Rachael Maddow says she has Trump’s tax returns!
Yay! At last we get to see what’s really controlling The Donald! Is it the Russians? Has he avoided tax for a few decades? Does he claim his ridiculous crotch-length ties as a deductible expense?!
Oh, they’re from 2005, show he earned some millions and actually paid tax that year. Whoop-de-shit.
This is obviously quite a let down and a damp squib for some people. They expected a smoking gun, a big chunk of money from the Russians to show he was in their pocket or something. Obviously, this hasn’t happened. The reality has been, so to speak, a pretty dull affair that’s hard to string out into more than two minutes of discussion.
“Ah, but wait…” I can hear someone say. “…these tax returns are 10 years old, what do the more recent ones say.”
“Quite…” says the next guy. “…they’re also just front sheets, they don’t say where the money comes from.”
“But we know he’s a criminal, we just have to go looking for the right tax return to show it.” – Genuine quote I’ve seen in a comments section.
Spot a pattern?
This is the foundation of conspiracy theory thinking. Not full-blown just yet, but it’s where it starts – because at this stage it still sounds reasonable to think like that.
But superficially reasonable or otherwise, it still says that the evidence didn’t support our hypothesis, therefore the evidence must be wrong, or limited, or incomplete. It says the real evidence is still out there to be found. Suddenly, this revelation, which doesn’t say much incriminating on its own, actually becomes incriminating by he sheer fact that it it isn’t. It must be evidence of the cover-up!
It’s a train of thought to be aware of, and hopefully protect yourself against. Don’t fall for it, take the evidence on board like a good skeptic, or rationalist, and treat it as what it is. Don’t fill in the gaps yourself.
Maddow and others have begun to spin it already. The real story, so it goes, is that these returns can be found. And fair play, Trump’s insistence that he couldn’t release them is very evidently, to use the technical term, utter bollocks.
Yet, I think Maddow made a very piss-poor choice in releasing and publicising such weak sauce early (and David Cay Johnston, too, if he also had a hand in saying “go public with this now!”). This leads to the above conspiracy-like thinking described above. It deepens the conjecture, and thanks to the backfire effect may well strengthen the opinion that Trump’s tax returns do show criminal behaviour and weaken belief in the alternative (whereas the evidence doesn’t seem to have a consequential effect so far).
I understand the desire to do so, though. Breaking the story of getting his tax returns? Gold dust. A quick victory for the liberal left? Definitely worth it after two months of groin kicks. But in the long term, I think this could push toward irrationality. The liberal-left can suddenly go crazy – being seen to overreact to a leak that means very little. Or it can descend into conspiracy theories – as more completely non-incriminating tax returns appear and everyone refuses to believe it. Either is likely, and would be a boon for right-wingers who already control the narrative that the left are stupid whiners who won’t give Trump the chance he deserves.
Or we can wait, quietly and attentively, for evidence that can actually say something useful.