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Trump’s conspiracy theories broke our brains or we’re too tired to care

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  • Trump and his allies have been particularly on fire this week spreading baseless conspiracy theories. 
  • They might be turning up the heat because after three and a half years of his presidency, his critics are harder to outrage and his base is harder to excite. 
  • Or it’s possible that Trump’s failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic have left us all so exhausted that we can’t be bothered to forcefully react to genuinely shocking behavior from the president. 
  • Some of Trump’s most prominent critics have countered his rhetoric by spreading unhinged conspiracy theories of their own, which is … unhelpful. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Trump, members of his inner circle, and some of his most prominent media allies have been pushing outrageous and easily debunkable and conspiracy theories this week.

If that sentence feels evergreen, it’s because it is. 

Trump’s rise to political prominence was buoyed almost a decade ago by his “just asking questions” speculation that President Obama was actually born in Kenya and thus, not a legitimate president. 

But in the past week, the president has obsessively railed against the fake “Obamagate” conspiracy, mused aloud on Twitter that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might be a murderer, and said, “The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google,” adding, “The Administration is working to remedy this illegal situation.”

Meanwhile, his son Eric said that the economy-destroying lockdowns are a conspiracy to ruin his father’s electoral chances in November, after which he says all the concerns about a pandemic that has killed 80,000 Americans and counting “will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear.” 

Not to be outdone, Trump’s other son Don Jr. shared a meme on Instagram calling former Vice President Joe Biden a pedophile

It’s old hat to note that this kind of behavior from a president and his surrogates (who happen to be his children) was once unfathomable, but there was something about the mouth-frothing lies and slanders of this week that stood out. 

As Politico media columnist Jack Shafer put it, “both his supporters and critics have grown numb to his previous rhetorical excesses and need for him to cross new boundaries, violate new taboos, and break fresh panes of glass in order remain engaged.”

It’s possible that the relentless noise produced by Trumpworld has finally broken the brains of the American people. But it’s equally likely that with the world in disarray, our lives upended and futures uncertain, that we just can’t be moved to care about Trump’s unhinged fulminations. 

This feels normal now, and that’s a big problem

I asked Anna Merlan, a senior staff writer for Vice and the author of “Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power,” whether there was something exceptionally unhinged about Trump and Co.’s conspiratorial flailing this week. 

Merlan said that Trump and his allies tend to ratchet up the conspiracy-mongering in times when Trump feels particularly besieged. This happened during rough patches for Trump during the Russia investigation. 

Now that he’s widely perceived to be failing in his response to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s trying to change the subject to “Obamagate” and vote-by-mail, which the Trump-friendly website Breitbart has taken to calling “Cheat-By-Mail.”

The “Obamagate” conspiracy Trump and his allies are pushing — that members of the Obama administration, including Biden, inappropriately asked for former national security adviser Michael Flynn to be “unmasked” in intelligence reports — doesn’t even appear to have a “crime” at its core. The Washington Post reported this week that Flynn was never “masked” in the reports to begin with. 

But that doesn’t matter to the base. They hear Obamagate and Biden and they’ve got their 2020 hobby horse. 

Merlan said “it’s a very strong indicator” that the campaign seeks to associate Joe Biden’s name “to the supposed excesses or illegal acts of the Obama administration, even though Trump can’t effectively explain what he thinks was illegal and what happened.” She added that the campaign likely thinks this would “be a fruitful campaign strategy. And honestly, it probably is.”

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow is the doyenne of #Resistance cable news media. She’s also over the past three years unapologetically spread wild theories about Trump, Russia, and the Steele dossier that have either never materialized or been fully proven to be false. 

In an environment where Trump and his allies are relentlessly spreading misinformation and innuendo in the hopes that some of it sticks in the minds of voters, the fact that media personalities with huge platforms engage in many of the same tactics contributes to a cacophony of nonsense that makes it hard for basic facts to be understood. 

It also contributes to a cynicism about politics and the confidence in the media. 

“Rachel Maddow and other folks on the left engaged in the same kind of broad conspiracy claims about, for example, Trump being a Russian puppet, like a literal Manchurian candidate,” Merlan said. They also “made suggestions that Trump will not transfer power if he loses the election. Those are claims that I literally heard from the right about Obama in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration.”

Another MSNBC host, Mika Brzezinski, fought back this week against Trump’s insinuation that her “Morning Joe” co-host and husband Joe Scarborough was a murderer by demanding that Trump’s Twitter account be banned

Trump tweeted that his long time ally Roger Stone, who was convicted of crimes including witness tampering and obstruction of justice, was “treated very unfairly” and asked why “guys like Low Ratings Psycho Joe Scarborough are allowed to walk the streets? Open Cold Case!”

Trump’s actions are inexcusable, but hardly surprising at this point. 

What is surprising and disturbing is that a journalist would demand a corporate executive to censor an elected official, as though setting such a president couldn’t possibly lead to greater censorship against people who are not Trump down the road. 

Merlan described Brzezinski’s response as “completely insane behavior,” and also noted that Brzezinski and Scarborough — who for a long time were friends of Trump’s and hosting him for many cordial interview — are creating an “insane cable news drama, which none of us actually have to pay any attention to.” 

“It’s not complicated,” Merlan adds. Trump will regularly claim an ally of his “has been treated unfairly and then says, what about this person supposedly on the left? He does this every time and it manages to distract us even in the middle of a life-altering pandemic. It’s extraordinary, but to some extent it works.”

It’s not like conspiracy theories aren’t part of the American cultural fabric already. 

As Merlan exhaustively documents in “Republic of Lies,” in just the past century millions and millions of Americans were convinced they were being lied to about the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of the World Trade Center’s collapse on 9/11. 

What’s novel about our current moment is that the president is one of the most ardent propagandists of nonsense conspiracies. 

It’s no surprise that Trump is frequently incoherent and lies with ease

But as Conor Friedersdorf put it in The Atlantic, “many of the most glaring untruths that he has uttered during this crisis could be explained by ignorance and lack of foresight as easily as mendacity.”

The same could be said for his spreading of conspiracy theories. Trump wears his ignorance as a badge of authenticity. He doesn’t need to read those fancy books written by globalist elites, and he regularly repeats information he “heard” somewhere. 

Whether there’s any truth to it or not, he doesn’t bother to check. And it’s entirely possible he believes there’s at least some truth to every fantastical alleged plot, he is a big Alex Jones fan after all. 

Should Trump win or lose in November, he’s personally contributed — and inspired his opponents to help the effort — to making Americans as unlikely as ever to reject grand conspiratorial falsehoods. 

Just as he’s convinced his base that there’s a “Deep State” agent lurking around every corner, many of his critics see Russia in every shadow. 

In the epilogue to “Republic of Lies,” Merlan writes, “We have to find a way to flag and debunk disinformation even as we try to avoid promoting it.” 

Three and a half years of a Trump presidency and a pandemic that’s destroyed life as we know it are fair enough reasons to be too fatigued to muster up much outrage at the constant purveyance of bald-faced lies and slander. 

Whenever it’s possible to get back to “normal,” we as a country shouldn’t follow Trump’s lead — or his adversaries’ wrong-headed reactions — in tossing off half-baked paranoid fantasies. We should demand evidence and stick to facts. 

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