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Commentary: The Cabal Theory

The SMELL Test was offered by journalist John McManus a few years ago as a way to be a savvy consumer of media:

  • S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
  • M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
  • E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
  • L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
  • L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

I give an assignment to my American government students at Columbia College that requires them to apply the SMELL test as they read news and opinion. I’m trying to do my part as a civic educator. It’s hard work. Sisyphus only had to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity.
I have a theory. Feel free to apply the SMELL Test to it. It’s about – I know regular listeners to these commentaries will be shocked – Donald Trump.

Here goes: A cabal got lucky beyond its wildest dreams in 2015 when Trump declared for the presidency. This cabal, bound only by its common goals, was on the verge of uncommon success but was stalled because of increasing vigilance of and exposure by the media and public interest watchdogs. It needed a distraction. And a simple tool. Hoo boy. Did it ever get both in Trump.

First, who is in this cabal? Mostly the super-rich who represent entrenched economic interests and give billions of dollars in campaign contributions to office-holders who lower taxes or reduce the scope and penetration of government regulations, especially laws that might break up big companies. Their names are familiar if you follow economic news at all:

  • The Koch Brothers and other extraction industry executives;
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and the other tech giant super-billionaires;
  • Jamie Diamond and the usual Wall Street crowd;
  • The heads of Big Pharma;
  • The heads of big defense contracting companies.

Add the Federalist Society, a less-well-known but powerful think tank that has been the incubator for conservative legal ideas and the trainer of many conservative judges, and you have deep penetration into politics and the economy. Our own Sen. Josh Hawley is a Federalist Society product.
In Trump they got a miracle from heaven, the perfect distraction. The media and other watchdogs formed a pack and bayed after Trump and his outrages, neglecting the core challenge. A Republican Congress gleefully advanced the cabal’s agenda while Trump issued executive orders and put cabal acolytes, and in some cases members, in his Cabinet and other key positions. Right-wing media enthusiastically did their part.

They even got an unearned bonus: Evangelicals. Who would have guessed that by voting for Trump in their millions they would have given electoral cover to economic interests that were making many of their lives worse every day?

Even though Trump is out of office he is still a distraction. If he doesn’t run in 2024, the cabal still has made great progress on its goals. If he does run, Trump will remain a welcome daily distraction. If he runs and wins – Four More Years of MAGA and an unrecognizable country when it’s over.

For sure it doesn’t smell like piney woods or barbeque.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.