How a bizarre doomsday cult from the 1950s explains the magical shifting Russia story that Trumpworld is now spewing

How a bizarre doomsday cult from the 1950s explains the magical shifting Russia story that Trumpworld is now spewing
Gage Skidmore

In the 1950s, there was a famous study led by three psychologists into the inner workings of a UFO cult that believed space aliens were coming to take them away from the planet before a catastrophic worldwide flood. The researchers, who embedded by pretending to be cult members, described how the cultists repeatedly prophesized a date the aliens were supposed to come and were repeatedly disappointed when the prophecy did not pan out.


But instead of admitting that there probably weren't aliens, the cult members cycled through a series of rationalizations, first writing off the failures as a test of their faith and then, eventually, settling on the claim that their demonstration of faith had somehow prevented the worldwide catastrophe and they had saved the planet. But what many of the cultists flatly refused to accept is that they had been wrong to believe in aliens in the first place.

This classic study, which laid the groundwork for the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, can go a long way to explaining the ever-changing story that Donald Trump and his supporters have offered to explain away the Russian conspiracy to interfere with the American election by illegally stealing private emails from Democratic officials. The rationalizations Trump offers have morphed over the past two years, but what remains steady is the fierce conviction of his most loyal supporters that they were never wrong to vote for him and their refusal to accept that he is a corrupt person unfit to hold even a dogcatcher's office, much less the presidency of the United States.

Phase one of the process was flatly denying that the Russian conspiracy even happened in the first place, even as journalists and American intelligence officials were amassing evidence that Russian agents had deliberately stolen emails and used them to stoke conspiracy theories designed, successfully, to suppress voter turnout for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump denied the hacking in many ways. In 2016, he flatly denied it was going on or blamed the Chinese government or "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds," rather than Russia. Under pressure from intelligence officials, at times Trump would reluctantly concede the hacking was real, but he would return to the never-happened-or-someone-else-did-it line as soon as he could.

Most famously, Trump stood by Russian president Vladimir Putin in July 2018 and backed Putin's denials that the conspiracy ever happened by saying, " I don’t see any reason why it would be" Russia and denouncing the existence of the investigation into the conspiracy headed up by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But even by then, the story of the Russian criminal conspiracy was shifting from "never happened" to "no collusion," that is, the claim that while the Russians may have been committing crimes, the Trump campaign was wholly innocent of any involvement. Instead, Americans were meant to believe that while the Russians were busy stealing emails and publishing them through Wikileaks, the bright-eyed innocents of the Trump campaign had no idea what was going on and were just as surprised as anyone, really.

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