Opposition Research: It’s Not Trump’s Fault That Politics is a “Dirty” Game

In a June 12 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, President Donald Trump freely admitted that he would listen to foreigners offering him “dirt” on his political opponents: “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening …. Somebody comes up and says, ‘hey, I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI?”

Unsurprisingly, critics from both major parties pounced on Trump’s statement, condemning it on grounds of morality, patriotism, and law. Equally unsurprisingly, those critics are wrong in (at least) their first two reasons. Some are also hypocrites who should stop clutching their pearls for long enough to wash the “dirt” off them.

A quick timeline:

In 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, a (then anti-Trump) Republican newspaper, hired a company called Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on several Republican presidential primary candidates, including Trump. Once it became clear that Trump would be the GOP’s nominee, that project ended.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee used a cut-out (law firm Perkins Coie) to hire — again — Fusion GPS, which in turn hired a foreigner, former British Spy Christopher Steele, to work foreign sources (especially Russian sources) for opposition research on Trump. Steele’s output was a still-controversial “dossier” full of alleged “dirt.”

Also in 2016, three members of Trump’s campaign — Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort — met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in hopes of getting “dirt” on Clinton.

Every serious political campaign conducts opposition research and views the information it gathers with two questions in mind:

First, is the information true (or at least plausible)?

Second, is the information useful?

Where or from whom the information comes from is only relevant in light of those two questions.

And that’s exactly how it SHOULD work.

Campaign opposition research is a primary source of public knowledge about the candidates who are seeking our votes.

If that information is true, it’s true whether it originated in Minneapolis or in Moscow.

If that true information is pertinent to our voting decisions, it’s neither moral nor patriotic to ignore or denounce it solely on the basis of where it came from.

With respect to the law, the Trump Tower meeting mentioned above was extensively (and expensively) investigated by the US Department of Justice. After two years of probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

While Trump still faces congressional investigations on the question of whether he committed crimes by obstructing Mueller’s investigation, and while DOJ is now inquiring as to possible misuse of the “Steele dossier” to justify the FBI’s spy operation on his campaign, he’s been exonerated on the matter of seeking foreign “dirt.” And it’s unlikely that the DNC or the Clinton campaign will be found legally culpable for their use of foreign information sources, either.

That, again, is as it should be.

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Life on the Tax Farm

We live in a prison—a massive tax farm—masquerading as a country. We produce so that others may consume. We are given the illusion of influence and of choice. We are told that we matter. We are told we can change things.

It’s all a lie, a fallacy, a grand delusion designed to keep the slaves quiet and contented, believing their servitude to be a choice. It wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be this way now. Don’t you see? But no, keep playing Clash of Clans, keep voting. Both are equally helpful. Wave your flags; hell, if you get really angry, march in a protest with a sign… That will show them.

Then go back to work and keep producing.

You matter. Your opinion is important. Just keep producing.

Enjoy the entertainment. Eat your bread. Keep producing.

You are a credit to your [preferred identity group] and you matter. Keep producing.

Do you have a 4K TV yet? You should get one. Keep producing.

Getting older? That’s nice. You should celebrate. Don’t retire, though. Retirement is for quitters. Keep producing.

Those Walmart greeters seem nice, don’t they? Keep producing.

Oh, you’re dead now? So sad. We’ll put a scoop of your ashes in a jar. Your kids will pay $500 for it. They’ll like that. They’ll keep producing.

You matter. They matter. You all matter. Keep producing.

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See What You Can Build on Your Own

There’s a sense of personal accomplishment, of self-worth, when you make something with your own hands through your own efforts. Even if you seek guidance from someone with experience, you’ve learned more than you knew before. You’ll probably value the results more than if you had no part in making it.

If, after you do the work yourself, you decide you’d rather pay someone to do it for you next time, at least you now know what’s involved. You will probably have a better sense of whether someone is doing a good job or not. You might be able to tell if they are trying to scam you or overcharge for their services.

