Those who are skeptical towards the Russia scandal often argue that election meddling is nothing new, and they would be right. But Donald Trump's case is fundamentally different; normally, the candidate isn't in on it himself.
However unethical, foreign interventions in elections is normal. Collectively, the United States and Russia have interfered in at least one out of nine national executive elections between 1946 and 2000. Indeed, from the end of the 2nd world war to the beginning of the new millenium, the United States has interfered in 81 foreign elections and the Russia has interfered in 36.
In the aftermath of World War II in Japan, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to exert political control in the region. In the fifties and sixties, the United States funneled secret funds to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, and the Soviet Union supported the Japanese Socialist party.
The launching convention of the Liberal Democratic Party on November 15th, 1955, via Wikimedia Commons
A similar situation unfolded in Chile. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for political control in the South American nation. The U.S. poured upwards of $2.5 million dollars into the campaign of Eduardo Montalva, a prominent conservative. His opponent, a Marxist named Salvador Allende, was funded by the Soviets.
In all of these cases, a foreign government provided support to a foreign politician or party that was knowingly—and willingly—accepted. These were nations seeking not only to promote their political interests but also to assert concrete financial control over the countries' ruling parties.
No examples of this sort of collusion exist in the United States, however. To be sure, the nation's elections have not taken place in a vacuum—public opinion is subject to developments both domestic and international. In 1940, for example, Nazi Germany sought to derail the reelection of Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt by paying a U.S. newspaper to publish captured documents that they hoped would cast Roosevelt as a warmongerer and hypocrite in the eyes of the American public. But Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt's opponent, did not collude with the Nazis to arrange this publication.
Wendell Willkie testifies before a Congressional committee in 1939, via the Library of Congress.
In 1960, the Soviet Union hoped to secure the election of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon by refusing to return two American soldiers until after the election so that the then-incumbent VP Nixon would have no foreign policy successes to show for himself. Like Roosevelt, Kennedy neither requested nor accepted the support. Still, he later acknowledged that the Soviet effort did take place, saying that "[Russia] played a role in the election and cast [their] vote for me." However problematic to American democracy, this statement neither nullified the election nor sullied Kennedy's presidency.
Neither Kennedy nor Roosevelt were active participants in the foreign campaigns meant to aid them.
Today, it is possible to say with near certainty that the Russian government conducted a campaign to influence the American public opinion and sway its opinion in favor of Donald Trump. It's possible—but unproven—that the Russian government attempted to hack into U.S. election systems. And it's not unlikely—but also not proven—that Donald Trump or his campaign knowingly accepted informational or financial support from the Russian government.
Russia's public opinion campaign, however concerning, is no grounds for legal action. It is not illegal; Donald Trump and his campaign, no matter how despicable, are not responsible for the actions of the Russian government. If the Russian government tampered with the American election infrastructure, Hillary Clinton potentially has grounds to bring a case for an election redo to the courts. While both of these scenarios highlight the weaknesses of the American democratic system, they involve no wrongdoing on part of Donald Trump.
A third scenario stands out, however. If Donald Trump, his family, or his campaign knowingly worked with the Russian government, treason can be the only conclusion. If Russia's involvement with the American election involved no support from Trump, 2016 is simply business as usual for the United States and Russia. If, however, Donald Trump worked with the Russian government—or any other government, for that matter—to secure the Presidency, then and only then is the 2016 election truly unprecedented.
Cover image: President Barack Obama meets with Vladimir Putin. Reuters.