President Donald Trump has an impressive track record as a conspiracy theorist. He claimed, without evidence, that “millions” of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. He offered dark speculations about the deaths of Vince Foster and Antonin Scalia. He intimated that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, citing the National Enquirer as his source. He sees sinister forces directing the flight of Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants. He has praised talk-show host Alex Jones, a man whose elaborate demonology incorporates everyone from the Bavarian Illuminati to Justin Bieber. Trump’s rise to power even began with a conspiracy theory: the accusation that Barack Obama hid the true circumstances of his birth.
We generally expect conspiracy theories to take hold among the more excitable elements of the political opposition. But Trump shows no sign of ceasing his conspiracist commentary now that he’s president. He may even get some help from his inner circle, having spent the transition recruiting a long roster of conspiracy-minded figures to his administration. Mike Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, believes that Islamist infiltrators are poised to subject America to sharia law. Steve Bannon, still Trump’s chief strategist, helped establish the Breitbart web site as the go-to wellspring for paranoid right-wing memes. HUD secretary Ben Carson blames “neo-Marxist” plotters for subverting the traditional heterosexual family. K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, once accused Hillary Clinton of sending helicopters to spy on her home.
All this high-level fearmongering has prompted many in the media to suggest that we’re entering an unprecedented era of presidential paranoia. Mother Jones dubbed Trump the “Conspiracy Theorist in Chief,” declaring that he has “made the paranoid style of American politics go mainstream.”
But the paranoid style was already mainstream. The sorts of sinister stories that Trump favors have never been the exclusive preoccupation of marginalized political opponents. Indeed, there’s a long history of presidents and their inner circles obsessing about malevolent cabals. What’s different about Trump isn’t the fact that he talks about dubious conspiracies. It’s the way he talks about them.
Our leaders’ fear of conspiracies predates the birth of the country. The Founding Fathers declared independence in part because they believed that England’s effort to tighten control over its colonies concealed a more malicious agenda. In the words of future president George Washington, there was “a regular Systematick Plan” to make the colonists “tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”
This mindset continued after the Founders came to power. While Washington was in office, Vice President John Adams’s son fretted to his father that domestic subversives working with the French were planning the “removal of the President,” to “be followed by a plan for introducing into the American Constitution a Directory instead of a President.” (The Directory was France’s ruling committee.) That son, John Quincy Adams, later became president himself—and spent the last decades of his life obsessed with the alleged evils of Freemasonry.
In more modern times, Lyndon Johnson was convinced that the Communist bloc was behind the race riots of the 1960s. Richard Nixon once asked an aide to “get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. . . . Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?” When Bill Clinton was elected, he instructed an appointee “to find the answers to two questions for me. One, Who killed JFK? And two, Are there UFOs?”
Conspiracy theories in the Oval Office can be more than private opinions. They can shape policy. George W. Bush put a conspiracy theory at the center of his approach to global terrorism, declaring that Iran and Iraq—two of the Middle East’s most bitter and bloody rivals—were working together in an “axis of evil” to sponsor jihadist groups. During World War II, fears that Japanese-Americans were covertly aiding the enemy led Franklin Roosevelt to imprison more than 100,000 people in internment camps.
Conspiracy-fueled policies sometimes last far longer than the fears that fed them. Entire federal bureaucracies owe their reach and power to long-dead conspiracy panics. The FBI, for example, underwent its first big expansion in the 1910s because officials were eager to stop “white slavery” cabals that supposedly controlled the prostitution trade. The bureau got further boosts in its resources and authority from the fears of communist conspiracies that erupted after World War I, from anxiety about fascist plots in the late 1930s and early ’40s, and from the return of the Red Scare after World War II. Throughout his long career atop the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover invoked conspiracies, both real and imagined, to build a bureaucratic empire. The ever-present threat of those cabals served, in the logic of the die-hard plot-spotter, as a sturdy justification for Hoover’s own conspiratorial behavior.
In short, conspiracy theories haven’t just coexisted with executive power. They have served as a rationale for both the application and the expansion of executive power. As many presidents before Trump have understood, few things mobilize popular opinion or a recalcitrant Congress more than fear itself.
Some of the incoming administration’s anxieties fit easily into the tradition of White House paranoia. If Mike Flynn had stuck around, for example, his anti-Islamic theories would have slotted snugly into the executive branch’s history of social scapegoating. (Just ask the survivors of FDR’s camps.) It’s not hard to imagine a host of areas where Trump’s conspiracy chatter could be intertwined with policy-making. The man who once cracked that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive” isn’t likely, for instance, to lead a push for new carbon regulations.
Yet Trump seems poised to transform presidential paranoia into something new, thanks to two of his most distinguishing qualities: his shamelessness and his cynicism.
Conspiracy theories tend to be disreputable. Indeed, in most circles of respectable opinion, the very phrase conspiracy theory is used as a pejorative. So when high-level officials embrace a position considered to be taboo, they often prefer not to talk about it. John Kerry has long rejected the official story about JFK’s assassination, but when Meet the Press brought up the subject in 2013, the secretary of state clammed up. “I just have a point of view,” Kerry demurred. “And I’m not going to get into that.”
Our new president, to the delight of his supporters, presents himself as a man unshackled by such mores of polite society. Richard Nixon may have been prone to seeing plots everywhere, but it’s hard to imagine him publicly promoting a transparently phony theory tying Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s harder still to picture him backing up his claims by citing the National Enquirer. For Trump, neither the story nor the source is something to be ashamed of.
There’s a strong chance, of course, that Trump doesn’t actually believe the Enquirer story, and that he only brought it up because Ted Cruz happened to be his chief political foe that day. That’s where his cynicism comes in. Trump doesn’t just spout unsubstantiated accusations; he often drops them as quickly as he brings them up, as though it never really mattered if they were true. When he finally gave up on the birther BS that launched his political rise, he congratulated himself for having “finished” the controversy, without acknowledging that he’d arguably done more than anyone to fan it in the first place.
While he was fanning the birther flames, Trump claimed to have dispatched private investigators to Hawaii to dig into Obama’s origins. His detectives, he declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” And then he dropped the subject, refusing to discuss it when prodded. The content was beside the point. Ever the showman, Trump understands that making an accusation and holding out the promise of more to come can be more important than actually delivering on the promise. That’s what happens when shamelessness and cynicism combine.
They combined again at the weirdest moment in last year’s final presidential debate. When Hillary Clinton claimed that Trump would be Russia’s “puppet,” Trump responded with a blast of absurdity: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!” It wasn’t clear who Clinton’s puppet-master was supposed to be. It’s unlikely that Trump even had a marionettist in mind: He just needed an accusation in the moment, and he settled for I know you are but what am I? It sounded ridiculous, but only to someone with a sense of shame.
During the run-up to the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson justified his conspiracy theories about the English by insisting that he had detected a pattern in his opponents’ actions. An isolated act of oppression, he conceded, “may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day.” But “a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers,” was sufficient proof of “a deliberate and systematical plan.” Trump turns Jefferson on his head. Show him an enemy’s opinion of a day, and he’ll conjure up a conspiracy that explains it.