Of Alan Dershowitz, Sophistry, and a Certain Russian Intelligence Asset

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I took criminal law from Alan Dershowitz back in 1972, and I well remember his ridiculing a criminal defense argument of the following type:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you can plainly see that my client is innocent, because if he were truly guilty, surely he would not have been stupid enough to leave such abundant evidence of his guilt lying around for everyone to see!

The good professor pointed out that this bogus argument went all the way back to the sophists—history’s first professional lawyers. And it was wrong in ancient Greece. And it was wrong in 1972.

And so it was. And it’s still wrong in 2018.

With that thought in mind, let us, along with Jonathan Chait, pose this question: if Trump is not a Russian intelligence asset, why is he acting so much like a Russian intelligence asset?

Chait writes,

One cannot rule out the possibility that Trump lacks the mental capacity to understand the basic form of America’s most important alliance. But it is at least as likely that Trump is choosing not to understand this, so that he can precipitate a fissure within the alliance.

Last week, Trump’s national security advisers, who have traditional Republican views toward NATO (good) and Russia (bad), and the allies both expressed their hope that Trump would use the NATO summit to declare victory. …

Oddly for Trump, he is not taking the opportunity to claim a win. Instead he appears to be defining the terms of the disagreement such that it cannot be resolved. NATO’s allies can always try to spend even more on defense, but asking them to pay the United States back dues that they never promised and do not owe is an impossible demand.

Where Trump’s intent has grown abundantly clear is the manner in which he is speaking to his supporters. At his rally in North Dakota two weeks ago, he said, “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends or allies, right?” At a subsequent rally in Montana last week, the president declared, “Our allies in many cases were worse than our enemies.” Trump understands the power of repetition, and it is notable to see this allies, they’re the worst, amirite formulation becoming a staple of his rhetoric.

More noticable still was a comment he made at the latter rally. Adopting his mocking pundit voice, he ridiculed the notion that “Putin is KGB.” (Putin did in fact work in the KGB.) “You know what,” he said, “Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We are all fine, we’re all people.”

Needless to say, “we’re all fine, we’re all people” is not Trump’s customary approach to the question of locating the shared humanity of all God’s creatures. But his efforts to train the Republican base to reverse its long-standing views on the relative merits of NATO and Russia have borne fruit. According to a recent poll, just 40 percent of Republicans think the U.S. should should stay in NATO, while 56 percent of Republicans consider Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin good for the United States. …

By the time this is over, he may well have reoriented American foreign policy completely. It may seem bizarre that one man could do this, especially given that almost nobody in Trump’s administration or the ranks of the party’s political professionals share his goal of jettisoning NATO or closely courting Russia. Yet Trump has shown the ability to lead his base wherever he wants to take it. And where the base has gone, the party has eventually followed.