The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside Donald Trump’s echo chamber of conspiracies, grievances and vitriol

He is preaching to the converted. He is lashing out at anyone who is not completely loyal. He is detaching himself from and delegitimizing the institutions of American political life. And he is proclaiming conspiracies everywhere — in polls (rigged), in debate moderators (biased) and in the election itself (soon to be stolen).

In the presidential campaign’s home stretch, Donald Trump is fully inhabiting his own echo chamber. The Republican nominee has turned inward, increasingly isolated from the country’s mainstream and leaders of his own party, and determined to rouse his most fervent supporters with dire warnings that their populist movement could fall prey to dark and collusive forces.

This is a campaign right out of Breitbart, the incendiary conservative website run until recently by Stephen K. Bannon, now the Trump campaign’s chief executive — and it is an act of retaliation.

A turbulent few weeks punctuated by allegations of sexual harassment have left Trump trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in nearly every swing state. Trump’s gamble is that igniting his army of working-class whites could do more to put him in contention than any sort of broad, tempered appeal to undecided voters.

The execution has been volatile. Since announcing last week that “the shackles have been taken off me,” Trump, bolstered by allies on talk radio and social media, has been creating an alternate reality — one full of innuendo about Clinton, tirades about the unfair news media and prophecies of Trump’s imminent triumph.

Donald Trump's long list of conspiracy theories (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The candidate once omnipresent across the “mainstream media” these days largely limits his interviews to the safe harbor of the opinion shows on Fox News, and most of them are with Sean Hannity, a Trump supporter and informal counselor.

Trump says groping allegations are part of a global conspiracy to help Clinton

Many Republicans see the Trump campaign’s latest incarnation as a mirror into the psyche of their party’s restive base: pulsating with grievance and vitriol, unmoored from conservative orthodoxy, and deeply suspicious of the fast-changing culture and the consequences of globalization.

“I think Trump is right: The shackles have been released, but they were the shackles of reality,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP strategist. “Trump has now shifted to a mode of complete egomaniacal self-indulgence. If he’s going to go off with these merry alt-right pranksters and only talk to people who vote Republican no matter what, he’s going to lose the election substantially.”

Even retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Trump supporter and adviser, acknowledged the difficulties for Trump. He said the nominee’s understanding of what motivates his base is “what got him through the primaries. The problem for him is that you have to expand that in order to win a general election. What’s out there is powerful, but not enough.”

For Bannon and legions of Trump fans, Trump’s approach is not only a relished escalation of his combativeness, but also a chance to reshape the GOP in Trump’s hard-line nationalist image.

“This is a hostile takeover,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), a Trump ally. “They believe the media is their mortal enemy and the country is in mortal danger, that Hillary Clinton would end America as we know it.”

Donald Trump’s surrogates accuse the media of ignoring the release by WikiLeaks of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Gingrich continued: “This is not only about beating Hillary Clinton. It’s about breaking the elite media, which has become the phalanx of the establishment.”

Trump’s strategy was crystallized by his defiant speech Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla., in which he brazenly argued that the women who have accused him of unwanted kissing and groping were complicit in a global conspiracy of political, business and media elites to slander him and extinguish his outsider campaign.

“It’s a global power structure,” he said. Trump went on to describe himself as a populist martyr — “I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you” — and posited: “This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.”

Two days earlier, Trump was in Panama City Beach on Florida’s culturally conservative panhandle sketching out his universe. His rally was outdoors after sunset. The amphitheater’s capacity was 7,500, and there were large pockets of empty space, but a man came on the loudspeakers with an announcement: This was a record crowd of 10,000 people, with an additional 10,000 outside the perimeter.

When Trump strode out, he one-upped his announcer. “I guess we have 11,200 here, and outside we have over 10,000 people!”

So it went for the next 50 minutes as Trump told a patchwork of exaggerations and falsehoods about what he deemed his criminal opponent and the libelous news media conspiring to elect her.

“The election of Hillary Clinton will lead to the destruction of our country,” Trump said. “Believe me.”

One of his believers was Chris Ricker, 49, an electrician. Trump’s slogans are his slogans — Ricker’s ­T-shirt read: “Hillary Clinton for Prison” — and Trump’s enemies are his enemies. “I watch Fox News 100 percent, but can you put down that I hate Megyn Kelly?” he asked.

Pointing at the crowd, Ricker said: “See this right here? This is a revolution.”

