June 8, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump’s Madness, Literally and Seriously
Conspiracy theorizing has breached the inner sanctum of power. What now?
The president will convene with allies over the weekend after tweeting this kiss off.This is not normal for American presidents, but it is for this one. Donald Trump frequently portrays the United States as a victim of its international agreements. This fetish for victimhood surely has something to do with Trump’s surprise statement this morning in which he called for Russia’s return to the elite Group of Seven.
The reality is, of course, that we are a victim—of Russia—not our traditional allies with whom, after World War II, the US created a principled international political order. The Kremlin orchestrated information warfare against the United States, moving public opinion in 2016 via social media against one candidate in favor of the other, who is now returning a favor. That’s anyway what it looks like.
The temptation is to throw up one’s hand in the face of such madness, but madness is not something we should dismiss. We need to see it for what it is—literal madness—while at the same time taking it with deadly seriousness. Democracies can withstand all kinds of madness as long as it resides on the margins of power. It’s debatable whether they can survive when it becomes a form of governance.
“Madness” is my term. Political scientists tend to use “conspiracism” or “conspiracy theory,” the unfounded belief that human history operates according to the will of powerful malicious agents choreographing a secret conspiracy to determine the outcome of world events. Trump is a true believer. His political career came to flower after years of doubting President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Scholars agree that conspiracism threatens democracy but not why. There are more or less two schools of thought—the “crazy school” and the “crazy-for-a-reason” school. On the one hand are those who believe conspiracists undermine and sabotage our ability to think critically, thus making debate and self-government all but impossible.
On the other hand are academics who say conspiracism comes from electoral losers, those who have been barred from power and who come up with myriad ways of excusing their political impotence. Think of those who could not accept that a black man was elected president and who invented all manner of theory as to why a Communist Kenyan Muslim dedicated himself to bringing down America.
Trump’s election frustrates both schools of thought. On the one hand, he is the product of what appears to be an authentic conspiracy among his campaign, operatives of the Kremlin and other international actors. Yes, conspiracism jeopardizes rational debate, but some conspiracies are real. On the other hand is the plain fact that Trump won. The losers need not rationalize their loss, yet their conspiracism now informs the decision-making of the world’s superpower.
Cambridge scholar David Runciman called Trump “the worse kind of conspiracy theorist: He does not know when to stop.” Going on and on about “suspicion of outsiders, accusations of elite interference in his affairs” and other things is impossible to distinguish from legitimate political dissent. Runciman said that that sort of suspicion is essentially skeptical. “Trump’s is entirely cynical.”
The conventional wisdom remains that knowledge and expertise are the best way to govern the international order. Even after GOP strategist Karl Rove bragged about America having the power to create its own reality, most elites continued to believe that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Indeed, Obama’s presidency vindicated an international order that privileges ideals, values and knowledge above the exercise of raw geopolitical power. But, as Runciman noted in the weeks after the 2016 election, “Trump’s victory poses a challenge to that underlying hypothesis: “that fact-based politics will win out eventually.”
Many continue to believe that fact-based politics will win. I’m hopeful but skeptical. Rove claimed in 2004 that a visionary use of power separated the George W. Bush administration from the “reality-based community” that opposed it, but the administration still made decisions according to facts and reason. Conspiracism had not breached the inner sanctum of power. We have entered a new era.
This is why “madness” feels right to me. Trump isn’t so much crazy or crazy-for-a-reason. He’s just decoupled from “the reality-based community,” and always has been. To get a mark to believe a con, the con man must himself believe the con with everything he’s got. We must take his madness literally and seriously.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.