By some measures, current events of late have offered developments unlike anything Americans have ever seen. A major political party, for example, will nominate a nativist reality-show personality as its presidential candidate, while its rival nominates the first woman to ever lead a major-party ticket. In the not-too-distant past, stories like these would have been difficult to predict.
And yet, there’s also something familiar about much of what we’re seeing.
Ken Starr is making headlines. Newt Gingrich won’t go away. The economy is improving, and the deficit is shrinking, following a Bush-era recession. Democrats are debating the merits of a controversial crime bill and welfare reform. Republicans like to talk up term limits and a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.
And in case the parallels to the 1990s weren’t quite obvious enough, some unhinged conspiracy theorists on the right are still thinking about Vince Foster’s suicide. The Washington Post reported overnight:
When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, [Donald Trump] dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics – raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.He called theories of possible foul play “very serious” and the circumstances of Foster’s death “very fishy.”“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
The presumptive Republican nominee, true to form, went on to tell the Post, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
This is, of course, classic Trump. He concedes he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s nevertheless comfortable speculating about nonsense he doesn’t fully understand.
There’s no point in rehashing old, ridiculous claims; Foster’s death was carefully investigated at the time and the right-wing conspiracy theories were thoroughly discredited. Instead, what matters now is understanding how the presumptive GOP nominee thinks – and as his Foster comments show, the would-be Republican president just can’t get enough of conspiracy theories, no matter how silly.
The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson’s latest column notes Trump’s unnerving habit of believing conspiracy theories, without any real regard for evidence or reason, on a wide variety of topics: Ebola, Antonin Scalia’s death, vaccinations, 9/11, Mexico, crime statistics, and of course, President Obama’s birthplace.
Similarly, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin did a nice job earlier this month cataloging Trump’s “obsession with race-baiting conspiracy theories” – it’s not a short list – though Sarlin raised a related point that stood out for me: “Even by normal political standards, Trump’s relationship with the truth is abusive…. The GOP presidential front-runner, whether by choice or by nature, appears fundamentally unable to distinguish between credible sources and chain e-mails.”
And that’s the sort of detail that Americans should take very seriously. As Vox’s Ezra Klein recently explained, “Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump’s terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he’s not qualified for the office.”
Trump’s affinity for absurd conspiracies isn’t some odd quirk to his personality. It’s the filter through which he sees the world – and it’s a quality that could be quite dangerous in the Oval Office where sound judgment and critical thinking skills are an absolute necessity.
Arguing that Vince Foster’s death was “very fishy,” and conspiracy theories deserved to be taken “seriously” was ridiculous in the 1990s. This nonsense hasn’t improved with age.