Trump's Pileup of Fake Conspiracies Conceals Real One

The Russian scandal is real enough, but it’s tough for anyone to understand that amid a swamp of fake news


Most of us, when growing up, were exposed to the Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The story — in which a boy repeatedly pretends to have seen a wolf and loses all credibility, causing people to ignore him when he really is attacked by a wolf — was presumably meant to be a tale warning children about the dangers of lying.

But President Donald Trump and his minions appear to have learned the lesson backwards or upside down: If you have a real wolf that you want to hide, then your best bet is to cry wolf until people wouldn’t know a real wolf even if it was staring them in the face.

Last week, while much of the cable news and White House reporter pool was obsessing over flash-in-the-pan Anthony Scaramucci (I’m guilty too!), a far more important story was spooling out at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. A businessman named Bill Browder was explaining what he learned working in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His testimony could provide the information that brings together a true understanding of what’s really going on with Trump and Russia.

Browder’s testimony is complicated, but it’s important because he offers substantive evidence about what Putin may have wanted from Trump — quite likely in exchange for hacking the Democratic National Committee and spreading lies and propaganda meant to undermine Hillary Clinton. That would be the lifting of American sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 US law meant to punish a group of Russian officials who were responsible for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating Russian government corruption who died in prison in 2009.

Browder and other experts believe the Magnitsky sanctions affect Putin directly, who may be hiding overseas money through intermediaries affected by the actions. Browder also told senators that the lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner in that infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, Natalia Veselnitskaya, is the “point person” for lobbying against these sanctions. Donald Jr. has admitted that the meeting was arranged to gather Russian information that might be damaging to the Clinton campaign and that they discussed the issue of Russian “adoptions,” which is a euphemism or proxy for the Magnitsky sanctions.

Phew, that’s a lot — worse yet, it’s hard to write that without the creeping feeling that half the people reading this are writing me off as some kind of loony conspiracy theorist, with my outrageous tales of the president of the United States possibly enmeshed with murderous Russian oligarchs. And why shouldn’t they? It sounds almost as nutty as some of the blatantly false conspiracy theories of the last few years, from accusations that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child rape ring run out of a pizza parlor to accusations that Barack Obama somehow faked his birth certificate, 40-odd years after the fact.

Fake conspiracies, it turns out, are Trump’s best weapon for hiding the actual conspiracy it looks like he or his staff actually engaged in.

“The landscape has basically been saturated with fairy tales, conspiracies and deliberate disinformation,” Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, explained to Salon. “When you have a large portion of the news cycle being consumed by a conversation around conspiracies ... people get fatigued.”

Polling backs up Carusone’s observations. Voters are fatigued and confused by the Russia story, and a majority of them don’t seem to understand that there is now pretty close to smoking gun-level proof of collusion (especially with Donald Trump Jr.’s email exchange) between the campaign and Russian agents.

For a couple of decades now, right-wing media has seeded fake conspiracy stories into the mainstream media to demonize political opponents and sow doubts about politically inconvenient facts. This, Carusone argued, escalated under Trump, who has used his growing media power to drive an overwhelming number of conspiracy theories into the mainstream, including rumors that Clinton’s health was failing, that millions of undocumented people voted in the 2016 election and that there’s some uncovered scandal regarding Clinton’s (sigh) emails.

The net effect is to make evidence-driven, rational people hyper-skeptical of anything that sounds like a conspiracy theory, even those, like the Russia scandal, which aren’t conspiracy theories at all.

So when a journalist tries to publicly piece together what’s going on with Trump and Russia, “you sound like a crazy person, because the audience has been hardwired to believe that all conspiracies are akin to Alex Jones’s inter-dimensional demon,” Carusone said, referencing the Infowars host’s claims that Democratic politicians are conspiring with hell-spawn to control the country. (After all, can any of us prove that isn’t true?)

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2017

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