Let me tell you what it feels like in right-wing Washington: tense. I’m not sure one word captures it, so let’s add two more: tense, baffled and spooked. Don’t mention the T-word. But no matter how many times members of Congress, staffers and think-tankers repeat this, every conversation swivels back to Donald Trump.
In Washington, they are insistent: Trump will never get the Republican nomination. But in the past week, which I have spent among conservatives in the American capital, I have heard this mantra shift from an assertion into a prayer. Please, God, stop the Donald.
Why is this happening? Every week for months, the serious set, the pen-in-pocket law-school grad set, have solemnly sworn that this is the week that Trump is peaking. Now, they are scrabbling for answers. Some explain the Trump effect with psychology: he is playing the emotions of American resentment like a flute. America’s old optimism, where everyone’s a winner, has since the financial crisis been replaced with America’s new pessimism, where only 25 per cent feel “their side” is winning and 64 per cent feel like “their side” is a bunch of losers.
Some free-marketeers explain the T-word in sociology: though you would never believe it judging by the faces in the corridors of power, this country is losing its white majority and its middle class. In 1980, more than half of US counties were more than 98 per cent white. Today, fewer than 5 per cent are. In 1980, 83 per cent of Americans were white; now, it’s only 63 per cent, and majority status is set to vanish around 2042. This year, the American middle class shrank to less than 50 per cent of the population, down from more than 60 per cent in 1970.
Other right-wingers blame technology. With the breakdown of old media, there has been a breakdown of old editorial, too. Many Americans now receive their daily news through Facebook; news delivered in a bubble, echoing with the posts of those who agree with them.
Welcome to “Trumpland”. Things are different here. For a start, Barack Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya, and schemes a plot against America. Trump was one of the first “Birthers” – the name given to agitators who promote the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America, and is thus an impostor-fraudster, a constitutional illegality who should immediately stand down as President. He is, shouts Donald, the commander-in-chief of a country in which crowds of Muslims cheered as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. Trump imagined it all. His fantasies have made him famous – very, very famous – and they look like they might clinch him the Republican nomination.
This is unknown, scary terrain for the establishment staffers of Washington, DC. But Donald is no weird anomaly. Trump is a son and hero to Conspiracy America, a country where academic studies show 40 per cent of citizens believe the US government is covering up the cure for cancer, a republic where 25 per cent believe the “Birther” conspiracy he helped to create, and nearly 20 per cent believe the “Truther” conspiracy that al-Qaeda fanatics were not responsible for the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Why do so many Americans believe such fabrications? This is the most urgent question for America today.
The paranoia fuelling Trump’s rise is the curse of the Bush era. Conspiracy America is a delayed reaction to the twin Bush disasters: the War on Terror and the banking collapse. History warns us that fear of demonic plots builds slowly after confusing, traumatic events. And once a conspiracy theory is born – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, or the power of the Freemasons – it is nearly impossible to kill.
Conspiracies about the Kennedy assassination built slowly, peaking in the 1980s. Germany’s “stab-in-the-back” myth grew only slowly after the Treaty of Versailles, peaking in the 1930s. History warns that paranoia about plots thrives in states which are being delegitimised: whenever they are unable to fulfil their promises – of empire, welfare, or the American Dream – the pattern of history is those losing out see plots, not systems, stealing what was theirs.
America’s shifting racial structure and social-media addiction may be far less to blame for Trump’s popularity than the rightists of Washington would like to admit. Conspiracy theories are able to thrive in atmospheres where the government has embraced the rhetoric of “us and them” – just as the War on Terror produced. Above all, the history books tell us, conspiracy theorists such as Trump thrive in societies that are growing poorer, weaker, more unequal, and where their citizens do not understand why that is happening. And that is America today.
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