(WP) (Co-authored with K. Sonin) Donald Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, suggested that he would recognize Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee.
Such statements break sharply from U.S. policy and Republican practice. But Trump helps Putin most by depicting the U.S. electoral system as “rigged.” In doing so, he reinforces Putin’s message to the Russian public and the rest of the world: The U.S. system is as fraudulent as any other.
As scholars of propaganda in Russia and elsewhere, we have observed that successful manipulation of public opinion acknowledges what people know to be true. Putin cannot convince Russians that their elections are free and fair; they know that they are not. Russian citizens have uploaded numerous videos demonstrating electoral manipulation, and a community of statisticians and social scientists has documented anomalies in precinct-level vote totals. Telling Russians that their elections are honest would be like telling them that the mighty Volga flows uphill.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine incorporates this knowledge to produce a more subtle message: Yes, the Russian system is rigged, but so are electoral systems everywhere. The intent is to “normalize” Russian political practice, discouraging citizens from taking to the streets after resounding Kremlin victories [...]
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