The story of Trump campaign collusion looks set to disappear in a mass of conspiracy theories
Earlier this month, an article headlined “Trump tweeted what?!?” became one of the The Washington Post’s most read. Right now it could serve for most articles, most days. The “what” Trump tweeted was a statement seen as a fresh admission of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election campaign. “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,” the president microblogged. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere.” The Post argued that “Trump fails to understand that the very meeting he is acknowledging is collusion – or conspiracy, if you will – to break campaign-finance laws.” The former Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted a suggested “HEADLINE” of his own: “TRUMP CONFESSES HIS SON MET WITH RUSSIAN AGENTS ‘TO GET INFORMATION’ AGAINST CLINTON”. But the “HEADLINE” wasn’t even a “headline” – Trump had said much the same thing last July, when it attracted less attention.
August is wildfire season in the United States, and the vast Californian blazes seem to echo the same qualities as the stories about collusion (or conspiracy, if you will) that are such a chronic presence in the American media. They are destructive, unprecedented, but somehow boring at the same time. There is a further symmetry: the right’s shift on collusion mimics its shift on climate change. First, an outraged denial that such a thing is possible. Then, blaming a counter-conspiracy disseminated by the media. Finally, the glib assertion that of course it is happening, and has happened loads of times in the past, and is actually good. A member of Trump’s legal team, the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, does a kind of “man of a thousand faces” act on cable morning shows, sometimes changing his position between spots, and occasionally not even able to wait that long. On July 30 when Fox News’ Outnumbered played a Giuliani clip from that morning, an angry Giuliani rang in to debate his own talking point.
“When I said today that there was no collusion, and that collusion also is no crime, I’ve been saying that from the very beginning” Giuliani said, something he had not been saying since the beginning. “It’s a very very familiar lawyer’s argument that … My client didn’t do it, and even if he did it, it’s not a crime.” In other words, the president is not a crook, and even if he is a crook, being a crook is not a crime. Previously, Giuliani contravened the president’s denials about a pay-off to the porn star Stormy Daniels, in a Hannity interview so strange that there was open, published speculation the former mayor had been drinking. In Washington, there are queries whether this brand of lawyering is the best fit for Trump, but POLITICO reported that the president seems at ease with what it called Giuliani’s “ad-hoc style”. As a defence, it is questionable. But as a tactic in the court of public opinion, it seems to be working, and working in tandem with Trump’s own “ad-hoc style”.
Trump campaign collusion with a foreign power, if proven irrefutably, will be a story bigger than the Watergate scandal. But it may not end up a narrative bigger than the Watergate scandal, as Watergate veterans themselves acknowledge. “Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today,” Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean told Rolling Stone. “I doubt Trump will be forced from office, even if Mueller has tapes of him talking with Putin about how to rig the election … And given the fact he is shameless, he will never resign.” Not only the media environment has changed, but the moral environment has changed too. There’s a theory that the Watergate tapes did more political damage in exposing Richard Nixon’s profanity than in exposing his corruption. Today, Trump’s supporters have embraced not just the notorious “locker room” talk, but the whole locker room. More than campaign finance law has been violated already. A taped confession of sexual assault and harassment has been priced in, and running businesses while president has almost ceased to be a matter of controversy.
More fundamentally, what could be called the epistemic environment is not the same. It’s obvious that Giuliani’s arguments make no sense, but – and this is less intuitive – they must make no sense even to Trump’s supporters. One of the less reported lines of the Helsinki conference was Trump saying “There was no one to collude with”, a philosophical claim so notional it’s hard to know how to counter it. While fact-checkers dutifully award the president Pinocchios day after day, he inhabits a realm beyond their reach, speaking to an audience that doesn’t care, and moreover is actively hostile to this intrusion.
