The vast distance the mind must travel

Jonathan Chait looks at the question of why our minds boggle so stubbornly when we’re presented with the truth about Trump’s captivity to Russia.

The cause of this incredulity, I have come to suspect, lies in the vast distance the mind must travel between the normal patterns of American politics and the fantastical crimes being alleged. The Russia scandal seems to hint at a reality of fiction or paranoia, a baroque conspiracy in which the leader of the free world has been compromised by a mafiocracy with an economy smaller than South Korea’s.

The flaw lies in the assumption about what constitutes “normal.” In this case, the baseline should not be previous American elections, but other foreign elections in which Russia has intervened.

It’s that so-often useful concept/reply “It depends what you’re comparing it to.”

I suspect that we Americans, even the relatively unillusioned of us, have a hard time comparing even the shitshow of 2016 with “other foreign elections in which Russia has intervened.” We unconsciously think – in spite of everything – we’re better than that. Why? Other than the automatic narcissism of me mine ours? I don’t know. Generations of post-WW2 dominance, maybe, or unusual levels of credulity maybe, or both maybe; I don’t know. Anyway, what’s the pattern?

Moscow has cultivated right-wing parties overseas through a combination of covert payments to their leaders (often disguised as legitimate business transactions), illegal campaign donations, and propaganda support through traditional and social media. Russian election corruption scandals pop up in Europe all the time. Russia secretly and illegally funded Ukraine’s “Party of Regions”; France’s National Front party got a secret 2014 election loan from a Russian bank; the Brexit vote benefited from a huge donation from a British businessman who has secretly met with Russian officials dangling lucrative business deals. Just last month, Italian journalists discovered the leader of a right-wing party had negotiated a lucrative secret transaction with a Russian firm.

The fact that the same person who managed the campaign for the pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine next turned up (after a brief disappearance) to run the campaign of the pro-Russian candidate in the United States is merely one of an overwhelmingly long list of clues placing Trump in the pattern.

We’re not special.

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