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Why should ordinary Americans trust an elite that has misled them repeatedly, failed to deliver as promised, accrued an ever-larger share of the nation’s wealth, and suffered so few consequences for past errors? At this point it becomes easy to persuade someone that “the system is rigged” and that mainstream media is filled with “fake news.” Donald Trump didn’t learn how to lie in 2016—on the contrary, his career was founded on lies from day one—but he got elected president in part because Americans no longer believed anyone could be relied upon to tell the truth.

Weave these strands together, and you have a fertile environment for conspiracy theories, especially after Americans have been told over and over that a vast array of shadowy and ruthless adversaries were plotting to snatch their freedom away from them. In the 1950s, it was the fear of communist infiltration; after 9/11 it was the supposedly mortal peril of Islam, or immigrants, or a “refugee invasion.” Once you’ve been persuaded that the Islamic State posed an existential threat (as opposed to being a serious but manageable problem), it might not be hard to convince you that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor. Too bad we didn’t spend more time worrying about some real dangers, like a new and highly contagious virus.

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What I am suggesting is that America’s actions abroad helped create the dangers Americans now face at home. The United States set out to remake the world in its image, and when some parts of that world pushed back, it reacted the way that most societies do when they are attacked. Americans got scared, lashed out even more, stopped thinking clearly and strategically, and looked around for someone to blame. Instead of seeking out leaders who were genuinely interested in solving the real problems the United States faced, Americans ended up with the performative patriotism of a Ted Cruz or a Mike Pompeo—all swagger and no substance.

I’m not the first to point this out, of course, and the ideas sketched above are surely not the full story. Social media helped get us here, along with the emergence of the galaxy of media figures who figured out you could get rich being hateful, outrageous, and deceitful. I think Julian Zelizer is right to pin some of the blame on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose desire for power alone did more than anyone to destroy the norms of bipartisan cooperation and compromise. And the Republican Party’s decision to pin its political future on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and mobilizing a shrinking base and not on trying to appeal to the median voter is surely part of the problem, too, along with the twisted soul of Trump himself.

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