Congressional deliberations surrounding the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump highlight an important theme in U.S history. Trump and his legislative and media supporters justify the president’s dealings with the government of Ukraine in 2019 as a necessary response to an alleged conspiracy by Ukrainians to meddle on behalf of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Although the national intelligence community has uniformly concluded that the Russian government interfered in 2016 in favor of Trump, the president and his supporters keep insisting that it was Ukrainian agents who hacked the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail server and worked with Democratic operatives on behalf of Clinton. So far, no amount of evidence has convinced Trump and the Republican Party otherwise.
The promotion of conspiracies, no matter how far-fetched, has been a staple of U.S. political history. The eminent historian, Richard Hofstadter, first coined the phrase, “the paranoid style of American politics,” a term he aptly applied to Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Serving in the Senate in the 1940s and 1950s, he was the leading if not loudest voice against what he proclaimed was a Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the executive branch in the nation’s capital as well as educational, cultural and military institutions. He accused Secretary of State and World War II Gen. George C. Marshall of engaging with Communists in a “conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
McCarthy offered alternative facts including that 205 Communists were employed knowingly by the State Department, but his figures kept fluctuating and diminishing. Indeed, facts did not matter to the senator. Even when they were shown to be false or misleading, they continued to have a long half-life bolstered by the media and his legislative colleagues.
This proved true because McCarthy did not operate in a political vacuum. The Republican Party lined up behind the senator because his accusations were aimed mainly at Democratic administrations. McCarthy and his “ism” lasted until 1954, when the Republicans finally turned against him as an embarrassing political liability, and he was censured by the Senate.
Conspiracy theories enjoy great prominence for a variety of reasons. As McCarthy’s rise and fall suggests, conspiracy theories serve partisan motives and thrive as long as they remain useful politically. This lesson is significant today. Republicans continue to embrace debunked conspiracy theories over Ukraine and the 2016 election and stand on the coattails of a president who they think will keep them in power. Like McCarthy, they believe that members of a deep administrative state, in this instance the FBI, the CIA and the foreign service, are boring from within to keep America from being great. They are not going to abandon Trump during the impeachment process, but in the 2020 national elections voters will have the opportunity to accept or reject these latest alleged conspiracies and those who perpetuate them.
Steven Lawson is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and co-author of “Exploring American Histories: A Survey with Sources.”