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.

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Comments

  • Barb  On May 22, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Actually, it is YOU and your weekly observations that will keep me sane. Thanks again for all of your wisdom, and for sharing it with us.

  • Brian Douglas  On May 22, 2017 at 10:57 am

    I don’t think “the truth” of Benghazi ever really mattered to most congressional Republicans. It was the theory of “throwing enough ***t against the wall and something will stick”. I think Mueller will take the Trump/Russia investigation where it should go – the facts – regardless of the political implications. Democrats would do well to focus on making gains in the House and Senate in 2018 rather than wait for the Trump Administration to implode.

    • weeklysift  On May 22, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      I think it’s important to keep separate the opinion leaders and the opinion followers. I agree with you that Trey Gowdy never cared whether or not he had something real on Clinton. He wanted to embarrass her as best he could with whatever he could lay his hands on.

      But the guy I saw wearing the t-shirt: I’ll bet he did care. Millions of people cared about what they had been convinced was “the Truth” about Benghazi.

  • Brian Douglas  On May 22, 2017 at 11:01 am

    As always – thanks for providing us with a tiny island of “reason” in a time of alternative facts.

  • gerrymackrell  On May 22, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    There is no such thing as fake truth. Soon all will be revealed and hopefully truth will prevail.

  • Gerald Lee  On May 22, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    I have been hoping that the Democrats will take the stance you describe. The investigations are ongoing. Let them proceed. I have complete faith that if there is anything criminal, that Mueller will find it. At this point, discretion is the better part of valor, and taking a wait and see attitude will turn out better in the end. Do I think something is rotten in Denmark? Absolutely. But let’s all agree to live in a world of facts.

  • John Fremont  On May 22, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    I just started reading this site a few weeks ago and it’s time well spent. I too believe the Democrats should let the investigation go where it needs at its own pace. The thing that we should be focusing on is policy. What do the Dems want to do? What kind of policies should be enacted to deal with the economy we have today? Sure, it’s not as sensational as following a political scandal but it needs to be done. I know it’s difficult to do right now with the Russia scandal sucking all of the air out of the room. I agree, let’s not hang too much on this investigation. Even if Trump resigns or gets impeached, Pence will pick up the baton and keep running with it to achieve the GOP’s agenda. Pence being an experienced politician will certainly get things going with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

    My thoughts on the Trump Russia thing. What if it turns out that the main thing personally involving Trump is that it may reveal that for all that “Mr Art of the Deal” may brag about his business saavy , is perhaps that these Russian business tycoons took him to the cleaners on some business contracts. That when comes to negotiating, Trump ain’t all that! I’ve known guys like this in my personal life who brag and talk a good game about their ventures and business skills only to find out they fell for scams throughout their career. Their reputation and image goes up in smoke.

  • Suze  On May 22, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    loved the “already been indicted” news..I wonder if people know a sitting president is immune WHILE holding office from prosecution of criminal charges? lol have to wait till that sucker is thrown out of office to indict.

  • Kim Cooper  On May 23, 2017 at 2:02 am

    Thanks for this bit of sanity. I’ve been saying about the same thing — let’s definitely investigate, but let’s wait and see what the investigation shows.

  • Uncle Josh  On May 23, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Even if the Democrats avoid the Benghazi Trap, how on earth are they supposed to convince the Republicans that a crime has been committed? They seem to be in the thrall of the ad hominem fallacy: Who does something determines if the action is right or wrong. It was WRONG for Michelle Obama to enter Saudi Arabia without covering her head, but RIGHT for Melania Trump to enter Saudi Arabia without covering her head. It was WRONG for Hillary to accept money from the Saudi’s but RIGHT for Trump to do so. We can’t discuss right and wrong when those concepts don’t have the same meaning across the board; so we’ll never convince them that there is reason to suspect impeachment.

  • jh  On May 24, 2017 at 9:22 am

    I never thought the Republicans were sincere in their Benghazi investigations. I thought it was just another political smear attempt (successful too) against the democrat presidential candidate. If they had truly been sincere, they would have continued their endless Benghazi investigations after the election. They would have continued investigating Hillary for emails or whatnot. They didn’t. Why? Because they were never sincere to begin with. Benghazi was, like Whitewater, or any number of manufactured republican hit attacks against democrats, a smear attack with the veneer of legitimacy because “republican politicians had a senate investigation”.

    Democrats will have a tricky time. Conservatives truly do live in a bubble. We do not share common values or common definitions for lie, innocent, truth, fact, evidence, opinion, scientific theory, American, or even basic ones such as honor, integrity, patriotism. I’d love to say that democrats should “benghazi” the russian investigation and taint all republicans with Trump. However, the christo-republicans will enjoy the virtue of being “persecuted” and cling to their unjustified belief that they are the wronged party while the bored middle will just get more disgusted because “everybody is the same”.

    I’ve gotten so tired of the stupid right that I would like to force them to sleep in the bed they made while I get to laugh at the human misery they wallow in. That’s why I want federal funding to be limited to the amount that states actually contribute to the union. NY, CT, NJ, TX should not have to fund welfare states. That merely enables red state losers and deprives blue state citizens from their rightful benefits as productive people. I want FEMA dismantled because after Hurricane Sandy, I realized that a lot of red state people weren’t interested in helping the north east financially whereas the northeast had constantly been pouring money for their endless Hurricane Katrinas. I want the EPA removed from red states so that they enjoy the freedom of polluted food and water.

Trackbacks

  • By Greatest Danger | The Weekly Sift on May 22, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    […] by going back to first principles rather than just tailoring a case against Trump, and “Step Around the Benghazi Trap“, which urges Democrats not to make the same kind of cognitive errors Republicans have […]

  • […] Step Around the Benghazi Trap by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.   A warning to fellow Democrats against jumping to conclusions about Trump and Russia. […]

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