Everyone Is Doing A Very Bad Job Of Not Caring About the RNC

If you lament its lack of substance, then spend time talking about substantive things.

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The Republicans are currently hosting a spectacular calamity in Ohio, and people of every political persuasion are very interested in it. As of this writing, the New York Times homepage features no less than fourteen different stories about the RNC. These are:

  • Takeaways: Doom Is The Message
  • In Trump’s Voice, It’s a New Nixon
  • Questions Over Melania Trump Speech Set Off Finger-Pointing
  • G.O.P. Convention: Night 1 Shadows Day 2
  • G.O.P. Off to Fiery Start at Convention
  • #NeverTrump’s Last Fight
  • The Power of Plagiarized Words
  • How Much Money Can I Make Off Trump’s Convention?
  • Editorial: The Most Extreme G.O.P. Platform in Memory
  • Bruni: Why the Melania-Michelle Echo Matters
  • Brooks: Getting Trumpier
  • Something Going On With Melania’s Speech
  • TV Watch: A Convention With Trump Written All Over It
  • Rudy Giuliani’s Fear Factor

The coverage elsewhere has been similarly exhaustive. The RNC is the thing that’s going on at the moment, to judge by a look at the news media. It’s absolutely everywhere. Opinion piece after opinion piece examines the goings-on of the convention, and tells us what they mean about America.

The attention is disproportionate to the event’s significance. Contemporary party conventions, as we know, are mostly pageantry. They consist of speech after windy speech by charmless politicians and demi-celebrities. They are predictable affairs, blown up far beyond their actual consequence by a desperate news media. The candidate gets nominated (as was expected), with some accompanying tedious rituals. A great deal of confetti is released, and some protesters get knocked in the head. The whole thing costs 114 million dollars, several million of which will be borne by the city of Cleveland itself. (Over ⅓ of Cleveland residents are below the poverty line; the number is over 50% for children.)

This season’s RNC in particular provides little reason to watch. It is apparently little more than an “orgy of memes,”  with a lot of shouting about Benghazi. There was some question of an intra-party revolt, but it instantly fizzled. (Apparently the line-up of speakers is also laughably barrel-scraping, though it’s odd to see people on the left mocking the Republicans for not attracting high-profile enough celebrity guests.)

Of course, there’s a certain entertainment factor. But it’s essentially no different from the lurid gawping that draws our eyes to car accidents. We get to scoff at sleepy, Jesusy Ben Carson’s unexpected references to Lucifer, and puzzle over the presence of a group called “Muslims for Trump.” It’s fun to watch a bewigged Stephen Colbert get yanked from the stage by security. We can all cackle at how silly Slovenian Melania Trump can’t even write her own banalities. Now the Duck Dynasty man is talking about gays! What a shitshow!

Now, a lot of this is richly amusing. The Trump campaign’s explanation of Melania’s contribution to her speech (“Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking”) was a succulent and hilarious masterpiece of a sentence. And, obviously, to the degree that there is something truly dangerous brewing in the doom-laden rhetoric of convention-goers, it’s worth paying a bit of attention.

But people on the left also seem to affect contempt for the RNC spectacle, while continuing to be fascinated by the minutiae of it. David Corn of Mother Jones, who wrote the convention off with the “orgy of memes” line, seems to have watched every minute of it. The New Republic’s Rick Perlstein wrote a detailed report on how utterly bored he was with the whole thing. In doing so, they sound rather like a person discussing their ex-partner, describing at length just how much they don’t care about them.

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Yet here’s a secret nobody seems to have told the press: there no invisible cosmic force compelling them to painstakingly cover the RNC. It’s actually possible to just stop paying attention. Don’t look at the car crash. Don’t look! Just stop looking! Every time you are tempted to look, look at something else. Read a book about the Spanish Civil War. Play some Pokémons if you must. Don’t feed this monster.

It is not that the RNC is not noteworthy. I suppose some amount of coverage is warranted, just as newspapers should probably publish traffic accident reports. The point is, rather, that there are more things in heaven and earth than the Republican National Convention (thank God!) You don’t have to argue that the news media should ignore the Cleveland trainwreck to believe that fourteen stories on the New York Times homepage is doing things to excess.

This becomes especially evident when we look at the things that aren’t being covered. For example, Congress recently declassified 28 pages of documents from its official report on the 9/11 attacks, which pertain to links between the Saudi Arabian government and the 9/11 hijackers. The 28 pages had been withheld for years because of the U.S. government’s fear of alienating and embarrassing a close ally and trading partner.

