The whistle-blower scandal reveals something essential about Donald Trump’s repeatedly questionable and idiosyncratic behaviour. It is also telling with regards to the prevalence of opinion over evidence in the internet age. The impulse to play out whether Trump will be dismissed before proper investigations have taken place reflects how impatient and hubristic we have become as we are assaulted with constant updates across our multiple devices.
For an elected politician, Trump is unusually drawn to conspiracy theories. His road to the presidency started with him being among the most prominent members of the “birther” movement, which claimed Obama was born in Kenya and that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Trump asked whether he’d been suffocated because he had died face down in his pillow. Trump's willingness to repeat and possibly believe such scuttlebutt should be of great concern. One would have hoped that with access to top-rate experts and intelligence reports, the president would have relied less on alt-right internet rumours, lies and mischief to understand politics.
Trump’s phone conversation with the Ukrainian president is a strong reminder of the conspiratorial circles Trump moves in. The tabloid headlines about the Bidens are what Trump hopes will be remembered from this scandal. In our highly partisan world, untrue claims stick because that’s how tribal thinking works.
The internet has made conspiracy theories commonplace because the editorial control that traditionally blocked the spread of lies and misinformation is nowhere near as rigorous or extensive as it once was. It is not just teenage boys and the alt-right who are obsessed with conspiracy theories, it is also a significant section of the alternative left. Within the alt-left, theories about 9/11 being fabricated or an inside job, and the evils of vaccines are dangerously popular.
If the internet makes the spreading of lies easy, when it is combined with a celebrity culture where getting attention is highly valued, you have a world where saying outrageous things is a common way of communicating. This is the world Trump has long operated in: he constantly says things on Twitter and elsewhere to gain attention or to distract – “Can you believe it, Trump wants to buy Greenland”, etc.
Given Trump’s unremitting narcissism, he will relish the upcoming impeachment proceedings. The capacity of the narcissist to play the victim, no matter how much they brought the situation on themselves, should not be forgotten in the weeks ahead. Trump’s self-justification system is almost impervious to falsification, so do not expect him to admit mistakes were made or to resign.
In the weeks ahead, as impeachment proceedings are undertaken, truth and evidence will hopefully be valued by the Congress above tribalism. However, as Senate Republicans illustrated with their vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, partisanship can thwart justice being served in the face of convincing evidence. It will ultimately take a hard swing in public opinion against Trump for Republicans to find their consciences and vote to dismiss him from office.