This Trump Jr. story is interesting for several reasons.  My take:

1. Strange though it may seem, I think this actually makes it seem less likely that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia to steal the election.  My impression is that Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting without having much prior knowledge.  This is based on the email exchange, which reads to me like an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

2. If Russia actually wanted to release anything incriminating they had on Clinton, they wouldn’t do it via the Trump campaign. That would be stupid, since it would automatically make the information seem suspect. Instead, they would distribute it through some friendly-but-seemingly-independent media outlet, and let the Trump campaign pick it up later. Indeed, this is actually what happened with a lot of the Russian-supported anti-Clinton/pro-Trump propaganda that was circulated online during the election. This also makes it seem unlikely they actually gave the Trump campaign any useful information.

3. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the Russians would be unlikely to tell the Trump campaign about their election interference.  Rather, they did the election interference independently, and then arranged the meetings with campaign personnel in order to undermine the people’s faith in the electoral process.

This meeting is totally consistent with that. They lured Trump Jr. into a meeting by claiming they had dirt on Clinton, and then didn’t give him anything, knowing how bad it would make him look when it came to light.

In summary, I don’t think Russian operatives would ever work with the Trump people to interfere with the election, simply because many of the Trump people are too incompetent to be trusted with anything like that. The Russian intelligence operatives could handle it by themselves.

My sense is that the Russian plan had two distinct components: one was to influence the election in favor of Trump. The other was to play on the amateurishness and arrogance of the Trump campaign staff to goad them into doing stupid stuff that could be used to undermine them later.

[Note: I feel bad for even discussing this, because regardless of whatever political implications it may have, it involves the murder of a young man. It’s a very tragic case, and the family has already suffered much as a result of all the conspiracy theories and media attention. To atone for contributing to the conspiracy theories, I made a small donation to the GoFundMe page established by his family.]

Earlier this week, Fox News was forced to retract a story about the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer.

It’s been a popular conspiracy theory among the Breitbart/Alt-Right crowd that Mr. Rich was murdered because he was leaking DNC documents to Wikileaks. However, the evidence for this idea all seems to come from a highly dubious source–a hacker named Kim Dotcom.

They insinuate–though I’ve never seen anyone say this outright–that the Democratic party or the Clintons themselves somehow ordered that he be assassinated.

I agree that the circumstances surrounding the still-unsolved murder are indeed suspicious. However, it’s kind of a massive leap from that to “It must have been the Democrats!” Only people conditioned to believe absolutely anything negative regarding the Democrats would automatically jump to that conclusion.

Think about it: if a person is murdered under mysterious circumstances, the first logical suspect should not automatically be his employers. In this case, given that his employer was a major political party with many enemies, it would be far more logical to consider whether some of those enemies are responsible for the crime.

Rich was the Voter Expansion Data Director for the DNC.  Presumably he possessed a fair amount of information relevant to the 2016 Campaign.  This much everyone agrees on–where the conspiracy theorists diverge from known facts is in assuming that he was the one leaking that information.

I have not seen anyone suggest the alternative possibility that his murderer was attempting to steal the information he possessed in order to leak it.  Or perhaps just generally interfering with the operations of the DNC by killing their personnel.

Consider this: we know that the Russian government interfered in the election.  We also know that they are willing to use violence against their political enemies.

There is very little evidence to suggest that Mr. Rich was leaking information, other than the claims of a known criminal.  There is on the other hand a massive amount of evidence from many credible sources to suggest the Russian government was leaking information.

I’m not saying that the Russian government authorized Rich’s murder as part of a larger plan to steal information to use against the Democrats and then covered their tracks by spreading propaganda about a counter-conspiracy.  I’m just saying if you are going to advance conspiracy theories about the case, that scenario seems way more plausible.

About five years ago, I wrote about the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Andrew Breitbart. At the time, various conservative groups were suggesting he’d been assassinated by the Obama administration.

Well, now there’s a new theory, promoted by former British MP Louise Mensch, that he was assassinated by the Russian government:

Here at Ruined Chapel, we love analyzing a good conspiracy theory–and if it involves politics, so much the better! So let’s think about this.

