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The Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Monday, 7 October 2019

This current whistle-blower scandal reveals something essential about Donald Trump’s repeatedly questionable and idiosyncratic behaviour. It is also telling with regards to the prevalence of opinion and prediction over evidence in the internet age. The tendency to play out whether Trump will be dismissed before proper investigations have uncovered more hard evidence reflects how impatient and hubristic we have become as we are assaulted with constant updates across our multiple devices. My sense is that Trump is clearly in a lot of trouble regarding what he said to the Ukrainian President and the coverup that ensued. Nonetheless, more evidence is needed to end his presidency, so let’s see what the Congress uncovers. As for Trump, he will continue to spread misinformation, claim all politics is corrupt, and treat this scandal as entertainment.

For an elected politician, Donald Trump is unusually drawn to conspiracy theories. Trump’s road to the presidency started with him being among the most prominent members of the “birther” movement that claimed Obama was born in Kenya and that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery. If this nonsense wasn’t bad enough, during the 2016 campaign Trump claimed that on September 11, 2001 he saw on network television Muslims dancing in the streets of New Jersey celebrating the Twin Towers coming down. There is no evidence of this: rather it is just the type of conspiracy theory that appeals to Trump and those he associates with. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Trump asked whether he’d been suffocated because he had died face down in his pillow (this was real life One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest stuff). The willingness of Trump to repeat and possibly believe such scuttlebutt is endless. One would have hoped that with access to top rate experts and intelligence reports Trump would have relied less on alt-right internet rumours, lies and mischief to understand politics, but that was expecting too much.

Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian President is a strong reminder of the conspiratorial circles Trump moves in. He starts out asking a question about a mythical Democratic Party internet server that is part of a widely discredited theory that Ukrainians rather than the Russians actually hacked the DNC. Then Trump moves on to discuss Joe Biden apparently helping his wayward son Hunter Biden out by getting Viktor Shokin the Prosecutor General of Ukraine sacked. The problem with this argument is that Shokin was a disappointment to a number of European governments because he was not doing enough to investigate corruption and they wanted him sacked and replaced by a more aggressive anti-corruption Prosecutor General. But Trump and his supporters do not seem particularly interested in this key piece of evidence when they can repeatedly say the name Hunter Biden: “Did you know Hunter Biden dated his brother’s widow shortly after Beau Biden died of brain cancer”; “did you know Hunter Biden was paid $50,000 a month at one point for being on a Ukrainian gas company board”; “did you know Hunter Biden was a drug addict”. These tabloid headline claims are what Trump was hoping would be remembered from this scandal. In other words, Hunter Biden is being used as mud to smear Joe Biden with. In our highly partisan world untrue claims stick because that’s how tribal thinking works.     


The internet has made conspiracy theories commonplace because the editorial control that traditionally blocked the spread of lies and misinformation is nowhere near as rigorous or extensive as it once was. It is not just teenage boys and the alt-right who are obsessed with conspiracy theories, it is also a significant section of the alt-left. Within the alternative left, theories about 9/11 being fabricated or an inside job and the evils of vaccines are dangerously popular. When it comes to the Bush administration, the hard evidence of what it actually did in Iraq is so damning that one wonders why there is any need to make fantastic claims.    

If the internet makes the spreading of lies easy, when it is combined with a celebrity culture where getting attention is highly valued, you have a world where saying outrageous things is a commonplace way of communicating. This is the world Trump has long operated in: he constantly says things on Twitter and elsewhere to gain attention or to distract: “Can you believe it, Trump wants to buy Greenland”! Etc etc etc.

Given Trump’s unremitting narcissism, he will relish impeachment proceedings. The capacity of the narcissist to play the victim, no matter how much they brought the situation on themselves, should not be forgotten in the weeks ahead. Trump’s self-justification system is almost impervious to falsification, so do not expect him to admit mistakes were made or to resign. 

It is hard not to be contemptuous of the gullible and indulgent American public that buys into or supports Trump’s lies and egoism. Part of the explanation here is this is just partisan politics. Trump is a Republican and he will not be turned against by other Republicans until he is clearly a liability to their electoral prospects. Trump also sadly reminds us of the enduring tendency of many people to side with the bully.

The best antidote to Trump’s lies and narcissism is to focus on policies and political details. In the weeks ahead, as impeachment proceedings are undertaken, truth and evidence will hopefully be valued by the Congress above tribalism. However, as Senate Republicans illustrated with their vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, partisanship can thwart justice being served in the face of convincing evidence. It will ultimately take a hard swing in public opinion against Trump for Republicans to find their consciences and vote to dismiss him from office.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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