 edition of CES was mostly an afterthought as media's attention focused elsewhere.

Why it matters: The consumer electronics trade show is the cornerstone event for the Consumer Technology Association and Las Vegas has been the traditional early-January gathering place for the tech industry.

The FBI is tracing a digital trail to Capitol rioters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Capitol rioters, eager to share proof of their efforts with other extremists online, have so far left a digital footprint of at least 140,000 images that is making it easier for federal law enforcement officials to capture and arrest them.

The big picture: Law enforcement's use of digital tracing isn't new, and has long been at the center of fierce battles over privacy and civil liberties. The Capitol siege is opening a fresh front in that debate.

Off the Rails

Episode 6: Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 6: Georgia had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 and Donald Trump's defeat in this Deep South stronghold, and his reaction to that loss, would help cost Republicans the U.S. Senate as well. Georgia was Trump's last stand.

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.