Conspiracy Theorist in Chief, and Russia in the U.S. Imaginary

Public talk by Professor Mark Fenster from the University of Florida (USA).

Professor Fenster is the author of the highly-acclaimed book on American conspiracy theories and the event will be of interest to many.

Citizen Trump rose to prominence in his adopted party in large part via his repeated allegations about Barack Obama: that Obama represented an alien, frightening force who covered up his dangerous nature behind a false birth certificate, secret college transcript, and claim to be a Christian. Candidate Trump won the 2016 election in large part via his repeated allegations about Hillary Clinton and mainstream news organizations: that “Crooked Hillary” and her husband represented a uniquely corrupt force in U.S. politics, that the “fake news” media was assisting her campaign, and that together they would steal the election from him. President Trump has continued in this vein, tweeting and talking furiously about Obama’s illegal wiretaps, Clinton’s corruption, stolen votes, and the fake news and other forces arrayed against him.

Conspiracy theories have long proliferated in the U.S., not only among the disaffected and among out-groups but also at the center of populist politics and in the demonization of geopolitical enemies and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. What happens when the commander in chief serves also as the conspiracy theorist in chief?

In this presentation, I will consider this question in light of the role that Russia plays among Trump’s critics. Trump has famously sought to rebuild the relationship with Putin’s Russia; more famously, his administration has been beset with allegations that Russian disinformation and hackers won him the election, and that Trump’s motivations for warmer relations are either related to his collusion with Russia in the election or to more directly corrupt motivations, or are the result of Russian blackmail.

These latter concerns have several important characteristics. We have seen a reversal of the traditional Cold War views of Russia, as now the U.S. right-wing embraces Russia for its global leadership and values while the left-wing views it as an existential threat to the nation and to American democratic ideals. Even the most establishment political pundits and activists seize upon any new scrap of information implicating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, acting—perhaps rationally—like conspiracy theorists. And as is often the case with conspiracy theories, several shadowy figures have emerged claiming inside knowledge and spreading bizarre allegations about Trump. Trump opponents quickly and broadly embraced these figures, leading to counter-allegations from critics, some of whom identify these figures as parts of a broader plot to confuse and delegitimize the Left. These developments resemble those that arise regularly in the wake of a key political shift or event (e.g., the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks), but today they appear both more visible and more widespread. I want to explore why this is the case.