Does Jonathan Chait know about Basil, I wonder?
If, like me, you were impressed by the magisterial comprehensiveness of a chart that accompanied New York's cover story, in which Chait outlined his theory that President Trump has been an agent of the Russian government since 1987, you might assume that he cannot have missed this crucial personage and is sitting on the info until more becomes clear.
Noble as his intentions might seem, I am not so sure that the revelations can wait this long. Allow me, in the interest of national security, to rehearse the facts. On April 5, 2013, more than two years before he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Donald Trump made a cryptic reply to a tweet from an account with the handle @_Mickey_Mouse. "Thanks Basil," the then-businessman wrote. Unfortunately the tweet to which our future president was responding seems to have disappeared, along with any information about the account's provenance. Whoever this "Basil" was, he seems to have covered his tracks exceedingly well.
But not well enough. Consider the clues that remain in plain sight. "Basil" is, of course, a Westernized version of "Vasily," one of the most common Russian male first names. St. Basil, who has given his name to the cathedral that is the single most iconic piece of Russian architecture, is also the patron saint of Russia and a popular symbol of reactionary nationalism. A Kremlin operative, of course, would be careful not to select a Twitter handle easily associated with his employer; he would pick something anodyne and American-sounding. What could answer better to these descriptions than a cartoon character who helped to win World War II? If only, you might be thinking, Trump himself were more careful, he would have avoided using this operative's actual codename in a public forum.
But this is a misapprehension. If there is anything we have learned about the pattern of Trump-Russia collusion and the antics of the coterie of online nationalists, white supremacists, anime Nazis, and 4chan memers, it is that they cannot resist making their little in-jokes and dropping seemingly clever references into their communications. Consider the wider significance of the date of Trump's tweet. On April 5, in the Year of Our Lord 1242, the great Russian general Alexander Nevsky defeated the Teutonic Knights at Lake Pepius in the famous Battle of the Ice, an event of enormous significance for nationalists who see the knights as representative of a proto-liberal globalizing tendency already present in the European culture of the Middle Ages.
But why that day in 2013, of all years? What is the significance of that gap of some 771 years? Please. To the uninitiated layman this no doubt seems baffling. To someone who understands the tech-obsessed culture of online neoreactionary pranksters, it is an obvious (and somewhat amusing) throwback. As any programmer knows, 771 is the code page used in DOS to produce text in the Russian alphabet. It is, in other words, a retro racist joke, the kind of thing whose importance would no doubt have been lost on Trump himself while seeming hugely important (and absolutely hilarious) to "Basil."
But all of this is a distraction from the real question of what exactly Trump and Basil were discussing. Alas, it may be a long time indeed before most of us know, but that doesn't mean Bob Mueller doesn't already. It appears that Basil's account has been suspended by Twitter, which may be the result of a subpoena. It is possible that sources close to Mueller have told Chait that it would be for the best if Basil, whose communications with the president and other Kremlin-linked Twitter accounts are in the process of being recovered and analyzed, remained a secret for the time being. On the other hand, it is possible that this exchange has escaped both Chait's and Mueller's attention, in which case I draw attention to it here in the hope of a little-noticed but obvious example of collusion — one more piece in the giant, seemingly unsolvable puzzle.
I give voice to the above lunatic fancy, which I was able to concoct with almost minimal effort in a matter of about 30 seconds with the use of Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia, in the hope of reminding readers how easy it is to put together a plausible-sounding hypothesis if you are already convinced of certain premises. In this case, that premise is the fact that despite the lack of any real evidence, there exists or existed a high-level conspiracy between Trump and various members of his 2016 campaign and various agents of the Russian government, up to and potentially including Vladimir Putin himself, to elect Trump president of the United States two years ago.
This premise has been widely adopted and reiterated in American media on the basis of a six degrees of Kevin Bacon-like game involving persons as unlikely as a model who once had an affair with an oligarch who was acquainted with a former Soviet-era ambassador who knows the president of Ukraine, for whom Paul Manafort once did lobbying many years before his brief employment by the Trump campaign (phew), and by the appellation of vague but sinister-sounding adjectives ("Kremlin-linked," "Russia-backed").
Add to this perfervid climate of speculation people's concerns about the species of online nerd culture known as the "alt-right" and you can pretty much accuse anybody who has ever had anything to do with Trump of anything. A week before Chait's article appeared, thousands of persons became convinced that a hitherto-unnoticed press release from the Department of Homeland Security was actually a coded neo-Nazi message because the brief declarative sentence in the headline reminded some observers of a racist slogan that also contains 14 words and because in one statistic used in the story the natural number 88, which is associated with admirers of Adolf Hitler, appeared. Did I mention that, like neo-Nazism, which, has its so-called "14 words," the press release also contained 14 of what could be considered points, although only 13 of them appear alongside typographical bullets? Even MSNBC's Chris Hayes, a vociferously anti-Trump but otherwise level-headed journalist, briefly fell for this nonsense.
The easy flow of ill-gotten Russian money into the economies of Western Europe and the United States is one of the great unsung evils of the post-Cold War era. The oligarchs do not particularly care who does their dirty laundry or sells them luxury apartments. This is why it would be just as easy, if not in fact easier, to make a chart like Chait's showing the connections between Hillary Clinton, Russian business interests, and the Kremlin. Barack Obama's insistence to Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" after the 2012 election is, considered out of context, subject to the least generous or responsible interpretation, far more sinister than anything of which Trump or anyone in his circles has been accused. But the truth is that none of these connections are especially significant. We are all connected somehow to Russia, just as we are all complicit in the spoliation of the Third World and the abuse of indigenous peoples because we all buy products made abroad and use the internet and own stock.
Likewise, there is so much information available about so many people that it has never been easier to insinuate connections and intentions and conspiracies into meaningless coincidences. Imagine what Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted an area businessman for his supposed involvement in a nonexistent conspiracy to assassinate President John K. Kennedy, would have been able to accomplish with the resources of the internet at his disposal. The ease with which we can access information has made it easier than ever for semi-intelligent persons to concoct lurid stories. It should also make it easier for those of us who are sensible to dismiss them out of hand.
This is why I do not think it is worth calling New York magazine irresponsible for publishing conspiracy theories. Bores and scolds might suggest that at a time when the president seems to be getting away with painting any media outlet that criticizes him as "fake news," it might be a good idea to stick to facts and leave this kind of thing to ResistanceHole. I disagree. New York has no duty to its readers except that of entertainment. If squinting to try to tell the difference between the red line connecting two oligarchs and the green one linking an unknown Florida-based GOP hack to a longtime party donor is your idea of fun, knock yourself out. But don't pretend that what you're reading is journalism.