For the past eight months, the media have obsessed over the thinnest of smoke surrounding Trump’s connection to the Russian government, but Tuesday, actual evidence finally materialized. When Donald Trump Jr. released an e-mail thread confirming that he was eager to accept damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government, the Russia nothingburger turned out, at the very least, to be a low-cal somethingburger. If further evidence is found and the public discovers that Trump knew of a conspiracy with a foreign government, he surely will hear calls for impeachment, if not see criminal charges.
But the people are exhausted. Trump colluded with the Russians? Yeah, we know, 68 percent of Americans would say, even before the e-mails were released. Nevertheless, a month ago, nearly the same percentage of voters told a Harvard-Harris poll that the Trump/Russia investigation is “hurting the country.” Presumably, some of this majority dislikes the investigation for reputational reasons, but some may have grown to believe it’s a waste of time, even if collusion did happen.
Conspiring with an adversarial foreign government to influence an election would be an egregious offense against democracy. Credible charges to that effect should be taken with extreme seriousness. And yet, following a year of constant outrage, Trump acolytes, and even many politically ambivalent Americans, have a hard time seeing what makes the unearthing of the younger Trump’s e-mails such a monumental development. How many hours of cable-news coverage have they seen obsessing over Trump’s infantile and inconsequential whining about Hamilton, or how Mike Pence wants to literally kill all gay people, or how Paul Ryan wants every congresswoman to wear a burqa on the House floor? The Fifth Avenue principle, the notion that Trump could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose voters, is true in part because of his base’s fervent MAGA devotion, but also because the 24-hour outrage cycle has desensitized large swathes of the public not just to outrage but to reality.
Trump communities frequented by older demographics, such as Facebook groups and Breitbart, have responded to the news mostly with “whataboutism”: alleging hypocrisy and engaging in moral relativism to exonerate bad actors on one’s own side. And in the deeper pro-Trump groups — those populated largely by digitally fluent post-Millennials — MAGAlytes have woven Facebook posts and reporting from Louise Mensch into complex conspiracies placing Trump in the middle of a plot orchestrated by Obama and the FBI. Seriously.
The basic conspiracy theory emerging goes like this: The Russian lawyer Trump met with last year, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had ties to Christopher Steele — the former British spy responsible for the famous “Steele dossier” on Trump — and was secretly anti-Trump herself. Redditors and 4chan posters have sourced this with Veselnitskaya’s Facebook photos of Trump protests and the fact that Veselnitskaya represented Denis Katsyv, a Russian money launderer who also hired Steele’s company to help get the Magnitsky Act repealed. These relationships have been verified.
MAGAlytes further claim that Veselnitskaya met with Trump under Obama’s orders, a claim resting on the logical jump that because her visa had been expired for months at the time of the meeting, the president at the time (Obama) must have allowed her special access to the country. An article from Gateway Pundit claiming that Veselnitskaya met with Obama officials in the days following the Trump meeting has also gained traction in Trump circles. Most of the claims also rely on the firm belief that Obama’s FBI continually spied on Trump during the campaign through a FISA-court warrant. This still-unproven theory is then used as the foundation of the conspiracy: that James Comey recounted Trump Jr.’s e-mails to the New York Times when attending an independent event in the newspaper’s building last month.
Such are the mental gymnastics that the Trump base is willing to perform in order to ignore the smoke surrounding Junior.
Such are the mental gymnastics that the Trump base is willing to perform in order to ignore the smoke surrounding Junior. We shouldn’t be surprised. The media have finally found a smoking gun — or the outline of one — but, having gotten into the gutter with Trump so early, have little credibility as purveyors of the news. They already let Trump push them into the role of the resistance, undying opponents of the president no matter what the evidence is. But now we have clear facts, tangible e-mails, and a whole lot of lies from the president’s son, not that it matters to the MAGAlytes. No matter how awful the day is, the front page of 4chan’s /pol/ group will still laud Based Barron or the “MAGA Emperor,” regardless of reality. So, Trump’s base will refuse to admit that there’s a smoking gun, even if it shot them in the fact, just so long as they can defend the Emperor with no clothes.