Conspiracy theories and smear campaigns are as old as our politics.
As far back as the campaign of 1800 — the first contested presidential race in U.S. history — pamphlets circulated that accused John Adams of possessing “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” which was a suggestion that he had the sex organs of both a man and a woman.
In 1828, a newspaper reported that Andrew Jackson’s mother was “a common prostitute” brought to this country by British soldiers, who married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, one of whom grew up to become the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Elizabeth and Andrew Jackson Sr. actually married in Ireland and came to this country to escape religious persecution.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, aides put together a 332-page report titled “The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” in which they detailed the complex network of right-wing groups, media outlets and funders who put all kinds of crazy stories into the public bloodstream. They included outrageous claims that Bill and Hillary Clinton had been involved in drug-running and homicide back in Arkansas. (Those of you too young to remember any of this might try Googling “Mena airstrip.”)
In 2004, a right-wing group styling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made up lies about Democratic nominee John F. Kerry’s service in Vietnam and turned the word “swiftboat” — the kind of aluminum craft that Kerry skippered during the war — into a shorthand for a particularly lethal kind of smear.
If the nature of these vile tactics is not new, their potency has reached a point never seen before. Part of that is the power of social media. But the real force behind it is a president with a knack for branding and no capacity for shame. Even before he officially became a candidate, Donald Trump built a following by trafficking in racist, baseless lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace.
No longer does a conspiracy theory require an actual conspiracy behind it before it can take flight. It needs only a few taps on Trump’s smartphone or an unhinged Instagram post by one of his sons Don Jr. or Eric.
As the president is being forced to face the very real prospect of his defeat this fall, he and his wanton princelings are growing more desperate, reckless and untethered from any evidence. There is “OBAMAGATE!” which Trump claims is “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
When pressed, Trump cannot cite any specific criminal statute that his predecessor may have violated. “Obamagate” is a nonsense word that Trump invented and keeps proclaiming over and over, like a toddler screaming “whee!” as he goes down a slide. Given Trump’s obvious pride in having coined the word, I’m surprised he hasn’t trademarked it, as he did for “Make America Great Again.”
What Trump is trying to plant in the public consciousness, with no proof, is a hazy scenario: After Trump was elected in 2016, senior Obama administration officials — up to and including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent this fall — tried to ensnare the incoming administration in a Russia scandal.
This appears to be too much of a leap even for Attorney General William Barr to take seriously. The attorney general says he does not expect his investigation of the Russia matter to include the actions of Obama and Biden. “Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” Barr said.
Part of the genius in Trump’s tactic lies in the dilemma it presents for those of us in the media. It is impossible to call him out on his smears without elevating and amplifying them. And have no doubt: His shamelessness is going to reach new levels between now and November.
So what to do? Just about a year ago, I made a pledge to never again repeat, quote or otherwise dignify any of the asinine nicknames that Trump gives his adversaries.
For now at least, I plan to do the same with his baseless conspiracy theories and smears. This is not a policy that our news side can follow. Our fact-checkers will have their hands full, and I respect the challenge before them. But a columnist has liberties that other journalists do not, and this is one I plan to exercise.
Smear campaigns will presumably always be with us, to one degree or another. But the brazenness with which Trump practices them is something entirely novel in our politics. Only by defeating him in the fall will Americans be able to stand up and say they deserve something better than this.