To begin, the facts of the case: Andrew Breitbart collapsed suddenly while walking home after dinner one night. His cause of death was listed as heart failure. There was no evidence of any suspicious drugs.

It is common knowledge that journalists in Russia get killed with unusual frequency and under mysterious circumstances, especially since the year 2000, when Vladimir Putin took power. It has not been proven that Putin has ordered or otherwise had foreknowledge of any of these deaths, but the pattern is suspicious.

People are quick to suspect Putin for a couple of reasons: First, it seems like the sort of thing a former KGB agent would do, and second, the Putin regime is generally hostile to the press.

It’s worth noting that most of the reporters dying suspiciously in Russia were undoubtedly murdered.  Aside from a few suspicious poisonings and plane crashes, in most cases, nobody questions that these journalists were deliberately killed by somebody; it’s just they can’t figure out who.

And that’s on Putin’s home turf.  If he can’t have people killed using untraceable methods in Russia, it seems like it would be even harder for him to do so in the United States.

Now, there’s another element to all of this that makes it even more interesting. Mensch also tweeted this:

Additionally, the Wikipedia page for Stephen Bannon states:

“In March 2012, after founder Andrew Breitbart‘s death, Bannon became executive chair of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company of Breitbart News. Under his leadership, Breitbart took a more alt-right and nationalistic approach toward its agenda.”

If you understand Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal to be dissolving the internationalist post-World War II geopolitical order and replacing it with a system of Great Powers acting in their own national interest, the rise of Bannon and his philosophy is clearly good news for him.

Just on the basic facts, it’s hard to argue this entire episode did not turn out splendidly for Putin. I mean, look at it:

  1. Upon Breitbart’s death, Bannon takes over his operation.
  2. Bannon uses his power  at the Breitbart site to promote nationalism and undercut Putin’s main opponent, then-President Barack Obama.
  3. Bannon later uses his site to promote the Presidential candidate most favorable to Putin, Donald Trump.
  4. Trump wins, in part due to major propaganda efforts by Putin and Breitbart, and then appoints Bannon to be an advisor in his administration.

It all went spectacularly well for Putin and Bannon. Since the death of Andrew Breitbart was the first domino that started this entire chain of events, you can see why, in retrospect, Putin would have had an incentive to cause it. The results benefited Putin in a big way.

However, as compelling of a story as that may be, I have a problem with it.  Mainly, it requires Putin to have almost supernatural gifts of foresight. And if he has that, he should be ruling the world already.

Who would have ever guessed that the head of a fringe conservative news site would be able to successfully get the ear of a reality TV star-turned-Presidential-candidate, who would go on to win the election, and then appoint said site head as an advisor? So many bizarre things had to happen for all this to work that it is hard to imagine anyone consciously planning it.

Given that, it would seem insane for Putin to have carried out a high-risk assassination operation against a relatively small-time political commentator in the United States. If it failed or was otherwise exposed, the backlash against Russia would have been enormous.

Remember, in 2012, the Republicans were generally anti-Putin. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”that year.  Can you imagine what the Republicans would have done in 2012 if they found out Russia killed one of their people? They would have been screaming that Obama was weak and campaigned on a very aggressive anti-Russia platform.

To me, that argues strongly against this idea.  The risk for Putin of assassinating Breitbart would have been too great–the fact that the reward would turn out to be so high would not have been knowable at the time.

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According to Intelligence reports, Russian hackers influenced the U.S. Presidential election by hacking and leaking Democratic emails.  The Russians also sought to influence the election in a number of other ways, all of which fall broadly under the label of “propaganda.”

Moreover, the goal of all these operations, the reports say, was to help Trump’s campaign and hurt Clinton’s.

All this has left many of the Republicans–normally National Security hawks–in a bit of a quandary. Most of them seem to (at least implicitly) subscribe to the following view:

“Yes, it is bad that Russia hacked communications belonging to one of our political parties.  And yes, we should probably stop them from doing that in the future.

But, since there is no evidence that Russia tampered with the actual vote totals, it in no way casts doubt on the election or makes it illegitimate. The people voted in a fair election, and Trump won enough electoral votes to win the election.”