The president’s own grand conspiracy theory is that Obama spied on the Trump campaign (possibly with Russian assistance), then colluded with the FBI and the deep state to undermine his electoral win. It is a world where the FBI re-opened an investigation into Hillary Clinton to help … Clinton?, but even this fantasy is still too reality-based for many of his supporters. Conversations with GOP voters almost inevitably devolve into conspiracy theories, and at Trump events in Florida and Ohio, a cultish following for the internet sleuthing “QAnon” movement showed itself in numbers. “We are Q”, read a sign placed right behind the podium.
Calling QAnon a conspiracy theory doesn’t do justice to its ambition. It is a secular cosmology, almost a secular theology, based on a millenarian belief that Trump is cleansing the world of criminal paedophile rings (Obama and Clinton are both members), or globalists, or take-your-pick. According to its logic, such as it is, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not investigating Trump but instead acting as a double agent, working with Trump to take down Clinton campaign staff (who may or may not have been working with Putin). Strangely, this does not seem to reduce QAnon hostility towards Mueller; perhaps its adherents have to be double agents as well.
It feels almost forgotten that Trump made his entry into politics as a conspiracy theorist. His birtherism – the belief that Barack Obama was in fact a secret Kenyan citizen called “Barry Soweto”, and therefore ineligible to be president – is now mostly dormant, discarded once it was no longer expedient. But like attracts like: Trump hired the deep state crank Joe diGenova to his legal team, after the lawyer promoted a Hillary Clinton collusion theory on Fox News. Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone once claimed that Chelsea Clinton had had four plastic surgeries to hide the identity of her real father, and, post-election, it was reported that the president called the InfoWars host, Alex Jones, to thank him for his assistance. Jones propagates a belief that the Sandy Hook mass shooting was an elaborate hoax. His fans routinely harass the bereaved parents of children killed in the massacre, accusing them of being actors.
Last year one of these parents, Leonard Pozner, gave a brutal interview to The Guardian, describing the aftermath of his son’s death, and the delusions it had accumulated. He conceded that in other circumstances, he might have believed in the conspiracy theories himself. Referencing “pizzagate”, another Clinton-centric calumny that links a pizza restaurant to a paedophile ring, he said “I would not have been as immediately dismissive of it, that’s for sure.” He then produced a description of this moment in history that could act as its epitaph. “History books will refer to this period as a time of mass delusion. We weren’t prepared for the internet. We thought the internet would bring all these wonderful things, such as research, medicine, science, an accelerated society of good. But all we did was hold up a mirror to society and we saw how angry, sick and hateful humans can be.”
“I used to be able to change the channel when stories about these kinds of people were on,” he continued. “I now don’t have the luxury to do that, and when I lost Noah, I woke up and realised that people who spread these stories are more interested in propagating fear than getting at the truth. And the human cost of that is phenomenal.” Pozner believes that only a few years ago counter-measures worked. Now, he says, the level of troll investiture is too high.
The president and his media enablers are working hard to pre-emptively discredit the Mueller investigation. Their accusations of bias, fishing expeditions and witch hunts do not have to be credible or even coherent. They only have to present a posture, not a position, and this posture somehow becomes more effective as it shifts. Accountability can’t seem to get a handle on something so slippery. The shared realities of the Watergate era were fractious, contingent and hypocritical. But even those tense truces no longer exist.
I took a walk through the Capitol Hill district in Washington the other day, past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, and thought how deceiving this Latinate vision of the past is. All the neoclassical architecture is supposed to represent, in articulate marble lines, a society run according to order and reason. But Rome was governed by superstition. It was a place where the fates of men rested on patterns in the flights of birds, spots on sacrificial livers, everything from fire in the sky to a sneeze. Welcome back.
Earlier this month, an article headlined “Trump tweeted what?!?” became one of the The Washington Post’s most read. Right now it could serve for most articles, most days. The “what” Trump tweeted was a statement seen as a fresh admission of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election campaign. “Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower,” the president microblogged. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere.” The Post argued that “Trump fails to understand that the very meeting he is acknowledging is collusion – or conspiracy, if you will – to break campaign-finance laws.” The former Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted a suggested “HEADLINE” of his own: “TRUMP CONFESSES HIS SON MET WITH RUSSIAN...