"Delusion." "Off the chart bonkers." "Insane." "Objectively nuts." These are some of the terms that pundits — both on the left and on the right — are using to describe Donald Trump's reported belief that he will be "reinstated" as president in August, a belief that is tied to the growing enthusiasm in QAnon circles for a Myanmar-style coup d'état.
This article was originally published at Salon
It's a comforting story: that Trump is a doddering fool who is lost in a pathetic fantasy. After all, there is no process to "reinstate" a former president. Moreover, the people who Trump is clearly getting this idea from are total kooks like his former lawyer Sidney Powell and pillow salesman Mike Lindell. And Trump himself is the "inject bleach" guy, no one's model for rigorous empirical thinking.
Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where it's unwise to underestimate Donald Trump.
It's true, of course, that there is no pathway (outside of a true military coup, which Trump is almost certainly not up to organizing) that would oust Joe Biden and install Trump in the White House within three months. But after all of this time, one would hope that U.S. punditry would grasp the fact that Trump's conspiracy theories are often not so much literal as they are aspirational.
Trump uses wild conjecture to project images of what he wants the world to look like, and passively allows his minions — whether they are close to him, like Rudy Giuliani, or worship him from afar, like the Capital rioters — to self-direct the actions they will take in order to make his fantasy a reality.
As I note in today's Standing Room Only newsletter, Trump loves the "will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" style of giving orders, where he just puts a wish out into the world and hopes other people will pick up what he's putting down. As his former lawyer Michael Cohen famously noted in his testimony before the House before he went to prison for crimes committed on Trump's behalf, "He doesn't give you questions, he doesn't give you orders. He speaks in a code." It's a strategy that shields Trump from consequences while his self-directed minions, like Cohen or Giuliani or the Capitol rioters, take the fall. It also means less work for Trump.
So, no, Trump isn't going to be reinstated. But he probably doesn't actually think he will be. (His fellow conspiracy theorists like Sidney Powell will also, when the chips are down, admit that they don't really believe all the crazy crap they say.) But the purpose of floating that he could be reinstated is not to express a sincerely held belief so much as it is to send a message to his followers and, even more disturbingly, to GOP leadership: He wishes them to ramp up their already alarming attacks on democracy. Trump has already been successful at turning his false claims that the election was stolen from him into a litmus test for Republican politicians. Now he's upping the ante, using the mainstream media to amplify his message that it's time to start getting even more aggressive in the fight to end American democracy.
The most immediate goals expressed in Trump's conspiracy theories are often not achievable, but in the mere act of setting a marker with conspiracy theories, Trump often moves the needle closer to his goal of outright fascism. We saw how this played out with the January 6 insurrection. Trump fixated for weeks on a conspiracy theory that held that Vice President Mike Pence could simply deny Congress the right to count electoral votes and that doing so would magically result in Trump getting a second term. On its surface, this conspiracy theory was delusional. Pence didn't hold that power, and even if he did, the Constitution orders that the person sworn in is not the guy who lost the election, but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
So while Trump failed at his literal goal of staying in the White House, by every other measure, the January 6 insurrection he incited was a wild success. To be sure, there were a few shaky days right after it happened where many Republican leaders seemed angry with Trump. Soon, however, they fell in line in supporting Trump, covering up for his insurrection, and punishing any Republican leaders who continued to believe that attempting to overthrow the U.S. government is a bad thing to do. And then they weaponized the Big Lie Trump used to incite the insurrection in order to justify state-level assaults on voting rights and fair elections.
Republican leaders "agree with the underlying ideological claim of the rioters, which is that Democratic electoral victories should not be recognized," Adam Serwer writes in a piece titled "The Capitol Rioters Won" for the Atlantic. Now "the Republican Party has focused on the long-term project of engineering the electorate to preserve its hold on power."
One of the most common misconceptions about conspiracy theories is that they are sincere expressions of belief. Sometimes that's true, but just as often, conspiracy theories are better understood functionally, not literally. They are tools that conspiracy theorists use to further their larger goals. It's irrelevant whether Trump "believes" that he could have kept power by stopping the electoral vote count on January 6 or that he'll be reinstated in August. What matters is how he uses these conspiracy theories, to promote the ideological belief that a multi-racial democracy is bad, that a white conservative minority deserves to rule over the majority, and that any means necessary to make that happen are on the table.
That is why, as I explained Thursday, Trump doesn't just believe that he'll be "reinstated" in August. If it was merely a belief, he could play golf all day, content that the Secret Service will show up soon to whisk him off to his rightful place in the White House on the appointed date. But instead, as the National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke — himself a hardcore conservative, if one who is a little more reality-bound than most — wrote, "Trump is trying hard to recruit journalists, politicians, and other influential figures to promulgate this belief." It's not a passive expression of belief, but an instrument that Trump is using to manipulate the media, his followers, and the Republican party.
This particular conspiracy theory has a twofold function. The first and most obvious is to keep pushing the Republican party towards fascism. But of course, they're already going there, so probably didn't need more of a push from Trump. The second, and perhaps more important to Trump himself, is that the conspiracy theory keeps him at the center of this story. As Axios founder Jim VandeHei said on MSNBC Friday morning, Trump is "frustrated" and "having a hard time getting through" because "people are no longer obsessed with what Donald Trump has to say."
It's definitely possible that Republicans will use Trump's Big Lie to build up all this anti-democratic infrastructure — voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, laws that make it easy to throw out elections that Democrats win — and that politicians other than Trump will be the main beneficiaries. There are almost three years until Republicans can vote in a presidential primary, and a lot can happen in that time. Trump's emergence as the next nominee is not guaranteed, as much as it may seem to be right now. And so the GOP may be set up to steal the next presidential election, but for someone who isn't Trump. This new conspiracy theory helps reinscribe the notion that Trump is the only path forward for the GOP, that his ascendance is preordained, and that Republicans better not even consider thinking about running someone with less baggage or better hair.
So no, I don't think Trump believes he'll be reinstated in August. I don't think Trump really believes anything, not in the way that most people hold beliefs at least. He has a purely instrumentalized view of the world: "Beliefs" aren't sincerely held, but just another tool to manipulate others. He never asks himself "is this true?" so much as "what will it get me to say this?" And when it comes to this particular conspiracy theory, the answer may sadly be "quite a lot."