Conspiracy theories have been a part of U.S. politics since the country was formed. But today they have enveloped American politics.
There are so many conspiracy allegations that they have begun to collide with each other — as happened last month when Twitter lit up after the suicide of sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. One set of tweeters insisted, without any basis, that the Clintons were behind Epstein’s death, while others, with equal lack of evidence, were certain it was President Trump who conspired to have him killed.
What makes today’s storm of allegations different -- and impossible to ignore -- is the role of the president in formulating and promoting them.
Trump’s conspiracy theorist mindset was clear long before his election, with his intransigent embrace of birtherism. From Day 2 of his presidency -- when he claimed that the National Park Service had doctored photographs of his inaugural crowd – it was clear he would make unfounded conspiracy theories a centerpiece of his style of governance. Still, they never cease to shock.
If presidential conspiracy theories were all wild talk, the assault on common sense would be bad enough. But Trump goes a step further: using unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to delegitimize key democratic institutions.
Trump assaulted the chairman of the Federal Reserve, saying: “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or [China’s] Chairman Xi.” He asserted that the Obama administration engaged in an “all hands on deck” conspiracy against him, enlisting “DOJ/FBI/NSA/CIA/State,” and that the “the real Collusion, the Conspiracy, the Crime was between the Clinton Campaign, the DNC, Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele…and on and on!”
The president sees conspiracies everywhere of “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media,” and he insists they are working to undermine him and therefore the nation. His tweets rage about the “traitorous” Democratic Party, citing both small issues and large. He railed about Democrats in Congress failing to applaud at the State of the Union address. And he accused them of deliberately undermining national security. “I think what the Democrats are doing with the Border is TREASONOUS.” This most basic institution of representative democracy – regular party rivalry with its idea of a loyal opposition – is under threat.
Trump’s conspiratorial views have had real consequences. In some cases, institutions and funding have been diverted from their intended missions to address issues raised by the president’s conspiracy-mongering, as when the military was diverted from its appropriate operations and training and sent to the southern border to deter, as Trump tweeted at the time, “very bad thugs and gang members.”
On occasion, Trump has created whole new institutions to serve his views. When then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ annual threat assessment identified climate change as a security threat, for example, a commission was created to “reexamine” the finding, and a physicist who likens the demonization of carbon dioxide to Hitler’s demonization of the Jews was appointed to head it.
Repeatedly, Trump has replaced key officials who don’t embrace his conspiracy views with those who do. Two months after taking over for Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, William Barr told the Senate Appropriations Committee he believed that intelligence agencies had spied on the Trump campaign, something earlier investigations had failed to show. “I think spying did occur,” the attorney general said. “It’s a big deal, it’s a big deal.”
The Washington Post called Barr’s allegation “a startling assertion” that echoed “unsubstantiated claims President Trump has made,” and The Los Angeles Times noted he was repeating a “provocative charge leveled by Trump to denounce the court-approved surveillance of a former member of his campaign.”
Entire aspects of government have been circumvented or rendered impotent in service of Trump’s conspiracies, most ominously in foreign affairs. Trump has repeatedly assaulted intelligence officers, national security experts and diplomats as elements of a nefarious “deep state” or as liberal proponents of a “new world order” designed to weaken the nation. Foreign relations are now conducted outside of regular processes – such as Trump’s unmonitored, unrecorded exchanges with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Official diplomatic channels have been abandoned and there is little congressional oversight.
This wreckage of normal order – institutions derailed, invented, hijacked and circumvented – adds up to the delegitimization of democratic government itself.
How do we pull back from what is becoming a dire situation? As Americans, we need to demand facts and call out officials who embrace unfounded conspiracy theories. We need to pressure our representatives in Congress to protect crucial institutions by acting decisively to defend the integrity of democratic government. And, ultimately, we need to exercise our right to vote -- and use it to demand truth.
Russell Muirhead is a professor of government at Dartmouth College. Nancy L. Rosenblum is a professor of government at Harvard University. They are the authors of “A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”