The opponents of every U.S. president in recent memory have typically latched onto a characteristic conspiracy theory.
For Bill Clinton, it was the “black helicopters” that carried a supposedly secret United Nations force that would be deployed to take away our collective sovereignty and undermine our constitutional right to bear arms.
George W. Bush endured the 9/11 Truthers, who claimed he either planned or knowingly failed to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in order to start lucrative and endless wars in the Middle East to enrich and empower the Pentagon, its contractors, and their extensive intelligence apparatus.
“Birthers” plagued Barack Obama with questions about his birth certificate, suggesting he was of foreign birth and ineligible for the presidency.
And for Donald Trump, it has been the Russia collusion story, a vague suggestion that he stole the election by cooperating with and receiving the aid of the Russian government and its intelligence apparatus.
The first three of these conspiracies, while each facially implausible and short on facts, were important more because they all had a tangential relationship with an important truth about each of the president’s character and agenda. For Clinton, his internationalism—exemplified by the Somalia fiasco and the Balkan interventions—was out of tune with the post-Cold-War desire of many Americans to avoid the international arena after the expense and bloodshed of our heightened defense posture from 1945-1992. For Bush, 9/11 Trutherism capitalized on his (and his vice president’s) cozy relationship with the defense industry, the expansion of the national security powers of the government after 9/11, and the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. Finally, the Birther conspiracies tapped into an anxiety that Obama was somehow less-than-fully American. After all, his middle name was Hussein, he waxed poetic about the beauties of Islam and the grievances of the Third World, and showed hostility to traditional marriage, traditional gun rights, the traditional American majority, and traditional limitations on the power of the federal government.
Each of these theories persisted, particularly among the less educated, because they tapped into a real anxiety and a real set of issues with the respective presidents, even though the theories themselves were alternately scandalous and ridiculous.
Donald Trump, of course, is bedeviled by the Russian collusion story, but it uniquely lacks the same metaphoric truth of the others. For starters, prior to the recent election, there was not substantial anxiety about Russia, other than among the interventionist class of politicians and foreign policy experts. Americans, both right and left, have a pragmatic and somewhat isolationist instinct that does not have particular concern for Russia and its intentions. Those who were alive during the primacy of the Soviet Union know the difference between an expansionist power with global ambitions and an ordinary nation, beset by internal troubles, that aims to preserve its own sovereignty and influence on its neighbors. Most Americans look on Russia, to the extent they look at it at all, in ways similar to the way they view China: a potential threat with substantial power, but a manageable one, that has no particular reason to offend us if we are sensible and cautious. Americans are concerned about ISIS and the border because illegal immigrants, terroristic and otherwise, are actually killing Americans.
In addition to the modest concern Americans have regarding Russia, there is very little in Trump’s character that resonates with the Russia conspiracy theory. He is, after all, a quintessential populist and nationalist, whose motto “America First” finds voice in such proposals as “building the wall” and negotiating better trade deals on behalf of American workers. Trump’s extensive personal wealth is part of what made him an unlikely, but effective, champion of the common man. As a candidate and now as president he was and is largely indifferent to the distinct interests of the donor class when they diverge from those of his core, voting supporters.
While Bill Clinton plausibly would trade U.S. sovereignty to internationalist bureaucrats, and Obama’s indifference to American decline made him seem in some symbolic way “not of this country,” nothing in the Russian Collusion story relates directly to Trump’s policies, rhetoric, history, or character. It remains distinct among the other conspiracy theories, however, as this one is not traded among marginal characters on the internet, but rather is promoted constantly from the organs of “respectable” media and opinion—The Washington Post, the FBI, CNN, and the New York Times—in spite of the complete lack of evidence in support of it.
Not the allegation, but its persistent promotion by the establishment is meaningful here. Because unlike the other conspiracy theories, it is artificial. It does not express the uncouth and ill-considered thoughts of a powerless minority, but instead gives voice to the primordial rage of the elite who remain outraged that someone who did not think, speak, and believe within the parameters they consider acceptable and normal or “like them” could win the presidency. We saw the first intimations of this rage in the recount lawsuits and the riots directed at the Inauguration. Being an expression of the ethos of the government-media-business elite, this story has failed to persuade Trump’s middle American supporters. Indeed, like so much else directed at Trump, it has had a boomerang effect. For skeptics, the Russian Collusion narrative exposes a real worry they have harbored concerning both President Obama and Hillary Clinton; namely, that they would abuse and “weaponize” the extensive powers of the federal government for narrow, partisan ends, and that the “swamp” would continue to resist the will of the American people.
After all, Obama infamously sicced the IRS on his Tea Party opponents. He weighed in on local law enforcement matters to side with such characters as Trayvon Martin and “gentle giant” Michael Brown. The Russian collusion story is, at its heart, how the Obama Administration spied on a political opponent without just cause.
We are now learning various unsavory details of how the Russian Collusion story unfolded: first as a opposition research project against Trump by Fusion GPS; how the infamous “Steele dossier” was funded alternately by Trump’s Republican opponents, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the FBI itself; how it was disseminated far and wide with the likely collusion of Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice; and, how the top agents involved in both the investigation of Trump (and the pseudo-investigation of Hillary Clinton) were completely in the bag for Hillary, and may have self-consciously conceived of the report as a “insurance” against an electoral victory by Trump.
One must ask, insurance for whom? And to what end?
A year into Trump’s presidency, he remains what he has always been, a controversial, opinionated, plain spoken, not-terribly-ideological, and unapologetically American president. Of course, he is willing to cooperate with Russia and its strongman leader Putin when our interests converge, such as in the successful campaign against ISIS. He is also willing to criticize and punish Russia, North Korea, Iran, Mexico, and anyone else that threatens the United States or its core interests.
But Trump won the election because he won more contests that Hillary Clinton, not because of some secretive Russian machinations. The story, unlike the other popular conspiracy theories against recent presidents, does not reveal some core fault in its target, so much as its provenance reveals something about the Deep State Swamp against whom Trump famously campaigned. It is artificial, a product of an out-of-control and hostile bureaucracy with little regard for the right of the people to elect someone like Trump, and has as little reality as the Black Helicopter crowd’s fears of a United Nations takeover of the Heartland during the 1990s.