Politics & Policy

The Paranoid Style of Anti-Trump Politics

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
Even the mainstream press is starting to buy into conspiracy theories.

In the 1990s, a serious malady appeared on the American public square in which citizens were driven over the edge by their antipathy for incumbent presidents. It came to be known as the “presidential-derangement syndrome” and over the course of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations its victims grew in number. But while it was a given that whoever won last November’s election would have one named after them, we really had no idea what we were in for once Donald Trump moved into the White House. As we’ve seen this past week, presidential paranoia has not only gone mainstream in terms of the public, it’s now found a home in the mainstream media.

Though it was limited at first to the fever swamps of American politics where some on the right first imagined that black helicopters were about to swoop in and steal their freedom or that the Clintons were operating a drug cartel, the derangement virus adapted to the changing political environment in the years that followed. Those deranged by Bush were less marginal than the Clinton victims but shared the belief that the 43rd president was somehow a front for a vast conspiracy and not only blamed him for “lying” the country into war but viewed the entire national-security response to 9/11 as a put-up job intended to mask the theft of liberty.

As awful as the Bush version was, the Obama-derangement syndrome was in many ways even worse as the 44th president’s citizenship was questioned along with his religious faith and anything else about him that anyone could think of. Though Obama’s liberal policies and power grabs were bad enough from a conservative point of view, some on the right preferred to instead spend their energy pondering the authenticity of his birth certificate (see Trump, Donald) or whether or not he was an Islamist mole. We can blame the Internet and the rise of social media for the more pervasive nature of Obama conspiracy theories but even that dispiriting spectacle may turn out to be insignificant when compared to the psychological torment Trump has inspired among not merely the far Left but also mainstream liberals.

Anyone with a Facebook account already knows that many of our liberal friends are convinced that Trump is, at best, setting the U.S. up for a rerun of the last days of Weimar Germany. At worst, they see him as not merely a billionaire with a thin skin but as the mastermind of a scheme aimed at replacing democracy with a dictatorship that will repress women and minorities.

When “liked,” shared, and echoed in comments on social media, that sort of thinking is a form of mass group therapy for those who still can’t believe Trump won the election. But it’s also what helped to motivate the counter-inaugural marches and the rest of the reaction to the new administration that increasingly calls itself a “resistance” rather than mere political opposition.

That there is no more “proof” of a coming Trump coup than there was for past derangement-syndrome theories is immaterial. What matters is that growing numbers of liberals are operating under the assumption that Trump isn’t merely an inappropriate figure or wrong on the issues; they think he is really plotting to destroy democracy.

One would hope that mainstream, liberal publications would, as serious conservative journalists did during the Obama presidency, act as a check on this sort of foolishness. But the fever pitch of angst about every one of Trump’s appointees and the over-the-top denunciations of his immigration orders in mainstream publications like the New York Times and on cable-news networks have only served to reinforce the tendency to view the debate through a conspiratorial mindset.

But on Thursday the Washington Post went a step further. In his discussion of the controversy over Judge Neal Gorsuch’s reported comments about Trump’s criticism of judges, Chris Cillizza used “The Fix” column to probe the question of whether the entire kerfuffle — what Gorsuch said and the reaction from both the president and Kellyanne Conway — was a charade.

One would hope that mainstream, liberal publications would, as serious conservative journalists did during the Obama presidency, act as a check on this sort of foolishness.

While it’s true that one can argue that Gorsuch’s statement might make him more palatable to Democratic senators (though the odds that more than one or two will resist the party base’s demand for an all-out war and filibuster of Trump’s choice for the High Court are minimal), Cillizza’s reasoning was based in a common thread of liberal thought these days: the belief that Trump is “operating off a master plan only he can see” and that the chaos of his administration’s early days is actually “careful orchestration.” Trump “fooled” the country during the campaign and “what’s to say he’s not doing it again now?”

The conceit of the piece was that if you “dig a little deeper” this relatively minor sidebar to both the confirmation and the litigation over Trump’s executive orders “the conspiracy theories begin to seem, well, not so conspiratorial.” Though the supposed proof for this is entirely circumstantial, Cillizza insisted we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the ensuing controversy was “all part of his [Trump’s] broader plan.” The column crossed the line between D.C. gossip and a bow in the direction of the social-media paranoia that is driving the anger of what is no longer a fringe element of the Democratic party.

Once even the gatekeepers of responsible liberal opinion begin to see hidden agendas everywhere then it is fair to ask whether the extremism and paranoia of the anti-Trump camp is matching or exceeding the bad judgment being exhibited by the White House. We can’t know where this will lead as liberal hysteria and Trumpian contempt for political norms compete in a race to the bottom of the barrel. But what we can be sure of is that this derangement syndrome is already far more serious than those that afflicted critics of Clinton, Bush, and Obama and is bound to get even worse over the next four years.

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