Donald Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories has become a familiar part of his political persona. Fulminations against the “deep state” that once were shocking are now routine. But in becoming inured to Trump, we risk losing sight of how dangerous it is that the most powerful man in the world regularly voices lurid tales of intrigue that have no mooring in reality.
With only two months until Election Day, Trump’s fantasies have become all the more deranged. Amid the stress of partisan competition, these conspiracy theories are also more frequently being echoed in Washington.
In an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News that aired on Monday, Trump was asked what he meant when he said Joe Biden was being controlled. Ingraham wanted to know who the people are who are controlling Biden. “People that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows,” Trump responded.
Ingraham pressed on, asking, “What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. Dark shadows, what is that?” Trump replied, “People that you haven’t heard of. They’re people that are on the streets. They’re people that are controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that. They’re on a plane…”
Ingraham again interrupted in an attempt to save Trump from spiraling out of control. But Trump returned to his bizarre tale, saying, “They came from a certain city, and this person was coming to the Republican National Convention, and there were like seven people on the plane like this person, and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage.”
Trump reiterated this story to reporters on Tuesday. NBC News reports that the story follows in close detail an urban legend posted on Facebook in June. More broadly, it echoes the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory flourishing on the far right that billionaire George Soros is financing protests in an attempt to foment a coup against Trump. The implicit argument is that the protests aren’t motivated by a legitimate popular opposition to police brutality or Trump’s policies but rather reflect the machinations of a hidden elite.
Because of the likely origins of this latest conspiracy theory on social media, Trump’s rant is being treated as a symptom of his personal credulousness, a quirk that says much about his personality but little else. In Business Insider, Anthony L. Fisher argued that Trump “is your dangerously gullible uncle on Facebook.” John Dean, former henchman to Richard Nixon, took a similar tack, writing, “Donald Trump touts conspiracy theories because he does not have the mental brain power to recognize them for the nonsense they embrace. Think about this: Trump could not pass an entry level civil service exam to become a federal employee!”
Focusing on Trump’s defective personality is a way of ignoring an important fact: Trump’s absurd scenarios are echoed by government officials and other Republicans.
Speaking on Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis., the site of riots sparked by a police shooting as well as vigilante reprisals against protesters, Attorney General William Barr offered a variation of Trump’s conspiracy theory. “We were picking up information that these violent instigators were coming to Kenosha,” Barr said. “They were coming from California, Washington State, a lot from Chicago, and they were coming up to Kenosha. So we expected matters to get worse.” (Barr, strange to say, didn’t regard the teen who came in from neighboring Illinois and shot three protesters as an outside instigator.)
Senator Rand Paul, while being interviewed by Fox News on Monday, used similar language to describe protesters who yelled at him outside the White House after Trump’s RNC speech the previous Friday. “My feeling is there is interstate criminal traffic being paid for across states lines,” Paul claimed without proof. “They flew here on a plane, they all got fresh new clothes, and they were paid to be here. It is a crime to do that, and it needs to be traced.”
Neither Trump, nor Barr, nor Paul offered any evidence of their allegations. In all cases, they were describing protesters using tropes that are common in right-wing mythology but have little or no bearing on reality. The idea of hidden paymasters is a traditional trope, dating back to the French Revolution, often used as a way of delegitimizing popular uprisings. When it is offered without proof, it should be automatically dismissed.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has framed Trump’s conspiracy-mongering in broader social terms that go beyond the eccentricities of personality. “There has always been a paranoid style in American politics that sees sinister conspiracies behind social and cultural change—a style going all the way back to fear of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century,” Krugman notes.
The idea of a “paranoid style,” which was first formulated by the historian Richard Hofstadter in a classic 1964 essay, is itself inadequate. Hofstadter claimed that the paranoid style was “the preferred style only of minority movements” (emphasis added).
Many critics challenged this view that paranoia could be found only on the fringes of society and not in the commanding heights of power. One early critic was Hofstadter’s brother-in-law Harvey Swados, himself a social analyst of distinction. Swados wrote Hofsadter after the essay came out and suggested that then-President Lyndon Johnson could also be seen as paranoid. Hofstadter rejected this suggestion, arguing that however mistaken Johnson’s foreign policy was, it came from a more mature view of the world that was far from paranoid. Like many Cold War liberals, Hofstadter thought that wisdom resided in elites, while the masses were prone to delusion.
With the distance of time and revelations from archives, it’s now clear that Swados was right. Not just Johnson but a host of other powerful American leaders, including Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, were as paranoid in their own way as any of the cranks Hofstadter studied.
Johnson was convinced that North Vietnam was a pawn of Communist China (in fact, the two nations distrusted each other—and later went to war). Johnson also thought the anti-war movement was controlled by the Communists. Such paranoia fueled spying on American citizens, a policy that the Cold War presidents all agreed upon, which enormously empowered Hoover, himself filled with delusions of secret plots.
The Cold War era illuminates the true dangers of Trump’s conspiracy theories. Paranoia is most dangerous when it controls the apparatus of state power. What we have to worry about is not a paranoid personality or even a paranoid style but a paranoid government.
Paranoia is now in command in Washington. Trump, aided by Barr, is saturating government policy with his paranoid agenda. In part two of his interview with Laura Ingraham, Trump referred to Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and other political foes as “treasonists.” He said Barr has the evidence to arrest them and should do so.
Barr might resist this last command as too dangerous. Still, there’s much he could do that would be less dramatic but still an abuse of power. Democrats have done a poor job of checking this danger. Congressional Democrats more or less abandoned oversight after the impeachment process ended. But it’s not too late to raise the alarm about Barr’s actions.
Perhaps the most useful move the Democrats could make would be to send a clear message to Barr and others in the Department of Justice that there will be a full reckoning if Trump loses the election. That means a complete investigation of any abuses of power, including prosecutions and investigations instigated at Trump’s demand. Unless there are clear red lines drawn as to what is beyond the pale and deserving punishment, Trump’s push for a paranoid state will continue to go unchecked.