- Trump’s impeachment is based on actions he took that were motivated by an idea that doesn’t exist in reality.
- His lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, is allegedly being investigated by federal authorities over campaign finance violations made in pursuit of this conspiracy theory.
- Previously, conservatives pushed false narratives as a deliberate strategy to distract and annoy their enemies.
- But increasingly, conservatives are arguing that it is right to adopt false ideas as articles of faith regardless of the real-world outcome. You can see this in the “debates” over climate science and vaccinations.
- Trump really believes what he says. The question is whether conservatism as a school of thought wants to follow him off this cliff.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Perhaps the strangest part of the impeachment process against President Donald Trump is its origin: Trump’s own false belief that somehow the government of Ukraine has been secretly working against him.
It is difficult to state, without exaggeration, just how bizarre this notion is. Trump will be tried in the Senate over the actions he took based on an idea that doesn’t exist in reality.
The idea – Trump’s idea – is that Ukraine is responsible for pushing a false narrative that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, to his benefit. (There’s no evidence for this idea. The opposite is true: Russia did interfere in the election, and Ukraine had nothing to do with it.)
Even on its own terms, the idea makes no sense. Ukraine needed the US’s help in its fight against Russia. Why would it be simultaneously sabotaging an election while asking for help?
“We could never quite understand it,” White House officials said of Trump’s irrationality
Nonetheless, Trump believes it.
“They tried to take me down,” Trump said of the Ukraine government, at a meeting in the Oval office in May, according to the Washington Post. “They are horrible, corrupt people.”
His staff, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, tried to give him good advice. After all, Ukraine is a country that desperately needed US military aid at the time.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo couldn’t find any evidence for the theory either, and he ended up calling Fox News for clues.
Trump was having none of it. “We could never quite understand it,” a former senior White House official told the Post. “There were accusations that they had somehow worked with the Clinton campaign. There were accusations they’d hurt him. He just hated Ukraine.”
Giuliani is allegedly risking 5 years in federal prison for a conspiracy theory
Trump’s impeachment isn’t the only real-world consequence of the fictional belief that, for some squirrelly reason, Ukraine was sabotaging Trump while simultaneously relying on him for help. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, has spent so much time in Ukraine in search of “the truth” that he is now under federal investigation for possibly failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine, and possible violations of campaign finance law, according to Bloomberg.
This has potentially serious consequences for Giuliani. The penalty for failing to register as a foreign agent is up to five years in prison.
Yet Giuliani is doubling down. He spent early December in Ukraine interviewing former prosecutors in hopes of finding something – anything – that might demonstrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son was somehow involved in corruption in Ukraine. So far, nothing.
“We don’t really think the frogs are gay”
Previously, conservatives pushed false conspiracy theories precisely because they knew the theories were false. Airing theories that are false has several tactical advantages:
- It distracts the media from more important issues.
- It causes division among liberals.
- And it wastes the time of opponents, who expend effort trying to debunk them.
There is a great story by BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein that describes how alt-right conspiracy web sites create their news. Activists see their lies as a form of entertainment, in much the same way that liberals used to enjoy Stephen Colbert’s fictional conservative persona on The Colbert Report.
In the story, Nora Ralph, one of the editors of the Ralph Retort (a conservative conspiracy site) describes how she feels about Infowars’ Alex Jones, another prolific pusher of political fiction. “To me, that’s entertainment. We don’t really think the frogs are gay. I don’t think the protein powder works. I never thought some people watch this stuff and are like, yes, this is hard-hitting journalism. I thought most of us could distinguish between entertainment and facts. I never really thought people were stupid enough to get caught up in this stuff.”
But Trump really believes this stuff
It comes as a surprise to discover that Trump is not in on the joke. He’s not blathering on about Ukraine because he enjoys triggering “Trump Derangement Syndrome” among his enemies. He really believes “this stuff.”
And it’s not just Ukraine. Consider:
- Trump is not able to tell the difference between bots and humans on Twitter. Prior to his election, he retweeted bots 150 times.
- Trump routinely reacts to White House intel briefings by saying, “I’m not sure I believe that.”
- He has personally tweeted that his intelligence chiefs’ national security assessments are “naive.” “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong! …Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
Trump isn’t pushing conspiracies as part of an elaborate game with the media. He is genuinely unable to tell fact from fiction. That makes the crisis inside the White House a level more dangerous. Dangerous for him – in terms of the legal consequences. And dangerous for the country, whose foreign and domestic policies are being derailed by things that don’t exist in real life.
“It takes less emotional effort to believe in a baseless conspiracy theory … than a difficult, hard, complex truth”
I asked Travis View, a longtime observer of the QAnon conspiracy movement, why anyone would voluntarily gull themselves into such a tight corner that they might, like Giuliani, be prosecuted.
“For Pizzagate believers, it was satisfying to think that Hillary Clinton would be arrested for child sex trafficking. For Alex Jones, spreading baseless conspiracy theories gained him a large audience and wealth,” he told me.
“For Trump, believing that Ukraine was responsible for election meddling absolves Russia, and therefore removed the taint from Trump’s election victory. It takes less emotional effort to believe in a baseless conspiracy theory that uplifts your allies and condemns your enemies than a difficult, hard, complex truth.”
False ideas are no longer being pushed as a strategy of distraction. Now they are required as articles of faith.
The embrace of fictitious beliefs – regardless of the real-world consequences – is a step-change in conservative thinking. You can see it in climate science denial, QAnon, the anti-vaxx movement, and believing that the water supply is contaminated with chemicals that make frogs gay. False ideas are no longer being pushed as a strategy of distraction. Now they are required as articles of faith, facts that require belief regardless of the real-world consequences.
As Giuliani’s legal situation indicates, there are real dangers to this line of thinking. Alex Jones, too, has been successfully sued for pushing the line that the Sandy Hook shooting never occurred.
Trump, however, clearly doesn’t care.
The question is whether conservatism as a whole wants to follow him off this cliff.