My fellow Americans, the state of our union is (Drumroll, please) paranoid.
The complex of mysteries known as "the Russia investigation" has become tangled up in conspiracy theories voiced by President Donald Trump's Republican allies and his friends in the tabloid sensationalist wing of right-wing media.
The aim is not to find evidence or rational arguments to defend against possible charges of collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Rather, it is to muddy the waters with speculation and "alternative facts," to borrow Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway's famous phrase, that can embolden the administration's defenders and trivialize the charges and make the pursuit look like a partisan witch hunt.
We've seen this sort of defense before in President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and President Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky affair. You brand your pursuers as cynical partisans. You demonize investigative reporters as "fake news" or liars. (Nixon: "I'm not a crook." Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman.") Counterattack the character, fairness and possible political alliances of investigators and hostile witnesses. Come up with counternarratives that distract and stall for time.
Finally, recognizing that the Constitution sets up impeachment to be a political process, not a judicial matter, set up arguments that your party can use in Congress to avoid impeachment by the House or eventual conviction by the Senate.
Trump's biggest advantage over Nixon's or Clinton's examples is his Republican party's rule of both houses of Congress -- for now. That's why so much of his current defense, as argued by his allies in Congress, is aimed at whipping up public opinion to support Trump's allies in Congress.
As a result, Trump has labored like strongman autocrats the world around to trash the institutions that are designed to provide a check on a president's ability to abuse his (or, someday, her) powers. He's attacked the FBI, the CIA, the electoral system, the media ("fake news"), federal judges and the government bureaucracy ("deep state").
The paranoid style of politics, as historian Richard Hofstadter famously titled it in the early 1960s heyday of the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater campaign, flourishes in today's industry of paranoid conspiracy theorists on the internet and in other media. But never before has it been brought into the Oval Office by a president, who, judging by a various credible reports, would rather watch hours of Fox News than listen to his own intelligence briefings.
Even more stunning is the broad support Trump has received from other Republicans for his conspiracy theories, as well as the new-age partisan media that Clinton and Nixon did not have. Referring to the hyping by Republicans of a text message between two FBI employees that referenced a "secret society," Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked his guest, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), if Republicans "hurt their credibility on real issues of bias when they make such a big deal about secret societies and palace coups."
Yet, as the liberal website Media Matters reports, Fox aired the phrase "secret society" more than 100 times in the two days after the text message between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page (no relation to this columnist) was revealed on Jan. 22 by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) on Fox News. After the message was reported likely to be a joke (Gee, do ya think?), almost all references to the phrase "secret society" suddenly disappeared from the news stations air.
A recent RAND Corp. study concludes that, although "fake news" has been a widespread complaint since the late 1800s, a new problem of "truth decay" blurs the line between facts and opinions in the public mind, undermines the credibility of formerly respected institutions and threatens our state of civil discourse.
The good news: More of us Americans appear to be engaged with the political process than at any time since the Vietnam War. The heightened awareness and engagement on the left that led to Barack Obama's election, followed by a similar uprising on the right that Trump rallied, have led to record number of candidates in this year's midterm elections and, according to political and media experts, a renewed sense of civic responsibility.
In other words, the best antidote to paranoid politics is us, the voting public. In our schools and elsewhere, we need to recommit ourselves as a nation to facts, not just our fears.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.