|Putin under the bed: An excuse goes viral
By Daniel M. Ryan
The closing month of the Current Year has offered us a real blue moon: two narratives, flying concurrently through the usual channels, which both resemble conspiracy theories. The first, the claim that John Podesta’s leaked Emails contain coded references to a child-sex-abuse ring, is known as Pizzagate. The second, which claims that the Russian government swayed the election Donald Trump’s way by hacking both the DNC and Podesta’s Email accounts and then shooting the contents to Wikileaks, might as well be called Putingate. What’s noteworthy about the pair is that there’s hardly any overlap between the believers in each. This is unusual in conspiracy-theory territory. Since conspiracy theories attract the same kind of character, the fellow who believes that (say) the CIA was behind the Kennedy assassination is prone to believe that the Rockefellers aim to dominate the world.
Such is not the case with respect to Pizzagate and Putingate. The person who believes that Comet Ping-Pong Pizza is a front for a pedophile ring almost certainly scoffs at the theory that Putin altered the election. Likewise, the person who believes the Putingate theory is very likely to peg Pizzagate as a deranged witch hunt.
And yet, both of them do resemble classic conspiracy theories. Since the resemblance has been widely noted with respect to Pizzgate, I’ll show that the same in true for Putingate. Donald Trump and his supporters are right when they peg it as essentially an excuse.
Anatomy Of A Conspiracy Theory
Remember the detective-novel triune "Means, Motive and Opportunity"?? One useful earmark of conspiracy theories is that they are motive-centric. They do include all three, but motive is the foundation. Not only are the characteristic loose ends in Means and Opportunity reinforced rhetorically by appeals to Motive, but Motive also suffuses the other two’s structures.
The classic example is, "The Rockefeller family is plotting to strip the U.S. of its sovereignty and establish a world government."? It’s indicative because, like so many other conspiracy theories, it relies on an intuitive and shared otherization of the alleged conspirators. A conspiracy theory which claimed that the country was being subverted by a cabal comprising NFL team owners – "The Protocols of the Elders of Goodell"? – wouldn’t get far except as a satire. That’s because NFL-team owners are much harder to otherize than the Rockefeller family. The NFL is too close to our lives for that, whereas the Rockefellers move in a subculture that for almost all of us is shadowy.
To believe this conspiracy theory, you have to have a view of the rich and powerful that’s frankly Hobbesian. You have to believe in your guts that they aim to increase their power, and/or aim at glory, simply because they’re power-hungry. At some level, most Americans have this Hobbesian cast of mind. That’s why the purveyors of this conspiracy theory often resort to impugning the doubter. If they really believed that they were a Gnostic-like counter-elite, they wouldn’t; they’d confine themselves to "educating."?
It’s true that these conspiracy theorists spend a lot of time elucidating the Means by which the Rockefellers are pursuing their purported scheme. You already know: the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, etc. But the Means part depends profoundly on you buying into the Motive. Elsewise, you might peg these organizations as nothing more than good works, Or, as means of securing prestige. Or, as the way that the descendants of John D. keep their hands on their trust funds. Or, as "Rockefellers’ Folly."? Or, as an expensive hobby…
If you start with Means instead of Motive, all the above alternates are in play. It’s only by starting with a presumed inimical Motive that we can peg them as alternative rather than as equal-footed competitors.
The same thing goes with Opportunity. Again, the belabourments presume that the Motive has already been nailed down. Typically, conspiracy theories rely upon "group loyalty above all"? to tether their recounting of the Means to the facts they’ve dredged up. Okay: members of the Council on Foreign Relations are vastly overrepresented in high levels of governments with respect to folks like your humble scribe. But again, seeing a threat in this (other than the threat of too-low antifragility or echo-chamber groupthink) depends on us swallowing the Motive beforehand. What if the Rockefellers are just looking for brags at their country clubs? What if (perish the thought) they’re proud because they really believe they’re doin’ good? Without the Motive pre-established, Opportunity – the Opportunity to break the U.S. as a sovereign nation and to reconstruct it as a province of a world government - is just as questionable as the Means to do precisely that. Even though "Bolt-Cutter Ben"? has no alibi for the time when the building centre was broken into, we’re far from branding him the thief. Have we even established that anything was stolen?
Conspiracy theories inevitably have one other attribute: The Smoking Gun. It’s usually dramatic and oft times rattling. But if examined closely, The Smoking Gun is supportive only in an abstract way: the time and place, the set and setting, are quite different from here and now. Press a goldbug who thinks that the U.S. government has secret plans to confiscate citizens’ gold, and you’ll hear about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 issued in 1933. Press a truther who think that 9/11 was an inside job, and you’ll hear about the Gulf of Tonkin hornswoggle of 1964. Never mind that both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson are long dead, and that the Great Depression and Vietnam War are long over. And of course, you can’t ascribe it to the bullheadedness or character defects of a specific President. The one Smoking Gun, you’re expected to believe, is representative of a whole arsenal’s worth of Smoking Guns that never appear because they’re concealed.