To prevent someone from making things on their own is bad in two ways. You show you don’t trust them to be competent, and you keep them from becoming competent; from learning how to do things they’ll value. If you never allow someone to succeed or fail on their own, always doing everything for them, they’ll never really grow up. They’ll never learn responsibility.

Self-government is the same way. Until you try to govern yourself, without any laws or representatives to fall back on, you’re not a fully competent human being. You may even surprise yourself when you discover you don’t need those things, nor do you want them imposed on others. I have more respect for myself than to look for someone to govern others — even my enemies — on my behalf.

To me, insisting that others must be governed for my benefit is a sign of weakness and immaturity.

People tend to live up or down to your expectations.

So how do you govern yourself with your own two hands? Be responsible. Don’t pawn your responsibilities onto others. Don’t expect others to take care of you, or to protect you from threats you should be dealing with on your own. Mind your own business and expect others to mind theirs. If someone violates you, deal with it yourself. Only seek help if absolutely unavoidable, and then only from truly voluntary sources. You aren’t entitled to other people’s time or money, so don’t act as though you are. Governing yourself isn’t achieved through voting or expecting representatives to fix anything. If you want to do that anyway, don’t stop there and think you’ve accomplished something.

See what you can build with the effort of your own mind and hands. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Not My President

Nobody asked but …

I’m sharing with you a link to an article I read Thursday morning.  I can’t believe it has taken this long to simplify, to map the current political landscape.  Maybe it hasn’t, maybe I have been negligent, maybe this is old hat.

Those who really care have left the building, they just haven’t abandoned the panacea — voting — yet.  They haven’t put 2 and 2 together.  The political madhouse has been taken over by the country club set and the crackers and cheese set.  How else could a reality show host and a wild-eyed old man from Vermont have stolen the march?

Read the linked article.  It’s not exactly deathless prose, but it contains a large helping of the truth about how we continue to live in the past.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Is it Dumb to Try to Stay Innovative?

I was talking to someone this morning about big companies like IBM, Oracle, GM, etc. and how they get stagnant, bureaucratic, and fail to innovate with time and success.

Everyone wants to figure out how to prevent this calcification. But should we?

People mature. Adults aren’t like kids. They don’t have kid bodies or kid minds. They don’t take kid risks and see the world through kid eyes. They have history and experience. The have grown and changed and learned. Sure, they can learn bad stuff and grow in bad ways. Yes, it’s worth trying to keep some childlike wonder.

But adults with histories who act like wide-eyed kids are not healthy.

Maybe organizations are the same. Maybe innovation is a kid thing. Maybe a company with millions of customers and billions in revenue constantly pivoting and brainstorming and re-positioning would be sorta wrong. Maybe the well-functioning older, large firm is one that continues to deliver consistent value to a large market with healthy margins until they get too old and die.

Remember, companies are made of people, but when firms die people don’t. They reorganize and reassemble and reconfigure and the core value prop of the company to its customers gets replaced by another business or disaggregated to many.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

Of course if I’m the head of a mature multi-billion dollar company, I’m sure I’ll feel the tug of innovation and chafe at boring bureaucracy. But maybe that’d be a sign I should leave and start something new, rather than try to force a corporate Benjamin Button.

I’m not really sure. I’ve never been as much a fan of reform and resistance as new creation. Whatever the balance, I don’t think it should be accepted uncritically that all firms ought to always act young and innovative.

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Backlash Immortal

Here’s a two-step exercise.

Step 1: Read this passage.

Based on research to date, there would seem to be little reason to worry about a protectionist backlash against globalization in response to rising inequality. If the “average” economist thinks that technology’s role has been four times as important as that of trade, surely policy discussion is focusing on how to even out the gains from technology, not on how to erect new trade barriers? Unfortunately, this is not the case. My reading of the current U.S. policy debate is that such a backlash is already underway. This is particularly so with respect to setting the terms of trade-policy debate.

This assessment is based on a few broad observations. First, in the United States there has not been a concerted policy effort — at either the federal level or the state level — to ameliorate the recent wage problems of the less skilled. Whether this is good or bad is open to debate on various philosophical and ethical grounds. But regardless of this, inaction has an important political implication: the median U.S. voter has experienced disappointing wage performance for more than 20 years. Labour economists often distinguish the more-skilled and less-skilled by the college-graduate / high-school graduate distinction. Table 3 shows that by this convention about 75% of the U.S. labour force is less-skilled. The wage problems of the less-skilled affect the majority of the U.S. population, not just a small minority of it. Has this voting bloc made its political might felt?…

[S]everal recent political events in the United States suggest a marked turn away from policies aimed at freer trade.

Step 2: Guess the year it was published.











Done guessing?  Here are the “recent political events” the author names.

The events include Ross Perot’s strong electoral performance in 1992; the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) debate and close Congressional vote in 1993; Pat Buchanan’s strong electoral performance in 1996; and the failure by Congress to renew “fast-track” negotiating authority for the President in 1997; and the House of Republicans’ reluctance to renew funding for the International Monetary Fund in 1998. Clearly, all these events involved other issues in addition to trade. But the consensus analysis of them factored in sentiment for greater protectionism. Based on events like these one can argue that a protectionist backlash is already underway.

Yes, this piece (Matthew Slaughter‘s “Globalisation and Wages: A Tale of Two Perspectives“) was published a full two decades ago in The World Economy.  

What should we conclude?

You could call the piece “prescient.”  But how prescient is it to predict a “backlash against free trade” almost two decades in advance?  What if that backlash is itself mostly rhetorical?

I say the real lesson of this piece is that free trade is a hardy weed.  Politicians are always complaining about free trade.  Free trade is never popular.  If you look at policy, “warning signs” and “harbingers” of radical change abound.  Before you announce the “beginning of the end” for free trade, though, remember that the world is vast.  A thousand dead “canaries in the coal mine” shows next to nothing when the world contains billions of canaries.  Whispers of change pale before status quo bias.

The preachers of backlash habitually paint themselves as “realists.”  The real realists, however, aren’t the people who highlight the multitudinous threats to free trade.  The real realists aren’t the people who opine, “We need to seriously address inequality or else the populists will win.”  No, the real realists are the people who stare at the multitudinous threats and say, “Meh.”  The real realists are the people who refuse to be stampeded into fighting populism with populism.

Be a real realist.

P.S. The rest of Slaughter’s piece, by the way, is golden.  He wasn’t the first to say this, but he says it well:

In the United States, supporters of free trade have ceded the terms of debate to their opponents, making it very hard to argue the true merits of free trade. Trade supporters, knowingly or not, are increasingly making specious arguments that are prone to fail and thereby lend support to opponents. Consider, for example, the argument that “freer trade creates jobs.” No: on net trade neither creates nor destroys jobs — it is about the kinds of jobs in an economy, not the number of jobs. Similarly, consider “freer trade raises exports.” Maybe, at best: the overall level of U.S. exports depends mainly on macroeconomic considerations like the exchange rate and the level of foreign aggregate demand.


To reverse the trend towards greater trade protection, I think that the key change needs to be with the terms of debate. The proponents of free trade need to make the correct arguments
about trade’s benefits: comparative advantage, greater product varieties, greater product-market competition, and so on. This recommendation is probably not new, but it still seems timely.
To solidify support for freer trade, debate needs to move away from trade balances and jobs — if for no other reason that business cycles and recessions will always drive these numbers the
“wrong” way. In particular, successful arguments might develop the “trade is a form of technological change” analogy. In the United States the baseline assumption tends to be that technology’s aggregate gains outweigh any redistributive costs; public-policy and media discussions of technology often get at its general-equilibrium gains. But discussions of trade almost always get stuck in the partial-equilibrium issue of job creation and job destruction. Maybe this can change with a change in the terms of debate.

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