Have you heard of Hanlan’s Razor It’s a philosophical “principle” that’s usually expressed in one of a couple ways, such as:
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
“Don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.”
The 2016 election has been a great one for Hanlon’s Razor, and we should all take heed of it now, with accusations flying about that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are conspiring to somehow rig the election. Kurt Eichenwald, Newsweek writer and professional Hillary Clinton cheerleader, made the case through some pretty overt implication in a piece published last night that has since spread like wildfire. Here are the facts:
1. Last October, Eichenwald wrote about Benghazi, specifically the hearings that Clinton was about to endure, and came down heavily on the side of Clinton. Like most sane people, he recognized the hearings for the “partisan witch hunt” that they were. In the midst of that article, though, he wrote the following paragraph:
One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.
2. Sidney Blumenthal, friend to Hillary, emailed the article to John Podesta, the chairman of her election campaign. He quoted the paragraph above.
3. John Podesta’s emails were later hacked and released by WikiLeaks, which, yeah, may involve the Russians.
Sputnik, a very big Russian government news service, found the email among the document dump and released a BREAKING story with the following three-paragraph intro:
In a major revelation from the second batch of WikiLeaks emails from Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta it was learned that Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal believed that the investigation into Benghazi was legitimate because it was “preventable” and the result of State Department negligence.
In an email titled “The Truth” from Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal, the adviser writing to undisclosed recipients said that “one important point that has been universally acknowledged by nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable” in what may turn out to be the big October surprise from the WikiLeaks released of emails hacked from the account of Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta.
Then came the money quote: “Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate,” said Blumenthal, putting to rest the Democratic Party talking point that the investigation into Clinton’s management of the State Department at the time of the attack was nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
The mistake here is obvious, and stupid—Sputnik is attributing Eichenwald’s words to Blumenthal, not realizing that Blumenthal had simply copied and pasted a quote from Newsweek to send to Podesta. They proceed to spin this stupid error into the so-called “October surprise”—Clinton’s advisors are telling each other that Benghazi was preventable!!!!
This is really shoddy journalism, from an outlet that nobody should trust anyway, and Sputnik has since taken the story down. But man, the story got out.
5. About four hours after the Sputnik story hit, and had already been turned into a meme by the Internet’s weird alt-right army, Trump triumphantly crowed about the “revelation” at a rally in Pennsylvania. From Eichenwald:
“This just came out a little while ago,’’ Trump said. “I have to tell you this.” And then he read the words from my article.
“He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,’’ Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. “This just came out a little while ago.”
The crowd booed and chanted, “Lock her up!”
Now, there are two possible explanations for this:
Explanation A: A Russian news outlet, historically irresponsible and with an anti-Clinton agenda, made a stupid error. Trump, who seems to scour the Internet for bullshit and has retweeted idiotic (and sometimes fascistic) alt-right content in the past, found it, didn’t bother fact-checking, and brought it up in Pennsyvlania.
Explanation B: TRUMP AND PUTIN CONSPIRED ON THE STORY AND ARE WORKING TOGETHER.
Here, I would urge you to remember Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
I would have urged Eichenwald to remember the same thing, but toward the end of his article, he flew off into the realm of conspiracy:
This is not funny. It is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth. How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin? (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).
It was all over the Internet! It could have been literally anyone on his campaign staff, or Trump himself! This was big news in the alternate reality occupied by Pepe the Frog memesters!
The big question, of course, is why are the Russians working so hard to damage Clinton and, in the process, aid Trump?
Because Trump is a terrible choice for president that would, quite obviously, weaken America?
So no, Mr. Putin, I’m not Sidney Blumenthal. And now that you have been exposed once again, get the hell out of our election. And Mr. Trump—you have some explaining to do.
Here’s how Trump could explain the situation: “I’m a moronic demagogue who routinely spouts meritless bullshit I find online, and I’ve never once stopped to check if any of it is true. My entire campaign, and the faith all my supporters, is based on the principle that we’re hateful people who are totally untethered to reality.”
There. Done. No need for Russian collusion. Phillip Bump, in The Washington Post made the point more humorously than I have:
How could Trump have gotten that? He could have gotten a secret message from a KGB agent posing as a hot dog vendor in the rally arena, the two surreptitiously meeting after Trump gave the appropriate hand signal. Or maybe one of his allies, who follows Sputnik, saw the article and was like, “Hey, Donald, check this out.”
Of course, none of that stopped many of our most reliably hysterical mainstream pundits from going over the deep end:
Ditto for some who are not quite so mainstream, but who seem to have almost willfully gotten all the major facts wrong:
IT WAS ALL OVER THE G*$$#AM INTERNET!!! FOR FOUR HOURS!!!
Eichenwald has been the most amusing to follow on Twitter, though. After his breathless start, he’s been backtracking like crazy. Here’s the dramatic introduction, implying the greatest political scoop since Watergate.
Anndddd the backtrack, after the publication of the WaPo article:
Except that speculation is exactly what Eichenwald was doing, both in the article and in his Twitter feed, and for him to claim otherwise is an outright, stumbling lie.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s two-fold. First, don’t trust the neoliberal mainstream media, which Eichenwald has embodied since the primaries. Second, respect Hanlon’s Razor—it explains far more than your darkest political fantasies ever will.