The Conspiracy Theory President Finds His Comfort Zone at CPAC

Much has said of Donald Trump’s racism and sexism, his corruption and abject cruelty, and what those unforgivable qualities say about the Republican Party that nominated and elected him. Also frequently discussed is his habit of compulsive lying–and the refusal of his Republican colleagues to hold him accountable for it.

Less frequently discussed is his penchant for conspiracy theories, which is related to but distinct from his dishonesty. One of the uncomfortable and underreported truths about the modern Republican Party is that it has become reliant on a series of increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories to maintain its ideological coherence in the face of modern reality.

For instance, the notion that the world’s climate scientists are all engaged in a massive conspiracy to lie about global warming is the ludicrous stuff of street corner doomsday preachers. But it’s essentially the common talking point of the Republican Party because the alternative–that climate change is a momentous crisis requiring major government intervention–is deeply inconvenient to their ideology and donor interests.

The notion that millions of people vote illegally in American elections is far worse than even QAnon claptrap, but it’s central to the psychological security blanket that Republicans use to assure themselves that they remain the silent majority in an increasingly diverse and progressive country.

Most recently, efforts by Democrats to help women in the excruciating position of undergoing nonviable pregnancies has led to an entire cottage industry of irresponsible hucksters claiming that Democrats are pushing for literal infanticide.

Needless to say, an entire political party built around a series of increasingly bizarre and byzantine conspiracy theories cannot end well. It is certain to instigate increasing violence among its adherents and believers, and attract an array of grifters, con artists, and modern day Harold Hills.

Ground Zero for the conservative conspiracy scam industry is the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Long home to the most boisterous carnival barkers on the right, CPAC has for years featured its most outlandish voices in search of headlines and attention.

It is here at CPAC that the president of the United States, a man who truly began his political career by promoting the conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya, feels most at home. It is here that the president felt comfortable enough to deliver a two-hour speech, here that he felt most at ease. It was everything you might have come to expect:

“You know I’m totally off script right now,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. As his meandering remarks continued, it became clear that his assessment was an understatement.

At one point, Trump regaled the crowd with a story about a general he said was named “Raisin Caine” (it wasn’t immediately clear who he was referring to). He said he always sits with the pilots when airplanes are landing: “They know what we’re doing.” He boasted about his good eyesight and later added, “I don’t have white hair.” He derided a Hawaii senator as a “crazy person.” And he accused Hollywood of discriminating against conservatives…

The president repeatedly took aim at Democrats in Congress. “We have people in Congress that hate our country,” he said. “You know that, we can name every one of them. They hate our country.” He then bashed the Green New Deal, jokingly encouraging liberals to keep pushing it because it would benefit him politically. “They should stay with that argument,” he said. “Never change.”

Trump revived his divisive immigration rhetoric. “They don’t like it when I say it, but we are being invaded,” he said. He disputed government statistics showing that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born American citizens, calling the data false propaganda” and citing no evidence to support his claim.

The president also discussed his infamous 2016 appeal to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, arguing that he was just joking and criticizing the press for taking his comments seriously.

The president of the United States spent two hours telling a rabid audience of infotainment talking heads and social media influencers that there is a massive internal conspiracy against his administration; that his political opponents hate America; that official government statistics are fake; that the attorney general should have squashed an investigation into his own corruption; that the FBI is engaged in a series of politically motivated prosecutions, and so on.

This is not only a dangerous precedent for the office of the president. It’s indicative of where the Republican Party is as an institution–and it’s not clear that it will ever find its way out of the darkness.

After all, the alternative to reliance on conspiracy theories is an acknowledgement of reality: that government intervention is necessary to solve big problems; that most Americans don’t agree with the anarcho-capitalist orthodoxies of Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises; that social conservative policy doesn’t match the realities of biology and basic decency; and so on.

Dealing with reality as it exists would mean that the Republican Party would have to change and undergo a realignment, but there’s no constituency for that in the right-wing infotainment complex–the mostly white, mostly male, mostly rural, mostly septuagenarian base of the Republican Party, which has no interest in changing its ways.

Don’t expect any changes from the GOP after the real estate shark from New York leaves office. Get ready, instead, for a presidential candidate like Tucker Carlson to be showered with thunderous applause from his adoring fans in the conservative conspiracy movement.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.