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From Trump to the Democrats, Conspiracy Theories Are Poisoning America’s Political Culture

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Tweet advertising the 'Million MAGA March' in Washington DC, attended by approximately ten thousand Trump supporters including far right groups such as the Proud Boys
Tweet advertising the 'Million MAGA March' in Washington DC, attended by approximately ten thousand Trump supporters including far right groups such as the Proud BoysCredit: Twitter

Things are looking dark for Republican efforts to find enough discrepancies or reports of fraud to overturn the results in the presidential election, in which former Vice President Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump

The president did better than many pollsters expected, especially after a rough year of pandemic and recession, and Republicans also had a surprisingly strong night reducing the Democrats majority in the House of Representatives and, if they win even one of the two Georgia Senate runoffs (in which they are favored), they will retain control of the upper body. 

That means that despite Trump’s defeat, the GOP is actually set up to likely thwart the ambitions of the Democrats to use a Biden presidency to enact sweeping legislation: packing the U.S. Supreme Court, passing a "Green New Deal" or admitting new states in order to create more Democratic Senate seats.

But instead of looking ahead to the business of being a tough opposition to the new Democratic administration and its policies, their favorable prospects for winning control of the House in 2022 or starting the maneuvering for the 2024 presidential race, many Republicans are still locked into denial of what happened earlier this month in the presidential race. 

As is perhaps fitting for the man who first came to national political prominence for promoting the theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Trump is back to peddling conspiracy theories.

Trump’s legal team is pursuing legal challenges to the count in the states where he narrowly lost. There’s nothing abnormal or illegitimate about that but, as conservative legal analyst Andrew McCarthy points out, most are certain to be tossed out of court and the one that has some merit in Pennsylvania wouldn’t be enough to change the outcome in that swing state anyway.

Yet amid the blizzard of assertions floating a variety of reasons why the election might have been "stolen," Trump tweeted about a conspiracy theory he learned from the right-wing OAN network: that election machines built by the Dominion Company had deleted millions of Trump votes, and switched hundreds of thousands of others from Trump to Biden.

In common with so many of his tweets, Trump isn’t necessarily vouching for this tall tale with no apparent evidence of any kind to back it up. Instead, he’s just putting it out there and seeing whether it resonates. 

Unfortunately, it’s doing just that. Thanks to the power of the Internet and the willingness of those connected to him, like lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell, to spread these wild charges, all the while claiming that they have witnesses and other proofs that they can’t and won’t reveal, many of the more than 73 million Americans may now believe the election was stolen from their candidate.

This is a worrying development, and not just because it has provoked a loud chorus of criticisms from Democrats, and much of the mainstream media, that Trump and the Republicans are sore losers. 

The "stolen election" narrative is setting up a situation in which even after Trump concedes defeat and exits the White House, the nearly half of the country that was disappointed by the results will consider Biden’s victory the result of a dark conspiracy. 

Since the essence of democracy is the tacit agreement that both sides must accept the possibility of defeat, plunging Americans into a vortex of conspiratorial musings is a deeply toxic. And considering that one of the conspiracy theories being cited has connections to QAnon, which is itself linked to antisemitism (and which Trump has failed to denounce), this is also troubling for Jews.

Trump supporters think the claim that they are sore losers is rich coming from liberals who’ve spent the previous four years promoting conspiracy theories about Russia collusion that, even after years of government investigation, led nowhere. 

In its last months, the Obama administration’s actions legitimized these false claims, pushing investigations based on a discredited piece of partisan opposition research — the Steele dossier. That also makes Republicans feel they were the victims of a conspiracy. 

Moreover, the entire tone of opposition to Trump, framed in terms of  "resistance" rather than to act as a loyal opposition, while promoting wild and inappropriate claims that he was leading the country into authoritarian rule resonant of Nazi Germany, isn’t only proof of his opponents’ hypocrisy in their current criticisms of Republicans.

This isn’t "whataboutism." Even if we discount Trump’s claims about fraud, it is exactly these hysterical claims which explain why much of the pro-Trump half of the country feels entitled to hold onto their conspiracy theories. 

Tweet advertising the 'Million MAGA March' in Washington DC, attended by approximately ten thousand Trump supporters including far right groups such as the Proud BoysCredit: Twitter

They believe that during the last four years, their choice for president was routinely denounced as illegitimate, and undermined by bootless investigations pumped up by a biased press, respected media sources and politicians alike, often by half-baked and ultimately false promises of proof of Russia collusion. 

They also, not unreasonably note, the way much of the media did their best to prop up Biden while ignoring unflattering stories about him and while cheering the efforts of liberal social media oligarchs to suppress them. 

Thus many on the right are prepared to wink at the talk about Dominion, even if they don’t themselves believe it. The two sides’ conspiratorial views of recent history reinforce and justify each other.

Since Trump won’t retire quietly to write his memoirs and build a presidential library like other ex-presidents, but will instead remain head of his party with the 2024 GOP presidential nomination his for the asking, talk of a stolen election will remain as much part of the political discussion in the coming years as the excuses about Russia were for the Democrats in the previous four.

The consequences of a political culture in which conspiratorial thinking has such firm footing on both ends of the political spectrum are as obvious as they are ominous.

It was no coincidence that with many liberals willing to believe anything said about Trump, no matter how outlandish, that people like Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were able to get away with promoting anti-Semitic memes about money, Jews and Israel without any real consequences. 

The environment was fertile ground for radicals like the "Squad" of Democratic Socialists in Congress, some of whom support a boycott of Israel. That the Squad’s ranks grew in the election, while those of moderate Democrats shrank, means they aren’t going away quietly either.

Qanon activists rally outside Fox News headquarters in New York City, New YorkCredit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Now the right will have its own potential conspiracy-monger in Congress with Marjorie Taylor Greene being elected as a Republican from Georgia. Though Greene now says she has renounced QAnon and promised the GOP leadership she’ll behave, the fact that she has promoted the shadowy group’s antisemitic conspiracy theories while being backed as a candidate by the GOP gave them legitimacy.

The fact that Trump has given a lame duck appointment as a senior Pentagon advisor to Douglas Macgregor, someone who has churned out the same kind of anti-Semitic memes about Jews buying support for Israel as Omar has done, similarly will boost those otherwise marginalized figures on the far right who don’t share the lockstep support of Trump and the Republican Party for the Jewish state.

Biden may be promising normalcy, but there is no reason that either the Democrats or Republicans are going to be giving the American people much of it. As politics descends even further into tribal warfare in which the two sides are unwilling to credit each other with good motives or intentions, conspiracies of all sorts are now here to stay in mainstream discourse. 

Even though those who stand to benefit from the anger on the left or the right are neither antisemites nor opponents of Israel, this kind of ferment inevitably leads to more extremism, not less of it. Both sides will point fingers at the antisemites who can be linked to political opponents while giving a pass to those who are linked to their allies.

The prospect then, for the immediate future, is one in which we can expect endless and pointless debates about whose conspiratorial version of reality is more damaging or doing more to enable anti-Semitism. Those debates will inevitably overshadow policy debates about how to actually confront Jew-hatred on the far right or the left, or relating to events in the Middle East. 

But the truth is that so long as both sides in American politics feel comfortable demonizing each other in this manner, they’ll both bear responsibility for the toxic tone of discourse, and the partisan finger-pointing won’t make any difference.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate and a columnist for the New York Post. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin