A year ago I invoked Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” to describe the way that Donald Trump has been hiding his crimes in plain sight. My observations in that column continue to hold up but I want to further elaborate with the help of Jorge Louis Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” which riffs off of Poe’s story
In “The Purloined Letter,” a blackmailer successfully hides a compromising letter from the police by turning the envelope inside out and placing it in his letter rack. While the police, as he anticipates, tear his entire apartment apart, they fail to look there. For his part, Trump tells the world what he’s been doing, from asking Russia to hack his opponents to telling Lester Holt that he fired James Comey to obstruct the Russian investigation to (this past weekend) admitting that his son met with Russians to get dirt about Hillary Clinton. Yet still his supporters and the GOP fail to hold him accountable for collusion and obstruction.
Could he be playing an elaborate game with such openness, successfully outwitting his pursuers at every step. There are those who believe that the president is playing three-dimensional chess. Or successfully guessing at marbles, to use Dupin’s example in “Purloined Letter.”
Dupin succeeds where the police fail because he understands the level at which the blackmailer is operating. He illustrates his method by describing a classmate in school who was very good at a marble guessing game:
But he [the police commissioner] perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow for the matter in hand, and many a school-boy is a better reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course, he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘Are they even or odd?’ Our school-boy replies, ‘Odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself: ‘The simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd’; he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus;
This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even’; he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the school-boy, whom his fellows termed ‘Lucky,’ what, in its last analysis, is it?”
“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”
Whether or not he plays a deep game, Trump certainly evaded serious scrutiny during the election. While the press was obsessing about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, they virtually ignored his promises to export all undocumented immigrants, appoint justices who would ban abortion, and generally upset the world economic and military order. They didn’t see that he would be Putin’s puppet and glossed over his attacks on the press.
The shrewd Putin-observer Masha Geesen has written, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.” The press couldn’t believe what was in front of their eyes so they went off in search of subtlety instead.
Which brings me to the Borges short story. In “Death and the Compass,” a Hebrew scholar has been murdered, and the police commissioner, smoking the same “imperious cigar” as the police chief in “The Purloined Letter,” has a theory:
“There’s no need to look for a Chimera, or a cat with three legs,” Treviranus was saying as he brandished an imperious cigar. “We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee [in the room next door] is the possessor of the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, came in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him.
To which the brilliant detective Lonnrot replies,
It’s possible, but not interesting. You will reply that reality hasn’t the slightest need to be of interest. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber.”
Lonrot looks at the rabbi’s scholarship and concocts an elaborate explanation. It so happens, however, that the commissioner is right: the murder was a botched theft involving a wrong room.
Like those intrepid reporters sifting through Hillary’s e-mail issues, Lonnrot gets caught in his own sophistication. His adversary, realizing what he is up to, drops false rabbinical leads to lure him to an out-of-the-way house, where he kills him.
Before he dies, Lonnrot delivers a lesson that perhaps we should apply to Donald Trump:
I know of a Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line. Along this line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.
So how about this for an explanation of Trump’s behavior: Putin gave Trump lots of money and helped him win an election so Trump cozies up to him so that he can get more money and more electoral help. A number of Republican legislators and NRA officials also want money and help from Putin so they consort with Russian oligarchs. After all, nothing bad has happened yet to people who have done so. Just the contrary.
We can even anticipate their next defense: collusion is not a crime if it is used to defeat awful people like Hillary Clinton. Would a Republican Senate disagree enough to sustain impeachment charges?
Why construct an elaborate labyrinth when a simple line will do? It may not challenge our intelligence but it gets the job done.