Conspiracies, Left and Right


Last week, the president of the United States went into full-on conspiracy-theory mode. Donald J. Trump asserted that a “criminal deep state” planted a spy in his 2016 campaign, in a failed effort to install Hillary Clinton in the White House. And so “Spygate” was born.
Meanwhile, Trump was being blackmailed by the Russians with a lurid tape showing prostitutes urinating in front of him. That’s why he has refrained from attacking Vladimir Putin, who conspired to swing the election to . . . Donald J. Trump.
No, wait:thatconspiracy theory is being spread by Trump’s enemies, not by the president. And by indulging in their own flights of fantasy, they make it harder to criticize our fact-challenged commander-in-chief.
Let’s be clear: there’s no evidence – none – that anyone planted a “spy” in Trump’s campaign. True, a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant contacted the campaign as part of the investigation of Russian meddling in the election. But Trump claims that the informant was sent by the Obama White House to infiltrate his operation, which is – quite simply – a fantasy.
Yet the “Pee-Gate” story is pretty fantastical, too. It comes to us from a dossier compiled by British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who has admitted that some parts of the dossier might not be accurate. He described it as a set of leads, not as a full report.
And to believe Pee-Gate, you need to believe that a) Trump paid prostitutes to urinate in a bed where Barack and Michelle Obama had slept b) Russians secretly recorded the episode and c) they held it over his head.
Aah, but didn’t Trump ask former FBI director James Comey to “prove it was a lie”? That’s what Comey reports in his recent book, adding that Trump said he wanted to make sure his wife didn’t believe Steele’s story either. But all of that speaks to Trump’s well-known obsession with his image, not to the veracity of the episode itself. And those of us who despise the president’s lies and inventions should be the first to recognize the difference.
Ditto for the widely heard refrain that Russian election interference made Trump president. Yes, we have “incontrovertible” evidence – to quote Trump’s former national security adviser H. R. McMaster – that the Russians meddled in the election. But we have no idea whether their intrusion made any difference in the outcome.
Most of all, we don’t know whether Trump’s campaign actively plotted with the Russians. Is it possible? Yes. Should we keep investigating it? Of course. That’s what Robert Mueller is doing.
But we undermine Mueller’s probe – and we echo Donald Trump – when we blithely assume that Trump and his cronies colluded with the Russians to steal the election. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true: think Watergate, or Iran-Contra. Yet the collusion charge is still a theory at this stage, not a fact. And everything–yes, everything–hinges on that distinction.
To be fair, there’s certainly more reason to believe in Russian collusion than Trump’s wild allegation of deep-state subterfuge on Clinton’s behalf. And Trump has a long record of indulging in other discredited conspiracy theories, from the racist “birther” lie about Barack Obama to claims that 9/11 was an inside job.
Yet in the United States, no political party has a monopoly on conspiratorial thinking. In 2016, 15 percent of Trump voters said they believed that the U.S. government helped plan the 9/11 attacks. But among people who voted for Clinton, a slightly greater fraction – 17 percent – believed it.
How about the charge that vaccines that cause autism, with the full complicity of rapacious drug companies? Thirty-one percent Trump voters said they thought vaccines and autism were linked, as Trump suggested on the campaign trail. Among Clinton voters, the figure was lower: 18 percent. But that still means that nearly one in five Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton believed the fully discredited fantasy connecting vaccines with autism.
Like other opponents of Donald Trump, I’m deeply disturbed by the way he has brought conspiracy theories into the heart of our politics. But we can’t fight that kind of thinking if we engage it ourselves.
Most of all, we need to base what we say on what we actually know to be true. Anything less will feed Donald Trump’s ultimate fantasy: to persuade us thatthe truth doesn’t matter.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press).

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