Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostEverything | Perspective

Theorizing about the Trump administration has become our national pastime

By Paul Musgrave

May 15, 2018 at 6:00 AM

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For many Americans, the improbability of President Trump’s victory in 2016 and the unpredictable opacity of the Trump administration defy explanation. The still-raw shock of election night and the constant aura of insult and menace feeds the sense among many liberals that something deeper lurks behind the actions of the president and his aides.

An electric industry of gossip and speculation thrives on the barrage of news emerging from the administration and the president’s flexible relationship to transparency. It’s a new genre of collective storytelling at the juncture of the known and the suspected built on the premise that the truth about Trump must be out there. Call it Trumpology: tales that feed liberal fears while diverting attention from the less exhilarating but far grimmer structural realities of American politics.

Sometimes these stories seem laughable. (In fact, the Onion has launched a dedicated site, ResistanceHole, to parody the overexuberance of anti-Trump writers.) Other proposals may be potentially plausible conjectures, as with a recent piece in New York Magazine suggesting that an undiscovered Trump sex scandal is hiding in plain sight.

But sometimes the stories take on a different tone, as when esteemed outlets publish speculations that something could be wrong with the president. The Atlantic, for example, speculated that Trump’s slurring at a news conference could imply that he had a neurological problem, that he had suffered a stroke — or maybe that he had a dry mouth.

Are these conspiracy theories? Yes and no. Political scientists Joanne Miller, Kyle Saunders and Christina Farhart write that political conspiracy theories clarify confusing events through insidious explanations holding that powerful actors “are engaging in wide-ranging, ‘black-boxed’ activities.” In other words, when we engage in conspiracy theorizing, we seek the underlying cause of an otherwise incomprehensible phenomenon.

Some of the most feverish Trumpology beliefs clear that bar, like the comments-section folk theory that Trump is the puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And there are no shortage of confusing events requiring explanation: Even once-improbable stories seem just as likely to be true as everything else that we’re learning as we weather the news cycle’s relentless storms.

But most of our speculation about the administration and its peccadilloes falls short of that definition. Indeed, given the common notion that a conspiracy theory is “stigmatized knowledge” — ideas rejected by the mainstream — quite a few Trumpology takes are the opposite of conspiracy theories since they receive attention in mainstream outlets.

Trumpology superficially resembles mainstream analysis. But it’s conducted under unusual circumstances. During the Cold War, “Kremlinology” referred to the guesstimates of the inner politics of Soviet leadership based on details such as who stood next to whom in photographs. The Trump White House’s opacity and unpredictability leads to similar efforts at telling tales based on scant evidence.

Trumpology doesn’t have to actually explain anything — it just has to seem like it does. What makes Trumpology appealing is the way its truthiness brings apparent order to the chaos. As with conspiratorial thinking, confirmation bias is also in play: Trumpology flatters liberals’ conviction that the president is simultaneously both a buffoon and the darkness in which democracy dies.

Much of Trumpology’s appeal derives from the gaps in the public record. The president has not disclosed his income tax returns despite promising to do so. His health remains a mystery, thanks in part to the unseemliness around his doctors: His personal physician now claims that the then-candidate dictated a letter attesting to his good health in 2015, while his former White House physician has had his reputation tarnished by allegations of unprofessional behavior.

Despite those omissions, we’re still drowning in information about the president. The Trump presidency has been so public that Trump’s behavior amounts to political exhibitionism. Since he launched his campaign in a speech that offhandedly alleged that Mexican immigrants to the United States were drug dealers, criminals and rapists, we’ve been subjected to tens of hours of live rallies, one nightmarish inaugural address, nearly a score of debates and candidate forums, and what seems like a million tweets.

We’ve also learned much about the president from sources he probably wishes weren’t public, from the Access Hollywood tape but also investigative journalism about his family’s rickety global business and unusual cash flow. Much as we might prefer not to, we even know the preferred modus operandi by which all the president’s men paid off his mistresses. And, what the heck, perhaps there really is a “pee tape,” which would be a watershed in presidential transparency.

The paradox of Donald Trump is that never before have so many known so much about a president while understanding so little. That surplus of information does not make predicting the president’s behavior easier, which may be exactly why we so eagerly embrace Trumpological thinking. Last year, Trump insulted North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as “short and fat”; this year, the president lauds the dictator as “very honorable.” In February, the president suggested  taking guns from Americans without due process; in May, he rallied National Rifle Association supporters with a fiery pro-gun speech.

These dramatic gestures probably establish only that the president is an unusually ill-prepared and undisciplined politician. To those who want to see something more, however, they suggest a tempestuous battle for influence between unseen aides and powers just offstage — exactly the sort of gap that a Trump tale about “adults in the room” or a supposed puppet-master like Stephen K. Bannon can fill.

The appeal of Trumpology mirrors the appeal of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are more attractive to people who think that powerful actors are secretly threatening their way of life, as the political scientists Christopher Federico, Allison Williams and Joseph Vitriol argue. Many Americans (with reason) see the Trump administration as threatening them. Trumpology thus often seeks to provide “evidence” that the worst-case scenarios are on the verge of coming true.

Should we worry about this? After all, Trumpology is less harmful than the actual conspiracy theories that Trump has pushed, such as the untruth that Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the United States, or that 3 to 5 million people illegally voted in 2016.

Still, our presidential fictions are far from harmless. The nature of Trumpology undermines shared reasoning based on facts just like the administration’s “alternative facts” that Trump critics once decried. The circular nature of these tales lead to the mainstreaming of radical ideas such as Vox once suggested, evaluating the president’s mental state “by force, if necessary.”

Opponents of the president don’t need exotic speculations to make their case. His administration sponsors inhumane policies by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He may not quite endorse violent white supremacists but he is notably slow to condemn them. Neither his demeanor nor his actions demonstrate a respect for the unmatched military power that he wields. His public record of dishonesty and brazen disregard for the ethical implications of his private businesses for governance are ground for censure, if not necessarily impeachment on their own.

One danger of Trumpology, then, is that we’ll end up confusing its hypotheses with the things he and his allies have actually done — and that the flimsiness of the former will imply that the latter is flimsy, too.

The bigger danger is that Trumpology’s focus on the president insinuates that he is the source of the country’s ills. He is not. His administration stands atop structures that divide and oppress Americans. The demonstration that those structures’ power endured may have taken many by surprise, even though others knew that fact well before 2016. And their influence will continue to endure even if the president exits the scene.

So, it’s best to lay the fairy tales of Trumpology aside. For those who oppose the president, his public record is damning enough. The speculation and gossip are powerful diversions from the resistance we actually need.


Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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PostEverything | Perspective

Theorizing about the Trump administration has become our national pastime

By Paul Musgrave

May 15, 2018 at 6:00 AM

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For many Americans, the improbability of President Trump’s victory in 2016 and the unpredictable opacity of the Trump administration defy explanation. The still-raw shock of election night and the constant aura of insult and menace feeds the sense among many liberals that something deeper lurks behind the actions of the president and his aides.

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