By now, anyone with a political pulse knows that special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry has reached its conclusion. On March 24, Axios headlined, “Mueller investigation finds no Trump campaign conspiracy with Russia.” Later that night, CNN’s Chris Cillizza dampened Democratic hopes by stating flatly, “Collusion is now off the board.” And the inimitable President Donald Trump declared in a tweet, “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.”
To be sure, Mueller found plenty of wrongdoing by Trumpians and Russians. He did, after all, issue 34 indictments and secure seven convictions, with one trial (that of Roger Stone) still to come.
For its part, the loyal but hostile opposition is not giving up. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler tweeted, “Mueller did not exonerate the President.” Nadler wants to haul in Attorney General Bill Barr for a little heart-to-heart on Capitol Hill—with 200 TV cameras watching.
Still, no sound and fury is going to change the headline atop The Washington Post on Monday morning: “Mueller finds no conspiracy.”
Without a doubt, the mainstream media, which was so breathless in its pursuit of “Russiagate,” has now had the wind knocked out of it. And in the meantime, other journalistic figures and outlets, further to the left and also to the right, have the wind at their backs. As The New York Times’ lone conservative opinionator Ross Douthat observed, Sunday was a good day for such ideologically disparate critics of the media as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, and The Federalist in toto.
As the Drudge Report admiringly blared on Monday morning, Greenwald’s post-Mueller Twitter feed has been a symphony of I-told-you-so jabs at fourth-estate enemies. It must be said that Ross and The Federalist were busy, too, with triumphalist tweets of their own.
Still, nothing is going to stop the anti-Trump drumbeat. For instance, American Oversight, one of the many well-funded, left-leaning, opposition research watchdog groups on the Trump hunt, blasted out with no small amount of self-regard, “The Corruption Continues: Mueller Has Finished His Work. American Oversight Has Not.” Of course, at the same time, the Right is free to mobilize its smaller army—at least so far—of dirt-diggers. One wonders what they’ll find on Hillary Clinton, the deep state, and any other possible colludeniks.
So yes, the events of 2016 will be hashed out for a long time to come. Yet in the wake of the Mueller report, the likeliest judgment is that the Trump campaign and the Russians were operating in parallel, not in tandem. That is, both Trumpians and Putinites wanted Trump to win, though they weren’t working together cooperatively. If that’s the case, then we should agree that coincidence of hope is not the same thing as conspiracy of action.
Admittedly, such a conclusion might not seem credible to a country that’s been marinated in Russian dressing for two years, but as they say about incredible things: if it’s true, it doesn’t have to be credible. So we might be reminded of what Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tells Watson in The Sign of the Four: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” That is, if something is revealed to be the actual truth, that’s good enough to settle the question.
Well, maybe that’s not good enough. After all, one can point to an infinity of conspiracy theories that never end, facts notwithstanding, concerning everything from Pearl Harbor to UFOs to vaccines.
In each case—and in a hundred other cases—we learn that many people have an instinctive tendency to think the worst. Or, to put it another way, folks are inclined to believe in the most complex possible answer out of a general human desire to embroider the narrative.
This desire must be frustrating to the ghost of William of Ockham. Seven hundred years ago, foreshadowing Doyle and Holmes, the medieval sage put forth his famously logical razor: “plurality should not be posited without necessity”—that is, everything else being equal, keep it simple. And yet it seems these days that Ockhamite intellectual parsimony is particularly scarce. It’s conspiracy, not simplicity, that gets clicks—and book deals.
Sadly, such tabloid-y coverage can overlay—and probably exacerbate—obvious personal pain. For instance, in the half-century since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the King family has seemingly become convinced that the convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, was not, in fact, the murderer. They believe the “real killers” were connected to “government forces.”
In fact, in 1997, Dexter King met with Ray, then dying in prison. The two shook hands as Ray assured King that he wasn’t the killer. To which King responded, “I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you.”
Such absolution for Ray flies in the face of all the available evidence. So what’s going on? Dave Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of King, told The Washington Post last year that “the King children are part of a larger population of American people who need to believe that the assassination of a King or a Kennedy must be the work of mightier forces” rather than “small-fry, lifetime losers.” Garrow added, “People need to see something of a balance between effect and cause. That if something has a huge evil effect, it should be the result of a huge evil cause.” So again, the human instinct to complicate defeats the Ockhamite mandate to simplify.
That’s why conspiracy theories thrive: they fill a human need for a larger narrative that lifts an event beyond merely the small and the sad. Admittedly, that’s not the most optimistic view of the human capacity for rational thinking. But then, the truth doesn’t have to be rational—it simply has to be true.
Still, amidst the permafog of life, opportunities for enlightenment nevertheless exist. For example, Blake Hounshell, one of the big dogs at Politico, wrote of the Mueller conclusion, “It seems quite clear now that Trump did not collude with Putin to throw the 2016 election. Why he still seems to want to collude with Putin to reshape U.S. foreign policy remains a mystery” (emphasis added).
Leaving that loaded “c” word, collusion, out of it, the writers and readers of TAC might be able to help Hounsell solve his mystery. That is, plenty of folks in these parts—including this author—believe, and have argued, that American policy towards the world should be pointed in a more realistic direction. Quite on our own, we have concluded that America needs and deserves a better, wiser, and more restrained foreign policy.
It appears that Trump, who was talking like a retrenching realist as far back as the 1980s when Putin was just a KGB nobody, is on our side. At least most of the time.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.