The role of conspiracy theories has been consistently underestimated in the rise and appeal of President Donald Trump.
Trump came to the political attention of most Republicans by alleging a conspiracy to cover up Barack Obama’s supposedly foreign birth. “How amazing,” Trump tweeted in 2013, “the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived.” In conspiracy thinking, implausibility is merely the sign of the enemy’s subtlety.
Children sitting in professor Trump’s history class would learn that Obama was America’s first Muslim president; that his co-religionists celebrated in the streets following the 9/11 attacks; that their vaccination schedule is the dangerous scam of greedy doctors; that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the death of John F. Kennedy; that Hillary Clinton might have been involved in the death of Vince Foster; that unnamed liberals might have been involved in the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
More recently, President Trump has claimed – based, so far, on nothing – that Obama ordered the bugging of Trump Tower. And Trump’s allies, with the White House’s blessing, have alleged the existence of a “deep state,” conducting what talk radio host Mark Levin calls a “silent coup.”
If the “deep state” refers to a cadre of federal employees who are unhappy serving an ethno-nationalist president who apparently hates them, then many would gladly claim such citizenship. But this is not what Trump’s most loyal supporters are talking about. The de facto coup is allegedly being conducted by a conspiracy of national security professionals who wish to overturn the results of the 2016 election. Radio host Rush Limbaugh recently claimed that the latest WikiLeaks dump showed “the CIA has the ability to mimic Russian hackers.” He went on to claim that “there isn’t any evidence” of Russian involvement in the Democratic National Committee breach. “But we have all kinds of supposition that the American deep state is deeply involved in whatever sabotage is being conducted on the Trump administration.”
This accusation is made by a disturbing collection of overlapping interests and voices: Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Nigel Farage, Breitbart News, a variety of talk radio hosts and much of Trump’s inner circle of advisers. They share the goal of defanging American intelligence services and having America accept a shrunken global role. Leaking from the CIA is the context in which Trump once asked, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Does Trump himself believe the conspiracy theories he so effectively employs? It is the wrong question. In these cases, Trump does not support things because they are true; they are true because he supports them. And he expects everyone who works for him to publicly and vocally embrace his version of reality.
What is the harm in all this? First, we are seeing the corruption of the Republican Party, as it tolerates, excuses and absorbs Trump’s conspiratorial thinking. Consider the most recent WikiLeaks hack. The data breach caused serious damage to American security. And some conservatives cheered. It is a funhouse mirror reflection of the New Left in the 1960s – led by ideology to root against the interests of their own country.
Second, these attacks on the intelligence community continue Trump’s campaign to delegitimize institutions that offer a view of reality different from his own. To maintain his version of daily events, the mainstream media must be discredited as “fake news.” On economic policy, the Congressional Budget Office must be discredited as biased. To tilt foreign policy toward Russia and away from traditional friends, the intelligence community must be discredited.
Third, talk of a “silent coup” encourages frightening, extra-constitutional thinking. If this is more than a metaphor, an existential threat to democracy has been raised. And an administration actually believing this might go beyond leak investigations and feel justified in scarier, Nixonian remedies.
Trump does not face a coup, just a government he has attacked and refused to lead. It is one challenge for Trump nominees to run departments they think should not exist. It is another for a president to declare that America’s intelligence community is plotting against him and comparable to the Nazis. You can’t declare war on people you should be providing inspiration and direction. This is the only effective, long-term answer to leaks.
Day by day, Republicans are lowering their standards of sanity to defend an administration seized by conspiracy thinking. If they do not stand up to this trend, they will be defining lunacy down.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.