On the fringes of Democratic social media bubbles is a budding story of Russian backed treason among the Trump administration that has taken hold in a very real way. There are real connections between the Trump administration and Russia that are being investigated, but some of the runaway theories are far ahead of those investigations and are heading towards Alex Jones level of conspiracy. Seriously, there aren’t Steve Bannon execution plans hidden in “intelligence community leaks” found only on the fringes of lefty Twitter.
Still, it’s not the first time wild conspiracy theories have flown around in turbulent political times.
In fact this is hardly a new trend in American politics and is reminiscent of many elections past. Just look at the election of 1980 where whiffs of collusion had some Democrats boiling mad at the prospect that the election was unfairly swayed by collusion with a foreign enemy. An election stolen from Jimmy Carter by covert communications between Reagan and Iran regarding the timing of the release of Iranian hostages. A crisis which had gripped the nation for months and came to an end minutes after Reagan took office.
The Iranian-Hostage crisis was an issue the entire campaign and one which weighed on Carter and public opinion of the administration heavily. The hostage standoff had become a national event, with all eyes on the Carter administration to bring them home. In January of 1980 Walter Cronkite at CBS started keeping a daily tally of the number of days the hostages had been held in captivity at the end of his nightly newscast. People were constantly reminded of the hostages in Iran and they became a national rallying cry, one that for many voters was emblematic of Carter’s weak foreign policy. It provided a clear point of contention for the Reagan campaign, but also a good bit of worry.
With so much of America wrapped up in the story of these hostages the daily coverage clearly hurt Carter. It also potentially provided him a much needed opportunity for a big victory, one that could easily rally the country behind him given the outpouring of support and attention the hostages received.
People in Reagan’s inner-circle worried it could prove to be an “October Surprise” for Carter and swing the election in the last weeks. That didn’t happen and Reagan rode to victory in one of the biggest landslides in American political history. The hostages remained in Iran for months, until Iran released them literally minutes after Reagan took office. For many that seemed suspect at the time, but even before the hostages were released rumblings of collusion between the Reagan campaign and Iran could be heard.
On December 2nd 1980 the first known rumors of a Reagan-Iranian conspiracy to retain the hostages to hurt Carter were published in Executive Intelligence Review, a publication circulated by supporters of American conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche. Which is important because LaRouche made quite a reputation for living in the land of factless politics, at the intersection of conspiracy theories and activism. LaRouche tried to harness the forces of post-truth to take over the Democratic Party both nationally and in various state level races to little success. Still LaRouche’s role in the spread of anti-Reagan conspiracy theories is an interesting one with clear parallels to the modern day.
Like most conspiracy theorists LaRouche has a long history of political involvement, starting with his fringe involvement in the anti-war movement where activists associated with his group often tried to incite violence at rallies. A precursor to an inflammatory style he would build on for decades to come.
LaRouche also ran for president in every presidential election from 1976 to 2004. First as a member of his own party, the US Labor Party and then as a Democrat from 1980 on. His entire career was based on outrageous niche issues that he and his followers used to create controversy, outrage, and public confrontation, which they tried to turn into fundraising opportunities. From nuclear disarmament to AIDS, LaRouche dipped his toe into the money flowing around activist circles on any issue. LaRouche’s real motivation was money from political outrage as evidenced by the groups push of climate denial in the mid 2000’s.
There was no clear ideological bend, except vaguely left wing outrage.
The publication Executive Intelligence Review was part of his conspiratorial outrage umbrella and like his group’s political activism it was equally eclectic and scandalous. The fact that the first known utterance of a Reagan-Iran conspiracy came from a LaRouche backed publication is no surprise, but just like the fringe blogs of today the source didn’t matter once his narrative hit the mainstream. Years later after the Iran-Contra scandal the idea that the Reagan administration conspired with Iran to prevent the release of hostages that could buoy Carter began to seem a lot more plausible to many Americans, which created an increased interest and numerous investigations from individuals, the media, and congress.
This began a series of investigations and rebuttals that would go until the mid-90’s. The Senate investigated the matter and found no connections, the House investigated as well, but also found nothing. Newsweek and the New Republic each launched their own investigations which both turned up with nothing. There are books written that claim the exact opposite and many an internet post that proclaim all the aforementioned investigations pieces of an elaborate bipartisan cover up. That makes little sense, but it shows the lengths that people will go to justify their world view.
In certain circles the Russia-Trump scandal is being used to construct an elaborate alternate reality far removed from the actual investigation and very real connections between Trump and Russia that continue to dog the administration. Conspiracy theories are being created and they are pushed around social media, bouncing around twitter and left wing Facebook groups where they find real traction. Figures like Louise Mensch have used the chaos to their benefit, profiting off the clout that comes with a conspiracy addled alternate universe and an audience that can’t get enough.
In this world the connections between Manafort, Trump Jr, Bannon, and the Kremlin are clear as day. In this world there are supposed leaks from the highest echelons of the American intelligence community that predict anything from Trump’s resignation to Steve Bannon’s execution. Mensch and company have tapped into the same force that LaRouche made a career off in the 80’s and 90’s. A certain segment of the left is genuinely going deep into conspiracy theory territory, filling in the gaps of a very real scandal with fictions somehow even more scandalous than the current reality.
It’s not the first time this has happened and it certainly won’t be the last as it seems to be a fairly natural human reaction to political scandal. Still, as the fervor grows and segments of the Democratic base becomes increasingly unhinged from reality, the ground is ripe for demagogues cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump. Anti-fact, anti-intellectual demagogues who know how to press people’s buttons in just the right way. Increasingly it seems partisan Democrats may be ready for their own Trump, someone cut from the same cloth, just shaped in a way that fits the Democratic Party.