In the case of the Rockefellers, the Smoking Gun was the fact that they and their social circuit went gaga over World Government – at the close of World War 2. Interestingly, the representativeness of the Smoking Gun depends upon you believing that those others are not only secretive but also adamantinely stubborn: they never get worn down. In addition – this is central to the Motive - is the assumption that "those people"? do not have the moral or prudential restraints that we folks have. For a hypothetical example: imagine a U.S. government official with dual citizenship, who does serve the U.S. honourably, himself imagining that dual citizens from "that nation"? are just waiting to bend U.S. policy to benefit their other homeland.
A pair of final facets worth noting is the dual assumption that the cabal: a) have a secret strategic plan that’s stable; b) have a tight chain of command. The first euchres out the alternate explanation of opportunism; the second pre-empts the case of a subordinate or henchman going rogue. I’m sure that, even today, there are anti-Americans and American anti-militaries who still believe that Lt. Calley of the My Lai Massacre was a good soldier who obediently followed orders from the Pentagon. He was only court-martialed, ya see, because the Pentagon…
All of these facets depend on Motive. If a conspiracy theory is a skyscraper, Motive is its foundation. Psychologically, the foundation is suspiciousness towards groups of other people whose behavior is hard to pin down – and who occupy social strata generally deemed prestigious or powerful. If you grew up in a home that was one block away from a Rockefeller’s main residence, even if you thought they were a bunch of pricks, you’d find it very hard to believe in the world-government conspiracy theory.
And Putingate Stacks Up…
To be frank, Putingate is more solid (or less amorphous) than a mainstay conspiracy theory. The Russian government does have Means: the GRU and the FSB, both of which do engage in cyber-espionage. As for Opportunity, we all know that there are successful hack attacks on even huge Websites – even U.S. government Websites. The malware that the hackers used were well-known to security experts.
Putingate’s weak point lies in the Smoking Gun. At least one security professional has looked at it closely and has pointed out that the Smoking Gun is rickety. Interestingly, the ricketiness is soldered over by appeal to Motive.
What we know is that the hacks originated from IP addresses that are known to be associated with two Russian groups of hackers: one nicknamed Fancy Bear, the other nicknamed Cozy Bear. As Jeffrey Carr pointed out, the actual evidence points to Russians but not to the Russian government specifically. Yes: both Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear have done hack work for the FSB and GRU. But both groups have pulled off other hacks that – at least apparently – have had no connection to either. We don’t even know if they’re contractors or employees that are allowed to goof around. (Contrariwise, we do know that some U.S. bureaucrats goof around on Youporn.)
It’s as if someone had claimed that FBIers’ enthusiasm to investigate Clinton’s Emails was an orchestrated attack on her campaign by James Comey. Most Americans, and most folks familiar with the workings of the real FBI, would consider this theory to be ridiculous. But what about folks who have next to no knowledge of how the FBI rolls? They’d fill in their knowledge gaps with Motive.
In a similar way, Putingate depends upon Motive. If you believe that Putin is a bad dude, you’ll swallow Putingate – without asking whether or not Putin recognizes that interfering in an American election is astoundingly foolhardy. The Putingate believers, and floggers, believe that Vladimir Putin lacks even the prudential restraint to hold off from that – even though he’s almost certainly aware that messing around with U.S. democracy is something that the U.S. public would react very angrily to. Note the theorizing: Putin is a provably bad guy in his home turf and nearby environs, so "of course"? he would order an operation that would make any professional diplomat exclaim: "Are you insane!?"? Since he’s such a corrupt guy on his home turf, "of course"? he would order his boys to corrupt an election of a geopolitical rival in which he has zero power and for which he has no feasible way to lean on.
Just like Ho Chi Minh sent orders to his operatives to chivvy Walter Cronkite into sabotaging Lyndon Johnson’s chances for re-election, right? After all, Ho certainly had Opportunity and Means as well as Motive. Did I mention that he was a really terrible guy?
…As An Excuse
Despite the similarity in the use of Motive to fill in those evidentiary gaps (and to substitute for common sense), it is wrong to classify Putingate as a conspiracy theory. The real thing is more rickety than Putingate. If you start with Means or Opportunity instead of Motive, Putingate doesn’t elicit the questions and doubts that a real conspiracy theory does. The FSB and GRU do exist and do undertake cyber-espionage.
But Putingate does have a quasi-conspiracy-theory element to it, which shows most clearly in the way that the ricketiness of the Smoking Gun is elided over.
When we see a theory’s ricketiness, the best fallback is common sense. Although it doesn’t neatly fit the Never Trumpers, the best way to peg Putingate is a gigantic exciting excuse: an excuse for the "can’t lose"? Hillary losing.
It’s not just the Dem politicos and the #NotMyPresident folks who have need for such an excuse. Last Thursday, the RNC revealed that Russian hackers tried to hack the RNC’s Website…and failed
Yep: I can think of a third group of folks who have a need for a go-to excuse….
Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.