When people talk about conspiracy theorists in the 2016 presidential campaign, they usually focus on Donald Trump. It isn’t hard to see why: Many candidates have played with conspiracy theories over the years, but Trump is far more flamboyant (most politicians do not insinuate that an opponent’s family is linked to the JFK assassination) and far less interested in sounding refined (most do not cite the National Enquirer as a source).
Yes, Trump and his fans are prone to seeing plots. But he’s not the only conspiracist around. Alleged cabals have captured the imagination of Trump’s foes, too. Conspiracy chatter isn’t an occasional interruption that flares up on the fringes in especially weird election years. It’s a regular feature of American politics.
The anti-Trump conspiracy theories started early. Because of his long history of claiming that he might run for president, many people initially thought Trump’s campaign was a con. Once the contest got going, those suspicions changed shape: When news broke that Hillary Clinton’s husband had spoken with Trump shortly before the TV star entered the race, many anti-Trump Republicans (and even some Democrats) speculated that his candidacy was a Clintonite conspiracy. To this day, you don’t have to look far on Twitter to see people wondering whether he’s trying to lose.
There’s also the thesis that the media tried to boost Trump for political reasons or higher ratings. In March, Ted Cruz posited that journalists were deliberately helping Trump in the primaries but planned to release all the damaging stories they had once he clinched the nomination. “I can’t tell you how many media outlets I hear, you know, have this great exposé on Donald, on different aspects of his business dealings or his past, but they said: ‘You know what? We’re going to hold it to June or July,’” Cruz said on “Face the Nation.”
But the biggest Trump conspiracy stories are the ones that call the candidate a tentacle of the Kremlin. Half a year ago, this idea was largely limited to the fringes, where it was flogged by folks like Cliff Kincaid, a conservative gadfly who posed such queries as “Is Trump a sleeper agent for Moscow?” The idea started percolating into the mainstream media over the summer. It picked up steam after WikiLeaks’ release of the Democratic National Committee’s emails, a data dump many blamed on Russian hackers.
Eventually it made its way to the Clinton campaign, which now has a page on its website devoted to the topic, framed in just-asking-questions style: “Why does Trump surround himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin?” “Why do Trump’s foreign policy ideas read like a Putin wish list?” “Do Trump’s still-secret tax returns show ties to Russian oligarchs?” The whole thing feels like a throwback to the Cold War, though in those days such intimations were usually reserved for candidates on the left. (Not always, though. In 1952, the Democratic pol Averell Harriman called Republican Sen. Robert Taft “the Kremlin’s candidate.”)
At the core of this idea is a genuine intersection of interests. Trump and Vladimir Putin do have similar views on several issues, and Putin may well be rooting for the Republican. That is not a conspiracy or even in itself a strong argument against Trump — unless you think U.S. foreign policy should be based on doing the opposite of what Putin wants in all circumstances. But it’s the starting point. The Putin/Trump theorists jump from there to a plausible-but-unproven possibility (that Russia was behind the exposure of the DNC’s emails), and from there to wilder speculations that Trump is a Putinist puppet, based on various “suggestive links” between the two.
Sometimes those links have at least some substance: Trump does have Russian financial ties, and his campaign manager’s clients have included various Kremlin allies. Sometimes there’s basically nothing there: In Slate’s story on the subject, the ur-text for center-left writers embracing these accusations, Trump backer Michael Flynn’s connections to Moscow consist of attending an anniversary gala for a Russian news channel and sitting near Putin at the party. The whole tale is circumstantial, a fact the writers often admit. But those caveats tend to get lost somewhere between their articles and the people sharing them online.
Even the most plain-vanilla presidential races are filled with conspiracy talk. Pundits speculate about secret deals. Reporters chase down candidates’ financial ties and look for quid pro quos. Activists parse speeches for secret messages — “dog whistles” — pitched at frequencies only certain constituencies can hear. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that such small-scale conspiring takes place. And pretty much everyone acknowledges that larger conspiracies are sometimes at work, such as Richard Nixon’s sabotage and surveillance operations in 1972. In each party’s base, rumors circulate every four years. Under certain circumstances, some of those rumors might find their way to the lips of campaign officials.
But which stories take hold, and why? While there are plenty of reasons the Russia theory would find a receptive audience, given the unpopularity of both Putin and Trump with large segments of the electorate, one element of these accusations may be especially appealing to Trump’s foes.
By linking the candidate to Moscow, this narrative suggests that Trump is precisely the sort of threat that he constantly warns against. His political rise began five years ago when he embraced birtherism — the notion that President Obama is a foreigner who has been hiding his origins from the public. The idea that Trump is a foreign pawn flips that script on its head; now it is a prominent birther who stands accused of uncertain loyalties. The Putin story invites voters to reject Trump on Trumpian grounds, a combination that could undermine the man’s appeal. But by amplifying anxieties about outsiders, it may reinforce a fear that isn’t so far from Trumpism.
“Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood,” Eve Sedgwick once wrote, “and it, in turn, seems to understand only by imitation.” Like a vast conspiracy, it’s everywhere.