Once upon a time, when I first was writing for newspapers and magazines, because I was the junior guy in the rotation, one of my many beats was the conspiracy theorists—in those days, mostly small, cult-like groups with some truly bizarre ideas.
One Thanksgiving weekend, I was assigned to cover a conference on assassination investigations, held at Georgetown University. The place was awash in conspiracy junkies although there also were journalists and others who had performed real research and were raising interesting questions about the motives behind a number of political killings in America, including those of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nonetheless, there definitely was a crackpot current crackling through the event as well. My favorite theory came from a guy who quietly told the crowd that the assassination of JFK occurred because Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, who was riding in the front seat of the limo in Dallas, got into a political argument and shot each other. He attributed this claim to Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite.
Some of the others were more malevolent. One, in a wheelchair, had some henchmen who at his instructions would grab unsuspecting attendees as they left the conference, slam them against the side of a van and take their photos with a Polaroid camera.
I don’t know why he did this; he refused to let me talk to him or his gang. Clearly, he thought his targets were up to no good. But he and whatever demons flew around inside his skull—and the fact that nobody tried to stop him—came to mind this last couple of weeks as Donald Trump seems to descend even deeper into addlepated lunacy.
True, anyone who has studied the man knows that few conspiracy theories have ever been too wacky to escape Trump’s attention—whether Obama birther fantasies, climate change denial (it’s all a Chinese hoax), trying to connect Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination, or suggesting that Supreme Court Justice Scalia may have been smothered in his sleep, among others. Recently, the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein led Trump to retweet goofball claims that Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved in a plot to murder the notorious pedophile.
This was, in part, an attempt to divert attention from his own past friendship with Epstein and to once again trash the Clintons but it completely fits into his predilection for the secret cabal theory of history.
Yet more important, Trump’s worldview consists of the singular belief that almost the entire planet is engaged in one big conspiracy against him. He often tries to frame it as a plot against the United States, but it always comes down to the proverbial “all about me.” L’etat c’est moi, and while you’re at it, turns out I’m the Chosen One, too. Just kidding, he now says. Good grief.
His list of suspects is huge. There’s the fake news, of course—we all know the media has it in for Trump, he says, and now he even has thugs working to harass journalists.
And Europe is especially mean to him—just look at this weekend’s G7 summit in France, even though they work hard not to make him mad. Also out to get him are Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Canada, Mexico, most of Africa, central America and these days, Denmark.
By the way, you can sort of understand Trump’s confusion about not being able to buy Greenland from the Danes—in his reptilian, neo-colonialist brain, he probably thought he could purchase it for $24 worth of beads.
“Nobody can be trusted. Nobody can be trusted,” Trump intoned last week as he sat with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. “In my world—in this world, I think nobody can be trusted.”
But as Stephen Colbert recently said in his well-worth-seeing interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Our president wants to live in a fantasy world where only the way he perceives the world is the way it is… He’s also trying to convince us that that is the only world that exists… It’s extremely solipsistic, but he’s also trying to invite us into this madness that he has. And that is heresy against reality.”
Nonetheless, whether it’s the way he really thinks or even partially a conscious political ploy, Trump’s paranoia plays well with the crowds that turn out for him at rallies and the voting booth; it panders to their own fears and frustrations, amplifying even the smallest bit of distrust, and in fact, is part of a long American tradition. In a now famous 1964 essay in Harper’s magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter noted “how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
Hofstadter wrote, “The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal, decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history but as the consequences of someone’s will.” He pointed to the anti-Masonic and anti-Jesuit movements of the 19th Century and Senator Joe McCarthy of the 20th who warned of “a great conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”
The “modern right wing,” Hostadter said, “feels dispossessed.” And so it—and its current leader—point their stubby fingers at conspiracy. Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev writes, “Conspiracy theories are like a religion. Their adherents believe in higher powers that control human developments. They divide the world into forces of light and forces of darkness. They believe only they can perceive the real truth. Like most religions, conspiracy theories are immune to objective refutation: Contradictory facts are quickly digested and transformed into further proof that confirms the original theory.”
But here’s a problem with conspiracy theories and their adherents, beyond the ignoring of facts and desire to be rid of anything that doesn’t back up the false narrative. Such beliefs are the lazy—and cowardly—way out. Why should you do something about anything if everything is rigged and under the thumb of dark forces beyond your control? You’re forfeiting any semblance of responsibility by throwing up your hands because you’re convinced the odds are stacked against you. So you channel your anger through a crazy person who falsely claims he’s got your back and tells you darker skinned people are the source of all your problems.
In the end, the biggest conspiracy is Trump’s—he and his followers in the GOP further radicalizing to the point of violence those who are alienated and furious. They do so with lies, bigoted language and taunts against anyone they perceive lower on the rungs than they because of race or religion or gender. They tear down rules and regulations as they ignore the warnings of those with the expertise and scientific knowledge to keep us safe and secure. They trash and threaten anyone supporting progressive ideals of social justice. Or the truth.
That way madness lies.