In the past several weeks, a lot of attention has been paid to Donald Trump’s penchant for bullying his political opponents and for making “textbook” racist statements about the federal judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit. But not enough attention has been spent examining another aspect of Trump’s appeal: his tendency to embrace unfounded conspiracy theories as fact. This “feature” of Donald Trump was on full display on June 22, when he injected unsubstantiated plots and right-wing paranoia about Hillary Clinton into the American presidential debate.
Trump’s speech included numerous false and misleading statements. Trump falsely claimed that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens “was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed” – two emails from Clinton show that she was awake after it was learned that Stevens had died. Trump falsely claimed that the private server that Clinton used as secretary of state “was easily hacked by foreign governments” – though there were attacks, there is no evidence to date that any of them were successful. Trump alleged, without a shred of evidence, that Clinton “wants to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to settle Middle Eastern refugees in the United States” – the total refugee budget was $1.67 billion in fiscal year 2016.
Former president Ronald Reagan once said that “facts are stupid things,” and a senior official working for George W. Bush was once quoted anonymously that the White House could create its own reality. Trump takes that sentiment to new levels: He simply ignores reality. The ease at which falsehoods masquerading as facts rolled off Trump’s tongue on June 22 is nothing short of breathtaking. But that is a big secret to Trump’s success.
Make Facts Irrelevant Again
Trump’s once delayed, and much anticipated, attack on Hillary Clinton’s character can be boiled down to a single, central line of attack: that Clinton is “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.” To Trump, the entire Clinton family – not just Hillary – has been using the American people to satisfy an insatiable greed for money and power.
To support this outlandish claim, Trump cited to one source: “The book Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweitzer,” which, according to Trump, “documents how Bill and Hillary used the State Department to enrich their family at America’s expense.”
None of the accusations that Trump levied regarding Clinton Cash should be surprising. Trump telegraphed this news conference in an April interview with Breitbart News Daily, saying of Clinton Cash, “I think we’ll whip out that book because that book will become very pertinent,” adding that the book was “well-written” and “factual.” In fact, the accusations contained in Clinton Cash are partly the reason Trump arrived at Clinton’s nicknamed – “Crooked Hillary.”
“[Bill and Hillary] made speeches for a lot of money and then things happened,” Trump told Breitbart News in March. “I mean, if you read that book, that book is amazing. How’s the movie? Did you see it? Let me know. If Steve [Bannon] is involved, it will be good.”
Here are a few things to know about Peter Schweizer, the author of Clinton Cash. Schweizer is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, he has contributed the conservative website Breitbart.com, and he even advised 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on foreign policy. His previous books include “Architects of Ruin: How Big Government Liberals Wrecked the Global Economy – and How They Will Do It Again If No One Stops Them,” as well as the absurdly titled, “Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less . . . And Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals.”
It’s very important to note that just because Schweizer has conservative leanings doesn’t mean he’s wrong. There are good reasons to question The Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of foreign donations while Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state.
But knowing Schweizer’s history should give you an indication of where he’s coming from. You shouldn’t expect to find an unbiased factual account of pertinent political stories in the books of Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly – except perhaps at the periphery. And you shouldn’t while reading a book written by Peter Schweizer.
Potential biases aside, what makes Schweizer wrong here are the facts. There are a litany of errors in Schweizer’s book, but let’s examine just one: Schweizer’s assertion that Clinton played a “central role” in approving the purchase of Uranium One by the Russian State Atomic Nuclear Agency (Rosatom) and that she did so because of money given to the Clinton Foundation and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
First, Schweizer sets the stage with the opportunity:
Russia wanted the deal for commercial and strategic reasons. The Canadian investors wanted the deal because it stood to make them richer. But politics in the United States would prove critical. Because uranium is a strategic industry, the Russian purchase of a Canadian company holding massive US assets required US government approval. Playing a central role in whether approval was granted was none other than Hillary Clinton.
Then, Schweizer identifies the conspiracy:
But however hawkish Hillary might have been on other deals, this one sailed through. The Russian purchase of Uranium One was approved by CFIUS [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] on October 22, 2010. Hillary’s opposition would have been enough under CFIUS rules to have the decision on the transaction kicked up to the president. That never happened.