The argument can be distilled down to “it’s not our fault if people voted for us on the basis of foreign propaganda.”

There seems to be a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among the major powers of the world that they won’t interfere in each others’ elections.  But, to quote the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians.” So ti’s not really surprising that the agreement got violated.

Hillary Clinton said she believed Russia carried out this operation because Putin had “personal beef” with her. Apparently, Putin blames her for interfering in Russian elections in 2011, and took this opportunity to get revenge.

This makes me wonder: would the Russians have conducted an operation like this no matter who Clinton’s opponent was? Or was it motivated by Trump’s business ties and friendly stance toward the Russians?  In other words, were the Russians primarily trying to hurt Clinton, or to help Trump?

That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think it is a question worth asking.

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Here’s a little conspiracy theory for you to mull over…

During the Republican primaries, Trump tended to perform much better in states that held primaries vs. those that held caucuses. Trump only won two of the eight Republican caucus states (Nevada and Hawaii).

A caucus is a meeting of party members where they discuss which candidate to support, as opposed to simply casting a ballot in a voting booth.  Ted Cruz won most of the Republican caucus states in 2016.  Most analysts assumed this was because the Cruz campaign spent more time and money organizing at the local level. A few others suggested that people were ashamed to openly admit that they supported Trump.

These explanations seem logical. And Occam’s Razor suggests these factors explain what happened.

But, it’s also worth considering that it would far easier to hack or otherwise manipulate primary elections than caucuses. To interfere in a primary, you would just have to be able to tamper with some machines. It’s much harder to do with caucuses.

I’m not saying I think this happened. I’m just saying it’s worth asking about.

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

–John 18:37-38, King James Version

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida

Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.

–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.

I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.

My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.

My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well.  Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.

“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.

“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”

According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections.  He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.

“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.

He shakes his head.  “No–liberal propaganda.”

“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.

He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument.  Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.

The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.

And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.

If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say.  People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.

There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.

You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.

At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)

The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.

Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority.  However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.

But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.

There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain.  In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking.  He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.

Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk.  They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.

(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)

The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.

The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.

Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.

I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations.  (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator.  But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.

I’m not sure why they are calling these stories “fake news”–they appear to be similar to the old conspiracy theories that flourished, beginning in the late 1990s.  It’s part and parcel of what Warren Spector, the creator of the great conspiracy-theory video game Deus Ex, called “millennial weirdness”.

People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things.  A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AM for decades now. It’s not new.

I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.

It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature.  Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims.  (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)

But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order of The Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?

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It’s worth asking.  It was a very close election, and so a little careful cheating could have changed the outcome.

The experts seem to take it for granted that the election couldn’t possibly have been stolen.  But the experts also took it for granted that Trump couldn’t possibly beat Clinton.

I’ve always assumed that in a country as big as the USA, there is bound to be some cheating in national elections, but that it is on a small scale, and people from both sides do it, so it more or less evens out.

There is, however, reason to think 2016 was particularly ripe for cheating, due to two facts:

  1. Earlier in the year, the FBI warned that the Russian government was hacking U.S. voting systems.
  2. Donald Trump was singularly sympathetic to Russia throughout his campaign–not only in comparison to Clinton, but also in comparison to his rivals for the Republican nomination.

I am not saying that the Russians hacked the election in order to ensure their preferred candidate won.  I am just saying that if that did happen, it would look exactly like what has happened.

Trump and his staff kept saying throughout the campaign that the polls were wrong, and they had secret supporters in the Rust Belt. And sure enough, that is exactly the way it appeared to play out on election night, with Trump narrowly pulling upsets in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Maybe Trump is an instinctive political genius who could intuitively sense what the professional analysts were all missing. Or… maybe those secret Trump supporters were really deep cover. As in, perhaps they only existed as lines of binary code.

Again, I’m not saying I think this is the case.  To my mind, the election results match up perfectly with what the charisma theory would predict. That seems like the most likely explanation.

But because the Press got their predictions of how it would play out so wrong, it seems to me they should at least look into whether it might have been stolen, rather than simply assuming it wasn’t–just as they previously had assumed Clinton couldn’t lose.