President Donald Trump is no stranger to conspiracy theories. Aside from his famous Obama “birtherism,” he has also suggested the American government knew about 9/11 before it happened and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. But with his recent false suggestions that the FBI and Department of Justice under the Obama administration planted spies in the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, Trump is headed down a particularly troubling path.
In an analysis of Trump’s increasing use of conspiracy theories, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times argue that stirring up paranoia is a conscious strategy. “It is a vital ingredient in the president’s communications arsenal, a social media-fueled, brashly expressed narrative of dubious accusations and dark insinuations that allows him to promote his own version of reality,” Davis and Haberman observe. “Students of Mr. Trump’s life and communication style argue that the idea of conspiracies is a vital part of his strategy to avoid accountability and punch back at detractors, real or perceived, including the news media.”
If this is a deliberate tactic, it is working—both because many in the right-wing media and Republican Party seem to buy the fables, and because such accusations, almost regardless of whether they are believed, seem tailor-made to distract from potential criticisms and destabilize the public’s sense of what is true and what isn’t. As such, Trump’s effective use of conspiracy theories calls to mind some ominous historical parallels. The most famous American precedent is Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose demagoguery poisoned the political system in the early 1950s, as with his accusation that former Secretary of State George Marshall was involved with treason.
But McCarthy was only a senator, while Trump is president. There are few examples in America’s past of a chief executive so willing not merely to demonize potential enemies, but instead to conjure entirely imaginary demons for political purposes: While credible reports suggest an FBI informant contacted campaign aides over concerns about Russian interference, this is a far cry from the sleeper agent Trump has alleged was sent to infiltrate his campaign.
The only existing parallels are tyrants like Stalin, who used fictions of saboteurs and foreign agents to keep the population in line, and explain away any setbacks. To be sure, Trump is nowhere close to Stalin, and American presidents are restrained by a system of laws and checks that make any quick descent into tyranny unlikely. Just because America isn’t Soviet Russia doesn’t mean Trump isn’t using tyrant’s tools.