The fox knows many things,
but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Archilochus, 700 B.C.
I had a brainwave. I won’t bury the lede: I have what I believe is an original theory of Trump and Russia in the 2016 presidential election that holds together with all the facts and circumstances that have been reported so far.
Stay Out of His Way
The theory goes like this: at some point in 2016, Trump came to believe that Vladimir Putin wanted to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. How he came to believe this isn’t important for the theory. He responded the way he does to most things, according to a simple, easily understood principle: if the man named Forbes magazine’s most powerful person in the world in 2015 (for the third year running, and he stayed in the same spot for 2016) wants to help you (Trump was 2015’s 72nd most powerful person and jumped 70 places to #2 in 2016) by hurting your opponent, stay out of his way. And I mean “stay out of his way” in the most literal possible sense: not only don’t do anything to stop him from helping you, but avoid finding out what he might want in exchange, and egg him on from afar.
According to this theory, Trump believed Putin was going to try to damage Hillary no matter what Trump did. So why make a deal with the World’s Most Powerful Man when you’re 71 spots down from him on the list? It explains a lot. In fact, it explains everything.
Why did Trump make so many positive remarks about Putin and the future of US-Russia relations on the campaign trail? If there was a quid pro quo, this makes no sense. Putin didn’t benefit domestically at all from Trump’s fanboy antics; in fact, it put him in a tight spot: Putin had spent years portraying America as intrinsically opposed to Russia’s interests. Trump became so popular in Russia (with more mentions in Russian media than Putin himself) that Russian state media had to be ordered to cool it.
If there was a quid pro quo, Trump would’ve shut up about Putin and Russia–it didn’t earn him any real popularity points with his own Republican base, and it gave Hillary Clinton a reason to call Trump Putin’s “puppet” in the third debate.
But if you imagine Trump trying to keep Putin on his side without actually making a deal with him, it makes perfect sense.
Why do the other Trump-Russia theories require such unlikely, intricate plots? Because they’re speculations stretched balloon-tight over the framework of an extremely unlikely “Trump campaign mastermind” theory. For example, last Friday Vanity Fair came out with a bombshell story headlined “DID JARED KUSHNER’S DATA OPERATION HELP SELECT FACEBOOK TARGETS FOR THE RUSSIANS?”
Just in case you’ve been living in a cave, a couple weeks ago it was reported that Facebook disclosed $100,000 in targeted political ads bought by Russian entities (i.e., people sitting in Russia bought political ads targeted at the US through Facebook’s online interface). Vanity Fair‘s scoop is that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigators are looking at whether the Trump campaign’s data operation fed targeting information to the Russians, who then bought the ads. This doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why wouldn’t the Trump campaign, or one of their affiliated PACs or friendly US political groups, just buy the ads themselves? It’s not illegal for Americans to buy political ads on Facebook and target them at other Americans, but it is illegal for foreigners to do that. Why unnecessarily include an illegal element of a plan that would be much easier to carry out legally? What’s the point of a top-secret collusion plot that includes traceable flows of data, money and ads? It makes no sense in the context of a quid pro quo. It makes a hell of a lot more sense if the Russians buying those ads had no agents in the US.
As for the part where these ads were supposedly “microtargeted” at the specific demographics that swung the election? Well, if you read any of the articles claiming that, the part where the Russians’ trolling was aimed at the specific communities that made the difference is complete speculation. And the speculation that “they couldn’t have done this without help” is a speculation built on a speculation.
Why were there so many Russians hanging around, but never with Trump himself? This is the classic “too much smoke for there not to be fire” circumstantial evidence for #TrumpRussia collusion. Why were there so many Russians around the Trump campaign? The innocent explanation, if you don’t believe Putin was running an influence campaign, was that they wanted to lobby the guy who said he wanted to improve relations. The sinister explanation was that the Russians were trying to get someone close to Trump to make sure that Trump acknowledged the help he was getting and that the Russians would get their money’s worth in return (e.g., the Rob Goldstone “part of Russia and its government’s support” e-mail).
But my theory doesn’t depend on what the Russians’ intent was, but on how Trump interpreted it. Trump was avoiding the Russians not because he was afraid of a scandal, but because he was afraid they’d have him over a barrel if he got trapped into a negotiation. So he stayed away from them, offering platitudes and words (which to Trump are virtually worthless) instead.
The Fox and the Hedgehog
Where the fox and the hedgehog come in is this: “let’s see what Putin wants for his help; maybe we can make a deal” would be the approach of a person who knows many things and is confident in his abilities. “If the world’s most powerful man is helping you, stay out of his way” is a single guiding principle that can get you into trouble, but it also makes decision-making remarkably swift and easy.
The fox and the hedgehog metaphor has been subjected to various interpretations, but the one I like is this: there are multiple ways to get ahead. If you’re smart and talented like the fox, you have the bandwidth to know many things, to weigh their significance, to predict outcomes, etc. But there are plenty of cases where a simple, guiding principle can also get you ahead. And by all evidence, Trump lives by simple principles like these: if someone says nice things about you, don’t say bad things about him. If someone hits you, no matter who it is, hit back twice as hard. Never miss an opportunity to set the agenda or get your message out, even if it might embarrass you. If the idea can’t fit on the front of a baseball hat, it’s too complicated.
Hillary Clinton would be a fox-type thinker. She knows a lot of things. She wants to gather all the facts, then make a decision. She doesn’t believe in shooting from the hip. But that kind of decision-making can result in analysis paralysis. You never have all the facts. The decision tree branches off into infinity. The predictive powers of even the greatest genius weaken exponentially as you move farther from the origin point.
And, in fact, if you can get used to a decision-making method that’s aimed at achieving a positive result, say, 70% of the time, rather than shooting for 100% on every individual decision, you’ll get ahead. It’ll be one step forward, one step back, like Trump, but if you apply the right basic principles, a hedgehog can compete with a fox.
So to make a short story long, that’s what I think happened with Trump. He figured out that the most powerful man in the world wanted to hurt his opponent, and he decided “I’m gonna stay out of his way.” Simple as that. It fits the facts.