Conspiracies Suffuse the White House

Donald Trump has been obsessed with “fake news,” it is his go to excuse for facts he dislikes, for accusations he prefers to ignore or for assessments of the world that don’t comport with his.

In an unparalleled example of Freud’s projection theory, Trump constantly accuses news outlets of falsifying facts while he lies at an unprecedented pace.  His veracity is no longer an issue; as The New York Times’ Bret Stephens observed (and most thoughtful people realize), “truth for Donald Trump is whatever he can get away with.”

But there is a darker side to his inability to distinguish between truth and fiction and his lying about things for which there is demonstrable evidence---he tolerates and promotes insidious conspiracy theories that are truly dangerous. He seems unable or unwilling to recognize conspiratorial lies that posit hidden hands and mysterious manipulators pulling strings behind the scenes. Conspiratorial outlooks have been exploited for centuries to threaten and harm minorities, the weak and the unpopular. From Blood Libel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from periodic allegations of “immigrant” crime waves to common assertions of  Black voters engaging in widespread fraud-----conspiracy theories have predictable, if not inevitable, targets.

Trump accepts conspiracy theorists with open arms.

During the campaign he had no compunction about praising Alex Jones ("Infowars"), one of the worst and most widely watched internet-tv extremists. Jones is not a run-of-the-mill political loon, he asserts, among other nonsense, that 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook elementary school murders and the Boston Marathon bombings were all “false flag” operations perpetrated by the federal government. The list of his bizarre musings is virtually endless.

He is the kind of unstable and extreme character that any respectable candidate with even a modicum of good sense would avoid at all costs. Not candidate Trump; during the campaign he appeared on Jones’ program and told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing, I will not let you down.”

Trump didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand what distinguishes mainstream political actors---liberal, moderate and conservative---from dangerous extremists; their disregard of facts, reason, civility, data and the absence of a capacity to compromise. Not only doesn’t he reject them—he embraces much of their modus operandi. For Trump----any viewpoint, if it suits his purpose, is as good as another---accuracy, verification, documentation are manifestly irrelevant; all opinions are potentially useful, no matter their pedigree or inaccuracy.

And this pernicious view of what is acceptable in our political lexicon pervades the views of those close to Trump---he’s not the only sloppy thinker.

The wacky views of his briefly serving National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn and his son (who was to be Flynn's chief of staff) are well documented and were precursors of what was to come.

Gen. Flynn was known among his staffers for “Flynn facts”---“his habit of making assertions that are not based in fact.” “Flynn facts” and a son with the intellectual vacuity to believe that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a Virginia pizza joint posed no hurdle to their appointment to positions of responsibility in the Trump regime. But for the criminal activity of Flynn senior, they would likely both be serving today in some of the highest positions in our government.

With the Flynn history known widely, it should have come as no shock that the president’s son, Donald Junior, has no greater capacity to distinguish absurd conspiracy notions from facts than his father or Flynn junior.

In the aftermath of the horrific murder of the students in Parkland, Florida Trump Junior had no compunction about “liking” a tweet promoting the absurd assertion that one of the surviving students, an articulate spokesman for gun control, was in fact a fabrication of “the mainstream media.” He “liked” another tweet promoted by a right-wing radio host that intimated that the Parkland youngster was part of a plot to protect the kid’s father, an FBI agent.

The Trump junior tweet is so telling not only because it confirms the familial penchant for absurd assertions but also because it comes from an individual who knows that every one of his keystrokes is being watched by the press, by critics and by those who will evaluate what he chooses to say or not say. He is not an idle social media user out to entertain a few friends. Nevertheless, knowing that he is in a fishbowl, he couldn’t resist expressing his support for truly insidious and groundless conspiracy notions.

As I wrote in late 2016 when the Flynn Junior story first broke,

This is about “reasoning” that accepts fantasy as fact and is willing to suspend intellectual rigor.

What is so troubling about believers in and trumpeters of “fake news” is their obvious abandonment of reason, discernment and good sense. The absence of intellectual honesty in failing to demand evidence and factual corroboration before repeating illogical conspiracy myths suggests a susceptibility to other forms of sloppy thinking and the willing vilifying of opponents. An ominous proclivity for those concerned about bigotry, civility, and a functioning government.

It has become clear in the more than thirteen months since Trump took office, that his lack of intellectual rigor, reason and discernment (as echoed by Trump Junior) reflect a rot in this administration that seeps down from the Oval Office to countless corners of the bureaucracy.

Conspiracy theories that flourish in this kind of environment undermine and threaten minorities and our society’s most vulnerable and are amplified by a complicit commander-in-chief.

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