The inability of the Left and the alt-right to view Trump’s decisions outside the context of conspiracy theories illustrates the derangement of political discourse
Explaining President Donald Trump’s willingness to abandon positions he took during the election campaign now that he’s in office shouldn’t be that difficult. Those not overthinking the problem understand that Trump cares nothing for consistency or ideology. But that hasn’t stopped many on both ends of the political spectrum from interpreting his changes of heart on Syria, Russia, and China solely through a conspiratorial mindset in which he can be depicted as either Moscow’s puppet or the cat’s-paw of Wall Street or of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. In doing so, they are showing us that our political culture’s most toxic problem isn’t so much the fault of a president who doesn’t conform to traditional behavior as it is polarized ideologues whose only answer to a complex and confusing world is to see it through the prisms of their own bogeymen.
Trump embarked on a presidential campaign without a record to run on and generally stuck to generalities and slogans, rather than issuing position papers, as most candidates have traditionally done. We associated Trumpism with an “America First” isolationism on foreign policy and trade and building a wall that he said Mexico would pay for. The only real substance of his campaign was resentment of political elites and a belief that America was being taken advantage of by friends and allies.
Viewed in perspective and stripped of the efforts of political opponents and supporters to define him in a way that was more about bolstering their own ideological positions, Trump, it’s easy now to see, was always unmoored to any fixed position other than a commitment to his own advancement. He was neither liberal nor conservative but a populist — which means he was always likely to do anything he perceived to be popular no matter what he had said about the subject previously. If what little record he had didn’t conform to his current positions, he simply falsified the record, as when he insisted that he had always opposed the Iraq war. His current ludicrous claim that he is responsible for NATO’s devoting more resources to fighting terror, even though that change happened years ago, is just the latest example of his determination never to acknowledge mistakes or that he has changed his positions.
But rather than acknowledge that the Trump administration is either a work in progress or an improvisation with no consistent theme, his embittered foes and disillusioned supporters are heading down the conspiracy rabbit hole.
Trump’s convention acceptance speech and inaugural address gave us good reason to believe “America First” contempt for traditional foreign-policy priorities would be the template for his administration. But while those ideas do reflect the beliefs of Steve Bannon and supposed Trump true believers then ascendant in the president’s inner circle, it was clearly always a mistake to assume that that or any other set of principles would guide his decisions. He warned us that he would be flexible and unpredictable, and that is exactly what he has become.
When presented with the horrors of the Assad regime’s chemical attack and proof that the Russians were complicit in the crime, Trump discarded his seeming crush on Moscow. Listening to the reports of his military advisers, he may also have started to catch on that letting the Russians have their way in Syria was antithetical to any hope of defeating ISIS or containing Iran. That led to the U.S. attack on Syria as well as to a willingness to confront rather than enable Vladimir Putin’s desire to reassemble the old Soviet empire.
But to left-wing commentators like those on MSNBC, the simple explanation that Trump just changed his mind won’t wash. For Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews, the attack on Syria was merely a subterfuge to distract the country from the claims that Trump is an agent of Russian influence. Keith Olbermann calls it all a “stunt.” Unable to wrap their brains around the fact that Trump was never wedded to any set of ideas about how to conduct foreign policy, they can only explain it as a conspiracy, the switch from Bannon’s point of view to one that reflects that of the generals and ex-military men who currently appear to have the president’s ear.
Each of the last three presidents before Trump inspired derangement syndromes among their opponents, each iteration noisier and more influential than the last.
Liberal belief in the concept of the Trump presidency as a Russian plot is part wishful thinking: If the “Manchurian Candidate” theory could be validated, it might make the bad dream go away. It’s also a way to avoid confronting the reality of the Democrats’ defeat and of their need to rethink their political strategy of locking themselves into a policy of all-out “resistance” rather than normal opposition. Democrats may pray that the FBI finds proof to justify their allegations, but even if none ever surfaces, many of them will not drop their belief in the conspiracy, since doing so would mean accepting that Trump can’t be wished away or treated as an illegitimate president. Nor will his ability to turn against the Russians and adopt what is, for all intents and purposes, a more conventional Republican foreign policy cause them to give up their fantasy, because it’s so much easier dismissing him as a stooge, rather than trying to guess what a man learning on the job might do.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is panic among the minority of Republicans who supported the “America First” package and did not merely accept Trump as the lesser of two evils or back the celebrity candidate as a way to clean house in Washington. They may have hoped that the compatibility of Bannon’s ideas with Trump’s deep resentment of the establishment would ensure that the campaign rhetoric would translate into policy, but they, too, must now learn to live with a president who is interested in popular victories — such as the one his outrage and action on Syria earned him — rather than their beliefs.
So it’s little surprise to see that the alt-right sounding boards on talk radio are now concentrating their fire on Trump’s son-in-law and the perceived influence of former Wall Street figure Gary Cohn. In this version of a Trump conspiracy, it’s the evil political and economic establishment that is manipulating the president. Seeing Trump in this way allows his would-be admirers to defend him as a captive of the bad guys rather than as a cynical celebrity who fooled them into thinking he shared their frame of reference.
Conspiracy theories are as old as the republic. But what is different about their current iteration is that their advocates are not contained, as they used to be, to the fever swamps of American life. They now have platforms that are far closer to the mainstream. Each of the last three presidents before Trump inspired derangement syndromes among their opponents, each iteration noisier and more influential than the last. But today, we are presented with an environment in which conspiracy theories are not a sideshow but a staple of political debate.
The real explanation for Trump’s flip-flops is in the willingness of so many voters to embrace a man who was an ideological blank slate. His rise was an expression of widespread disillusionment with conventional politics. His disrupting influence was not the engine of political dysfunction but merely a symptom of it. The real problem is that major segments of both the Left and the Right seem capable only of interpreting his entirely predictable inconsistency as the product of wild conspiracies.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review Online.