It really was a joke. The transcript of the conversation that took place on 15 June 2016, published by The Washington Post, is very clear. So is the context. Republican politicians are discussing Russia and Ukraine at a congressional leadership meeting. Some of them have just met the Ukrainian prime minister, Vladimir Groysman, who described the situation in his country. House Speaker Paul Ryan says that Groysman “has this really interesting riff” about what Russia is doing in Ukraine: “Financing [Ukraine’s] populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments.”
Then Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican conference chairman, chimes in. Her “big takeway” from the conversation is “just how sophisticated the propaganda” is in Russia. She and others hint at the NGOs Russia has bought in Europe, including the environmental groups that have been lined up to oppose fracking, a technology Russia doesn’t like because it lowers gas prices. “It isn’t just about Ukraine,” Ryan says. And then, a few seconds later, he adds “Russia is trying to turn Ukraine against itself.”
At exactly that moment -- the psychology is extraordinary -- the conversation turns to the U.S. election. The Republicans discuss the hacked material from Hillary Clinton’s campaign that has just been made public. And that’s when Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, says, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.” According to the transcript, “laughter” follows. McCarthy says, “Swear to God. . . .” More laughter. And then the group laughs again after the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, says “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”I repeat: Yes, it was a joke. People laughed. But what kind of a joke was it? Freud thought that jokes are often a way to express ideas and feelings that are normally repressed and that humor is an outlet for ‘improper” thoughts. Kant was one of many philosophers who thought jokes were often about incongruity, absurd contrasts and juxtapositions. In that snippet of conversation, both of those theories of humor are in play.
Yes, it’s improper to suggest that any U.S. politician is, one way or another, a Russian agent. It’s especially unacceptable for Republican politicians to suggest that the Republican presidential candidate, as Trump then was, has been somehow “paid” by Russia. It’s ridiculous, incredible. And yet -- at that exact moment, it suddenly dawned on some of those in the room that it might be true. And so they laughed, and quickly expressed solidarity with one another: “We’re a real family here.”
Equally, it is incongruous to compare the politics of Ukraine and the United States. Ukraine is a former totalitarian state, corrupt and beleaguered. The United States is a superpower with nearly 250 years of democratic experience. And yet -- it’s clear from the transcript that the hack of the Democratic National Committee has made the members of Congress uneasy, because the similarities between the United States and Ukraine were suddenly so crystal clear. Maybe Russia is “financing our populists, financing people in our government to undo our governments” in the United States, just like in Ukraine. Maybe Russia is trying to “turn America against itself.” But that’s ridiculous! Absurd! And so they laughed.
The transcript illustrates, brilliantly, why the Trump-Russia link, at once so obvious and so unbelievable, has taken so long to sink in. When Donald Trump entered the U.S. election, he, with Paul Manafort’s help, brought Ukrainian politics right into the heart of the American political system. The violent rallies, the vicious online trolling operations, the use of hacked or “secret” material to discredit opponents -- these are the tactics Russia used in Ukraine, and these are the tactics Trump used. Americans were turned against one another, as Ukrainians were turned against Ukrainians. In addition, money may have changed hands, perhaps in the form of real estate deals, but it almost doesn’t matter: The visible tactics, the authoritarian tactics, the ones that we could all see, should never have succeeded.
To this day, Americans across the political spectrum are struggling to accept that our election and our president really have been influenced by a foreign power, and to understand the implications for our democracy and our security, both of which are far weaker than we thought. Maybe it isn’t surprising that the first reaction was laughter.
But now? Trump has fired the FBI director who was investigating his links to Russia. He has joked with Russian officials in the Oval Office and given them classified information. A huge range of his aides had strange Russian contacts. Every week, more of his business deals are revealed to have links to Russian money. The joke has worn off. Denial is no longer possible. The Republicans in Congress, the same ones who were laughing last June, are the only Americans who can now solve the problem. Do they dare?