When Conspiracy Theories Become Real

Trump’s Russia connections once sounded outrageous, but now have the makings of actual conspiracy.

Successful people take care of their reputations. Among them are political observers who traditionally form arguments strictly within the confines of fact and reason, while staying away from deranged talking points that corrode civil political discourse. They tend to avoid anything smacking of conspiracy theory. No serious person wants to be associated in the public’s eye with crazy Alex Jones.

The problem is that successful political observers tend to lump conspiracy theory into a single disreputable category and presume anyone touching it will break into hives. They set it aside and never give it a second thought. Nine times out of ten, that’s the right and proper thing to do. But issues arise when conspiracy theories go back underground and real, verifiable conspiracies emerge.

In her 2009 book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, historian Kathryn S. Olmsted wrote that governments have long “promoted a certain conspiracist style, but they wanted to maintain the power to construct these conspiracy theories themselves and quash those that did not serve official interests.”

In reviewing Jesse Walker’s 2013 The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, historian Arthur Goldwag wrote, “Whether the topic is Pearl Harbor, Building Number 7, or Area 51, conspiracists are primed to believe that the government lies to them because it so manifestly does.”

For devotees of Fox and Breitbart, Olmsted and Goldwag would appear to be giving credence to the fringe view that the “Deep State,” guided by the invisible hand of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is out to sabotage President Donald Trump’s presidency. In this warped view, there are dedicated, conscious agents inside the FBI paving the way for…it’s not really clear. A coup? No one can say.

Some conservative intellectuals see the ghost of Joseph McCarthy in Trump’s critics. McCarthy, the senator who in the 1950s leveled baseless and character-assassinating accusations against high-ranking government officials, alleged that they were in league with the Soviets. Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, took this farther, accusing President Eisenhower of being a “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” In an editorial about the fight over the release of the so-called Nunes Memo, which purports to show wrongdoing at the FBI, the editors of the National Review wrote: “Donald Trump’s critics have moved beyond latter-day Cold Warrior mode into full blown McCarthyism.”

Raising the specter of McCarthyism might be enough to wave off scrutiny by successful political observers who do not want to be associated with nuttery. But again, there’s a difference between conspiracy theory and real, factually verifiable conspiracies. We have not yet arrived at a moment in which all is known, but as of now we know a lot.

We know the Russians attacked our election, using social media to move opinion against Hillary Clinton. We know Trump’s campaign had repeated contacts with Russian agents. We know the Trump administration refuses to implement sanctions against Russia as required by law. We know three top Russian spies visited the CIA despite sanctions. We know, as of Thursday, the president envisions the Nunes memo as pretext for firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the man investigating Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. We know Trump wants to put Mueller in front of a grand jury. These are enough for anyone to ask reasonably: The hell’s going on?

Our inquiry can’t end there. We know the Russians were responsible for the massive #ReleaseTheMemo campaign on social media. We know the Republicans felt they were on solid ground releasing the memo due to the Russians’ #ReleaseTheMemo campaign. We know Trump’s handpicked FBI director warned him that releasing the memo would compromise national security. We know the Republicans looked the other way when the Russians attacked the 2016 election. We know the Russians are ready to attack the midterms―elections that historically go to the party out of power.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, a moderate from Connecticut, said: “All you need to understand is that the Republicans declared war today on our national security” (The White House said Thursday it would release the memo Friday. Axios reported that Trump fears it’s a dud.)

On Tuesday, John Heilemann asked: “Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?”

This time last year, talking like this would have been outrageous. This time last year, National Review would have been justified in branding Trump’s critics as McCarthyites. But a lot has happened; things that sounded like a conspiracy theory appear to have the makings of actual conspiracy. It’s hard to tell what. Many factors are unclear. But Heilemann seems to be the first to step foot into the unknown. Let’s all hope he isn’t the last. As Goldwag said, governments lie. The question is which governments and why.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.