I am writing you this month with an unusual request – to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt. No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is to not let Trump turn the people of the country (if not the world) into the type of jaded conspiracy theorists who give rise to figures like Trump. This may indeed mean cultivating a sort of deliberate gullibility, in the face of rampant political malfeasance. Unfortunately, the opposite, becoming understandably jaded, may seriously compromise out ability to return to any sort of “politics as normal” in the post-Trump world.
It’s hard not to imagine fire behind all this Russian smoke. Trump appears to have, at the very least, attempted to quash the investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia, and at the very most colluded with a foreign power to influence the U.S. election. Every few days bring more administration officials into the swirling investigation, and each of these new figures responds with increasingly quotidian denials.
So, what to do with all of these redundant denials? Until more evidence comes out (which it may, by the time this is published), believe them, especially when they come from politicians with long careers in Republican leadership. The reason why I suggest this is because to do otherwise starts to look like a violation of the central maxim for surviving this aberrant and abhorrent administration: “This is not normal.” To assume everyone is guilty is to assume corruption in Washington is normal which, quite simply, normalizes corruption.
And the evidence is rampant that a jaded electorate who believes all politicians are corrupt engenders a government that fits this dark worldview. If everyone is dishonest, then dishonesty becomes acceptable. Just look at all the Trump supporters in this election who looked past his Trump University class action, his likely fraudulent charity, and numerous other ethical red flags, because of the Clinton Foundation’s foreign donations and her paid speeches. The view that everyone is corrupt leads to false equivalencies. More than that, it says that big missteps are equal to small missteps, because no one is pure, and what’s the difference between a questionable campaign donation and an outright bribe, when decency is held up to a harsh binary standard? Think of a preacher who starts stealing from his congregation because he’s having impure thoughts, and is therefore already damned.
What’s more, most conspiracy theories in American politics can be shown to emanate from a basic misunderstanding about American government: That it is more driven by incompetence and inefficiency than coordinated strategy. Cloak and dagger conspiracies may work in totalitarian nations, where the government functions with military efficiency, but modern democracies are far too disorganized to pull off such subterfuge. Not getting this leads to assuming our embassy’s attack in Benghazi was an inside job, that our slow response to 9-11 was because the Bush administration wanted an attack on the U.S., and that there may have been a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico (can you imagine the kind of internal organization it would take to keep such a secret for decades?)
This Russian mess may take the pattern one step further than usual. If most conspiracy theories are based on an inability to perceive incompetence, than this may prove to be a rare instance where rank incompetence led to inadvertent conspiracy. It is highly possible that Trump tried to cover up an investigation because he didn’t understand how government operates (and his idea of government is the kind of jaded view held by conspiracy theorists).
In fact, this whole debacle should give Americans great confidence in the probity of their government. Memos are surfacing, subpoenas are going around, and a capable independent investigator has been assigned. Whatever the truth of the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russia and the administration’s efforts to affect a cover-up, it’s all going to come out. And that should give everyone confidence that the “deep state” is there to protect American values, not undermine them.
Trump’s rise to power was often tied to conspiracy theories laden with jingoism and racism. The extreme right first started to embrace him when he claimed Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya. He then claimed that global warming is a Chinese hoax to undermine the U.S. economy. He taps into a dark, hateful worldview in which everyone is trying to put one over on you. It’s a worldview that grows the more people assume the worst in each other.
It’s a worldview that Trump appears to hold himself, which is dangerously on display in current U.S. international relations. If Trump’s speech justifying our withdrawal from The Paris Accord is to be believed, then Trump saw a cheering NATO as signaling they were cheering that the U.S. was getting the bad end of a deal; he can’t imagine that nations would cheer the cooperative achievement of a shared goal. Of course he gets along better with Putin or Middle Eastern leaders than European leaders; they share Trump’s dark sense of us-v-them realpolitik.
Herein lies the true global danger for the cynical worldview tied to conspiracy theory. Just as Americans need to be vigilant against allowing this darkness into our hearts, so do the people of the world need to fuel the flames of their own optimism in the face of this cold wind. If such cynicism spreads, the world will be pulled into greater factionalism, sectarian conflict, and inability to cooperate on planetary goals. It’s tempting to see Trump’s efforts to undermine global cohesion as some sort of masterful Machiavellian conspiracy, but it’s probably just incompetence based on cynical misunderstanding.