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The political significance of Trump's odd new conspiracy theory

It may look like many governors are trying to save lives through mitigation efforts, but according to Trump, that's just what they want you to think.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 10, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 10, 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Much of Donald Trump's political persona has been shaped by his enthusiastic embrace of conspiracy theories. By all appearances, it's practically become instinctual: the Republican reflexively assumes nefarious opponents are out to get him, and he uses those assumptions as a lens through which to see current events.

In March, for example, the president published a tweet in which he accused news organizations of conspiring with Democrats to "inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant." That one didn't hold up especially well.

In April, pressed for some kind of national testing plan, Trump again saw forces conspiring against him. "[I]t's very much of media trap," the president said, adding, "Some people want to do testing because they think it's impossible for us to fulfill that goal." He peddled a very similar line a few days earlier, making the case that proponents of ramped up testing were merely trying to "get him."

And in May, Trump appears to have settled on an entirely new conspiracy theory, this one involving Democratic governors. Here's a tweet he published this morning:

"The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes. They would wait until November 3rd if it were up to them. Don't play politics. Be safe, move quickly!"

The president pushed the same theory on Fox News on Friday, arguing that Democratic officials trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus are likely doing so "because it'll hurt me ... hurt me in the election."

In other words, those rascally Democrats should reopen their states, but they're deliberately choosing not to as part of a dastardly electoral scheme. Sure, it may look like they're trying to save lives through mitigation efforts, but that's just what they want you to think.

To the extent that reality still has meaning, Trump's latest conspiracy theory, like so many of its predecessors, is impossible to take seriously. There's literally no evidence of any governors -- in either party -- trying to address the pandemic through tactics intended to affect the president's re-election prospects. In fact, Trump's whole idea is belied by the handful of Republican governors who've exercised the same caution as Democratic governors in their reopening plans.

So why is he peddling this? Part of it is an obvious extension of the president's eagerness to exploit us-vs-them divisiveness, but it's also likely Trump is also laying the groundwork for an upcoming blame game. The worse the economic conditions in the coming months, the more the president is likely to say it's the fault of governors and mayors who were determined to sabotage his campaign.

That would be a ridiculous claim, to be sure, but it's an argument that's already starting to take shape.