In the 1950s, there was a famous study led by three psychologists into the inner workings of a UFO cult that believed space aliens were coming to take them away from the planet before a catastrophic worldwide flood. The researchers, who embedded by pretending to be cult members, described how the cultists repeatedly prophesized a date the aliens were supposed to come and were repeatedly disappointed when the prophecy did not pan out.
But instead of admitting that there probably weren’t aliens, the cult members cycled through a series of rationalizations, first writing off the failures as a test of their faith and then, eventually, settling on the claim that their demonstration of faith had somehow prevented the worldwide catastrophe and they had saved the planet. But what many of the cultists flatly refused to accept is that they had been wrong to believe in aliens in the first place.
This classic study, which laid the groundwork for the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, can go a long way to explaining the ever-changing story that Donald Trump and his supporters have offered to explain away the Russian conspiracy to interfere with the American election by illegally stealing private emails from Democratic officials. The rationalizations Trump offers have morphed over the past two years, but what remains steady is the fierce conviction of his most loyal supporters that they were never wrong to vote for him and their refusal to accept that he is a corrupt person unfit to hold even a dogcatcher’s office, much less the presidency of the United States.
Phase one of the process was flatly denying that the Russian conspiracy even happened in the first place, even as journalists and American intelligence officials were amassing evidence that Russian agents had deliberately stolen emails and used them to stoke conspiracy theories designed, successfully, to suppress voter turnout for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump denied the hacking in many ways. In 2016, he flatly denied it was going on or blamed the Chinese government or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” rather than Russia. Under pressure from intelligence officials, at times Trump would reluctantly concede the hacking was real, but he would return to the never-happened-or-someone-else-did-it line as soon as he could.
Most famously, Trump stood by Russian president Vladimir Putin in July 2018 and backed Putin’s denials that the conspiracy ever happened by saying, ” I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia and denouncing the existence of the investigation into the conspiracy headed up by special counsel Robert Mueller.
But even by then, the story of the Russian criminal conspiracy was shifting from “never happened” to “no collusion,” that is, the claim that while the Russians may have been committing crimes, the Trump campaign was wholly innocent of any involvement. Instead, Americans were meant to believe that while the Russians were busy stealing emails and publishing them through Wikileaks, the bright-eyed innocents of the Trump campaign had no idea what was going on and were just as surprised as anyone, really.
This was always nonsense, starting with the fact that Trump is on tape from 2016 literally asking the Russian hackers to go after Clinton’s personal email accounts, which they immediately tried to do. Or the fact that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Russian operatives promising “dirt” on Clinton in exchange for sanctions relief. But Trump kept at it, reciting “no collusion” like a busted Teddy Ruxpin, hoping repetition of this catchphrase would overwhelm the evidence to the contrary.
But with the release of Mueller’s report, it’s clear that once again the story is shifting. The sheer number of contacts with Russian operatives, the evidence that Trump’s campaign was tipped off about Wikileaks publishing emails, and the efforts by the Trump campaign to obtain more stolen emails all serve to make mincemeat of the “no collusion” rationalization. So now the narrative is shifting into “collusion is not a crime” and efforts overall to minimize and downplay the importance of it.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians,” Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani said on CNN on Sunday during a segment in which he also argued, “Any candidate in the whole world in America would take information.”
That the “OK, maybe there was some colluding, but it wasn’t a big deal” narrative was the next move first started to seem evident Thursday morning, when Attorney General William Barr held a grotesquely misleading press conference meant to spin the Mueller report before the actual report came out.
As I noted at the time, Barr used legalistic language about how there was no conspiracy with the “Russian government” and made a point to argue that there’s nothing illegal about publishing or conspiring to publish stolen information. This legal parsing suggested that Barr was redefining “collusion” very narrowly in order to maintain the “no collusion” claim.
As soon as the report came out, it became evident that Barr and Trump’s other defenders are excluding collusion with Wikileaks, excluding collusion with unofficial Russian agents, and excluding attempts to steal emails that fell through in order to maintain the claim of “no collusion” in the face of a staggering amount of collusion.
Having denied corruption for two years, the Trump administration is moving into the next phase, which amounts to denying that corruption matters. They will, as Barr and Giuliani’s statements suggest, say that so long as Trump avoids committing crimes himself, but instead just knowingly benefits from crimes, that it doesn’t count. And they will try to excuse Trump’s cheating and lying by claiming everyone else does it, too — or hypothetically would, anyway.
That isn’t true, of course, but Trump and his minions have a long history of using this tactic of claiming that all people are crooks and implying that Trump is just more honest about it. Trump did it when Clinton called him out for tax evasion, saying, “That makes me smart,” which is to say, implying that everyone wants to cheat on their taxes, but he’s the one who gets away with it. That was also the tactic used to dismiss the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk“. The implication is that all men do this and talk about it, and Trump was just unlucky to get caught.
All of this is why Democrats who control the House of Representatives need to start impeachment hearings for Trump, even if they fear doing so will be politically risky. Trump clearly benefits from instilling the belief that all politicians are dirty and that his corruption is business as usual. The only way to counter that narrative is to start impeachment hearings and signal that no, there are still plenty of people in politics who think that criminal and corrupt behavior is wrong and that people who engage in it should be held to account.