This tweet from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is precisely the sort of advocacy one might expect from the junior senator from Kentucky.
Paul was elected in 2010 in part on the strength of his advocacy for individual privacy and skepticism of government authority — advocacy that in 2016 he tried to parlay into the Republican presidential nomination. At about 8,000 retweets, it is also one of Paul’s most popular tweets.
A day later, the senator took a different tack on Twitter.
This is … not the sort of thing you might expect from Paul. There is certainly an element of that skepticism of government power, but the particular argument being broached here is a heavily political one offered in defense of the senator’s one-time nemesis. Paul fought with then-candidate Donald Trump during the first few primary debates during the 2016 cycle and is now coming to Trump’s defense, echoing the rhetoric of Trump allies about the investigation into Russian meddling and, more broadly, the actions of the FBI under Barack Obama.
The result was Paul’s most retweeted tweet since the beginning of 2016, earning more than three times as much attention as the one about government surveillance.
There’s a dynamic at play in the response to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling that we’ve seen before. A loosely knit conspiracy theory — here involving contributions by Mueller’s team to Democrats, some anti-Trump text messages and a dossier of unproven allegations — begins as snow falling from a few branches at the top of a mountain and then quickly avalanches. It still seems like we’re early in this one, but we’ve already seen Fox News, one of the largest news networks in America, describe the involvement of the FBI in the investigation as a “coup” against Trump.
What makes this particular iteration of the conspiracy-theory pattern unusual is the nature of Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s politics are personal and predicated on loyalty, something that we saw play out Wednesday as members of Congress traveled to the White House to lavish praise on the president after passing a tax-overhaul bill that was largely at odds with his campaign rhetoric. Trump’s rise within the party was heavily dependent on his willingness to repeat the partisan conspiracy theories — birtherism, the criminality of immigrants — that were rampant in far right-wing conservative media, such as at Breitbart News. Trump embraced the same conspiracies as his base, and his base embraced him fervently as a result.
That’s continued since his election, with Trump repeatedly claiming the existence of conspiracy theories meant to hamper his ability to do what he wants from the White House. That’s unusual for someone who just attained the most powerful position in the world.
“Powerful people can’t use conspiracy theories very well,” Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and the co-author of “American Conspiracy Theories,” said when we spoke last month. “They’re tools of the weak to attack the powerful. But what we’ve seen in this instance is because Trump has built his entire machine on conspiracy theories, that’s why we have dueling conspiracy theories. That’s why we have a narrative on the right and a narrative on the left.”
We’d reached out to Uscinski because of a conspiracy theory being proposed by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) in the form of an elaborate and weird flowchart that he presented during a House hearing. This was a month ago, so while the conspiracy still centered on alleged corruption within the Justice Department, the details were entirely different: the so-called Uranium One issue. The result was the same: The FBI and Justice were too compromised to treat Trump fairly.
That Gohmert is involved in questionable conspiracy theories isn’t that surprising if you’re familiar with Gohmert, long a favorite of the far right because of his willingness to embrace whatever theory came along. So let’s instead consider Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Jordan’s leapt to the front of the pack in criticizing the FBI during hearings on Capitol Hill — and has earned the attention of cable news networks as a result. Before November, Jordan was rarely mentioned during cable news programs, as data from the Television News Archive shows. A month ago, he challenged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton. This month, he renewed that call and then challenged Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — the person with the authority to fire Mueller — over alleged bias within his team.
The result? Lots of mentions and lots of airtime.
That most of those mentions were on Fox News is unsurprising. Fox News continues to be the most trusted network among Republicans, according to Suffolk University polling. While Democrats and independents are most likely to say they trust PBS the most, more than 4 in 10 Republicans say they trust Fox News.
It’s not just Fox News that’s rewarded Jordan with attention. Over the past month, he’s been mentioned in 114 articles on Breitbart, according to Google. Contrast that with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). Smith, a staunch conservative, sits on the House Judiciary Committee with Jordan and Gohmert but hasn’t led the charge against the FBI. Smith earned three mentions on Breitbart and a grand total of one mention on Fox News since Oct. 1.
Why is Breitbart important? It was the most popular outlet on the right during the 2016 election.
Republicans, as you might expect, are far more skeptical of the investigation than are Democrats or independents. Only 1 in 5 Republicans told Pew Research that the investigation was an important issue, compared to half of Americans overall. What’s more, only 14 percent of Republicans were very confident that Mueller would conduct a fair investigation.
A recent survey from CNN and its polling partner SRSS shows another aspect to that partisan split. More than three-quarters of Republicans see the investigation as an effort to discredit Trump; nearly two-thirds approve of Trump’s handling of the investigation while fewer than a third approve of Mueller’s.
It’s unclear which directions all of the arrows point here. Is Fox News hyping FBI conspiracy theories because it’s what the Republicans who watch want to hear or are Republicans skeptical of the Mueller investigation because they’ve seen these criticisms raised? Is Jordan driving Fox coverage or is he buoyed by it?
The overarching issue here is partisanship. Trump has been deliberate about making the investigation a litmus test for his base, deploying the antipathy Republicans feel toward Democrats as a shield for himself. The president is focused almost entirely on his base, and while what he delivers to that base is often at odds with his campaign rhetoric, his combative, anti-Washington style is embraced by many of his supporters. Being a partisan Republican has increasingly become wrapped up in defending Trump, even among Republicans whose relationships with Trump are more complicated.
This is where Paul comes in. There are a lot of reasons for Paul to rise to the defense of Trump: party loyalty, frustration with government agencies — and the approval of the Republican base. In a normal time, senators — particularly Republican senators; particularly Republican senators who once feuded with the president — would not publicly accuse the FBI of having colluded to affect the results of a presidential election on the basis of the evidence at hand.
But this is not a normal time.