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Trump’s Cloud of Gossip Has Poisoned America

The president’s insatiable need to traffic in rumor and conspiracy blows larger holes in our shared reality with each passing day.

Illustration by Valerie Chiang

“So, I just heard that,” the President of the United States said at a White House press conference last Thursday. The conference, like the rest of Trump’s regular press briefings, was ostensibly about the federal government’s slow and lazy response to a pandemic that is still spreading uncontrolled throughout the United States. But because that response can no longer really be said to exist as such, and because he’s never much cared, and mostly because there is a presidential election coming up, President Trump was talking about something he found more interesting instead. In this case, it was a toweringly specious column that ran on Newsweek under the headline “Some Questions for Kamala Harris About Eligibility.” The story sought to undermine the natural-born citizenship of Joe Biden’s new running mate by Raising Some Questions while carefully stopping short of answering them.

As is the case with this greasy genre, this was all barely argued on the merits. Harris was born in Oakland, and based on the Fourteenth Amendment, that means there’s nothing up for debate.* But the idea was never to provide an argument on the merits or properly furnish definitive answers but, rather, to ask them in a coyly, sneering manner. Trump seemed to find all of this interesting in a very specific way. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” the President said. “And, by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece”—John Eastman, the founder of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence—“is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.” Trump hastened to add that where Eastman’s charges were concerned, “I have no idea if that’s right.” It quickly became clear that Trump hadn’t so much read the story as Noticed It, first asserting that the story claimed Harris hadn’t been born in the United States, which it didn’t, and then being informed by another reporter that the story actually raised (constitutionally irrelevant) questions about her parents’ legal status. “Yeah,” Trump replied, “I don’t know about it. I just heard about it. I’ll take a look.”

With the exception of Trump’s “I’ll take a look” tic, which in its various syntactic guises always means “I’m going to go watch some more TV now,” all of the above is intentionally hard to know—and this is due far more to deceptive aspirational branding than to overt falsehood. Eastman’s claim is easily dismissed, but it’s unhelpfully surrounded by signifiers that have slipped wildly out of joint. The Claremont Institute has suitably fancified intellectual production values and a serious reputation‚ which helps make it seem as though its chief jurisprudential expert would indeed be a very qualified and very talented lawyer.

But while Claremont “masquerades as an intellectual salon of the right,” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, “it is really just a racist fever swamp with deep connections to the conspiratorial alt-right” that has lately focused on stamping its imprimatur on whatever incoherent Trumpist revanchism needs a co-sign. And while Newsweek is a name brand that would undoubtedly impress a brain that, like Trump’s, entered energy-saver mode in 1987, it was purchased in 2013 by a shadowy group aligned with a Christian sect called The Community and shed its most qualified staffers in 2018. When company executives and a former chief executive officer pled guilty to federal money-laundering charges in February, the Southern District of New York described its ownership as “a massive fraud scheme through which a group of sophisticated criminals illegally moved tens of millions through our Manhattan marketplace by brazenly overstating the financial health of their companies.” (Newsweek’s opinion editor Joshua Hammer is a former Claremont Institute fellow.)

How the blaringly worthless claim in Eastman’s column came to be discussed at all matters, too, if not quite as much as how it was discussed. The two are related: A reporter at the press conference framed the question of Harris’s citizenship status as centering around “claims circulating on social media.” For a number of immediately obvious reasons, this does not suggest careful empirical review of the historical record—or remotely sufficient merit for such a baldly racist fabrication to be raised in this setting. No matter, though; the query was lofted in the familiar chiding way that the White House press corps uses in its periodic attempts to get Trump on the record disavowing whatever titillating or toxic falsehood he’s taken to claiming. The I Just Heard/They Say formulation is a Trump tic designed to give the impression that he is both a Master Of The News and someone who is constantly being talked about by others. (He goes to it whenever the subject of conversation seems to be slipping too far from him; “He was my friend,” Trump told Fox & Friends on Monday morning in reference to his brother Robert, who died last weekend. “And I guess they say ‘best friend.’ And that’s true.”)

But the presentation—the non-question and bloviating anti-answer—created a queasily familiar binary. On one hand, some reporters are trying to shame Trump into acknowledging some denied fact or repudiating some blithely proffered bit of flotsam that he’d plucked from the sludge canals of conservative media. On the other, a president is standing defiant in his murky and misinformed ignorance, insisting both upon what he heard and that no one knows for sure. When Trump gave a similarly vague response to a similarly couched question about the metastatizing online political cult QAnon, which holds that Trump is locked in a secret war with a cabal of elite satan-worshipping pedophiles, it was both similarly empty—Trump rephrased a reporter’s allusion to its spiking popularity by rephrasing it as something he also definitely knew about himself, then added “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate”—and similarly loaded.

