Among his other achievements, Donald Trump is the most politically successful conspiracy theorist in American history. In a classic essay, the historian Richard Hofstadter argued that the “paranoid style” is woven through the fabric of American history, running from the anti-Mason and anti-Catholic crusades of the nineteenth century to the McCarthy Era’s hyper-vigilance about communism after World War II. Yet as pervasive as conspiracy theories often were, according to Hofstadter, they flourished on the fringes of American society rather than emanating from the centers of power. One might argue that Hofstadter was overly sanguine about the American elite, but in broad terms his argument makes sense. After all, Millard Fillmore only shifted to the nativist Know-Nothing Party after he left the presidency. And while Richard Nixon was an ally of Joseph McCarthy at the beginning of his career, and in private was given to all sorts of dark mutterings about plots against him by hidden enemies, he was much more restrained in his public persona as vice-president and president.
Trump is different. The paranoid style is not just something he occasionally displays, it’s pretty much his whole wardrobe. He became a Republican star by loudly questioning whether President Obama was born in the United States, and he became the presumptive Republican nominee on the same day he raised the idea that the Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination. Along the way, Trump has propounded conspiracy theories on a wide range of topics, including climate change (“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he tweeted in 2012). And as if to prove his conspiratorial bona fides, he’s taken up the most unhinged version of the anti-vaxxer cause: “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied,” he tweeted in 2014. “Save our children & their future.”
Trump’s proclivity toward outlandish stories about hidden machinations will present a particular problem to his likely general-election opponent, Hillary Clinton. Given his long record of conspiracy-mongering, it’s unquestionable that he’ll deploy the many lurid stories that have long circled around the Clintons, and no doubt cook up new ones. To be sure, the Clintons are no strangers to mudslinging: In the 1990s, the right-wing media was rife with accusations that the Clintons were involved with everything from drug dealing to the murder of their aide Vincent Foster, with plenty of juicy stories on the side about Bill Clinton’s affairs, which gained some traction thanks to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But there’s a crucial difference between the 1990s and now, though: The most sensational and unproven stories won’t just stay on the right. Thanks to the megaphone he’ll enjoy as the Republican presidential nominee, anything Trump says, no matter how far-fetched, will make mainstream news. And Trump has prepared an echo chamber network ready to spread rumors, which runs from the dirty tricks operative Roger Stone (who is an unofficial hatchet man for the campaign), to the radio host Alex Jones (whose show, Infowars, Trump has appeared on), to the National Enquirer (whose anti-Ted Cruz stories were reportedly engineered by Stone).
Trump has already previewed one major line of attack: that Hillary Clinton was an enabler to Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual predations. “She has been really ugly in trying to destroy Bill’s mistresses,” Trump recently told The New York Times. Stone’s 2015 book, The Clintons’ War on Women, will provide the playbook for this message. Among Stone’s accusations are that Chelsea Clinton was the product of an illegitimate relationship her mother had with her former law partner Webb Hubbell; that Bill Clinton has an incriminating friendship with the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and possibly slept with underage girls; and that Hillary Clinton is an “evil” lesbian who is having an affair with her aide Huma Abedin. Once voiced by Trump, these rumors will be echoed by Republican partisans all across America.
Appearing last week on Alex Jones’s show, Stone—who’s played dirty tricks going back in the Nixon administration (and sports a Nixon tattoo on his back)—was up front about how much Trump’s plan for victory relies on being able to override the media gatekeepers who normally keep a lid on conspiracy theories. After bringing up “Bill Clinton’s epic abuse of women and [Hillary Clinton’s] role in covering this up,” he laid out the strategy:
Stone: It’s very important to understand what the strategy is. The Clintonites hope that they can suppress this story as they did in the eighties [sic]. Unfortunately for them, that was the pre-internet age. So they have put enormous pressure on CNN, on Fox, on MSNBC, on the networks, trying to claim, “Oh, this has all been disproven.”
Jones: They admit on MSNBC and CNN, as you know, they cut people’s mikes when they mention this.
Stone: It’s extraordinary, but it won’t work and I’ll tell you why. Because you cannot gag the nominee of the Republican Party.
Jones: Can’t do it.
Stone. You cannot gag Donald Trump and he gets it.
Stone’s words are as accurate as they are chilling: “You cannot gag Donald Trump.” This means we can expect the network news and cable shows to devote endless hours to the question of whether the Clintons ran drugs out of Arkansas, whether Hillary Clinton had an affair with Vince Foster and whether she murdered him, and whether Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin is a member of the Muslim brotherhood and Clinton’s secret lover.
The danger here is that the mainstream media, committed as it is to an ideal of non-partisanship—and decimated as its resources are—will not adequately challenge these stories. As we’ve seen in the Republican primary, the media are poorly equipped to challenge candidates who lie as brazenly and frequently as Trump does. Partly it’s a matter of resources: Understaffed newsrooms can’t track down the truth behind all of Trump’s distortions. It’s also a matter of access. News programs love the ratings they get when they interview Trump, and they’re loath to alienate him with too many pesky questions, even about his outright lies. But the real reason that Trump’s salvos won’t get the scrutiny they deserve is that he’s mastered the “big lie” technique: He tells so many large-scale whoppers that it is impossible to process them all.
During his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner last month, President Obama, without mentioning Trump’s name, spoke some words that indicated he knew the perils the media would face when confronted with a wildly dishonest demagogue:
This is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.
And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever. Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require you shedding your objectivity. In fact, it is the essence of good journalism.
The Clinton campaign should keep amplifying Obama’s message throughout the campaign. That might mean openly criticizing the media for dereliction of duty, even at the risk of making enemies. It definitely means running a robust fact-checking department of the campaign’s own, making counter-narratives rapidly available whenever Trump sets off a bomb. To be sure, allied groups like Media Matters are already rebutting Trump, but given the nature of Trump’s likely tactics, they might have to be at the forefront of Clinton’s presidential bid since counter-punching rather than policy arguments will be the order of the day. While Clinton’s designated counter-puncher David Brock is a problematic figure given his own history as a partisan hatchet man, he might be the shameless anti-Roger Stone that Clinton needs.
If the campaign and the media don’t properly respond to Trump’s blitz of Clinton conspiracy theories, there’s a real danger that Trump and his antics will be normalized, that they’ll come to be seen as an acceptable part of a campaign. That would be catastrophic for Clinton, who’s hinging her strategy on being the responsible, even-keeled alternative. The key to deflecting Trump’s conspiracy theories is making clear, and broadcasting widely, how unhinged they are—and how, simply by themselves, they should disqualify Trump from public office. By hammering home this point, the Clinton team could use Trump’s conspiracy-mongering against him, as a key part of a framing argument that Trump is an unfit candidate. But to properly make that case, the Clinton team will have to resist the temptation to ignore Trump’s mudslinging and keep pressing the point not just with voters, but also with the gatekeeping institutions that Trump is so good at gaming.