Yesterday’s news bombshell—the opposition research dossier reportedly included in the classified briefing delivered last week as an annex, not verified but apparently of sufficient concern to the intelligence chiefs to be passed up the chain—is still ringing in the country’s collective ears. Here are some thoughts heading into today:
Rushing to judgment is a mistake. Between facts, rumors, spin, and outright disinformation, nobody can get a definite grip on the facts. Trying to come up with some kind of definitive statement about what is happening simply reveals the set of biases and assumptions that drive the person doing the explaining. For right now, anyway, the news is a Rorschach test more than anything else. Those disposed to believe the worst about Trump are hyping the news; those with an emotional commitment to defend him want to discredit it.
Regardless of what we ultimately discover, the scandal and the uncertainty are deeply damaging to the country and its institutions in the short run. In the longer run, this story and the public reaction to it form part of the process by which the conventions of journalism and the way the public looks at news will change in response to the information revolution. It’s not necessarily desirable, and almost certainly impossible, to go back to a world in which Dan Rather and a handful of producers got to decide what “real news” was. Information flows are too overwhelming for a finite set of gatekeepers to be able to somehow quarantine them, and the gatekeepers are biased themselves.
But rejecting the way things worked before is not enough. How do we manage our social and political lives when everybody is on Facebook, and huge amounts of information, true and false, are circulating? We are having to figure it out on the fly.
The scandal and upheaval this week should serving as a reminder to all that Trump was elected as a disruptor, and disruption is what a Trump administration will bring. Voters rejected “Safe Hands Hillary,” the candidate who offered to continue steering the ship of state in the direction it’s been going and picked somebody who offered the opposite: a radical change of direction. It’s all very well to look at these final days of the Trump pre-presidency and worry that the wheels are coming off. But that’s what the Trump voters wanted. They, and we, have that now. There is plenty more still to come.
The kinds of changes the Trump movement wants to see are big and disruptive, and threaten a host of entrenched interests. (It’s not, by the way, automatically a bad thing to be an “entrenched interest”: without entrenched interests our society would crash and burn in a week.) But these entrenched interests are, naturally, going to fight the change. It’s their right as citizens in a democracy, and it is their duty to the extent that they believe in what they are doing.
The mainstream media believes in what it is doing. It genuinely believes that it is uncovering and interpreting the world for the rest of us, and that without its professionalism, competence and esprit de corps the world would blow up. Trump wants to blow the press up; the press will return the favor and the Trump administration can count on unremittingly hostile coverage from the mainstream press.
Career civil service bureaucrats also form an entrenched interest, and they, too, see Trump more as a wrecking ball than as a renovator. Free trade bureaucrats who’ve spent years negotiating deals that Trump wants to rip up; State Department bureaucrats for whom Trump’s pronouncements on foreign policy sound like fingernails scraping down the blackboard; Justice Department bureaucrats who think the GOP is trying to roll back the Civil Rights revolution; intel bureaucrats who think Trump is pro-Putin; EPA bureaucrats who think that Trump’s energy policies will destroy the planet and doom the human race to extinction: all of these and more will be leaking everything they can get their hands on to an eager press corps. Expect some interesting times.
Finally, some thoughts on Putin’s intentions: there is no mystery here. His goal is for the United States to lose, and for Russia to win. When Hillary was the front runner, he wanted to release damaging information that would sabotage her campaign and proactively begin to delegitimize her administration. These were not attempts to block her election (which the Russians like almost everyone else thought was largely inevitable); they were the opening salvos in what Putin expected would be a long propaganda campaign against the next administration.
Putin wanted an America led by Clinton to be polarized and weak. Once Trump won, the goal didn’t change. Putin now wanted to delegitimize Trump and polarize America. He wants us divided, agonized, enraged, confused. In other words, he’s a happy camper as he reads the latest headlines in the U.S. press, and Buzzfeed did more to help him reach his goals than Alger Hiss did for Stalin.
This is not to say that Buzzfeed was acting as a traitor or a catspaw any more than the media were acting in that way when it reported the stolen emails. This is what our press does: it reports things. Putin isn’t relying on a secret pro-Russia tendency in the press to get his job done: he is counting on our society to function the way it normally does.
In any case, what we are seeing is less the sign of a master plan concocted long in advance than the audacity, improvisation and tactical brilliance that Putin has consistently shown. Putin hopes to exploit our society’s openness to keep us confused and to take us down a peg. We count on our society’s openness to help us muddle through to a better place. For more than 300 years, the open society model of the Anglo-American world, flawed and uneven as it is, has been beating the smart dictators and emperors who have led closed societies against it. Putin thinks our luck is about to change; it is up to us to prove to him and to his imitators and clones that he is wrong.
A good place to start would be to keep calm and carry on when the news gets weird.