The conspiracy theorist in chief
I think this piece by Peter Nicholas in the Atlantic goes a long way toward explaining Trump (and his followers') dependence on kooky conspiracy theories. The question is whether or not Republicans can, or even want to, turn this around is unanswered.
This is the conclusion. I recommend you read the whole thing if you can. It's fascinating:
To grasp why conspiracy theories appeal to Trump, it’s important to understand the man. Mental-health experts have described Trump as a narcissist forever feeding his grandiose sense of self. Facts and evidence aren’t nearly so convincing to Trump as what makes him feel better about himself. Trump was an illegitimate candidate in 2016 who benefited from foreign interference? No, that was Hillary! “His perception, even his definition, of good and bad is what makes him feel good in the moment,” David Reiss, a San Diego–based psychiatrist who has studied and written about Trump’s psyche, told me. “There’s no sense of consequences beyond what’s good for me in the moment, and then that gets projected onto everything. What’s good for me is good for the universe.”
It goes on to describe all the various ways we've learned that people inside the White House, from Priebus to Mattis to Kelly and others, tried to keep him from accessing all this conspiracy nonsense. But they have all either been kicked out or eased aside and nobody can keep Trump away from Fox or his phone which means there's really nothing they can do.
Joseph Vitriol, a College Fellow in Harvard’s psychology department who has studied conspiracy theories, told me that Trump “likely will gravitate toward anything that will make him feel good about himself and believe that he’s respected. That makes him averse to information that’s inconsistent with that perception, and makes him deeply suspicious of the motivations of people who criticize him. It also makes him unable to meaningfully engage with a broad range of information.”
This propensity for self-soothing combines with an anti-intellectualism that seems part of Trump’s makeup. He’s skeptical of elite opinion and not convinced that he has anything still to learn. As my colleague Ron Brownstein wrote last week, Trump and his Republican allies have been “escalating their war on expertise.”
Trump’s mind is thus fertile soil for bogus ideas to take root. A new book written by an anonymous senior Trump-administration official, A Warning, describes Trump pushing away facts and conclusions that don’t jibe with his own views. “When he does sit down for a briefing on sensitive information, it’s the same as any other Trump briefing,” the author writes. “He hears what he wants to hear, and disregards what he doesn’t. Intelligence information must comport to his worldview for it to stick. If it doesn’t, it’s ‘not very good.’”
“He gets his intellectual mojo out of television,” not other forms of learning, said Brinkley, who traveled to Mar-a-Lago during the transition in 2016 to meet with Trump and discuss past presidential inaugurals.
Conspiracy theory is a convenient umbrella term for various ideas Trump holds that lack foundation. But the phrase may be assigning these notions more gravity than they deserve. Trump often dishes up brute assertions that leave no space for rational argument. Statements that stoke anger, not thought. Democrats are out to get him because they’re “sick.” The impeachment inquiry is a “hoax.” Repeat as needed. Nancy Rosenblum, a government professor emerita at Harvard, describes it as conspiracy without the theory. The term she’s coined for this sort of mind-set: conspiracism.
“There’s no answer for it,” she told me, “which is why it is so seriously disorienting to people. We’ve never seen anything like it. We don’t know how to meet it. It’s an attempt to construct a reality, and when it comes from the president, he has the capacity to impose that reality on the nation.”
Constructing his own reality necessitates an attack on fact-finding institutions that are central to American democracy—universities, nonpartisan government agencies, law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the news media. For Trump’s version of events to take hold, he needs people to accept that the facts leaping out at them aren’t to be believed, that institutions wedded to objective truth aren’t to be trusted.
I think Trump is most essentially a cult of personality so some of this will fade naturally when he is no longer the center of attention. But with the old-school conservative movement dead and the Republican Party reduced to nothing more than a party desperately clinging to power for its own sake, it's not hard to see this phenomenon hanging around, particularly when there's money to be made at it, which Fox and and the various profit centers of the right wing have shown can be very lucrative.
Here, Trump’s imprint will be hard to erase. Trump acolytes inside the Republican caucus are aping his methods and standing with him as he advances his fact-free claims about Ukraine’s complicity in the 2016 election. Unceasing attacks on “fake news” have resonated with a certain audience. Polling from The Wall Street Journal/NBC News shows that in 2010, 60 percent of Republicans had either no or very little confidence in the national news media. As of June—two and a half years into Trump’s presidency—that figure had grown to 74 percent. “Conspiracy theories go right to the jugular of what a democracy is,” Vitriol said. “The stakes are as high as they could possibly be.”
One day, the conspiracist in chief will leave office. His successors will face a choice: Exploit the damage he’s done to democratic institutions and norms, or see if it can be fixed.
To most Americans, this stuff looks like a descent down the rabbit hole. But to those inside it it seems to feel very comforting even though it makes no sense. Maybe that's the key. It just requires blind faith, loyalty and features a pleasant camaraderie --- reason is not required.