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.

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