Donald Trump will doubtlessly go down in history as many things, but what we’re all coming to grips with right now (a bare two months into his presidency) is that Trump will also surely be remembered as the first “Conspiracy-Theorist-In-Chief” in American history. Trump, in fact, personifies the old adage: “I’ve made up my mind ― don’t confuse me with the facts!” This was on full display today, as the heads of the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. testified before a House committee that there is simply no evidence whatsoever that can in any way, shape, or form validate the wild claim Trump made two weeks ago ― that Barack Obama had personally wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. This adds to a long list of people (who all have the highest security clearance and full access to such things), all of whom have now said the same thing: no evidence exists whatsoever to back up Trump’s bizarre accusation. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
But after watching many hours of the live testimony this morning and (for good measure) a large portion of Sean Spicer’s press conference today at the White House, I’ll leave it to others to point out all the nuances of Trump being totally and completely denied any shred of vindication. Instead, I’d like to take a wider look at the life cycle each one of these Trumpian flights of fancy seems to take. Because so far there have been no real groundshaking consequences to any of Trump’s conspiracy theorizing, but that might not always be true in the future. What happens if he gets a bee in his bonnet about North Korea, or China, or Iran? Or the Illuminati, for that matter? What happens when one of these Trump temper tantrums causes an international incident? Accusing a former president of felonious behavior is going to pale in comparison, should that come to pass.
Trump’s belief in the sheerest conspiracy theories should really come as no surprise, except maybe to those who deluded themselves into believing that Trump would, at some point, make the grand pivot into “being more presidential.” This, obviously, is just never going to happen. Trump is Trump, for better or worse. He’s the same Trump who spent a whole lot of time being the most visible and vocal advocate of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in Hawai’i, and was therefore somehow an illegitimate president. This whole idea was nonsense on many levels, not the least of which was that Obama still would have been a “natural-born citizen” of the U.S.A. no matter where on Earth he had been born. The entire Republican Party even admitted as much last year, when they allowed Ted Cruz to run for their nomination, despite the fact that Cruz was born in Canada. But birtherism was never all that grounded in reality in any case. This simply didn’t matter to Trump, who gleefully led the media around by the nose for way too long a period of time on this non-issue.
Trump, as mentioned, has only been president for two months. If he lasts his entire term, we’ve still got 46 more months of this, folks. Just in his first two months on the job, Trump has spouted so many conspiracy theories it’s getting hard to keep up. Now, some of these can be excused as nothing short of unfounded bragging (where no bragging is justified), such as Trump’s insistence that he had won “the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan.” This one, in particular, wasn’t even close to being true, since a factual statement on the size of Trump’s Electoral College win would be: “Donald Trump won the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, except for every other president since Reagan except George W. Bush.” George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all beat Trump’s total, in other words. Trump does like to brag, though, and he doesn’t really care whether he’s got a factual leg to stand on or not. Most of the time, this is patently obvious, as when he called the reception he got at a speech he gave at the C.I.A. “the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl.” It’s pretty easy to see right through statements like that, in other words (I’d wager pretty much the end applause at every single rock-n-roll show ever held was, in fact, far bigger and warmer than what Trump got ― every opera performance, too, now that I think about it). But Trump’s always got to be the biggest and best at everything (in his own mind), no matter how absurd the claim sounds to the rest of us.
Chest-thumping aside, though, Trump also has the propensity to toss out real conspiracy theories, and it’s getting more and more worrisome. So let’s take a quick look at the timeline of how these Trump tall tales play out. Not every Trump conspiracy theory touches all these bases, but by now the general pattern is becoming fairly clear.
Outrageous statement of conspiracy theory as fact, with no proof
This usually seems to happen in the wee hours of the morning, as Trump tweets his way into each new day. This isn’t always the case, as sometimes it does happen later in the day, but no matter when it happens, Trump asserts something as hard, cold fact with absolutely nothing to back it up.
Claims of insider knowledge
Sometimes this accompanies the original statement, and sometimes there’s a lag time, but Trump can usually be counted on to offer up some version of: “I’ve got the real scoop, and ― believe me ― you’d be shocked if you knew what I already know.”
Don’t believe your lyin’ eyes
The most ludicrous part of the early phases of a Trump conspiracy theory is when Trump attempts to refute actual evidence by stating baldly that photographs (or other physical proof) simply cannot be believed, because they do not match up with what Trump is certain is true. The most laughable of these was the first Trump conspiracy theory of his presidency ― that somehow two million people showed up to see his inauguration, even though every single photo from every single source showed a crowd so small as to be pathetic, compared with other presidents’ inaugurations. The photos, Trump (and his minions) were quick to point out, simply could not be trusted, since they didn’t validate Trump’s version of reality.
Facts are for wimps
If there isn’t immediate photographic evidence which disproves Trump, there is usually a period when the fact-checkers and the media look into whatever wild claim Trump is making. This has, universally, led to some combination of either facts being uncovered that solidly disprove Trump, and/or absolutely zero facts being uncovered (by anybody) which would affirmatively prove Trump’s claims. When presented with such facts (or lack thereof), Trump immediately blames the media for being in on the conspiracy against his version of reality. It’s all the media’s fault, in other words.
