by Roger Kimball
For the last 56 years, this time in November has been an occasion – at first pious and lachrymose, latterly perfunctory – to commemorate the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That event was certainly a cultural cataclysm. America was a changed place after November 22, 1963.
But for all the reams of commentary that event elicited, there is one irony that has not perhaps been sufficiently appreciated. Although the president’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a rabid Communist, the murder was almost instantly reframed as an expression of right-wing hatred.
I say that this irony has not been sufficiently appreciated. I do not mean that it hasn’t been pointed out. It lies at the center of James Piereson’s fine book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, for example. But somehow in the texture of public sentiment, in the semi-articulated tissues of popular understanding, the notion that Kennedy was really, deep down killed by the equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” shows us how malleable, how susceptible to political manipulation is the Narrative, the assumed horizon of understanding.
There are contemporary lessons to be drawn from the metamorphosis of Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of a pro-Soviet Communist into an object lesson in the perils of right-wing animus.
The only Russian collusion on offer in 2016 was between the Hillary Clinton campaign and various Russian and Ukrainian operatives, but somehow we all got saddled with a nearly three-year, multimillion-dollar investigation into Donald Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia.
Get Ready for Media Obfuscation Like Never Before
We can see the same dynamic at work in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s (D-Calif.) efforts to build a case for impeaching Donald Trump out of secretly wrought hearsay and tendentious interpretations of summarized telephone calls between Trump and the president of Ukraine. If you only paid attention to what Schiff said, or what the megaphones of the mainstream media said in slavish support of the narrative he is endeavoring to construct, you might conclude that Trump had done something wrong in the ordinary conduct of his duties.
Narratives do have inflection points, however, and the imminent release of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on December 9 may well mark such a pivot. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already announced that he intends to open hearings on the report on December 11. Since that report will go into detail about alleged abuses by the FBI in obtaining FISA warrants to spy on Carter Page and hence on the entire Trump campaign, the possibilities for a narrative revision are prodigious.
The Democrats know this, of course, and they and their media enablers have not been remiss in attempting to meet this potential challenge.
One reason that it has taken so long for the Horowitz report to see the light of day is that key figures who are named in the report are given a chance to review a draft and to request redactions. Since many of the figures who are central to this story are part of the anti-Trump fraternity in government, we can expect to see, over the next few weeks, numerous leaks and other efforts to spin the contents of the report.
An early entry into the leak-and-lather sweepstakes is a bijou from CNN attempting to package the news that an FBI lawyer was under criminal investigation for altering a document in the Trump-Russia witch hunt—I mean probe. Note the rhetorical strategy.
First comes the acknowledgment: “The possibility of a substantive change to an investigative document is likely to fuel accusations from President Donald Trump and his allies that the FBI committed wrongdoing in its investigation of connections between Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign.”
Yep, CNN got that right. But then comes the massage of the message: “American intelligence agencies and the Justice Department have not swayed from their finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election by hacking the Democrats and spreading pro-Trump propaganda online.” OK, but what about the pro-Hillary activities of Russian social media, which are also documented? The Russians have been interfering in U.S. elections since the 1920s. The 2016 election was nothing new, but CNN would have you believe it was.
More massaging, or rather obfuscation: “[E]ven former top Trump campaign officials have corroborated special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that the Trump campaign planned some of its strategy around the Russian hacks, and had multiple contacts with Kremlin-linked individuals in 2016.” I’d like to see the evidence for this claim. It isn’t in the copy of the Mueller report that I read.
But that dubious contention is just a throat clearing for this: “A finding of alleged wrongdoing from Horowitz could further fuel Republican criticism and conspiracies about previous investigators’ targeting of Trump associates.” Ah—“alleged wrongdoing,” you see, which will fuel not only Republican criticisms (which it surely should do) but also Republican “conspiracies” about “targeting of Trump associates.”
Just “a Conspiracy Theory”
Here’s the thing about conspiracies, though. Sometimes there really are conspiracies. And in such cases, those who take the trouble to point them out are not purveyors of “conspiracy theories” (a bad thing) but rather the exposers of a threat (a good thing).
Just ask Cicero what Cataline was up to in 63 B.C. That episode had had a happy result for the Roman Republic (not so happy for Cataline or his collaborators). But CNN hopes that by describing as “conspiracies” efforts – they should be bipartisan, but they aren’t – to get to the bottom of what I and others have called the biggest political scandal in U.S. history they can somehow discredit those efforts. “Oh, the idea Jim Comey and John Brennan and Andrew McCabe and all the rest were out to get Trump is just a conspiracy.” Ergo it is not worth taking seriously.
Except that it is very much worth being taken seriously and, as a matter of fact, it is being taken seriously, as anyone who can utter the names William Barr and John Durham knows.
I think it is time to open a book on which media outlets are going to leak and then try to repurpose the many tidbits we’ll be seeing from the IG report on the run-up to December 9. I predict that those reliable anti-Trump organs, the New York Times and the Washington Post, will lead the pack, but let’s see.
In the meantime, it is worth keeping an observation from the political philosopher John Marini in mind. Michael Anton quotes from a recent speech of Marini’s in his own superlative essay on impeachment for the Claremont Review of Books:
Many great scandals arise not as a means of exposing corruption, but as a means of attacking political foes while obscuring the political differences that are at issue. This is especially likely to occur in the aftermath of elections that threaten the authority of an established order. In such circumstances, scandal provides a way for defenders of the status quo to undermine the legitimacy of those who have been elected on a platform of challenging the status quo – diluting, as a consequence, the authority of the electorate.
It would be hard to find a better description of the Trump-Russian scandal or the Ukrainian “scandal” now playing at the Adam Schiff Theater.
Anton zeroes in on the “playbook,” the strategy: “selectively leak to create a fog, a miasma of vaguely negative-sounding ‘facts’ or allegations that seem ominous but also too complex and in-the-weeds for ordinary folk to follow. Then publicly ‘confirm’ those leaks as the authoritative account of the ‘scandal.’”
As it was with the Russia hoax, so it is now with the Adam Schiff Impeachment Follies: “None of the actual facts adds up to any actual wrongdoing, but the hope is that regular people won’t notice and won’t listen to those who do.”
The moral, of course, is that they – the experts, the beautiful people who populate the administrative state and their public relations outlets – they know better than us, us deplorables, us “bitter-enders,” us voters.
Will it work? It has, pretty much, until now. I have to admit that. But in this as in so much else, Donald Trump has insinuated a new and disruptive energy into the narrative. With just about any other president, I would have said that the deep state’s victory was all-but-assured. With Trump, I am hedging my bets.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books.