The Trump playbook leans on fake news, and assumes we’ll nod credulously and play along, writes Jonathan Martin.
Donald Trump’s expected pick for a top diplomatic job suggested that the U.S. intelligence community was wrong about the Russians hacking the election to help Trump. Instead, maybe it was a “false flag” operation, John Bolton said.
It’s a jaw-dropping claim. False flags are covert operations intended to obscure their source. But what was John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, really saying? That U.S. intelligence agencies planted evidence that pointed Putin’s way? Or, as Bolton claimed the next day, was it the Chinese making it look like the Russians, and our spy agencies played along for “political purposes.”
Maybe it’s more simple: Russia’s hack squad meddled in the election at Trump’s invitation. “We don’t know whether it’s Russian-inspired or a false flag,” Bolton said.
That’s the intoxicating thing about conspiracy theories — layers within layers, the tantalizing hope of deeper hidden truth lurking somewhere.
Get ready for a lot more fake news from the Trump team. Trump likes conspiracies. So do people he’s surrounding himself with. You can almost envision the White House bully pulpit being wrapped in a tinfoil coating.
Bolton’s head fake came straight out of the Trump playbook. Delegitimize an institution — in this case, his spy agencies — for political ends by raising the unproven specter of an “other.”
Ignore the scientists on climate change — it’s a Chinese hoax. President Obama is foreign born — a Hawaiian bureaucrat who authenticated his fake birth certificate died in a mysterious plane crash. Ted Cruz’s father helped kill JFK — he was hanging out with Lee Harvey Oswald.
Trump’s team includes former Breitbart.com chairman Stephen Bannon. His website speculated the Orlando nightclub shooting was a false flag, maybe to drum up sympathy for the gay community and support for gun control.
Trump’s pick for national security adviser traffics in fake news about Clinton, and the pick’s son, a member of the Trump transition team, breathed life into the astonishing Hillary Clinton-child sex ring-Pizzagate conspiracy.
Most disturbing is Trump’s apparent affection for kooky conspiratorialist Alex Jones, who accused families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims of faking the attack in a false flag operation. Jones said Obama and Hillary Clinton smell like sulfur because they are literally demons. Really.
“You will be very very impressed” with a Trump presidency, Trump told Jones in an interview. “We’ll be speaking a lot.”
After Trump’s election, I held out hope that his campaign persona was a carnival strategy to win, that he’d moderate into a somewhat normal center-right president. I’ve been dead wrong so far.
The Trump team bends facts to their breaking point, and that widens the divide between his supporters and the majority of voters. There is no path to common ground if the ground shifts beneath layers and layers of hidden conspiracy.
Jesse Walker, an old friend and author of a fascinating book, “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory,” reminded me that conspiracies are old hat, from J. Edgar Hoover to the McMartin “satanic cult” day-care scandal in the 1980s. The FBI actually investigated a conspiracy theory that “Eleanor clubs” were started by Eleanor Roosevelt to subvert the social order in the south.
“What’s unusual for Trump is not that he’s a conspiracy theorist,” said Walker. “It’s the fact that he’s shameless about it. He doesn’t have any compunction about pointing to The National Enquirer as a source.”
We are “clogged with conspiracies” now, reflecting anxiety, Walker said. “We’re pattern-seeking storytelling creators with gaps in the data. People will naturally fill in gaps in the data with fearful conspiracies.”
For a historian of paranoia, Walker is oddly reassuring. At least today we have fact-checking websites like snopes.com. “It may be a golden age of fake news, and it’s a golden age of debunking.”
But that requires us to do more than post headlines on social media and nod credulously. The Trump conspiracy theory playbook plays us for dupes, and we’re playing right along.