Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief is at it again.
I’m speaking, of course, about President Donald Trump’s decision to retweet a baseless conspiracy theory about the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein.
I’m not going to repeat the tweet because it’s pure nonsense. But suffice it to say that the President is giving the imprimatur of the Oval Office to someone who suggests that Trump’s past political rivals, the Clintons, could be behind Epstein’s fate.
As normalized as he’s made this kind of insanity, we must all again confront the fact that the President of the United States is fomenting hate, and division, and disinformation.
This appears to be less about strategy and more about impulse. Donald Trump has promoted conspiracy theories before, most notably beginning his political career by pumping up the racist birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama in 2011.
During the 2016 campaign, he baselessly suggested that the father of his primary rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, was somehow involved in the assassination of JFK. This didn’t stop Cruz from sucking up to Trump after the election.
This time, however, the President’s conspiracy theory comes less than two weeks after a news report revealed an FBI intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s Phoenix, Arizona office (and obtained by Yahoo News) warning that “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” should be considered as potential terrorist threats.
The report, dated May 30, 2019, according to Yahoo, says that “social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access.”
By that standard, the President of the United States has become one of the most powerful forces for promoting misinformation today.
When the President spreads these theories, he’s not just asking questions – as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway suggested last weekend – he is amplifying their message from the bully pulpit. And that leads some folks – including the unhinged or uninformed – to believe it.
What’s doubly shameful is that President Trump has access to the world’s greatest intelligence services. But too often he is disinterested in fact-based views that push against his pre-conceived notions.
For example, the New York Times reports that the President doesn’t want to receive briefings on efforts to secure America’s election system against further Russian attacks. This is not just a dereliction of duty, it would seem to undercut the oath of office he took to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
On Saturday, a former acting solicitor general of the United States, Neal Katyal, tweeted that it was “literally unfathomable” that the President would retweet such a thing. “It would be outrageous for even a member of the local city council.”
It would. But in some ways that’s the point. You wouldn’t tolerate someone in your life – much less a public official at any level – who lied multiple times a day, but we all have to live with this President and his decisions.
Some folks might take comfort in the idea that the effects of Trump’s worst impulses are often contained. As one senior national security official told my colleague Jake Tapper, “Everyone at this point ignores what the President says and just does their job. The American people should take some measure of confidence in that.”
But that’s only comforting if you adjust your expectations to a bizarro world where senior national security officials view the commander in chief like a malevolent child.
Atlantic columnist David Frum puts it in stark terms: “The days of ‘taking Trump seriously, not literally’ have long since passed. By this point, Trump is taken neither seriously nor literally. His words are as worthless as Trump Organization IOUs.”
Here’s the thing: the 40-or-so percent of Americans who support President Trump do believe him – or they choose to dismiss what he says by engaging in paroxysms of whataboutism; deflecting by denouncing socialism or “the squad” or, somehow still, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Chappaqua’s most famous retirees. Others seek refuge in the mantra “don’t pay attention to what he says but what he does,” and then quickly pivot to the economy.
But the President’s supporters cannot simply do Trump a la carte. If you endorse the President, you are endorsing what he says, as well as what he does. You’re saying that this all is consistent with your vision of how presidents should behave. If that’s your argument, try to imagine any other president publicly accusing a predecessor of murdering someone. I’ll wait.
And if you think that he may be a bully, but he’s your bully, watch out. One of his most loyal supporters, Anthony Scaramucci, just got kicked to the curb for cautioning the President on dividing the country along racial lines. He failed the 100% test and was publicly attacked by Trump, just like the first Senator to endorse his campaign, Jeff Sessions, and many, many more. As Scaramucci said, “Eventually he turns on everyone and soon it will be you and then the entire country.”
By now it should be clear that there is no bottom to this President’s willingness to destroy democratic norms. He will divide to conquer. He will lie reflexively and promote conspiracy theories until it starts to seem normal. It isn’t. This isn’t a reality show. This is our country.