In Trump's estimation, the campaign is rigged in the traditional sense of the expression: nefarious forces are seeking to commit voter fraud in Pennsylvania, the media is conspiring with a wealthy Mexican to make up lies about him, Hillary Clinton is doing the bidding of a cabal of international bankers. On Saturday, he implied that Clinton had been given the questions during the first debate, a laughable conspiracy theory that flourished briefly in the wake of her strong performance on the stage that night. But for Trump, sinking in the polls faster than Clinton is rising, any conspiracy theory that undercuts his opponent is one worth sharing.
His allies and supporters — like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and David Clarke, a member of law enforcement in Wisconsin — agree.
The accusations outlined above are false. In-person voter fraud is essentially nonexistent; the idea that New York Times reporters are acting at the behest of a partial stakeholder in their employer is ridiculous; accusations that Clinton is seeking to undermine the United States to the benefit of international bankers is a strain of thought evolved from the worst anti-Semitic claims.
But many Trump supporters think I'm wrong — or intentionally lying as part of that same conspiracy. The beauty of a conspiracy theory is precisely that everything proves it: evidence and the lack of evidence, the latter proving the coverup. At a rally in Cincinnati, Trump fans told reporters from the Boston Globe that they were willing to stake out polling places to root out fraud, that the media was rotten, that the election was rigged.
It's unclear whether Trump is reinforcing existing skepticism about institutions such as the media and the government or whether he's creating new strains. It's probably both. As Wonkblog's Chris Ingraham noted Saturday, the lack of confidence in traditional institutions has spiked since 2008 — at least among Republicans.
Trump has repeatedly argued that facets of those institutions, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve, are part of the same broad-ranging effort to cause him to lose the election. A new survey from Marketplace and Edison Research indicates that a quarter of Americans agree with him. That's split heavily along political lines, though. Only about 1 in 20 Clinton supporters distrust economic data such as unemployment rates and jobs numbers. Almost half of Trump supporters distrust that data.
That dichotomy suggests that Americans live in worlds rooted in different core truths — and that's what Americans believe is happening. Pew Research asked Clinton and Trump supporters whether they thought that the two political sides agreed generally on basic facts, disagreeing only on how to address the country's problems, or whether each side relied on different basic facts entirely.
More than 80 percent of respondents said it was the latter.
That's the gulf that Trump is both widening and exploiting. It's not hard to figure out why he's happily passing around bad information at this point: The media is reporting on a number of accusations that his 2005 hot-mic comments about groping women were a reflection of what he actually did and not just “locker room talk.” The best way to get people to ignore those accusations is to double-down on their existing skepticism about the media and, ideally, to loop his opponent into that same grand conspiracy. It's not clear how this is a scenario that will propel him to victory in November, but it is clearly a strategy that might, at least, allow him to save face.
The rift in the electorate, though, may end up being a much harder problem to plaster over.