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C’mon, Just Say It!

Why can’t journalists state the obvious?

"For Republican pols, Trump is merely the cost of doing business." (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

"For Republican pols, Trump is merely the cost of doing business." (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

According to an Annenberg survey, only a quarter of Americans can correctly name the three branches of the federal government. Is that sad fact, like the weather, something that just happens, beyond anyone’s control? Or does something make Americans resistant to the most elementary information? Could the manner in which that information is conveyed to them be so needlessly complex and hedged that people just give up and prefer blissful ignorance?

We have seen this phenomenon on display in the way in which the mainstream media hem and haw when discussing our current president. A fresh example is New Yorker writer Adam Davidson’s theory of “Kompromat” with respect to Donald Trump, that is, how Russian oligarchs and money launderers might have oh-so subtly ensnared him in a skein of tacit rather than explicit blackmail. He concludes that given Trump gonzo public behavior as a Putin groupie, he couldn’t be a conscious agent of the Kremlin; no one would make it that blatantly obvious.

While Davidson’s piece has useful background on how the trading in compromising personal information drives the Russian state, his conclusions are so muddled as to invalidate his thesis. Who says it’s impossible to be blackmailed and simultaneously a conscious agent, anyway? Recruiting through blackmail is standard tradecraft by every intelligence agency in the world, and once a target acts on behalf of his recruiter, the law does not treat him any differently than if he did it out of ideological affinity.

Convicted spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen are used as counterpoints: they were more circumspect. But it is to be expected that intelligence professionals recruited by a foreign government would be more careful than would an agent of influence, whose role, after all, is to influence on behalf of their recruiter. And neither Ames nor Hanssen were diabolically clever about it.

Ames lived in a house and drove a car that were well above his means; that is why financial disclosure is so prominent in background checks (and, perhaps, why Trump is so resistant to releasing his tax returns). Plus he was a heavy boozer. But the CIA got lazy.

Hanssen was a certifiable weirdo and an Opus Dei religious freak. Could the FBI’s prevailing culture – it was said that Hoover much preferred recruiting straight-arrow Catholics from Fordham or Holy Cross to Yalies – and the fact that then-director Louis B. Freeh attended the same church as Hanssen have accounted for their complacency despite their knowledge of a serious intelligence hemorrhage? Was their “theory of the case” so backward that they nearly framed an innocent person at a different agency while Hanssen cavorted under their noses?

Disclosure: when I worked in the national security field I was approached twice by the intelligence head of Russia’s Washington embassy; the FBI later surmised he was Hanssen’s handler. There is nothing that subtle about intelligence recruitment, and even if Trump is as big an idiot as his detractors claim, he has enough feral paranoia and experience cheating others to know whether or not he had been recruited.

As for his over-the-top groveling to Putin and undermining of U.S. allies, how is that conclusive evidence that Trump is not consciously acting in Moscow’s interests? Some things are so obvious that sophisticated journalists invent intricate theories to tell us that reality is much more counterintuitive than what our eyes tell us. In any case, what did Chris Matthews, in Hardball,  advise politicians with embarrassing problems to do? Hang a light on the problem. Like Poe’s purloined letter, hiding in plain sight is sometimes the best concealment.

Were he to roast and eat their first-born in front of their eyes, they’d say, “Oh, that Donald! He’s just bein’ politically incorrect! Take that, librulls!”

It is not as if Trump’s antics, no matter how blatant, will cause the scales to fall from the eyes of the Republican faithful. Were he to roast and eat their first-born in front of their eyes, they’d say, “Oh, that Donald! He’s just bein’ politically incorrect! Take that, librulls!”

For Republican pols, Trump is merely the cost of doing business. Are we seriously wondering whether Paul Ryan would accept a little treason on the side in return for tax cuts? (another disclosure: Ryan was an intern on the congressional committee on which I served. As an acquaintance recently remarked, “Ryan is a staff guy at heart. He’s used to taking orders, not giving them.” In this case, the one issuing orders is Trump.)

Another member of the commentariat, Andrew Sullivan, also has a theory of Trump. Why does he lick the polish off Putin’s shoes while insulting our allies and calling them foes? Why does he initiate a trade policy that is one of the wonders of the world for sheer, self-defeating stupidity? Why does he attack the very government he commands? “This is not treason as such,” explains Sullivan (warning: “as such” is a weasel phrase prompting the reader to be on guard).

What is it, then? Trump simply has a “vision” of a different America, a militarized hermit kingdom that bullies democracies and sucks up to dictatorships. This America maintains only the superficial forms of a democracy, but in reality it practices one-man rule. And that, in Sullivan’s telling, exonerates him of the graver charge of active betrayal.

Well, what of it? I dare say Pierre Laval, prime minister of Vichy France, had a different “vision” for France than Georges Clemenceau or Charles de Gaulle: instead of liberté, égalité, fraternité, it was travail, famille, patrie (in this case “work” meant laboring as a slave for the Third Reich, “family” was taken about as seriously as all right-wing authoritarians take “family values,” and “country” meant loyalty to Germany, not France).

Laval was every bit as “legitimate” a ruler of France as Trump is president of the United States. After the 1940 defeat, the vast majority of politicians and civil servants remained in France, and they duly constituted a government in Vichy. Laval himself had previously served twice as prime minister in the 1930s. The United State recognized his government diplomatically and did not declare war on Vichy.

But those Frenchmen, who with massive allied assistance liberated their country, were not terribly impressed with Laval’s vision. He was executed by firing squad for high treason.

I have written elsewhere how Sullivan, in attempting to confect sophisticated political explanations, commits category errors. It is the besetting sin of the commentariat, not just Sullivan. Recognizing that, in turn, requires us to see an even bigger problem.

Most of Western philosophy since Plato (a figure much admired by Sullivan) is the product of minds at once idle and restless. The life that passes before our eyes cannot be what it looks like; there is always a deeper truth, hidden from the rabble, which only the Elect can see. Hence Plato’s perfect, invisible essences, religion’s gnostic truths, Jacques Derrida’s abstruse gibberish. It is the intellectuals’ equivalent of woolgathering.

But I suspect the truth about Trump is as Morgan Freeman memorably said in an otherwise forgettable movie: “sometimes things are exactly as they appear.”

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