Ricker got to talking about Clinton and her “secret microphone” at the first debate. He was indignant when a reporter stated that Clinton had no such device: “Dude, where are you at? You haven’t seen the videos? There was somebody sitting backstage giving her answers. It’s all corrupt.”

By week’s end, a new conspiracy was born. Trump insinuated during a rally Saturday in Portsmouth, N.H., that Clinton may be taking drugs.

“We should take a drug test prior [to the next debate], because I don’t know what’s going on with her,” Trump said. “At the beginning of her last debate she was all pumped up at the beginning, and at the end it was like, ‘Oh, take me down.’ ”

Trump claims election is ‘rigged’ and calls for pre-debate drug tests

The impact of Trump’s provocations could extend beyond Election Day. Again and again, Trump has ominously predicted a “stolen election.” In Pennsylvania, for instance, he has instructed his rural white supporters to go to Philadelphia, a city with a large black population, to stand watch for voter fraud.

On Friday in Charlotte, another diverse city, Trump said: “The election is rigged. It’s rigged to like you have never seen before. They’re rigging the system.”

Departing from the norms of American democracy, Trump appears to be laying the foundation to contest the results, should he lose, and delegitimize a Clinton presidency in the minds of his followers.

Trump’s echo chamber is not altogether new. It is a more nationalistic and racially charged strain of the one most elected Republicans have inhabited for two decades. Conservative talk radio and Fox News, which rose to prominence in the late 1990s, became for party leaders a retreat and a source of power.

But in recent years this echo chamber has evolved from being an arm of the party into an unpredictable and sprawling orbit of the American right. Starting with the tea party movement in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, fury over what activists saw as a capitulating GOP establishment created a vacuum for someone or something to take hold.

Enter Trump, who promised total disruption and whose movement has been fueled not only by talk radio and television personalities, but also by a galaxy of blogs, websites and super PACs that saw money to be made and influence to be gained. Together they fed on false theories such as challenging President Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii, and the connective tissue for their working-class rage has been the threat of illegal immigration.

Obama described this world as a “swamp of crazy that has been fed over and over and over and over again.”

“Donald Trump, as he’s prone to do, he didn’t build the building himself, but he just slapped his name on it and took credit for it,” Obama said Thursday in a speech in Columbus, Ohio.

Trump’s worldview extends beyond what is published on Breitbart, which specializes in turbocharged coverage of illegal immigration and unproved theories about Obama and Clinton. Still, Bannon, who has been traveling with Trump daily, shares with him the latest Breitbart material and helps him hone lines slamming the Clintons. He tells Trump that he is the American incarnation of populist movements rising in capitals around the world, such as Brexit in Britain.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — who has excoriated the “masters of the universe” obsessed with open borders — is another conduit and confidant, as is Trump’s policy maven and speechwriter, Stephen Miller, a former Sessions adviser.

Then there is Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser and provocateur who has published conspiratorial writings about the Clintons. From Stone one can trace Trump’s political bloodline to Alex Jones, who runs the website, which has trafficked in stories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks being a tyrannical government conspiracy.

Trump sat for an interview with Jones in late 2015 in which Jones spoke about the United States becoming a “third-world nation” and “globalists that want to have a world government.” Trump nodded along.

Jones more recently has called Obama and Clinton “demon possessed,” smelling of sulfur and attracting flies. At the second debate, Trump picked up on that characterization, labeling Clinton “the devil.” And it was Stone, in a recent interview with Infowars, who introduced the unfounded theory advanced on the stump by Trump that Clinton was “jacked up on something” in the second debate.

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Clinton has admonished Trump for taking what she calls “a radical fringe” into the political mainstream, and her advisers have watched with disgust as Trump has crafted a closing message rooted in dark conspiracies.

“It would be laughable that a Republican nominee for president would have allowed his campaign to be overtaken by Breitbart and Infowars, except that it is a very dangerous and cynical thing to do to try to convince voters of these lies,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director.

Trump may not be a fleeting example of how an outsider will use this alt-right ecosystem to build a base of national support from outside of the Republican mainstream. Carson said he saw firsthand how these forces could propel a political outsider to the top tier of the presidential nominating contest.

“There were a lot of people who supported me who recognized that the Democrats and the Republicans were often one and the same,” Carson said. “They saw them as one establishment, and they put the media together with it.”