Donald Trump is leaving the presidency the way he began his political career: as an unhinged peddler of conspiracy theories.
Trump laid the foundation for his 2016 campaign for president by becoming the right’s No. 1 Barack Obama hater. And he did that by championing the racist birther conspiracy theory that falsely claimed that the first Black president had been born in Kenya, not Hawaii. The point of slinging this swill was to suggest that Obama was an illegitimate commander in chief. (Under the Constitution, only a “natural born” American citizen is eligible to be president.) That was, of course, total bunk. Yet Trump kept pushing this accusation, claiming he had investigators who were getting the goods on Obama.
It was a lie. A big lie. Trump had nothing. His investigators had nothing—if they even existed. Yet the truth didn’t matter. Not to many Republicans. Trump was mounting a disinformation operation to win over the get-Obama crowd in preparation for a potential presidential bid. And it worked. As the loudmouth questioning Obama’s legitimacy, Trump, who had never run for any office, quickly developed a conservative constituency that he then mobilized during the Republican primary contest. Being a conspiracy theorist didn’t disqualify Trump within the Fox-driven GOP cosmos. It boosted his prospects and helped him become president. Dishonesty paid off.
Through his presidency, Trump repeatedly sought to protect himself by encouraging paranoia and disseminating baseless tales of conspiracy. To escape the taint on his 2016 electoral victory caused by the Russian attack and his efforts that aided Vladimir Putin’s assault on American democracy, Trump promoted various false counter-narratives: the Obama administration and the Deep State had spied on and schemed against him; Ukraine had intervened in the 2016 contest to thwart him; and the Russian attack on the Democratic Party was a hoax. The dissemination of these fake stories also worked, in a way. They muddied up what should have been a clear picture: Trump had betrayed the nation by abetting the Russian attack, which he sought to exploit. But Trump was able to generate enough baloney to deflect attention from the core issue and to turn the Trump-Russia scandal into a debate between fact and disinformation. Once more, spreading conspiracy theories helped Trump.
To keep his hold on the presidency, Trump again turned to this tactic. He and his henchmen cooked up false stories about Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter. And Trump muscled the president of Ukraine to support the fraud. These actions did lead to Trump’s impeachment. But Trump, thanks to his GOP enablers, survived the Senate trial. He was not penalized. And perhaps the anti-Biden propaganda Trump and his crew concocted did help gin up Trump’s base or turn off some potential Biden voters.
Now, as Trump faces the biggest loss in his public life, he is whipping out the same game plan: issue outlandish charges that focus on underhanded plots. With Biden the apparent winner in a decisive electoral and popular vote count, Trump is refusing to acknowledge reality and spinning dark allegations of a massive plot against him. The counting was rigged. The election software was rigged. Like a drowning man, he grabs on to whatever false accusation he can as a lifeline. Last week, Trump embraced an unfounded conspiracy theory that claimed a software company had switched millions of Trump votes to Biden votes. As Mother Jones reported, this claim had originated with an anonymous internet poster who had previously accused Biden of being a sex criminal and of being bad for white people. This particular conspiracy theory jumped from this poster to a rightwing blogger and then was picked up by OAN, the to-the-right-of-Fox network. There was no confirmation of the details. And after OAN reported on this “analysis,” Trump tweeted it out, citing OAN. A conspiracy theory with no basis had hit the right-wing disinformation transmission belt and ended up being blessed and exploited by the president of the United States.
The details—and the truth—don’t matter for Trump. Since even before the vote-counting began, he was claiming that a cabal would try to cheat him out of the presidency. (He started concocting this cover story four years ago, when he contended the 2016 election would be rigged against him.) And once he began losing key states, he kicked his conspiracy-mongering into high gear. He has hurled tweet after tweet declaring the election was stolen from him. And Rudy Giuliani, his consigliere who took over the assorted going-nowhere Trump campaign legal challenges in swing states, has been dutifully echoing the nonsense.
On Sunday night, the Trump campaign sent out a fundraising email signed by Trump with a subject heading befitting a tyrannical autocrat: “I’m not going anywhere. Biden did NOT win.” The message declared, “I am the American People’s ALL-TIME favorite President,”and it proclaimed that Democrats and “the Left…RIGGED THE ELECTION!” The evidence? Well, no evidence was presented. But the email included an electoral map that showed Trump ahead of Biden 232 electoral votes to 227. (A candidate needs 270 to win.) It claimed the key swing states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia—had not yet been decided. They have, but the email asserted that these states “should immediately be put in the Trump WIN column. Biden did not win, he lost by a lot!”
Where did this map come from? The source: The Epoch Times, a publication affiliated with a secretive Chinese spiritual movement called Falun Gong (which opposes the Chinese regime). As The New York Times recently reported in an investigation of The Epoch Times, this publication and its affiliates “have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics” and “pushing dangerous conspiracy theories.” The Times noted The Epoch Times “has been one of the most prominent promoters of ‘Spygate,’ a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus…was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.”
So the most powerful man in the world is relying on a conspiracy rag to sell his supporters on the idea that he was robbed of a second term. This is sad and dangerous. It is a fitting denouement to the Trump years.
Conspiracy theories spread distrust and suspicion. That’s the point. They undermine honest public discourse. Trump’s fact-free claims about cheating will not rescue him. He may have finally encountered a situation where lying, demagoguery, and hawking false allegations will not succeed. At least, not in terms of keeping him in the White House. Still, he is accomplishing one of his aims. He is injecting (more) poison into the body politic. He is inflaming passions. He is encouraging doubt, uncertainty, and anger among his supporters. He entered politics spewing venom. He is leaving the presidency doing the same. And his defeat will not fully decontaminate the system. Though Trump’s current predicament demonstrates the limited power of conspiracy theories to beat back reality, this moment—in which Trump continues to rally his cult-like devotees with fraudulent swill—is a reminder of how well they served Trump, how much damage they can wreak, and how vulnerable the American political systems remains to scoundrels who trade in such deceit.