Another reminder not to take Trump for a fool

Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist. Photo by
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist. Photo by NYT

Maybe we’ve had this all wrong.

Maybe Donald Trump isn’t just some two-bit con artist who lucked his way into the White House thanks to an overconfident opponent.

Or a second-rate demagogue with a rat-like instinct for arousing his base’s baser emotions and his enemies’ knee-jerk reactions.

Or a dimwit mistaken for an oracle, like some malignant version of Chauncey Gardiner from “Being There.”

Thanks to Robert Mueller, we know he isn’t Russia’s man inside, awaiting coded instruction from his handler in the Kremlin.

Maybe, in fact, Trump is the genius he claims to be, possessed – as he likes to boast – of a “very good brain.”

OK, I don’t quite believe that. But going forward, it would be wise for all of his inveterate critics in the news media, including me, to treat it as our operating assumption.

The alternative is to let him hand us our butts all over again, just as he did by winning the GOP nomination and then the election, and then by presiding over years of robust economic growth.

That should be the central lesson from the epic media fiasco of Russiagate.

Let’s specify what the fiasco is not. It’s not that there was nothing for Mueller to investigate. It’s not that he uncovered no wrongdoing. It’s not that the president did not act in suspicious ways, epitomized by his appalling performance at Helsinki.

It’s not that he didn’t lie and mislead, not least about his business ties in Russia. It’s not that the Trump campaign wasn’t studded with people who were, at a minimum, profoundly vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

It’s not that the Kremlin didn’t actively seek to interfere in the election, with a favorable eye toward Trump’s candidacy.

But barring some major discrepancy between the attorney general’s summary of Mueller’s report and the report itself, it’s time to say: Case closed. Thank God the president is not a Russian stooge.

The fiasco was to assume that the result of Mueller’s investigation was a forgone conclusion. And to believe that the existence of dots was enough to prove that they had to connect. And to report on it nonstop, breathlessly, as if the levee would break any second. And to turn Adam Schiff into a celebrity guest. And to belittle or exclude contrarian voices.

In July, I wrote of the special counsel’s inquiry: “The smart play is to defend the integrity of Mueller’s investigation and invest as little political capital as possible in predicting the result. If Mueller discovers a crime, that’s a gift to the president’s opponents. If he discovers nothing, it shouldn’t become a humiliating liability.”

Instead, as Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi perceptively observed last week, what we have is a WMD-size self-inflicted media disaster, which ought to require some extensive self-criticism before we breathlessly move on to Trump’s latest alleged idiocy.

Assume for a moment that Trump’s odd Russia behavior, including the obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin and the routine eruptions against Mueller, was merely a way of baiting journalists for years.

If so, he could hardly have played us better: He’d be the Keyser Söze of media manipulation. To adapt a line from “The Usual Suspects,” perhaps the greatest trick Trump ever pulled was to convince the world his brain didn’t exist.

There’s a simpler, opposite explanation: Trump was never sophisticated enough to have been involved in some high-flown conspiracy with Russia. It would have required too much guile.

Forget Söze; think Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The difference between suspicious and shambolic behavior often depends on who is doing the watching. From a certain distance, they can be hard to tell apart.

For years I’ve bounced between these two interpretations of the president – at times astonished by his incompetence; at other times amazed by his cunning. There’s much about the world that Trump will never understand.

What he knows, however, is that success is above all a matter of being seen (regardless of results); that the more one lies, the less people notice; that winning is a matter of playing by one’s own rules (and changing them as needed); that, while hope may be inspiring, rage is intoxicating.

These ideas may be noxious, but they are also the fundamental political insights of our time.

Whichever view one takes, Trump has just won a major victory over his chosen political enemies. Whether he’s achieved this through genius or luck, it would behoove us not to take him for a fool. This was the week to examine our own foolishness instead.

Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.