Bilateral Commentary

America is losing its mind…

Author:  Dr. Anthony Bryson


… and its sense of humor.


The United States is divided by ideology.  There is no doubt about that.  If you attempt to engage people in a discussion of issues, the conversation routinely denigrates to an argument of ideological purity over substance.  If “you” don’t agree with “me” or “my” particular ideology of choice, you’re an enemy to “me“ and my like.  This behavior is observable everywhere, but most often on social media.  It seems we can’t have a rational discussion on important issues.  What is more disturbing, you can’t even make a joke about our politics or politicians anymore.


The best example of this situation is the brouhaha erupting over Donald Trump’s release of classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergy Kislyak during an Oval Office visit last week.  I mean, can’t we discuss the issue rationally?


The standard has always been that classified information is to be held to the highest security standards.  Hillary Clinton was demonized for her handling of information, much of which was not classified to the heights of Top Secret.  While much of the discussion was over the top, there was some truth there, especially in the big picture of trustworthiness and access to classified data.  The issue needed to be looked at from a classification and dissemination practice perspective.  Clinton’s use of a private email server, while legal, did put information at risk.  Her reception of sensitive information through this server was not illegal, but she was ultimately responsible for the secondary dissemination of information received.  This was the bottom line of this issue and why the FBI could not prosecute.  Clinton was responsible for bad judgment in using an insecure email server, but she was not responsible for any illegal acts.


With the visit of the Russians and Trump’s disclosure of secret information in the Oval Office, it brought into question his trustworthiness and capacity to handle secure information.  The President of the United States does have the legal authority to declassify information at his discretion.  This is supported by a number of executive orders issued by Presidents past and present.  Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians is not illegal.  But like Clinton, it does bring into question his judgment and trustworthiness with this classified information.


If reports are correct, the information disseminated to the Russians was not from American intelligence assets.  This information was from the intelligence organs of an ally, and shared with the United States in the highest levels of confidence.  Traditionally, the United States has protected this data at the highest levels.  Our relationships with other nations and their intelligence interests are at stake with data they share with us.  As a result, the United States has a standing practice of not sharing this information without the permission from the originating source.  As to whether Trump had that permission is subject for debate.  What is known is that other nations have intimated they may stop sharing intelligence with the United States as a result of the release.


We also know that Trump elected to make this “declassification” at the spur of the moment.  H.R. McMaster confirmed this.  This may be a little concerning, as this sounds more like someone slipping up and spilling the beans more so than taking cognitive action to “declassify” something.  The idiom “loose lips sinks ships” comes to mind.  The Presidential ability to declassify information is intended to allow the executive to share important details of national security with audiences not cleared to receive that information, not to get off the hook when he inadvertently spits out sensitive information.  This contrast is important to make, considering there appears to a fixation with discovering who in the government is “leaking” information.


These are the facts behind the issue.  There is nothing here that can be denied.  What Trump did was legal, just not well thought out.  There will be fallout from his action, and it may come in lost trust with our traditional allies and lost access to intelligence.  The confidence in the United States with our allies is going tested.  We may have put their imbedded assets at risk as a result of this release, and that may come back on the intelligence community in the future.  We don’t know for certain, and likely will never know the outcome of this misstep.


One thing we do know is the outrage that is being displayed is not just a result of a misstep by Mr. Trump.  A lot of the outrage exists because of a perceived double standard.  There are a lot of people out there playing a “shoe on the other foot” game.  If person X from Party Y was office the outrage would be even worse!  I’m not certain we can guarantee that would be the case, but the commentary from Trump supporters during the election, and during this event, certainly do seem to support that claim.  If Hillary Clinton were President and had exposed top secret intelligence information to the Russians, or any other foreign government, there would certainly be claims of treason and demands for immediate impeachment.  We heard similar language during the election, and pretty well every time her name comes up.  Why the double standard?  Why does Party come before country?  Is our ideological in-group membership that strong that it supersedes our loyalty to our country and our fellow citizens?


The answer to this question is becoming obvious.  You cannot even joke about these things.  After reading many of the inflammatory comments on Twitter, coming from each side, I attempted to make light of the situation.  I took H.R. McMaster’s comments about the disclosure lacking context to provide details which would put our partner intelligence operatives at risk, and put a little spin on them to make light of the situation.  I tweeted the following response to The Hill, who was experiencing a tweetstorm over the White House faux pas. 

I was shocked to see that an individual on Twitter took offense to what I thought was a clever play on words, and labelled me a racist.  Now I know that there are a lot of deluded, unhinged, scared shitless people on Twitter, but I never thought a joke about context would get me branded a racist.  Have people completely lost their minds to the point where humor is no longer an acceptable response to a ridiculous situation?  It used to be that no matter how dark things may look that if we could at least laugh at situations that we would be able to get through them without going crazy.  Are those days long gone as well?


I sure hope that as we move forward that we can continue to try and common ground and solutions that help us all.  I hope that we can see that the things we think are bad remain that way when someone from our team does them.  At worst I hope that we can find the ridiculous in the events that are driving us crazy and find ways to laugh at them.  It brings some level of humanity back to the darkness of the issues which divide us.  Or has it got to the point where we can’t even do that anymore?

Dr. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, teaching classes in media and political psychologies.  He is the author of the book, The Trump Card: The Long Game of Discrediting Media and Influencing Elections.