And finally, Schweizer commingle’s facts and speculation:
Still, despite a long record of publicly opposing such deals, Hillary didn’t object. Why the apparent reversal? Could it be because shareholders involved in the transactions had transferred approximately $145 million to the Clinton Foundation or its initiatives? Or because her husband had profited from lucrative speaking deals arranged by companies associated with those who stood to profit from the deal? Could it be because Bill — and possibly she herself — had quietly helped build the uranium assets for the company to begin with? These questions can only be answered by Hillary herself. What is clear is that based on State Department ethics documents, she never revealed these transactions to her colleagues, the Obama White House, or to Capitol Hill.
It should come as no surprise that Schweizer’s claim was immediately debunked as false.
A TIME report from April 2015 explained that approval of the Uranium One deal “was the result of an extensive interagency process that required the assent of at least nine different officials and agencies.” The State Department had “just one vote on the nine member committee, which also includes the departments of Defense, Treasury and Energy.” As for Clinton’s influence, the report found that there was “no indication of Hillary Clinton’s personal involvement in, or even knowledge of, the deliberations.” As such, “[t]he suggestion of outside influence over U.S. decisionmaking is based on little evidence.”
The case of the Uranium One deal is representative of the rest of the claims made in Schweizer’s book, which follow a familiar pattern of argument among conspiratorial thinkers. Schweizer primes his readers by presenting a series of “facts” in a manner designed to fit a particular narrative. He distinguishes these “facts” from similar events in the past, so as to raise the suspicion that something fishy is going on. And then he confirms those suspicions by presenting his conclusions as questions rather than proof. In doing so, Schweizer is performing a bait-and-switch. He formed the narrative to lead you to a particular conclusion, and by presenting his claims as questions, reinforced that conclusion by making you think you arrived at it all by yourself.
Here, that means concluding that Mrs. Clinton used her position as secretary of state for personal gain – to the tune of $145 million for the Clinton Foundation and “lucrative speaking deals” for Mr. Clinton – and, perhaps more damning, that she concealed this activity from her government colleagues and the American people. “See, isn’t it obvious?”
Of course, we cannot just dismiss all such conspiracy theories out of hand. Real conspiracies do sometimes happen. But that is not true of Schweizer’s book. Nearly every single claim in Clinton Cash boils down to previously known facts being woven into absurd conspiracy theories. Only to be peddled to the American people by Donald Trump: the Conspiracy Theory Candidate.
The Right’s Culture of Conspiracy
Conspiracy theories have always been a part of politics. Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that there are forces out there conspiring to get us – be it Freemasons, Catholics, or communists. And, yes, they exist on both sides of the political aisle – see, for example, 9/11 “truthers.” But conspiracy theories have flourished on the Republican right. Every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning; every action has a nefarious explanation. This is not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of an alternate version of reality.
The raising of Schweizer’s Clinton Cash is just the most recent example of Donald Trump’s inability to distinguish fiction from reality, and tendency to embrace unfounded conspiracy theories as fact. There is a long line of conspiracy theories Trump has embraced throughout his career, including so-called birtherism, the idea that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States (he was); the idea that Obama is a secret muslim (he’s Christian); that vaccines may lead to autism (they don’t); that Antonin Scalia was likely “murdered” and that a Warren Commission-type panel should investigate his passing (he wasn’t); that climate change “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (ridiculous); that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in America celebrated during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (they didn’t); and even that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the plot to kill JKF (no evidence).
We have become accustomed to the idea that political debate must be, at least in theory, related to reality. But Trump’s outlandish claims sends a direct message to his followers and the American people writ large: “I’m not held to the norms that anyone else is.”
Donald Trump is Donald Trump. What you see is what you get – and in many ways what you always got. Yet, now the Republican Party has given him an institutional platform to inject his outlandish conspiracies into the political arena. What once occupied the fringes of the right-wing bubble are now being thrust into mainstream discussion.
I’m reminded of a quote by Carl Sagan that is ominously prescient to the current era:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.