America’s Post-Truth Reality: Hybrid Warfare Was the Real Winner in the Election
President-elect Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence. Photo by Voice of America.
As the American public prepares for the era of President Donald Trump, observers are trying to game how he will navigate the complicated weeds of the United States’ domestic and foreign policy. During the campaign season, Trump espoused strikingly unorthodox positions, especially on foreign policy, lauding the work of authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Bashir Al-Assad. Since the beginning of the Trump transition, we have also got a glimpse of stunning breaches of protocol from the President-elect himself and his inner circle, such as eschewing their protective press pool and using a personal phone to speak with world leaders. While some may try to explain away such behavior as simply part of a steep learning curve that all transitions endure, the short tenure of the Trump administration has already left the United States and its government incredibly vulnerable to tactics of hybrid warfare from unfriendly states.
Hybrid Warfare is often a buzz word for national security wonks, and is still a relatively new concept in the policy world. The practice is essentially the militarization and coordination of traditionally non-military areas such as news and social media, business interests, and cyber warfare in order to achieve a certain political end. The doctrine’s grandfather is the former Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov who wrote of the power of the tactic’s deployment stating: “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
While tempting to brand Russia as the asymmetrical boogeyman of the West, The United States is well prepared to defend against hybrid warfare, much more so than the former Soviet states. The United States has the infrastructure and know-how to defend against cyber-attacks. Its election system is decentralized and off the grid, and it has a professional apolitical bureaucracy of technocrats who dominate the policy process in Washington. This process has ensured the longest running peaceful transition of power in history even when the presidency is handed across the partisan line. However, it seems as if the normal functions we use to elect and transition a president, as well as the reporting on that process, were askew this election cycle.
The normal devices we use to analyze American politics were so far off base this election for a number of reasons. One overarching theme dominating post-election news cycles is the prevalence of fake news, and its consumption on social media. Recent polling shows that the majority of American adults access the news through social media platforms. The majority of our electorate is now using abnormal devices to base their political decisions. This sets a dangerous precedence for the army of internet trolls on the Kremlin’s payroll who now have a proven instance of being able to sway large sections of the American public. Unsurprisingly, these Russian troll farms and state-sponsored bots were instrumental in spreading fake news on social media during the election, throwing off normal metrics on what stories the public finds important and adding manufactured legitimacy to blatant untruths. If anything, the Trump administration itself will be open season for Russian-sourced misinformation, given the President-elect’s susceptibility to social media and fringe news sources. Trump’s claim on Twitter this weekend that millions of people voted illegally in the November 2016 election, fueled by articles with little to no sourcing on sites like Infowars.com, is just one example of said susceptibility.
This sets a dangerous precedence whereby a coordinated state actor can appeal to these isolated social media opinion bubbles and bend the truth to its will. It is highly unlikely that this will affect the larger aspects of American political power like the existence of NATO, or its domination of world financial markets. However, at more discrete level, by causing the President-elect’s constituents and the pseudo-journalists that he follows to question the efficacy of stalwart components of the American policy process, it becomes strikingly easy to manipulate American positions on major issues. The professional bureaucracy at places like the State Department is staffed with hundreds of experts on every conceivable political minutia around the world so the president can factor in the aggregate expertise when making decisions. The presidency is not a one-man show. Put simply, the President Elect should not be speaking with other heads of state, on a personal phone line, without a State Department briefing book, and with non-governmental personnel present.
To the layperson who has never seen the policy process, some things may seem trivial. For example, the President-elect’s Reddit fan club /r/The Donald threw a fit when the media criticized him for eschewing his protective press pool to have dinner. However, without deference to the protective press pool, an innocent steak dinner, could easily be substituted with the “smoke-filled rooms” that our politics has vilified and distanced ourselves from for decades. Protocol-break apologists fail to realize the importance of these practices, but they offer critical validity to the office the President-elect will soon hold.
A dangerous double-whammy for American democracy is these vulnerabilities of the president elect, coupled with the current fluidity of the “truth.” Fittingly, “Post-truth” was named the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries. It is fitting because the American election was the really the last real break with established norms of political process, and fact-based political progression. During campaigning season, the Washington Post highlighted how the supporters of the soon-to-be President-elect didn’t believe his campaign promises, and simply did not care when confronted with their own cognitive dissonance. By making the office of the presidency vulnerable to informal and vague processes, and by making constituents vulnerable to untruths, the hybrid warriors in Russia and elsewhere are likely queuing up the list of policies they want to see come from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Influencing these policies is much easier (and cheaper) with a $20,000 room buy at Trump’s hotel in Washington and a call to a personal cell phone, than to use a State Department interlocutor.
We must be careful not to be too alarmist, but we can expect to see time and time again over the next four years, headlines that will be shining examples of hybrid warfare’s impressive ability to put lipstick on even the ugliest pigs. For example, news outlets are running reports after the first conversation between President Putin and President Elect Trump that they are “willing to mend ties,” all in all optimistic, but it begs the question: What relationship-mending policy concessions were (or will be) given that were the source of previous consternation in past US administrations? Is NATO still going to train and equip Georgia and Ukraine? Will the US and NATO still come to the aid of the Baltic states if they see signs of more overt hybrid warfare there? NATO itself will not be abandoned in the Trump presidency, but it is openly talked about being de-clawed under the leadership of Mike Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser, a man who attends Kremlin-funded galas and sits next to Vladimir Putin. There was a good faith effort to mend ties with Russia at the beginning of the Obama administration that fell apart because of these consternations that are apparently back on the table with Trump’s administration. This is just one example of the years of policy progress that are now vulnerable to those who seek to influence this new administration.
Hybrid warfare truly was the winner of November’s presidential election. It won because a U.S. president who is susceptible to informal interests, breaches in protocol, and stunning conflicts of interest, is a dangerous prospect for worldwide stability.
Charles Johnson is a Senior Contributor for Ramen IR focusing on Eurasia. He previously was a research fellow and development coordinator at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as an Education and Youth Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @