How do you tell a plausible charge from a fevered fantasy? As allegations drip, drip about President Trump’s purported ties with Russia, most news consumers will want to keep an open mind about potential wrongdoing. But they won’t want to get lost in some eternal connect-the-dots game that never forms a coherent and believable picture. There’s a difference between thinking that Moscow may have hacked the Democratic National Committee and thinking that Moscow actually hacked the election, between thinking the president may have Russian conflicts of interest and thinking he’s a Russian puppet, between the corruptions and deceptions that pop up in politics and the supervillain schemes that pop up in pulp fiction.
There are some obvious ways to keep your head at such moments, like not rushing to embrace every apparent break in the story. (Many heavily hyped Russia scoops have fizzled.) But there are some broader guidelines to keep in mind too. Here are three rules of thumb to help you distinguish the credible from the kooky:
Don’t mistake a noodle for a tentacle. In conspiracy movies, covert politics is an octopus: There’s a big head at the center manipulating everything with its tentacles. In real life, it’s more like a bowl of spaghetti — a tangled mess of connections without a center.
I stole that pasta metaphor from Robert Anton Wilson, a novelist who alternated between espousing and satirizing conspiracy theories. Like spaghetti, he wrote, conspiracies “contain endless entanglements and overlaps; but to mistake the spaghetti for a coherent and intelligent organism is like mistaking the debris and flotsam on the beach for the outline of an invading army.” It’s relatively easy to find connections, harder to determine whether they’re innocent or shady, harder still to figure out if they add up to a larger master plot.
Whatever the truth may be, Putin is not a grand puppet master.
It is not innately suspicious for someone to meet with a Russian diplomat, to do business with a Russian enterprise, or even to talk with a Russian spy in the course of that business. (There are a lot of spies in Russia.) It is certainly conceivable that such encounters might be part of a sinister story, but you need a lot more than that to prove it.
Don’t mistake a meatball for a head. In the middle of all those connections, you’ll sometimes see a lump that looks like it might actually be in charge. On closer examination, you find it’s just another ingredient in a sprawling dish. So it is with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s clear that the Russians wanted to influence the American election last year, though it’s not obvious if they actually thought they could help Trump win, if they figured Hillary Clinton was going to win and wanted to undermine her in advance, or if they just wanted to spread doubt about the American electoral process.
But whatever the truth may be, Putin is not a grand puppet master. He was one of several forces spreading oppo over the course of a campaign. It’s hard to think of a recent presidential election where various groups didn’t publicize embarrassing information.
The Kremlin also has a history of spreading disinformation, and this may have happened in the campaign as well. But if so, the Russians were just one of many forces spouting lies.
So when someone like the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declares that Putin “installed” Donald Trump as president, he’s moving out of the realm of plausible plots and into the world of fantasy. Similarly, Clinton’s warning that Trump could be Putin’s “puppet” leaped from an imaginable idea, that Putin wanted to help her rival, to the much more dubious notion that Putin thought he could control the impulsive Trump. (Trump barely seems capable of controlling himself.)
Trump and Putin’s interests are aligned in some ways but hardly all. The puppet narrative requires you to ignore incompatible information — like, say, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s attacks on Moscow’s policies toward Ukraine.
Don’t mistake your menu for your meal. It’s not just evidence that’s driving the belief in a Trump-Putin plot. A lot of people really, really want such stories to be true. If you’re one of them, you probably belong to at least one of two groups: people who strongly dislike Trump, and Russia hawks. Conversely, if there comes a point where the evidence of collusion is overwhelming but you’re still strenuously denying it, then you’re probably a Trump supporter and/or a Russia dove.
(Full disclosure: I’m not a Trump supporter and I’m not a Russia hawk either. That may help me see this from more than one side, or maybe it just makes me muddled.)
Whatever our views, we often read the news with an agenda. In itself, that’s fine. We just shouldn’t let that agenda get in the way of our perceptions. Our personal menus don’t always match the news we’re served.
Jesse Walker, books editor at Reason magazine, is the author of “The United States of Paranoia,” a history of American conspiracy theories.
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