Rolling out a 1996-era campaign that primarily targets Bill Clinton instead of Hillary, Donald Trump continues to wallow in all kinds of conspiracies that were once eagerly promoted by right-wing "Clinton Crazies" two decades ago. Those were the hardcore Clinton haters who spent the 1990s absorbing AM talk radio's chronic toxicity and obsessing over the president's possibly murderous ways.
By digging up long-forgotten '90s attack lines and pushing them today, Trump seems content to focus his campaign on the distant past, and on the Clinton who isn't running for president in 2016. In doing so though, Trump has emerged as right-wing radio's dream Republican nominee, someone eager to debase public debate and to wallow in not-even-half-baked conspiracy theories.
So the good news for the Clinton Crazies is that Trump's running an AM talk radio campaign for president. The bad news for the GOP? Trump's running an AM talk radio campaign for president.
"He's never been involved in policy making or party building or the normal things a candidate would do. ... His whole frame of reference is daytime Fox News and Infowars," Alex Jones' conspiracy website. That, according to a Republican strategist quoted in today's New York Times.
Trump's unorthodox primary run this year has set off countless intramural spats within the conservative movement, and specifically pitting well-known Republican allies against Trump, at least temporarily. (See: National Review and Megyn Kelly.) But talk radio -- outside of some prominent anti-Trump voices like Glenn Beck and Mark Levin -- has largely remained Trump's key ally and helped normalize his radical behavior.
As Michael Brendan Dougherty recently wrote in The Week:
Donald Trump talks about politics the way talk-radio hosts do, like a dramatic clash of personalities. This is a very different view of politics from the one espoused by conservative opinion writers, where politics are questions of policy, popular opinion as it exists, and the structure of institutions that shape the decisions of politicians.
Media observers outside the talk radio bubble, and from across the political spectrum, shook their heads in amazement at Trump's decision to resurrect the Clinton Crazies' fever swamp touchstone: the 1993 suicide death of Vince Foster, a longtime Clinton aide and friend who was serving as the White House's deputy counsel.
"He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide," Trump said of Foster's relationship with the Clintons at the time of his death. "It's the one thing with her, whether it's Whitewater or whether it's Vince or whether it's Benghazi. It's always a mess with Hillary," Trump told The Washington Post.
When even a professional conspiracy theorist like Glenn Beck suggests Trump's gone too far with the Foster nonsense, it might be time to reel it back it in. "We were joking on the air yesterday, how long before he gets to the list of the people that the Clintons have killed. Well, yesterday, he started with Vince Foster," noted Beck.
The fact Trump reached for the preposterous Foster card just highlights how, within the insular world of right-wing politics, the topic -- like so many Clinton conspiracies -- maintains a strong following.
In 2007, while preparing for a possible Hillary Clinton nomination, Fox News took the fact-free plot out of storage. Sean Hannity led the charge, suggesting Foster was murdered, asking if there had been a Clinton-led "coverup," and teasing "the strange and unanswered questions involving the death of Vince Foster."
Just ugly and reckless stuff.
More recently, Rush Limbaugh suggested Bernie Sanders was worried Hillary Clinton would have him shot, like Vince Foster. And while promoting his anti-Clinton book on talk radio, author Peter Schweizer was told by host Dana Loesch, "There is always that concern for anyone who goes up against the Clinton machine that they could be Vince Fostered," and asked if he considered that possibility when "getting himself security." Schweizer responded, "Yeah, I mean look -- there are security concerns that arise in these kinds of situations."
For those who weren't around, or weren't actively engaged in the early '90s, the Vince Foster conspiratorial attack is basically the equivalent to birtherism during the Obama era -- if birthers had also accused Obama of murdering somebody while supposedly growing up in Kenya. (Note that birther architect Joseph Farah from WorldNetDaily was also a vocal Vince Foster conspiracy advocate.)
Like birtherism and white nationalists, Vince Foster chatter makes professional Republicans cringe when it arises during the campaign season when the party's trying to put on its best face for November. But Trump has now made the phony '90s claim synonymous with the party.
Not surprisingly, there's been a lot of shorthand this week in terms of the Foster story as journalists try to sum up Trump's '90s reference in one or two sentences. But that shorthand doesn't do justice to the Foster story, which means many journalists aren't doing justice to Trump current lunacy.
The facts: Foster was the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in Northern Virginia's Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993, not far from Washington, D.C. According to multiple investigations, Foster died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His suicide and the fictionalized plot where the president and his wife hatched some sort of plot to murder their friend (he knew too much!), quickly become one of the more despicable claims that was casually lobbed in the 1990s. Conservatives, led by Limbaugh, incessantly cast doubt on Foster's suicide, suggesting instead that the Clinton White House had murdered Foster and covered it up.
But there must have been legitimate questions if the right-wing scheme has lived on so long, right?
Jamison Foser, writing for Media Matters in 2010 [emphasis added]:
Like any good conspiracy theorist, they became more and more certain of foul play as time went on -- their certainty only reinforced by facts and evidence and official investigations to the contrary.
The United States Park Police investigated Foster's death and ruled it a suicide; the conspiracy theorists disagreed and demanded another investigation. Whitewater special prosecutor Robert Fiske (a Republican) investigated the death, concluding it was a suicide. The conspiracy theorists were unsatisfied, and demanded more. Congressional committees investigated (with Republican Dan Burton of Indiana going so far as to shoot up his vegetable garden in a creative if misguided attempt to prove that Foster was murdered) but they, too, failed to produce any evidence of murder. The conspiracy theorists were unswayed. Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr, leaving no stone unturned in his effort to find something -- anything -- to make Clinton look bad, investigated. Starr, too, ruled the death a suicide. The conspiracy theorists announced that Starr was covering for Clinton.
The Washington Post noted there were "five official investigations into Foster's death, conducted by professional investigators, forensic experts, psychologists, doctors and independent prosecutors with unlimited resources" and they confirmed there was "nothing fishy or mysterious about Foster's tragic suicide."
So of course Trump resurrects it for the 2016 campaign. Because that's what a talk radio candidate for president does.
Crossposted at Media Matters for America.