The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why every conspiracy Republicans imagine eventually crumbles to dust

Kenneth W. Starr testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998. (Ray Lustig for The Washington Post)

On the day after former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr died, we learned that John Durham, the prosecutor who’s been investigating the investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 election, is likely winding down his inquiry. Despite being wildly cheered on by the right, Durham has almost nothing to show for three-plus years of work and millions of dollars spent.

Republicans hoped Durham could become another Starr, and in some ways he did, albeit on a less extravagant scale. These two men’s stories tell us a great deal about the contemporary right’s obsession with imagined conspiracies, and why they never work out the way Republicans hope.

Durham failed to deliver, not because he’s incompetent but because there just isn’t much there there. He did not uncover a vast conspiracy within the government to stop Donald Trump from becoming president, or reveal that the entire investigation into Russian meddling should never have happened. Because those things aren’t true, no matter how much Republicans wish them to be.

The New York Times reports that “The grand jury that Mr. Durham has recently used to hear evidence has expired, and while he could convene another, there are currently no plans to do so, three people familiar with the matter said.” In other words, he’s just about wrapped up.

What does he have to show for his efforts? He indicted one Democratic lawyer for lying to the FBI; the case was almost comically weak, and the lawyer was acquitted in a unanimous jury verdict. Durham got a guilty plea from an FBI lawyer who falsified an email to justify a FISA warrant; he was sentenced to probation and community service. Finally, a researcher who was a source of information for the Steele dossier will be tried next month, also on charges of lying to the FBI.

In other words, Durham’s probe found almost nothing. If you gave me a staff of lawyers, a few million dollars and subpoena power, I could probably find more crimes committed last month at your neighborhood fast food joint. What Durham most certainly didn’t find was a vast conspiracy. Yet that’s exactly what many Republicans believed he would do.

Now, let’s consider Starr, whose story is similar in some ways. He was appointed as independent counsel in the Whitewater probe precisely because he was a well-known conservative whose zeal to nail the Clintons would not be in doubt. Whitewater was a failed land deal that Republicans believed concealed all manner of criminal activity by Bill and Hillary Clinton. But it didn’t; it too turned out to be a big nothingburger.

However, along the way, Starr did discover that Bill Clinton had an affair with a young staffer named Monica Lewinsky. That gave Starr his purpose — but it too was ultimately a failure, revealing as much about his (and other Republicans’) prurient obsession with Clinton’s sex life as did about the president himself.

It happened again with House GOP probes of Hillary Clinton’s role in the Benghazi controversy. Republicans were certain a conspiracy was waiting to be uncovered — perhaps the secretary of State personally ordered the killing of the four U.S. personnel who died there! — but there wasn’t, and their multiple investigations failed to produce evidence of any wrongdoing.

We see this so often: Republicans insist they’re about to reveal a nefarious conspiracy, and when given the opportunity, they can’t deliver. Just look at all the investigations and audits of the 2020 election. Every time, they say “Now you’ll see how the election was stolen!” But even their own probes can’t locate the fraud, no matter how many ballots they scan for traces of bamboo.

The tales Republicans tell about these controversies have several key elements. They begin from the assumption that in every situation, their opponents have only the most wicked of intentions. A Democratic president can only be seeking the literal destruction of America (or as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson recently said, President Biden aims to “completely destroy the West in order to make way for Chinese global dominance”). No Democrat can merely be trying to win an election to implement the party’s favored policies.

There is always a sinister hidden agenda that cannot be spoken aloud and must therefore be unearthed by brave conservatives. There are no ordinary facts, no mistakes and no coincidences. If there is an incorrect date on a form, it must be the key to the conspiracy. If some low-level official cut corners somewhere, it can only have been on orders from the very top.

Such fantasies are everywhere. Demographic change is making the country more diverse? That can’t just be something that’s happening — and a constant of American history — it must be the result of a nefarious plot by Democrats against White people.

There’s a feedback loop at work: Republican politicians and media figures feed their audiences an endless diet of conspiracy theorizing, to the point where believing in these conspiracies becomes part of what makes you a Republican. Knowing that’s what the audience wants, the Fox News hosts and GOP officeholders keep delivering more and more.

It makes for good TV, because it amps up the stakes and injects even the most mundane day’s news with drama and danger. And if they win Congress in November, Republicans will devote themselves to “uncovering” a whole new slate of imagined conspiracies.

But we know how every one will end. Because when Republicans themselves put their latest fantasy to the test, it always turns out to be fiction.