There is limitless insanity in the President of the United States accusing his predecessor of illegal wiretaps. Former FBI man and counterterrorism expert Clint Watts (who seems to be having himself a well-deserved moment) broke some of them down over the weekend. These include:
- That the POTUS has no idea how wiretaps work
- That the POTUS isn’t aware of what the FBI does
- That he probably shouldn’t draw attention to a FISA-approved wiretap, since that’s pretty bad
- That if the President did receive intelligence on an ongoing investigation of a foreign power, he immediately compromised the operation. The IC was already leery of giving the President information. Now why would anyone tell him anything? That’s no way to run a country.
But, to me, what this shows as much as anything is how Trump serves as a force amplifier for the democracy-eroding paranoia of the far-right/alt-right (which differ only in messaging), the movement that has now entirely consumed the Republican Party.
Their hatred of Barack Obama was bottomless, an endlessly replenished well of racism and always-waxing lunacy. And the way it would operate is that a story, equal parts reprehensible and laughable, would be invented in someone’s twitter feed or gibbered on Alex Jones or published in Breitbart or even a personal blog. It would then filter its way up to Beck or Rush.
This would start to get amplified in the echo chamber, building up steam, until a producer for Fox or a blogger at NRO or one of the most “respectable” voices of the right-wing media started bringing up this thing that “people are talking about.” That, of course, legitimized the whole affair, and at this point, liberal blogs and liberal twitter would start to refute and make fun of it, and, if all went well, it got picked up by the real news, who had to “report the controversy.” This made whatever the story was unquestioned in the minds of those predisposed to believe it. More importantly, it was a virus for borderline voters, low-information types, who heard something about the President being a Muslim, so it might be true.
Don’t get me wrong. These kinds of things getting mainstreamed was a low-percentage affair. But that was ok. As long as you had a constant stream of vitriol for the initiates, and the occasional breakthrough, it was worth it. The strategy is a constant stream of hatred to keep the faithful worked up, and an attempt to sew confusion for everyone else.
But the far-right has received the greatest gift anyone could ever give them, in Donald Trump. As the Times deconstructed, the illegal wiretapping accusations went from 1) talk radio to 2) Breitbart to 3) the leader of the free world, who promptly said them out loud.
The impact of this was clear. Once the President said it, it was all anyone could talk about. And because he said it, the machinery of government has to throw itself behind him, with mouthpieces like Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hope Hicks promising investigations, and Republicans being unable to completely refute it.
This is perfect, if you’re a Steve Bannon, who seems to believe very strongly in the “firehose of falsehood” Russian propaganda model. You put distractions in your friendly media, and almost immediately, they will be known everywhere, because the President has an endless persecution complex, an unquenchable desire for vindication, limitless credulity when it comes to hearing things that make him feel better about himself, and no impulse control.
I don’t think that Trump did this as a distraction, at least not deliberately. As everyone has pointed out, this isn’t a dodge from the Russian stuff; this is the Russian stuff. If it turns out that there was sufficient reason for a federal judge to approve a wiretap, that’s damning.
But they might not have found anything, which would be a “victory” for Trump. It wouldn’t explain all the other Russian connections, but it could be used to tarnish everything else as fake news. And more importantly, by Thursday 35-40% of the country is going to believe that Barack Obama personally installed a bug in Trump Towers. That will be part of the story. There will continue to be conflicting realities, and an inability to agree on even basic facts.
A democracy can’t work that way. That’s long been the goal of rightist propagandists, to erode the foundations of self-government. That they have a family-based authoritarian, and one who will immediately mainstream their wildest falsehoods, is a possible death-knell for our democracy.