Promises to investigate fully
This is usually the point that Trump will grandly call for a sweeping investigation into his nonsensical claims. If Trump is lucky, this is quickly ignored by everyone concerned, and the story then fades into the background. This is precisely what has happened with one of the wilder conspiracy theories Trump has so far made, that three million (or maybe five million) people illegally voted in the presidential election in the widest voter fraud ever seen in America, and that of those millions of votes, they all ― every single one! ― went for Hillary Clinton. Trump used this one to explain why he was beaten so badly in the popular vote. He then loudly called for Congress to investigate, and nothing’s been heard of this conspiracy theory since (after Congress pointedly ignored him).
Painful redefinition of terms
At some point, Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway or some other Trump toady makes a rather pathetic (and painful to watch) attempt at hammering reality into fitting the bizarre mold of Trump’s conspiracy theory. You see, all you need to do is to massively restate and redefine what Trump actually said (or tweeted), and then you can (kinda, sorta) match it up to some real-world facts. “Trump was actually talking about how many people were watching on television and not the crowd on the National Mall ― problem solved!”
Declaration that Trump has been right all along
This usually comes from Trump himself, but sometimes he farms it out to his underlings. “Trump was right (using our newly-created restatement and redefinition), and everybody else (including the lying media and all their fake news) was wrong. End of story.” Nothing to see here, folks.
Casual references by Trump as if his conspiracy theory was real
Trump himself will eventually ignore all these carefully constructed redefinitions and restatements, and just comment off-the-cuff how he was vindicated and how everyone knows that his original statement was 100 percent true. Just as he did a few days ago with Angela Merkel on the wiretapping charge, in fact.
Rinse and repeat
After this whole cycle has been run, Trump will insist until the end of time that he was right and everyone else was just being mean to him by contradicting any wild-eyed thing he believes. He’s never going to apologize to anyone, he’s never even going to admit he was wrong in any way. That’s just not in his psychological makeup. The only thing that will stop the questions is the next wild conspiracy theory Trump decides to uncork.
As I said, not every Trump tall tale goes through each and every one of these stages. Sometimes a few are skipped. Sometimes Trump himself is the one who just clams up and refuses to talk about it any more. You can tell he still believes he’s right, but he’s learned that the entire rest of the universe just laughs at him when he says so. This was on full display during the campaign, when Trump never definitively answered the question of whether he fully believes that Barack Obama was born in Hawai’i. Trump would shrug his shoulders and drop tiny hints that everyone else had been fooled, but he wouldn’t come right out and go full birther. That’s as close as Trump’s ever going to get to admitting that he was wrong all along.
President Donald Trump is going to continue running this playbook for as long as a certain segment of the public allows him to get away with it. There are plenty of Trump voters who believe Trump over any and all hard evidence to the contrary, and so far he hasn’t paid any real political price for dabbling in conspiracy theories. He could make the most outrageous statements you can imagine, and some will believe it no matter what else they hear in response. Picture Trump in the pre-dawn hours, at some point in the near future, tweeting out:
Little green men FROM OUTER SPACE have INVADED America! This is no joke! We are under attack!!!
Any sane person would tend not to believe that, of course. When asked to defend it, Sean Spicer would be forced to initially report: “President Trump says he has seen intelligence reports that indicate that an alien invasion is actually taking place, and he’s calling for a full investigation into this dire situation.” The media frenzy which followed would be hard to even imagine, but every rock would be turned over all the way back to the Roswell incident, you can be sure of that. After a few days of digging, absolutely nothing would be uncovered except perhaps the fact that Trump has always been a big fan of The X-Files and that he’s always loved the president in the movie Independence Day. Other than that, nothing. Spicer would, at this point, be under enormous pressure to offer any sort of sane explanation for Trump’s extraordinary claim. Some rather outrageous and jaw-dropping spin would be attempted as a result, after much brainstorming by the press office. I could easily see Spicer announcing something along the lines of:
By “little,” President Trump was really saying “shorter than average.” By “green” he actually meant “a person of color, perhaps from Mexico, who eats too many avocados.” And by “from outer space,” Trump was obviously talking about aliens such as illegal aliens ― the same term the U.S. government uses for Mexicans in this country without proper papers, I should point out. So what the president was actually saying was that illegal aliens from Mexico ― some of them shorter than average ― have indeed invaded this country, since we haven’t build the big, beautiful wall on our border yet. I don’t know why anyone would read the president’s tweet any differently, since he’s obviously making a point about immigration and the need for a southern border wall ― in fact, no other interpretation of his words is even remotely possible. The president does consider America to be under attack, and he also considers it to be no joking matter. Next question.
This would be followed (after a certain amount of time passes) by Trump himself either casually making a reference in a public event or via a casual followup tweet. In doing so, Trump would either forget or just ignore the carefully constructed house-of-cards redefinition that his team worked so hard to create out of whole cloth:
I’ve seen many reports about little green men in the news. I’m not the only one talking about aliens from space, believe me. Even the fake news is reporting on it. Everybody knows that there’s an alien invasion underway, but with all the fantastic generals we have at the Pentagon, we have now been successful in fighting this invasion off, and they now all fully assure me that there are no little green men from outer space left in America at all. We’ve won the war, people, and by doing so we’ve made America great again!
And that’d be all Trump would have to say about that. If the media continued to hound and ridicule Trump over the issue, then he would just wake up one morning and decide to tweet something even more outrageous, as a fresh distraction. And then the Trump conspiracy theory life cycle would begin anew, with an even-crazier fantasy for everyone to chase after. Until Trump pays any sort of political price for doing so, we should all expect this rinse-and-repeat cycle to continue, sad to say.
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