Friday, July 20, 2018

You can't always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find you get what you pay for

Drawing by Mark Taylor, 1 February 2018, via The Commoner Call.
I was complaining the other day about newspaper pandits being unable to speak clearly or think clearly abut the current emergency because, since they can't permit themselves to imagine whether Trump is guilty or innocent, they can't imagine what the crime he might be guilty of could have been—clothed in the opacity of the virtually meaningless "collusion" (I can't locate it any more, but I ran into a rightwing debate among people who suspected that "collusion" and "meddling" mean about the same thing, only one sounds more illegal than the other, and couldn't even begin to understand that the journalists are applying one of them to Trump and the other one to Putin and the two men aren't suspected of doing the same thing).

So who should come along to illustrate this but our friend Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, apparently sensing the approach of an epistemological change of some sort over the past ten days or so and readying himself for the possibility that Trump could turn out to be guilty after all, trying to seize that thing, but shrinking from the question of what the thing is ("Trump and Russia: One Mystery, Three Theories—An agnostic's guide to our president's strange conduct"). Instead, falling into the default position of political journalists everywhere, he tries to handicap it: what are the chances that Trump is guilty of whatever it might be? And comes up with a model, with
  • a 65% percent probability that it's just Donald being Donald who litters the field with all these signs of criminality, an inevitable consequence of his peculiar personality that he always looks as if he's committing a crime, but no chargeable criminality on Donald's part at all; 
  • a 25% chance that it's "Watergate, with Russian burglars", that he's a kind of outsourcing version of Nixon in other words, in a universe where the Plumbers have their own, Russian, boss, but if the Americans have any use for their product ("Russians have great product!") they would cheerfully share for some reason—Ross chooses the campaign analytics stolen by the GRU from Democratic National Committee computers; and finally
  • a 10% chance that he was a Manchurian or "Muscovite" candidate who had been cultivated since 1987 by Soviet, then Russian Federation intelligence, to be an American president under Russian puppet direction.
The point I want to focus on in the first place is the huge failure of imagination in which it never occurs to Douthat to wonder what, in particular, Donald can do for Vladimir, other than maybe assassinate people on a pre-programmed oral signal from Angela Lansbury. Nobody seems even somewhat willing to imagine a realistic situation in which the Russians say, "We will do this for your goal, and what will you do in return?" and the Trumpies reply, "We will do that thing you want."

Maybe this is really a vice of the word "collusion", that it tempts people to think more about doing things together than about doing them mutually, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours—a scenario where the Trump campaign was really enjoying a pleasant, collegial situation in which his people and their people passed stuff back and forth—"Oh, Mariya, you'll like this bit!" as opposed to one in which the Russians made a proffer and the Americans an offer, or the other way around, as if all the workers on both sides had been to the same Montessori school and were anxious that everything should be seen as a group project. I really can't see this.

To my mind, you won't understand anything about this unless you understand that the Russians and the Trumpies had something to exchange: on the Russian side possibly all sorts of things, from real estate opportunities to a complex mix of election-altering techniques, on the Trumpist side work to get rid of economic sanctions on Russia and normalize Russia's diplomatic situation. It's really kind of embarrassing to spell this out, once again,  as if I thought it was something incredibly clever, but there it is. If there was a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, it involved the Russian government agreeing to do something in return for something the Russian government would do for them.

If you don't get that, as Ross apparently doesn't, you're not going to get anywhere with this story, and posting your odds in the form of percentages isn;'t going to make any difference to that basic point.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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