It’s not just that this cycle of offhand umbrage and gilded bluster never goes anywhere; it’s that there’s fundamentally no real place for anything this useless to go. If a question arrives in a way that suggests he should do otherwise, Trump will absolutely give succor to the cultists, who have already committed murders and kidnappings in the name of their janky shared delusion, or humor some cheesy racist canard. It’s all just something interesting he’s passing on–about him, in case you hadn’t heard. He is an expert in it, actually.

It’s not just that the truth doesn’t matter to Trump, although of course it very much does not. All presidents lie, and if few have done it quite as relentlessly or thirstily or with as much unaccountable personal dampness as Trump, he certainly didn’t invent the right to howling, self-serving falsehoods as the ultimate executive privilege. What’s still jarring even this far into his presidency, though, is how unbelievably cheap and checked-out his communication remains. In his role as president of the United States, Trump reliably holds forth with the same po-faced casualness of a lonesome boomer hoisting some confounding eagle-strewn Facebook meme onto his page to an audience of sighing nieces and cringing grandkids. Trump has always been an inveterate gossip and clout-chaser. This is just as true now when he’s president as it was when he was live-tweeting Access Hollywood episodes about Robert Pattinson’s romantic travails; forever and always, Trump just wants to be a part of the conversation.

It’s only when we ponder the totality of it, the fullness of the dishonesty and strange faith and general unfalsifiable rudderlessness of this as a way of being in the world, that we begin to see the direst features of all this noisemaking. Trump was a casualty of conservative media long before he became its hero and main character; as a bigoted dunce who is both deeply cynical and bottomlessly credulous, he’s branded his ascent to power as the apex of, and grim reckoning for, conservative media’s rancid generation-spanning grift. Now, as he shitposts through his fourth year in office, Trump has achieved another apotheosis—the president whom conservative media made is governing with all the poise, foresight, and judgment of an extravagantly online relative muted long ago for crimes against the timeline. Neither abject ignorance nor personal judgment can prevent Trump from weighing in; his inability to sit any topic out is total and helpless. “Thought this was interesting,” Trump idly tells the country he governs a dozen or so times per day before forwarding along a preposterous chain email or sharing a link to some gaudily fraudulent tidbit. It is worrying enough that the president communicates with the urgency and discretion of an elderly relative who signs their text messages. It is more worrying that he is not alone.

“Some people claimed a missile hit the Pentagon,” Marjorie Taylor Greene posted last week. “I now know that is not correct. The problem is our government lies to us so much to protect the Deep State, it’s hard sometimes to know what is real and what is not.” Taylor Greene was, as it happened, one of those people who claimed that thing; the debunked conspiracy that the Pentagon was struck by a missile on September 11, 2001, is one of the (very) many conspiracies that she espoused for fun and profit over many years on every available platform before she perhaps inevitably cinched the Republican nomination in Georgia’s ultra-red 14th District this month.

Greene is a familiar and unbearable type of online busybody—a busted firehose that blasts piping-hot reactionary bullshit 20 hours a day. But in the way that she communicates—“some people claimed”—she is clearly both akin to, and a product of, her president. (Laura Loomer, the oafish alt-right remora who won a Republican primary in Florida’s heavily Democratic 21st this week, is an even more ridiculous case; banned from various social media platforms for her ultra-grating reactionary provocateur shtick, she seems to be running in large part to get her Twitter account back.) This same manic passivity is equally easy to find down the discourse. Francine Fosdick, an online evangelical and figure in the QAnon community, recently described her experience at a big box retail store. “They were actually taking temperatures,” she said, swiping her finger across her forehead. “Now I just heard that that is just another form of mind control in regards to what are they hitting? Right here, okay, your mind, the pineal gland, or whatever.” No one tapping out or taping their delusionary accounts of the way things really are behind the Deep State curtain is working too hard; no one feels compelled to.

The collapse of shared reality across the online sector over the last decade unfolds every day in just this kind of fudgy, vagued-out language. It occurs through the steady accretion of the terrible, disturbing, utterly unfalsifiable things that some people claim or that you just heard all those things that may or may not be so but that are Worth Hearing and So Interesting—all of which occlude and then obscure the real and demonstrable violence that power visits on us every day. “I thought her voice was an important voice,” Trump said last month when criticized for boosting the spurious medical claims of an erratic Houston doctor and self-trained demonologist, “but I know nothing about her.” It’s a remarkable thing to say, and yet somehow it isn’t.

Then as now, Trump didn’t know anything about any of it—he never does, he never will, he doesn’t care—but he wanted to make sure that everyone else heard about it all the same. When other lonely, wrongheaded or web-damaged people extend the same dubious service to those in their lives, they sometimes attach perfunctory well wishes. The president doesn’t bother with that. As far as he knows, he’s just doing his job.

* This post originally misstated where Kamala Harris was born.