Arguing the Truth with Trump and Putin

Arguing the Truth with Trump and Putin


Arguing the Truth with Trump and Putin

  • Dec. 17, 2016
Credit…Matt Chase

We are once again engaged in an argument about facts. Such arguments can feel deceptively substantive. This one certainly does.

Last week, it emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency had concluded that in the later stages of the presidential campaign Russia acted not merely to disrupt the election but specifically to aid Donald J. Trump. The president-elect responded to the news by dismissing the intelligence agency’s conclusions — indeed, by dismissing the intelligence community altogether. Mr. Trump called the findings “ridiculous.” In a statement, his transition office scoffed, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” In response, journalists of good faith snapped into fact-checking mode, familiar from the campaign.

The latest allegations play into themes from the campaign, during which Hillary Clinton repeatedly accused Mr. Trump of doing Russia’s bidding. They also play on anxieties rooted deep in American culture — Cold War-vintage fears of “reds under the bed” and older fears of foreign, and especially Russian, infiltration. Finally, they appeal to many liberals’ intuition because they seem to provide a logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s strange and disturbing victory: The Russians did it.

But simple explanations, especially ones that assign blame to conspiracies and foreigners, threaten clear thinking. So does arguing about facts. Democrats, pundits and reporters put forth the evidence that Russia was behind the hack; Mr. Trump and his allies, even after using the hacked emails to smear Mrs. Clinton, repeat that it is “impossible to know.” The combination creates an extraordinary amount of noise at the expense of understanding.

Since the news broke, we have learned a fair amount about the facts on which the intelligence agency may have based its conclusion, while the C.I.A. findings themselves remain classified. This newspaper published a detailed story that synthesized new and previously known information. Readers learned that the bulk of the Democratic National Committee’s emails had been obtained by means of fairly low-tech phishing. Reuters published a story pointing out that the known evidence falls short of proving that Russian hackers intended to benefit Mr. Trump rather than simply cause havoc — and that the office of the director of national intelligence has not endorsed the C.I.A. interpretation. But this report got lost in a barrage of stories striving to prove that the C.I.A. is right and Mr. Trump is wrong.

The overwhelming amount of detail some of these stories supplied, and the sheer volume of reports on the Russian election-hack scandal over the past week have created the illusion of rich public discussion. But this discussion has focused on something that should not be a matter of argument at all: The question of whether Mr. Trump is right to disregard C.I.A. conclusions, which are based on information unavailable to the journalists. Editorial and opinion writers have repeatedly condemned Mr. Trump’s denial and called for a full investigation into the hacking. This should go without saying. But when journalists are busy proving the obvious, they ignore the important questions. Arguing about facts is, in fact, the ultimate distraction.

If there is one trait that Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia share over all others, it is their understanding of the power of separating facts from truth. By denying known and provable facts — as when Mr. Trump denies making statements he has made — or by rejecting facts that are not publicly known, as with the C.I.A.’s information on Russian hacking, Mr. Trump exercises his ever-growing power over the public sphere. The resulting frenzy of trying to prove either the obvious known facts or the classified and therefore unknowable facts — two fruitless pursuits — creates so much static that we forget what we are really talking about.

Let us imagine the conversation we would be having if we were not preoccupied with Mr. Trump’s denial of the C.I.A.’s conclusions. We would now be discussing the appropriate response to the hacking. We would be talking about consequences for the American electoral process in general and for the results of this election in particular. We would be asking why it matters if Russia’s hacking efforts were intended to benefit Mr. Trump. But in the heat of arguing about facts, journalists and pundits have acted as though the answers to these questions are obvious. They are not.

The discussion so far — and the calls for invalidating the election results — have largely ignored the question of the role that the Russian attempt to help actually played in Mr. Trump’s victory. This effect would be very difficult to measure, but consider the consequences of ignoring this question: Imagine that you are taking an important test and someone has sent you the answers in the mail. The testing authority does not consider whether you asked for these answers, whether you looked at them, and whether they were correct: It invalidates your test results simply because the answers were sent to you. This would, of course, be grossly unfair. What’s worse, it would give anyone the power to prevent you from ever passing a test — all one would have to do is throw an envelope in the mailbox. Similarly, if the American media and a large part of the American public believe that the election was invalid simply because Russians wanted Mr. Trump to win, we are giving Russia outsize influence over American elections, now and in the future.

But let us assume that Russian interference was not only purposeful but successful in helping Mr. Trump secure victory. That would mean that the information obtained by Russians and released by WikiLeaks — and reported on widely, including by this newspaper — swayed enough Americans to throw the election. Why is this wrong? The answer is also far from obvious.

Some have said that Russian interference “tainted” the election. That suggests that there can be such a thing as a “pure” election, or even “pure” public opinion, since it is voters’ opinions that Russia is believed to have affected. Implying that American public opinion can be “tainted” by exposure to foreign influence contains disturbing — and distinctly archaic — undertones of a call to national purity.

The weekend before the election, I was in Philadelphia canvassing for the Clinton campaign. On Sunday afternoon, a busload of Dutch volunteers pulled up near the church where the get-out-the-vote effort was headquartered. I was taken aback at first: Was it appropriate for these foreigners to come to America to take part in the campaign? Of course it was.

The president of the United States exerts more influence over the security of the world than any other human being. I was in Philadelphia because I believe that Mr. Trump presents an existential threat not only to American democracy but to the world. I fear he may start a nuclear war. And I am all but certain that his actions will cause irreversible damage to the environment. Citizens of the Netherlands were in Philadelphia for the same reason: to ask American voters to save the world from Mr. Trump. They had as legitimate an interest in advancing that request as I did.

Of course, unlike the Russian hackers, these Dutch people were individuals, not representatives of a state, much less one hostile to the United States. Nor were they wielding information obtained through espionage.

On the other hand, the United States has frequently and unapologetically intervened in elections in other countries. In Latin America, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, this intervention has been open or covert, ranging from funding pro-democracy organizations and providing training to political leaders to handpicking candidates to install in power. In these interventions, the United States certainly uses products of its intelligence agencies. Russia, which has repeatedly (and often without basis) accused the United States of meddling, never tires of pointing out American double standards.

Double standards in politics are not uncommon. They are not even necessarily wrong. But they are also not obvious, or obviously correct: They need to be understood and articulated. The conversation we should be having right now is a complicated one. We should be talking about how public opinion is formed in an interconnected world. We should be asking whether there is information that ought to be excluded from the public sphere because it is obtained through espionage or other illegal means. We should be discussing how journalists should treat such information when they encounter it. We should be questioning whether, or when, or how, the United States has the right to intervene in other countries’ elections — and what that means for our right to insist that American elections must be free of influence. We should be engaging in the complex discussions that form the rich public sphere essential to a democracy.

Instead, we are arguing about facts, and exacerbating the damage to American political culture that has been wrought by Mr. Trump’s campaign, his victory and his behavior since the election.