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The noir conspiracy theories, continued

Part Two

On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald Trump raised his right hand and affirmed he would “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

He then turned to the podium and proceeded to deliver one of the bleakest inaugural speeches in memory, depicting the nation as a dystopian land of “rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape ”; a place where “mothers and children are trapped in poverty in our inner cities”; an “education flush with cash, but leaves our students deprived of knowledge”; where “crime and drugs have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. The American carnage stops right here, right now.”

If “gaslighting,” the handmaiden of conspiracy, is a tactic used by autocrats, cult leaders and abusers to make the audience question reality (memory, perception and sanity), then Trump’s first speech to the nation was a masterful use of this technique, and one, over the next three years, he would return to again and again; call it “apocalyptic punditry.”

In truth, on the day of his speech, America’s crime rate was down; the economy robust; unemployment at an historic low; and participation in welfare benefits declining.

We now know that his dissembling address was just the beginning. What followed has been chaos and scandal wherein “Individual 1” jumped down the rabbit hole, taking all of us with him.

Gradually, with every tweet, rally speech, conspiracy narrative and authoritarian edict (Muslim ban, national emergency at the border, a government shutdown), an unsettling conviction has begun to take hold: our democracy, this astonishing form of government, predicated on the conviction that we are a nation of laws, has been handed to Donald Trump, not by a popular vote but by an anachronistic Electoral College that reflected the wishes of 63 million Americans. Did voters actually walk into polling booths believing that a swampy, deep-state cabal exists? That way lies madness.

Conspiracies are either born of a deep cynicism, or they reflect an abiding instability. Regarding Trump, I would lean toward instability, caused by — well, who can know? Actually, it doesn’t make any difference. He is who he is, and he’s the president, and it has become painfully and spectacularly self-evident that he is out of his depth.

If you doubt this, consider the recent Ukrainian imbroglio: it is a multi-layered, diplomatic, self-serving train wreck created by Trump, the Department of State, and one Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s go-to-guy who was let loose in an international china shop.

Consider the following statement made by Trump in a steno-recorded conversation with the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky: “I would like to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike. I guess you have one of your wealthy people, the server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”

This is also the conversation wherein Trump appears to extort cooperation from Zelensky, alleging that there is a corrupt connection between Joe and Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian gas company that should be investigated.

But Trump here is referring to a convoluted conspiracy theory (shelf life years and counting) that one of the hacked Democratic National Committee computer servers — a hack investigated by a cybersecurity technology company called Crowdstrike — has a Ukrainian connection. Said server, so the story goes, was not delivered by CrowdStrike to the FBI; rather, it was sent to Ukraine, where the DNC hack plus the 2016 election interference were carried out. Russia, therefore, has been falsely accused.

To make this conspiracy even more bizarre, Trump, apparently, is convinced that Hillary’s missing 33,000 “Russia if you’re listening” emails are hidden in that one server, despite the fact that Hillary’s private server was never kept at the DNC, hence could not be in Ukraine.

Remember, regarding conspiracies, it’s alternative facts that matter. Just ask our president.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.