It’s hard to write something that implicitly defends President Trump, but this deserves to be said.
The people who have long opposed Trump, for all the high-minded reasons that we love, have embraced conspiracy-theorizing and shallow reasoning in their opposition to him. Liberals, moderates, and #NeverTrumpers now use “Russia” the same way Tea Partiers and far-right folks used to use the word “Benghazi” — as a one-word incantation, which signifies the obvious scandal which will eventually consume the administration they (you) hate.
I would say: don’t be so sure. Now on the eve of former FBI Director Comey’s testimony before Congress, we should hold ourselves back from the peaks of emotion, more than ever.
So how did Russia become the new Benghazi? Basically just how the brain works.
Here’s how it played out:
You felt desperately aggrieved and alarmed, that the most powerful position in the land is now occupied by a man who shows all signs of being (not only) hopelessly narcissistic and morally bankrupt, but also incompetent, even idiotic, and emotionally pre-pubescent. (And if you don’t feel this way, then thanks for at least dropping by to watch us commiserate.) The alarm and shock you felt brings your amygdala into the fight, among other emotional-regulatory areas of the brain. Why is this important? When you’re triggered like this, it is much harder to get full use out of your prefrontal cortex — and that’s where all your logic and critical thinking come from.
There is a cruel irony here. Trump appears to us like a man driven by pure emotion and instinct, without any logic or critical thinking. This gets us triggered, and consequently our own brains have a hard time keeping up with the critical thinking. He brings us down to his level.
And then we get the conspiracies. Our desperate wanting for Trump to be gone leads us to grasp onto any bits of news that seem to diminish his standing or offer a path to his downfall. We don’t exercise due skepticism. We don’t protest when headlines are clearly sensationalized. We don’t pull ourselves away from the kind of writing that would disgust us if it was slanted toward the other side.
This was on display during the Obama years too, of course. Think Birther-ism (hat tip to Trump). Or, how about Obama’s secret plot to round up all the gun owners and stow them in FEMA camps?
And then there was Benghazi. Not an Obama thing directly — but an extension of similar animus toward his chief diplomat, Hillary Clinton.
Benghazi presents as vaguely similar to Russia. Something definitely went wrong (the deaths of State Dept staff in Benghazi), just like something definitely went wrong in the 2016 election (according to at least half the country). Both of these events can appear as willfully evil plots when scrutinized through the right kind of biased lens. Benghazi eventually became one of the rallying cries of the growing Tea Party. At some point Sarah Palin concluded one of her rants with the phrase”… and then you get Benghazi!” … Which, I think was meant as code for “… and then you get evil people in government who purposefully kill their own people!”
But Benghazi was subject to intense scrutiny via official (and unofficial) investigations. To my knowledge, the final verdict was that no malign intent led to the deaths in Benghazi. Instead, there was a pattern of negligence within the State Department as a whole — Hillary was but one exemplar of this negligence, but not its originator.
What about Russia?
I expect we’ll find something similar with Russia. A whole lot of circumstantial evidence, a whole lot of bad judgment and procedural incompetence, and possibly some willful collusion involving people other than Trump himself.
I’ll tell you why. Let’s start with what we know:
- We DO know that Russia directly sought to interfere with the election via a huge digital propaganda campaign, AND through state-led spear-phishing against many levels of the national election apparatus (and this is bolstered by recent leak of NSA analysis).
- We DO also know that the Russians like Trump’s unstable, anti-globalist stance, because it weakens the leadership position of the United States and therefore weakens all the alliances in which we oppose Russian influence (namely NATO).
- We DO also know that Trump has a history of admiring Putin and other asshole dictators, and that he and his associates have had plenty of contact with Russian business over the last few decades.
- Finally, we DO know that several members of Trump’s campaign, transition team, and administration have had an assortment of undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. These keep coming out of the woodwork with each passing month.
As far as I know, this is all we know.
The most important thing I can say in this post is: none of this necessarily leads us to a smoking gun. None of this shows us that Trump deliberately sought to collude with the Russian government in order to fix the election.
Here are the reasons we should not hold our breath for such a smoking gun:
1) There is not yet any evidence of Trump’s involvement. And EVEN IF some of his associates end up having colluded in this active fashion, it would not surprise me in the LEAST if such a scheme had gone on entirely without Trump’s personal knowledge. Seriously, would this surprise you? His staff has to babysit him. I have no doubt they also have to sometimes keep him in the dark.
2) The collusion scheme gives Trump too much credit. It would be difficult (for me) to believe that Trump could actually pull off something so well coordinated, under the radar, and escape public discovery for all these months. Look, this man is incompetent. His own staff can’t even leave him alone for an evening with his own smartphone, without his sabotaging his own long-term efforts via some random tweet straight from his inner child. To me, a sophisticated clandestine coordination with Russia may honestly be beyond his abilities.
3) None of the election hacking REQUIRED collusion from Trump. This is a key point. All Putin needed to do was notice that Trump was the candidate to root for, and then commence with a unilateral campaign of hacking, trolling, and propaganda. Trump in this way simply served as a useful idiot for Russia. Idiots don’t need to be complicit in order to be useful. You can see how this arrangement plays out presently — our international reputation is up and down, and our alliances are getting bruised on a weekly basis. All Putin has to do is sit back and watch the hilarity unfold from Moscow.
This all runs in the vein of David Frum’s observation about Trump: there are many secrets, but few mysteries. Everything we need to know is already out in the open.
The point in writing this is we ought to be prepared for Russia to NOT materialize into a silver bullet that ends this absurdist nightmare for us.
If anything, I expect Trump’s undoing to be his sheer incompetence. He is alienating our allies and his own senior staff, he constantly undermines himself via social media, and I have to think he is growing more psychologically isolated as the pressure mounts. He is just plain bad at his job, his administration has been extremely disorganized, they’ve delayed their own appointment process for months, and have so far achieved almost zero progress on their keystone campaign issues. I believe eventually he will either bow out in order to escape the public spotlight and save face, or do something in office that is so stupid that Congress will have no choice but to remove him.
In the meantime, we (the people who are currently triggered and desperate) ought to make a habit of being more careful in our reasoning, and exercising higher standards of truth than the object of our desperation. If you prefer to think in the noblest of terms — we will not save the republic by devolving down to the level of Sarah Palin or the Alex Jones crowd. Be careful what you read then. And be prepared for this to be a long fight.
*Addendum: this edit is being written on Wednesday June 7th, a day before the Comey hearing. It’s turning into a rich news week, that’s for sure.
It deserves to be said that I could be totally wrong. Maybe there will be a silver bullet coming up in the near future, but I still doubt it. That doubt motivated me to give all of the above warnings. Be prepared for your gratification to be slow in coming.