AMONG the Republicans cowering before President Donald Trump, the presence of Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan has been especially disheartening. Yet both threatened to regrow spines this week. “Russia is an adversary,” declared Senator Rubio, in response to the president’s fraternising in Helsinki. “Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests,” said the Speaker of the House of Representatives. These were, if not stinging rebukes, better than Mr Rubio’s usual habit of keeping shtum and tweeting Bible verses whenever Mr Trump does something horrid, or Mr Ryan’s of offering a wry half-smile and a comment on tax reform. Yet both men, formerly known as principled conservatives, sullied their moment of revertebration. Both claimed the Russian election-hacking effort on Mr Trump’s behalf had been a failure. “It is also clear,” said Mr Ryan, that “it didn’t have a material effect on our elections.”
Not so. The margin of Mr Trump’s victory in the electoral college was tiny, a matter of just under 80,000 voters in three rustbelt states. Any one of Hillary Clinton’s unforeseen troubles could account for that: including her late fainting fit, James Comey’s blundering or an illicit Russian social-media campaign that suggested she was in league with the devil. And a bigger Russian intervention, the cyberwar on behalf of Mr Trump described in Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, could have hurt her more than all the rest combined. It appears to have been better-resourced, longer-running and more extensive and ingenious than almost anyone imagined.
The special counsel’s indictment describes a global network of anonymous servers and bitcoin miners, rampant identity theft and money-laundering, all focused on the Russian objective of getting Mr Trump elected. The Russian spies, whose identities, responsibilities and individual activities the indictment meticulously identifies, had a free run of Mrs Clinton’s party and campaign computer files until a few weeks before the election. The indictment suggests that they may additionally have stolen the Clinton team’s voter-targeting data, which in the hands of her opponent could have been a devastating weapon.
Even if those numbers were pinched (and Mrs Clinton’s data people claim to have seen other proof to that effect), it would be impossible to know whether Russia swung the election for Mr Trump. Yet given the extent of its effort and given that it need only have shifted 0.03% of the total number of votes from the Democrats to the Republicans, it might well have done. There is certainly no basis on which to conclude that it did not.
The Democrats’ grousing over this possible election theft will get them nowhere, of course. Yet the grousing is inevitable and a mark of Mr Putin’s indisputable achievement: a serious jolt in Americans’ confidence in the integrity of their elections. Half of Americans think that Mr Trump colluded with the Russians to engineer his election. In the court of public opinion, that arguably makes his presidency illegitimate, which would be corrosive to American democracy even under a much less divisive leader. A governing party mindful of majority sentiment, and ambitious to win it, would respond to that carefully. By treating reasonable concerns about Mr Trump’s election as just another partisan fight, Mr Ryan and his colleagues are instead underlining the extent to which they have abandoned that ambition.
Their complacency towards Mr Trump’s financial conflicts, a second source of doubt about Mr Trump’s presidency, provides another illustration of this. Among innumerable examples, China is reported to have granted trademarks to at least 39 Trump-branded products since his inauguration, including some the president had previously been denied. Mr Trump and his retinue spent almost a third of last year staying, at public expense, at Trump properties. A working weekend at one of the president’s golf courses in Scotland, during which he managed to squeeze in 18 holes in between plotting the downfall of the West, cost American taxpayers almost $70,000. There are laws against such self-enrichment. Yet even as legal challenges to Mr Trump’s behaviour creep through the courts, the Republicans dare not criticise it. To do so might cost them an invitation to Mar-a-Lago.
It might also invite a primary challenge, given the way Mr Trump has weaponised his unpopularity, rallying his supporters against any critic. No doubt right-minded Republicans, among the many who privately abhor Mr Trump, would otherwise speak up. Yet it also seems notable that their unwillingness to do so is consistent with their party’s acceptance of a different sort of illegitimacy. That is the tyranny of minority rule, enabled by the quirks of an electoral system that gives its white, rural supporters more power for fewer votes than the more diverse, clustered Democrats—almost 3m fewer, in the case of Mr Trump’s victory over Mrs Clinton. The adoption of white identity politics represents an embrace of minoritarianism as a core strategy. That led Republicans to Mr Trump. Further compromises with democratic legitimacy have followed.
The Russia House
It is hard to see any happy end to this. The question is whom the unhappiness might befall: the Republicans or America. In one scenario, which might take an election cycle or two, the Democrats’ superior numbers will eventually prevail, and the minoritarians will be overwhelmed by the aggrieved majority. In the other, the Republicans’ continued disdain for the majority, even as they cling to power, will cause an explosion. Perhaps the likeliest spark for that would be if Mr Putin is again suspected of fixing an election on their behalf. So it is also notable that, despite their brief flash of pique with the president this week, Republican congressmen such as Mr Ryan and Mr Rubio have not yet done anything to make that less likely. Until they do, every American election will come with a risk attached.