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Saturday, October 8, 2016


Fifty-eight years ago, with a newly minted doctorate in Philosophy from Harvard University, I began my career teaching European History at that august institution.  Inasmuch as my only previous contact with the subject was Mr. Wepner’s sophomore course at Forest Hills High School, you may well wonder why on earth Harvard asked me to lecture on the history of Europe “from Caesar to Napoleon.”  It is a long story, told in detail in my Autobiography.  As I feverishly plowed through scores of works of historiography so as not entirely to disgrace myself, I was struck by one very interesting contrast between the work of medievalists like Pirenne, Ganshof, and Bloch and that of historians of the French revolution, such as Greer, Cobban, and Lefebvre.  The medievalists, who had much less in the way of primary sources than they would have liked, were forced to reconstruct entire centuries from bits and snatches of data, whereas the historians of the French Revolution, who had so much more primary material than they could possibly use, faced the challenge of what selection to make from it all.

This observation from the very start of my long career occurred to me this morning as I reflected on the events of the past two weeks. All well-run, well-staffed political campaigns devote time and resources to digging up bad things about their opponent that they can use to cast him or her in an unflattering light.  This effort is known as “opposition research,” or oppo, as it has come to be called.  Conventional wisdom has it that the release of oppo should be staged and timed for maximum effectiveness.  The very best oppo appears in the public space without seeming to have come from the campaign, thus lending it greater credibility.

Say what you will about Hillary Clinton [and I have had my say here in past posts], she is running a high-powered professional campaign, and I am absolutely sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Brooklyn office is an unmarked room filled with beady-eyed oppo pros who have, for a year now, been searching out every possible negative thing that can be said about Donald J. Trump.  They are, in the world of opposition research, like those historians of the French Revolution who were so swamped with data that they were constantly forced to pick and choose.

Now think about recent revelations:  First, the trap set for Trump by Clinton and sprung in the first debate, concerning Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe; then the mysterious appearance of pages from the 1995 state tax returns filed by Trump.  And now the video of his 1995 conversation with Billy Bush.  On the record, only the first of these was a product of Clinton campaign opposition research, but with no evidence at all, I am absolutely convinced that all three issued from that unmarked room at Clinton headquarters, carefully timed for maximum effectiveness.

I don’t like Clinton, although I am doing everything I can to help her carry North Carolina, but there is enough of Niccolo Machiavelli in me to feel a surge of admiration for a skillfully administered hatchet job.  My guess is that Trump doesn’t know what has hit him.


s. wallerstein said...

I listened to the latest Trump video and it seems no worse than countless macho conversations I've listened to or even participated in (with increasing discomfort as I've become more aware of women as people, a long process). So will that video really hurt him with male voters, who upon watching it may well see him as "a regular guy"?

Unknown said...

It's one thing to have that kind of conversation when you're 16; it's something else to have it at 60. Certainly it will not help Trump with the female vote, and there likely are more than a few male voters who will be turned off by it. The discouraging thing for me, however, is the number of voters (mostly male)for whom all of the revelations about Trump--his temperament, his lack of basic human feelings (remember his imitating the disabled NYT reporter), his lack of knowledge, the vacuousness of his proposals, the endless lies--none of this and more seems to matter to his admirers.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Granted that Trump's behavior in the video (and elsewhere) seems adolescent, it appears that lots of people, of both genders, hang on to adolescent discourse, especially when mating is concerned, well past the point that it makes sense in terms of their actual lives.

I'm 70, look my age and have markedly diminished sexual energy, but I have friends of my generation who talk about sex as if they were 21. I'd feel ridiculous doing that since I'm so obviously out of the game for chronological/biological reasons, but that isolates me socially in fact.

Now obviously some male voters will be turned off by what Trump said, but I suspect that they are the male voters who were already turned off by Trump. I don't see that Trump's adolescent and sexist remarks will cost him support among his core male voters.

Anonymous said...

I don't follow you regularly, and I don't want to cause clutter, but it seems that Clinton's paid speeches are now out courtesy of Wikileaks...
(I realize that probably you've already been informed of this, but anyway.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

as I understand it, what is now out is notes of her speeches. They are no surprise at all. She turns out to be in the pocket of Wall Street, as all of us always thought. That won't lose her any votes, I think. It simply reminds us that should she win, our real fight begins. But that is what I have been saying forever. I don'i for a moment think she was bought by Wall Street. I think she was paid all that money by Wall Street because they correctly recognized that she was already in their pocket. From their point of view, $250,000 a speech was just a tip, a pour boire, an expression of respect and of courtesy.

David Auerbach said...

One thing of semantic interest in Clinton's remarks to Wall Street-- her use of "successful life" to mean *vast accumulation of wealth*. As RPW says, she didn't need buying.
Here, as usual, is a sane account of things:

Anonymous Coward said...

The leak of the now infamous Trump tape was timed to coincide with the leak of Clinton's Wall Street speech transcript to minimize public attention to the latter. Moreover, the Obama administration and John Podesta, Clinton's unctuous campaign manager, have accused the Russia government of being behind the hack that revealed the speech transcript - without adducing any evidence. Clinton's campaign tactics are, as usual, diversion and smearing, this time with a neo-McCarthyist bent. The accusations of Russian sabotage are already ratcheting up once-dormant Cold War tensions and commit her to doing so even more once she is the president.

Carl said...

The video is from 2005, not 1995.

Unknown said...

S. Walerstein,

I agree that Trump's hard core male voters wouldn't desert him for this. May of them would admire him for it! But he also has had the male evangelical vote, and that may be melting away some. You an see evidence of this in the number of Republican legislators who are now disowning him. They are in a tough spot--if they disown Trump, the risk losing the votes of his supporters; if they stick with Trump, they risk losing the votes of those who despise him. So far, most of them have stuck with Trump. That seems to be changing.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

You're right about that. Being completely non-religious myself, I tend to underestimate or overlook the social role of religion. I can see the world from almost every posture, even that of the super-rich, even that of the racist, sexist white male Trump core voter, but I don't quite understand how someone can be evangelical.

LFC said...

@anonymous coward

Has it occurred to you that that's not the only thing that has been ratcheting up US-Russia tensions, and that the fault is not all on one side?