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.

Scene from “Knights of the Old Republic II”. These assassin droids are perhaps the consummate “bad guys”.

When I was in college, I took an elective course called “Introduction to Military Intelligence”.  It was one of the best courses I took during my four years in college.  The teacher was a retired Army Major, and a very nice guy. (Our first day, he made the old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron.)

One of the big things I remember him saying was that “the bad guys always have a tactical advantage”.  I’d never thought about it before, but it’s true, and it’s something counter-terrorism and intelligence officers have to contend with.

Bad guys are people who attack other people.  Good guys are just minding their own business, not looking to hurt anyone.  That’s one of the things that differentiates good from bad.  This means, among other things, that the bad guys know when they are going to attack and how, and so always have the element of surprise on their side. The good guys are forced to be reactive and defensive, which is a tactically bad position to be in.

Now, there are lots of quibbles or counter-arguments you can make about this, as well as arguments over what constitutes a true “attack” (e.g. “weren’t the good guys ‘attacking’ at the invasion of Normandy?”) The larger point, though, still holds–bad guys are usually on the attack, and as such have an advantage.

So, what to do about it?

The solution most good guy nations came up with is to have people on stand-by, watching for and guarding against attacks by bad guys.  This works pretty well, but they are still operating at a disadvantage because they usually don’t have first-strike capability.

It’s also important to note the difference between “tactical” and “strategic”.  Tactical stuff is on a smaller scale, meaning one battle or one individual action.  Strategic is a longer-term, big-picture thing.  So, it’s possible to be at a tactical disadvantage but a strategic advantage, and vice-versa.

Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:


Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.

To be honest, I screwed this up badly.  My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and  Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.

But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.

Instead, it was vindicated.

I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:


I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.

Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:

The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…

…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.

The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.

Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:

The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.

And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.

That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.

If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win.  And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.

Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.

I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat.  At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.

The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)

Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong.  Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments.  Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.

I’ll have much more later.  This is going to require a lot of work.