In their desperate attempt to protect President Trump from the Russia scandal and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, sizable portions of the Republican Party have returned to a place they know well. It’s the home of intricate conspiracy theories, where nothing is as it seems and the most mundane pieces of information are proof of sinister machinations so shocking that any tactics are justified in order to expose them.
It’s a place where only those willing to believe the most outlandish and ludicrous tales are able to grasp reality and where the truth is a hundred times worse than you think. It’s a madhouse, and they’re moving right in.
As bizarre as this all sounds, there’s a logic to it. If these Republicans can convince the public not only that Trump and those around him did nothing wrong but also that he’s the target of a malevolent conspiracy, then nothing that Mueller or any news organization reveals needs to be believed. It can all be cast aside as fruit of that poisonous tree, no matter what the facts might say.
But will that strategy work? I’d argue that it will work to save Trump from impeachment but won’t work to protect him from the political fallout this November and in 2020.
First, let’s take a quick tour around the fever swamp. The first object of Republican fascination is a memo attacking the FBI that Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has been circulating. Though Democrats describe it as an absurd collection of tendentious talking points, conservatives have begun a #ReleaseTheMemo campaign (with the help of Russian social media bots) in the hope of attracting as much attention to it as possible. They seem to believe that once it is made public, everyone will realize that the entire Russia investigation is a sham. Spoiler alert: They won’t.
Then there are the text messages sent by an FBI agent and an FBI lawyer — given to Congress by the Justice Department — that reveal that the two of them didn’t think particularly highly of Trump. This has been spun out into the preposterous idea that the FBI is the center of a liberal conspiracy to destroy the president, with the mundane words exchanged by the two employees plumbed for evidence of the dark forces at work.
In the latest twist, members of Congress found a text that made reference to a “secret society,” which of course couldn’t have been a joke, since everyone knows secret societies all go around talking about how they’re secret societies. This one, Republicans are convinced, was organized inside the FBI to bring Trump down.
“It’s more than bias, but corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and that secret society,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “We have an informant that is talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site. There is so much smoke here, there is so much suspicion.”
Johnson did not mention whether the Illuminati or Dumbledore’s Army might have been involved, but oh boy are the conservative media eating it up. “It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clear out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department,” thundered Fox Business’s Lou Dobbs.
It is absolutely no surprise that Republicans, including members of Congress, have found their way to lunatic conspiracy theories on the Russia question. That’s because it’s what they always do. They insisted that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim enacting a carefully laid plan to destroy the United States. They convinced themselves that Bill Clinton ran a drug-running operation out of an Arkansas airport and had dozens of his political adversaries murdered. They decided that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza restaurant. The president they revere has gushed praise on conspiracy radio host Alex Jones, who has said that 9/11 was an inside job and the massacre at Sandy Hook was staged with child actors.
Not all Republicans tumble down these rabbit holes, but there will always be substantial numbers of the Republican electorate, Republican media figures and Republican elected officials who do. Whether they actually believe this stuff isn’t really the point. To repeat, the purpose is to convince the public that anything that comes out of the Mueller investigation can be discounted and disbelieved, no matter how incriminating it seems.
Will people believe that? Some will. Fox News viewers get it hammered into their waiting eyes every night. Rush Limbaugh’s listeners get a daily education in the sinister plans of the deep state. Breitbart readers learn from Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) that it all ties together: “If you don’t think that Fast and Furious, if you don’t think that Benghazi, for the lack of accountability, if you don’t think the IRS and the unmasking are tied together with the weaponization of our Department of Justice and political advocates, think again.”
All that amounts to an insurance policy against impeachment. Because in order to stave impeachment off, you don’t have to convince all Americans that Trump is innocent of whatever charges Mueller raises. All you have to do is convince enough Republican members of Congress that their constituents (i.e., Republican voters) won’t stand for it. Those members of Congress might or might not think it’s all a liberal deep state conspiracy, but if they think their constituents believe it, they won’t support impeachment no matter what gets revealed.
But there’s a critical limitation to that strategy. It might keep Trump from getting impeached, but it won’t keep Republicans from getting crushed in November’s midterm elections. In fact, it may make a wave election more likely, by making Democratic voters more angry and appalled and therefore eager to turn out to vote. And it won’t help Trump get reelected, either. The more unhinged Trump’s defenders look, the more voters in the middle who took a risk and gave Trump a shot may regret it.
But all that’s too far in the future for the Republican conspiracy theorists. They have one goal now: protect Trump from Mueller. They might not succeed, but they’re going to go to any length to do it.