Step Around the Benghazi Trap
As the Trump scandals deepen, Democrats should learn from Republican mistakes: If you let your expectations get too far ahead of what's known, confirmation bias can lead you into an a universe of alternative facts.
A few days before last November's election, I saw a guy wearing an anti-Hillary t-shirt with the slogan "Benghazi: I will never forget!". And it made me wonder: Of the things he will never forget about Benghazi, how many are imaginary? Will he always remember, for example, the stand-down order that was never given? Or that Clinton's response to four American deaths was to ask "What difference does it make?"
Benghazi was a real event, but eventually it got surrounded by a cloud of virtual events conjured up by conspiracy theorists. The virtual events — did you hear that Obama knew the attack was coming and intentionally did nothing? — stick in the mind so much better than the real ones. I suspect they're the ones that guy (and the millions like him) will always remember.
Republicans went certifiably insane about Benghazi. When seven separate investigations failed to verify their wildest accusations against Obama and Clinton, they did the obvious thing: spent millions of tax dollars on an eighth one that also found nothing, in the vain hope that someday the same evidence would start saying something different.
Last week, a commenter on this blog asked how Democrats will know if we've gone down a similar rabbit-hole about Trump and Russia. I replied that it was way too early to make such a comparison, because we haven't even completed one investigation of Trump/Russia, much less started our eighth. But the longer I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn't something worth thinking about here: It may have taken four years and eight investigations for their Benghazi insanity to play out, but when exactly did Republicans start making the fatal mistake that eventually drove them insane?
Early days, I think. Right about where we are now.
And here's what I think the fatal mistake was: convincing themselves that they already knew what had happened and how everything was going to play out. Within days or weeks, they knew that this was the big one, the scandal that was finally going to bring Obama down. Obama and Clinton had done something horrible here, even if nobody was sure exactly what it was. The point of investigating was to find the horrible thing they did, not to determine whether it existed. Any investigators who failed to find something bad enough to end both of their careers — and maybe send them to jail as a bonus — just hadn't looked hard enough.
The point of me bringing this up isn't to pooh-pooh the seriousness of what we're finding out about Trump, or to suggest that an investigation shouldn't be pursued with all possible vigor. I think Trump and a number of his people are acting like they're guilty as hell. And the seriousness of the possibilities is undeniable: One of the determining factors in the 2016 election might have been a conspiracy between the winning candidate and a hostile foreign power. An unsavory Trump-Russia connection might go back decades, to Trump getting bailed out of his terrible investment decisions by money that Russian oligarchs needed to launder. Or maybe Trump campaign officials like Manafort and Flynn were Russian agents paid to manipulate the useful idiot who was their candidate.
Those possibilities can't just be left out there for people to wonder about. If there's even a tiny chance that one of them is true, a major investigation is necessary.
It's possible that all this will come out quickly, in months or even weeks. Maybe Flynn or somebody will flip on Trump and produce a smoking gun that will either force him to resign or convince reluctant Republicans in Congress that they need to impeach him. Maybe Pence is in it up to his eyeballs and he'll be forced out too.
It's possible. But at this point, I don't actually know any of those things. Trump does a lot of stuff I don't understand, so he could be acting guilty for some ridiculous reason that isn't illegal at all. Remember how adamant he was about his inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama's, or how he didn't really lose the popular vote? Maybe the Big Thing he's hiding is some similarly ego-diminishing fact that anybody else would just own up to. Maybe the stuff that looks like a giant conspiracy is actually made up of dozens of unrelated instances of stupidity and incompetence. Maybe the corruption being covered up is ordinary money-grubbing by lower-level Trumpists, and doesn't have anything to do with high-level treason.
That's all possible too.
We need to find out. So we need to keep paying attention. All the avenues of investigation should be pursued as vigorously as possible, and everybody needs to remain vigilant against attempts to change the subject or derail the inquiries. We need to stay on guard against the worst: If the tension keeps ratcheting up inside the White House, eventually somebody is bound to suggest a Reichstag Fire — a real or fake attack on America that is supposed to make us circle the wagons around our Leader.
Or our enemies could decide that now, while the country is divided and so many of us are inclined to disbelieve anything our president says, is exactly the right time to launch a real attack.
As Americans, we need to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to take all this seriously. We need to stay ready to protest in the streets if it all goes wrong, just as Tunisians and Egyptians did to chase their corrupt leaders into retirement.
But while we're making sure we'll be geared up for whatever happens, we also need to make sure we're staying in touch with reality, and that we're maintaining the separation between what we know, what we suspect, and what we're getting ready for just in case. We can't let ourselves live in a speculative future where everything we've always suspected about Trump turns out to be true, and everyone who supported him finally has to admit that we were right.
If you get too attached to that future, you'll most likely miss the turn when reality decides to go some other way. As the facts unfold, you'll only see the ones that point in the direction you want to go. That's a well-documented cognitive failing called confirmation bias. It's not a conservative or liberal thing, it's a human thing. Unless you're some particularly well-designed artificial intelligence, you're susceptible to it.
It's already starting to happen in certain circles. Things that might eventually turn out to be true are being reported as if they are inevitably going to happen, or maybe have already happened. (Did you hear that Trump has already been indicted?)
It's very satisfying to respond to Trump's alternate reality (where his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama's, his electoral college margin was historically large, only fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote, and no politician — not even one who got assassinated, like Kennedy or Lincoln — has ever been treated so unfairly) with an anti-Trump alternate reality.
But as boring as it can be sometimes, we need to hang onto real reality. It sometimes takes a while to manifest itself, but in the long run real reality has a power that we want on our side.
It's tempting to believe that we already know what's going to happen: We know what James Comey is going to testify to, we know that Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort are going to flip on Trump and what they're going to say; we know where the money trail is going to lead; and so on. We're just waiting for that inevitable future to arrive, when Trump is ridden out of town on a rail.
But I don't know any of that stuff, not yet. So I'm going to have to listen to the witnesses as they testify. I'm going to have to read the investigators' reports as they come out.
Trump's defenders are telling us that because we don't already know that he did something wrong, we shouldn't be investigating. The answer to that isn't that we're investigating because we do already know. The reason to investigate is because we don't know. Trump's defenders — other than possibly Trump himself and a small circle around him — don't know either.
We should move forward, but with full knowledge of the uncertainties and ambiguities. That's harder than moving forward with full certainty of where you're going. But in the long run, it will keep you sane.