Donald Trump is America’s most successful conspiracy theorist. He won the market share within the conservative-media entertainment complex that ultimately enabled his victory by energetically promoting a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace. He kept it up and up and up: Global warming is a Chinese hoax to gain market advantage; the real unemployment rate is many times higher than the official one; Antonin Scalia may have been murdered; Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill JFK, and on and on. And yet the oddity of his election, or one of the oddities, is that it was enabled in part by a conspiracy, a real one. Russia sponsored a hacking operation that likely had the effect, and almost certainly had the intent, of making him president. One of the most astonishing conspiracies in American history helped make a conspiracy theorist president.
The CIA had briefed lawmakers on its conclusion that Russia’s hacking of Democratic servers was intended to help Trump win the election. That Russia wanted Trump to win has been obvious for months. Its propaganda networks, both domestic and foreign, have spent months openly plumping for him. Intelligence experts both inside and outside of government have confirmed Russian involvement in the cyberattacks against Trump’s opponents.
Trump has lashed out at the reports with the mix of obvious lies and absurd illogic that is the uniform standard for his public discourse:
These questions have simple answers. Russian hacking was brought up before the election, both in private briefings to Trump and on the stage of a presidential debate, where he denied it, pointing instead to the possible culpability of a 400-pound person sitting on their bed. Intelligence experts do have ways to trace the origins of a hack without actually catching the hacker in the act.
And, yes, if Clinton had won, and Trump insisted the Russians had helped her, it would be called a conspiracy theory. That is because there is no evidence that Russia supported her candidacy or did anything to help it. The evidence of Russian intervention on Trump’s behalf, by contrast, is extensive. What has never been fully revealed is how deep the affinity for Russia runs among Trump and his inner circle.
The evidence available on the surface appears quite concerning. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” said Donald Trump Jr., in 2008 — though just how disproportionate is impossible to know, given Trump’s unprecedented financial opacity. Trump has surrounded himself with advisers like Michael Flynn and Carter Page, both of whom have financial ties to Russia, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort once helped a Kremlin-backed candidate win Ukraine’s presidential election. (Manafort was replaced as campaign manager but is advising Trump on his transition.) Trump has denied Russian aggression in Ukraine, threatened a rupture of NATO, publicly implored the Kremlin to hack Clinton’s emails, and defended Vladimir Putin’s murdering of the opposition (among other praise for the Russian dictator). He is now reportedly planning to name as secretary of State an oil executive who has publicly castigated Western sanctions against Russia and been been awarded Russia’s “order of friendship.” (Intra-party opposition may still dissuade Trump from nominating him.)
Unlike Russia’s election hacking, the intent and effect of which are both clear, Trump’s relationship with Russia is impossible to pin down. It is a murky secret with a foul stench but no clear proof. Trump’s response to these issues is of a piece with his conspiratorial worldview. The truth is unknowable, his enemies are untrustworthy, and since they are just as bad, who knows? This was Trump’s own argument when presented with Putin’s practice of murdering journalists:
TRUMP: When people call you “brilliant” it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
HOST JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and …
WILLIE GEIST: Invades countries.
SCARBOROUGH: … and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
TRUMP: He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
SCARBOROUGH: But, again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.
TRUMP: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
Trump has dismissed the CIA’s findings as fundamentally untrustworthy on the grounds that the agency failed to assess Iraq’s weapons of destruction before the war (and ignoring the distortions of strong-arming from the Bush administration that contributed to this error). His aide Carter Page, and his prospective deputy secretary of State, John Bolton, are suggesting the U.S. government may have conducted the hacks in order to frame Russia, and hence Trump.
While it may give Trump too much credit to assume he has followed a considered strategy, there is a coherent pattern to the discourse he has promoted. It is a comprehensive attack on empiricism. He spreads distrust against every institution, so that the only possible grounds for belief is trust in a person. The suspicion he spreads against every institution protects Trump from accountability. If everybody is guilty — what governments don’t murder journalists? — then nobody is guilty. Questions about Trump’s own suspicious financial and political ties are simply more conspiracy theories.