METV recently showed an episode from the old television series Matlock in which the eponymous hero is delivering a closing address to a jury in a murder case. He says, in words somewhat similar to the following: “Not only is my client not guilty of murder, but the alleged victim is still alive, and is about to walk through that doorway and into this courtroom!” All eyes turn expectantly to the door — through which, eventually, enters a quite different person. There is a general sigh of disappointment, and Matlock turns back to the jury. “The person who came through that door is not, of course, the alleged murder victim. But the fact that you turned to the door in full expectation that the victim was alive and about to enter indicates plainly that you have a reasonable doubt a murder occurred!” The jury acquits his client.
Sometimes, merely to make a seemingly outrageous claim is enough to show that the claim is credible and that most people are already prepared to believe it.
Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials.
I don’t know whether Donald Trump began his political career with an understanding of that principle, but he has certainly put it to good use. He said that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, and the nation responded with a general feeling that, well, yes, we believe she does. He said that Barack Obama was a disastrous president, and the nation said to itself, “Yes, I already knew he was nothing but talk.” Then, on March 4, Trump said that Obama had been spying on him, and the reaction was far from the media-anticipated, “Now he’s done it. Now everybody can see that he’s crazy.” People in general were quite willing to believe that Obama, or his administration, would naturally have been tapping Trump’s phone, reading his emails, or whatever it was that Trump was suggesting.
Some people continue to demand that Trump prove his claim. The media instantly asserted that the claim could not be proven, that nothing of the kind could even conceivably have happened. Consumers of the media’s own claim were not supposed to have noticed the media’s own, fairly constant, retailing of secret information about Trump — information that must have come from some unfriendly government source. On January 20 the front page of the New York Times had exulted in the alleged fact, certainly leaked to it by people in US intelligence agencies, that said agencies had carried out or were carrying out a program of wiretapping (“intercepted communications”) against Trump or his associates or both. This alone made Trump’s charge seem plausible.
One of the least welcome surprises in the past year has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks.
Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials, and something more important: the realization that, by recent edict of Obama, 17 US intelligence agencies are now able to share “intercepted” or invented information, one with the other, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of leaks, harassment, blackmail, and whatever else any one of them may want to inflict on any US citizen against whom secret investigations have been undertaken. Seventeen times the 16 other agencies is 272. Obama’s action made it 272 times more likely that someone would leak, harass, or blackmail under the succeeding regime than under his own.
Many things about the past year in politics have left my mouth open in amazement. One of the least welcome surprises has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks, now called “the intelligence community.” People who loudly lamented the activities of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and refused to believe even its most plausible findings now encourage the kind of behavior by which secret agents attempt to control political events — the commissioning of investigations by political hacks, the initiation of investigations that result in nothing except intimidation and implied disgrace, the provision of group statements that cannot be tested for truth because they are based on secret information, and the relentless leaking of information or surmise to a partisan public press.
One doesn’t have to possess any love for conspiracy theories to sense a bad smell coming from the back room of the republic. Now that Trump has announced, in his dumb, clunky way, that he smells it too, maybe someone will open the door and find out exactly who is trying to control this country.