The release of the 28 pages has been greeted with indifference by the press. The Saudi Arabian government has insisted that the documents exonerate them of charges of supporting the 9/11 attacks, and the United States has declared that the documents offer no new information.

But that’s not exactly true (and if it were, it’s hard to think why the U.S. government would have fought to keep the pages secret for so long). Actually, the documents state that “while in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government.” Specifically, as The Guardian reports, Osama Basnan, whom the documents describe as a supporter of two of the 9/11 hijackers in California, received a cheque from Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the US.” A CIA memo, quoted in the documents, says that the connection could provide “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi Government.”

Simon Henderson of Foreign Policy says that, far from exonerating the Saudis, the pages are in fact “devastating.” Henderson says the documents undercut previous arguments made by the Saudi Foreign Minister, and “still [allow] for the possibility, indeed the probability, that the actions of senior Saudi officials resulted in those terrorist outrages.”

Henderson himself doesn’t offer a theory for what the Saudis’ involvement actually was. But Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar under Clinton and Bush, does have a theory. As Clarke explained yesterday for ABC News, the documents are consistent with “a possible failed CIA-Saudi spy mission on U.S. soil that went bad and eventually allowed 9/11 to proceed unimpeded.”

Clarke believes that the Saudi government was tracking the hijackers in the United States at the behest of the CIA. The CIA is not authorized to run intelligence operations in the U.S., so its collaboration with Saudi intelligence on this kind of mission would be prohibited. Clarke says this explains why, even though “50-60” CIA personnel knew about the presence of the al-Qaeda operatives, they did not inform the FBI or the White House.

According to Clarke, the CIA likely wanted to continue gathering information about al-Qaeda through its Saudi partnership. But if the FBI had found out that potential terrorists were known to be in the United States, it would have immediately arrested them. As he explains:

Had FBI been informed, however, it very likely would have vetoed the idea and moved quickly to arrest the two men. If the CIA broke the rules about getting FBI approval and, in cooperation with the Saudi intelligence service, ran a false flag operation in the U.S. against al-Qaeda terrorists, that would explain why CIA managers repeatedly made decisions and issued clear instructions not to tell anyone outside the CIA the rather startling and unprecedented news that al-Qaeda operatives were in our country.

Thus if Clarke is correct, it would mean that flagrant procedural violations by the CIA, and the CIA’s consequent attempt to hide those misdeeds, directly allowed 9/11 to happen. The CIA, through its work with the Saudis, may have actually assisted the hijackers when it could have stopped them. If Clarke is right, this would be a colossal embarrassment for the Bush Administration.

Clarke does not insist his theory is the only plausible one; he leaves open the possibility that Saudi intelligence was “purposefully supporting al-Qaeda operatives on behalf of the Saudi government.” But he shows very clearly that the documents leave open extremely important questions with highly consequential possible conclusions.

One might think Clarke’s explosive, carefully documented hypothesis would merit a bit of coverage. But it’s been met with a chorus of crickets, and Clarke’s account has been shared online a measly 106 times. (Our recent Current Affairs article about Melania Trump was many times more successful.)

So while Think Progress and Vox were debating whether Donald Trump, Jr.’s convention speech was plagiarized (“It was!” “It wasn’t!”), Richard Clarke was quietly detailing evidence that improper and possibly illegal CIA activity may have directly caused the 9/11 attacks. Here we find rather strong support for Noam Chomsky’s argument against the necessity of conspiracy theories: why does there need to be a conspiracy? The only conspiracy is that we’d rather talk about trivia than about important things we know to be true. Most information is hardly secret, you can find it if you read the news even somewhat closely. It’s just that the important things are consigned to the back pages, and go totally overlooked.

There’s probably something insightful one could write about the Republican National Convention, though it’s unclear what that would be (probably just another variation on “what an appalling embarrassment to the country this is!”) In the meantime, however, the Los Angeles Times has reported that there is a massive looming crisis in the effectiveness of antibiotics, and that increasing numbers of infections are proving resistant to even the most powerful antibacterial medicines. The L.A. Times quotes a Defense Department official calling the situation a “slow catastrophe” that could make it impossible to fight even basic infections or to conduct organ transplants, chemotherapy, and joint replacements. An FDA official warns: “Shame on us if we wait till bodies are in the street.”

At the same time, Melania Trump is dumb, and Ben Carson loves Jesus. And Chachi from Happy Days sort of called Hillary Clinton the c-word on Twitter. So it can be tough to know which stories to cover.

[Update: in the time since writing the first paragraph of this article, more stories about the RNC have been added to the New York Times website]

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.