Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A wealthy alleged sex trafficker kills himself in jail, and an official in the Trump administration promotes a right-wing conspiracy theory suggesting Hillary Clinton had something to do with it. Jeffrey Epstein, the multimillionaire, was “Hillary’d,” declared Lynne Patton, a regional head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in an Instagram post that included the hashtag #VinceFosterPartTwo.
Hours later, Patton seemed to double down on this conspiracy theory, mocking mainstream media on Instagram for covering her initial post as a new story. “Gee, been at the beach all Day! Anything happen while I was gone” #MustBeASlowNewsDay… #GetALife.” CNN reached out to Patton for comment, but she declined to provide further detail.
President Trump even used his own Twitter account to share with his followers a similar conspiracy theory about former President Bill Clinton being implicated in Epstein’s death.
It is nearly impossible to keep up with right-wing conspiracy theories and also track the “best people” President Donald Trump has brought into government. But what is clear is that Trump has populated his administration with people who have little to no qualifications for the jobs they’ve been given – and who have no qualms about trafficking in falsehoods in order to undermine American confidence in government and its institutions.
Take Patton. She was a low-level executive in the Trump Organization whose resume suggests she has a law degree (she doesn’t) and includes a vague reference to Yale University, where she was never in a degree program. In other words, prior to her HUD appointment, she did not appear to have any relevant education or job experience to perform the duties her current job requires.
The “Hillary’d” post, with its Vince Foster tag, echoes a long-running theme in the fever swamps of Clinton haters. Not content to argue with their policies or leadership, these individuals have insisted that Bill and Hillary Clinton have been responsible for the deaths of many people. It all began in 1992, with a founding father of this craziness – David Bossie – harassing the family of Susan Coleman, because he suspected the Clintons were implicated in her suicide. Bossie theorized that Coleman was pregnant with Clinton’s baby. Coleman’s family said there was no truth to the story.
After Coleman, the Clinton conspiracy freaks focused on the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster. One of Bill Clinton’s childhood friends, Foster had suffered with depression for years. Multiple investigations concluded he had killed himself. Those who continued to return to the matter would justify it as a matter of legitimate inquiry.
Instead of accepting the truth, anti-Clinton politicos and journalists exploited Foster’s suicide in ways that tormented his family. Now it’s a deranged meme that signals to the conspiracy-minded yet another tragedy should be blamed on the former President and first lady.
And while paranoia about the Clintons is a staple in certain corners of the internet, no one capable of rational thought and the ability to use Google could believe any of it. This leaves us with few options for understanding Patton’s post. She’s either knowingly and cynically spreading political poison or is so lost inside the paranoid, alternative reality of “Trumpworld” that she believes there’s something to the notion that Hillary Clinton is a murderer.
Cynicism and paranoia abound in the subculture Trump now embodies. In this place, Hillary Clinton is an enemy so useful to the 2020 reelection campaign that the President and his surrogates will invoke her whenever they can.
Trump’s own retweet of conservative comedian Terrence Williams was consistent with countless statements he’s made that advanced dishonest claims. This is, remember, the man who has promoted the following false conspiracies – that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya (he only relented on this argument in recent years), that the government tapped his phones during the election campaign, that vaccines cause autism (a theory he has since backed away from) and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered (of which he has to yet to say otherwise).
As he plays the game of distorting reality, Trump will confess that he’s only repeating things he has heard from some nebulous source, that people somewhere are talking about it and/or that he hasn’t actually tried to verify a claim. He just uses his power and public standing to mess with reality and leaves the American public to ponder his words.
Reality distortion is, in the end, the ultimate political purpose of spreading conspiracy theories. Let enough high public officials like, say, a president or a HUD bureaucrat, spout enough nonsense and you get a nation in which facts are ignored and fearful confusion grows. The spread of fearful confusion seems to be the point of all this awfulness. It can motivate those who trust the President to send money to his campaign, knock on doors to rally the vote and show up at the polls on election day.
Ultimately, Trump and others who spread conspiracy theories destroy public confidence in the very existence of truth. The more they sow doubt, the more people may be inclined to believe that sources they might otherwise trust – including the press and public officials – should be discounted. Of course, this helps a President who wants his followers to consider him the only source of stability in a world detached from truth.