Excerpts from a long but must-read article by By Kurt Andersen for Slate
It wasn’t until the age of right-wing talk radio and Fox News and Breitbart that the Establishment lost control, as crackpot habits of mind achieved dominance.
An American will to believe in all-powerful conspiracies spread and grew from the 1960s on, an invasive species that became a permanent feature of the American mental landscape, but finally more deeply and widely and consequential on the right. Hofstadter and many others have argued that the right is inherently more fertile ground for such paranoia. Maybe. In any case, only the American right has had a consistent, large, and organized faction based on paranoid conspiracism for six decades.
After the USSR and its empire finally fell apart in 1991, right-wing American conspiracists didn’t calm down or give up. Instead they imagined a larger, not-necessarily-communist conspiracy that required a fervent anti-faith in some monumental scheme of evil. That’s the delirious beauty of an overarching master conspiracy theory: Contradictory new facts, rather than undermining or disproving the scheme, are recast as affirmations of the undeniable larger truth.
Now it was no longer just a few powerless crackpots in the patriot and militia movements who believed the United States was about to surrender to the tyranny of the New World Order. Newly unregulated talk radio was instructing a large constituency full time, while respectable politicians were galvanized by those true believers. Republican-led state legislatures passed bills demanding that Congress resist the New World Order. By the 1990s, the fear of a U.N. military takeover of the United States was so impassioned that the Indiana Department of Transportation was obliged to abandon its internal system for tracking the age of highway signs. Indianans had become convinced that colored dots on the backs of the signs were coded navigation instructions for the impending invasion by the U.N.’s armed foreigners.
Why do half of Republicans—and two-thirds of Trump’s primary voters—remain convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim? Because GOP elected officials and conservative leaders encouraged them for more than a decade. Trump launched his political career by embracing a conspiracy theory twisted around two deep American taproots—fear and loathing of foreigners and nonwhites. In 2011, he made himself chief spokesman for the fantasy that President Obama was born in Kenya, a fringe idea that he single-handedly brought into the mainstream.
Does Trump really think he lost the popular vote because of a conspiracy that arranged for millions of noncitizens, “illegals,” to vote for Clinton? “I’m a very instinctual person,” President Trump said when a Time reporter challenged him on this claim, “but my instinct turns out to be right.” Did he really think President Obama ordered his telephones to be tapped and that a conspiracy of government officials covered it up? According to the New York Times, the people around Trump say his baseless certainty “that he was bugged in some way” in Trump Tower is driven by “a sense of persecution bordering on faith.” And indeed, their most honest defense of his false statements about conspiracies has been to cast them practically as matters of religious conviction—he deeply believes this stuff, so … end of story.
This is exactly what Sean Spicer did concerning the nonexistent 3 million to 5 million illegal voters: In a single encounter, he earnestly reminded reporters that Trump “has believed that for a while” and “does believe that” and “it’s been a long-standing belief he’s maintained” and “it’s a belief that he has maintained for a while.” Which must be why a quarter of Americans subscribe to that preposterous belief themselves. And in Trump’s view, that overrides any requirement for facts.
“Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?” the ABC World News Tonight anchor asked President Trump right after his inauguration.
“No,” he replied, “not at all! Not at all—because many people feel the same way that I do.”
Since then, of course, Trump has fired the FBI director and pushed out the deputy director, provoked a special counsel’s investigation, and conjured an anti-Trump conspiracy at the bureau—which of course many on the right now believe, with help from members of Congress and the Sean Hannitys of the world. Republicans by almost 2 to 1 disapprove of Robert Mueller’s work, and nearly half of them say they now have “not very much” or no confidence at all in the FBI. In other words, our first conspiracy theorist in chief is harnessing his party’s old conspiracist tic, originally Kremlin-focused, to discredit the existence of an actual anti-American conspiracy hatched in the Kremlin.
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