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Grand Old Paranoia

How Republican conspiracy theories have warped Washington

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In the months before the midterms, the GOP began sounding the alarm that the Democrats, should they take back the House, were planning a slew of investigations into nearly every aspect of the Trump administration: tax returns, family businesses, Russia, Stormy Daniels, excessive spending by cabinet secretaries, the travel ban, family separation, the failure to adequately respond to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico—and much, much more. In August, Republican leaders and donors began circulating a spreadsheet that listed each potential investigation, over a hundred in all. It was, as Jonathan Swan of Axios wrote, enough to “churn Republican stomachs”—a secret study of the “coming hell” that would “turn the Trump White House into a 24/7 legal defense operation.” The document was packaged as merely informational, but its larger message was obvious. Democrats, it implied, were vindictive and out of control, driven less by truth than by revenge fantasies and conspiracy theories.

There is a difference, though, between conspiracy theory and conspiracy. The latter is a crime—difficult to prove, but nonetheless real. American political history is laden with them; Watergate and Iran-Contra are only the most brazen of recent conspiracies. Conspiracy theories, meanwhile, string unconnected scandals together into an increasingly implausible master narrative orchestrated by a single puppet master. They connect dots that don’t warrant connecting. In September, for example, during the height of the battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, some liberals wondered on Twitter whether Kavanaugh’s unexplained debts—as much as $200,000—held secrets related to the Russia investigation. “Mueller should subpoena Kavanaugh to find out whether Trump arranged for one of Putin’s pals to bail Kavanaugh out of his baseball debt,” offered one Twitter user, @zibilith. Two weeks later, Greg Olear, author of Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia, tweeted about Kavanaugh’s “owned-by-Putin behind.” By this logic, a handful of unrelated crimes are transformed into a Grand Unified Theory of Political Malfeasance.

Is this the new normal on the left? It’s possible, but conspiracy theories are unlikely to take hold of the Democratic Party, especially a newly empowered House majority. Conspiracy theories are, generally speaking, a favored coping mechanism of those who lack power: They flourished among liberals in the wake of Trump’s election. But as Democrats regain power, expect their need for conspiracy theories to decrease.

It’s far more likely that Democrats will simply start uncovering actual crimes: conspiracies and collusion, both big and small, coordinated and random—along with a host of regular old acts of corruption and graft. Given the preponderance of evidence indicating such transgressions, there is little need for Democrats to promote conspiracy theories. They have more than enough legitimate work to keep their oversight committees busy until 2020 and beyond. The real question is whether they will let themselves be played by the Republican Party, which has descended almost entirely into paranoia.

Conspiracy theories have been integral to American politics since nearly the country’s founding, from rumors of an Illuminati takeover in the election of 1800, through the various populist movements that relied on anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiments. Major historical events, from Pearl Harbor to JFK’s assassination, have always been fodder for conspiratorial accusations.

But there is usually a method to the madness. During the Reagan years, for example, conspiracy theories flourished among disenfranchised African American communities that the KKK secretly owned Nike, Marlboro, and Coors, or that sterilizing agents had been put in Church’s Chicken to make black men impotent. Politically speaking, this has meant that conspiracy theories tend to breed inside whichever group is out of power: The idea that the government knew about the September 11 attacks in advance and allowed them to happen was popular on the left during the Bush years; birtherism flourished on the right under Obama. But take back control, and the need for conspiracy theories flags: Pollsters have found that support for the theory about September 11 was more than 50 percent among Democrats during the Bush administration. Once Obama was elected, that number was reduced by half. (Other conspiratorial beliefs, such as government cover-up of alien life, remained steady.)

Over the last two years, however, this calculus has changed. Donald Trump controlled the White House, both branches of Congress, and the Supreme Court, yet he maintained his conspiratorial fervor and encouraged his supporters to follow suit. They, after all, have come to see themselves as perpetual victims, powerless no matter who is president.

Of course, the right’s continued reliance on conspiracy theories also stems from the Trump administration’s sheer incompetence: Deep State conspiracy theories that undermine the Great Leader are an effective way to explain the ineptitude that has defined the executive branch. But it points to a deeper, partywide psychosis: The GOP has built a movement around blaming black and brown Americans, immigrants, and feminists for its constituents’ economic woes. Increasingly, it seems, the only way for the right to hold power is to pretend they lack it, a paradoxical state of affairs. They are now clinically paranoid: Unable to determine real threats from imagined ones, or to assess their own status accurately, conspiracy is all they have left.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their preferred targets are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton still appears on Fox News six times more often than she does on CNN—most notably in October 2017, a full year after the election, when Sean Hannity indulged in fever dreams of a uranium conspiracy so specious that even the network’s Shepard Smith had to debunk it. And unlike conspiracy theories about George W. Bush during the Obama years, Obama-related notions have not diminished since he left office; a YouGov poll taken in December 2017 found that 51 percent of registered Republicans still believed he “probably” or “definitely” was born in Kenya. Rather than snapping back to reality once they regained power, Republicans have gone further off the deep end.

This leaves little room for Democrats to conduct their inquiries in good faith. Regardless of how rigorously they’re conducted, they will still be dismissed by the right as fishing expeditions. If the Democrats opt for Michael Avenatti–style pugilism—or Eric Holder-ian kicks to the fallen Republicans—the GOP will still cry foul. But it doesn’t matter. They’ve already shown their hand: Beset by conspiracy theories and riven with paranoia, Republicans will perhaps never again be fair and evenhanded governmental partners, and the Democrats have no obligation to treat them as such. Their only job should be to quarantine and minimize the harm the Republicans do, until they’re finally put away for good.