Donald Trump, the 69-year-old New York real estate mogul and unrepentant bigot, continues to dominate the Republican presidential primary polls. Trump’s sudden ascendance, accelerated by his willingness to insult virtually any ostensible ally within the conservative movement, has left GOP leaders dumbfounded. How did this caricature of a Republican politician, who has never held elected office, and whose personal ideology is remarkably fluid, usurp more experienced, more conservative, and better-funded candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker? Within this vacuum of understanding, an almost-believable conspiracy theory has obtained currency: Donald Trump is in fact a false flag candidate whose actual mission is electing Hillary Clinton as President.

To understand the contours of this theory, it’s helpful to understand where it came from. A Google search suggests the first person to remark upon Trump’s indirect assistance to Clinton was the anti-war activist and “conservative-paleo-libertarian” Justin Raimondo. In a long blog post dated July 13—just a few days after Trump stole Jeb Bush’s lead—Raimondo argued that the timing of Trump’s entry into the presidential race, which the candidate had long hinted at but until this year never followed through on, could only be explained by a hidden “Democratic wrecking operation” designed to assist Clinton’s parallel campaign:

[Trump’s] ties to the Clintons, his past pronouncements which are in such blatant contradiction to his current fulminations, and the cries of joy from the Clintonian gallery and the media (or do I repeat myself) all point to a single conclusion: the Trump campaign is a Democratic wrecking operation aimed straight at the GOP’s base.

Donald Trump is a false-flag candidate. It’s all an act, one that benefits his good friend Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party that, until recently, counted the reality show star among its adherents. Indeed, Trump’s pronouncements—the open racism, the demagogic appeals, the faux-populist rhetoric—sound like something out of a Democratic political consultant’s imagination, a caricature of conservatism as performed by a master actor.

The idea that Trump is running an elaborate interference campaign on behalf of Hillary Clinton may sound absurd. But there is enough truth to Raimondo’s theory—it makes just enough sense—that it’s already begun to infiltrate, and inform the mainstream voices of, the mainstream Republican Party. On July 23, for example, the popular conservative writer Allen Ginzburg distilled Raimondo’s argument into a vexing thought experiment:

Ginzburg’s tweet has since been retweeted over 400 times (including, earlier this week, by Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto, who serves on the paper’s influential editorial board).

It would, of course, be incredible—and virtually unprecedented in modern American politics—if a major party’s top candidate were to run a campaign for the purpose of electing that party’s most imposing political opponent. So what exactly supports the theory that Trump is such a candidate? Though he has recently rebranded himself as the only Republican brave enough to speak the truth about undocumented immigrants, his past associations and political positions suggest the theory is, if not entirely believable, not exactly implausible, either.

There are three main lines of argument supporting the assertion that Donald Trump is running a false flag campaign:

  1. Trump cannot possibly be considered either a Republican or a conservative, once you account for his apparent political beliefs (many of which are remarkably liberal) and concrete policy proposals (or lack thereof).
  2. Trump has close ties to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, and has in fact donated to her and other Democrats’ campaigns in the past.
  3. Trump’s apparent intent to run on an independent ticket—should he lose the Republican nomination—indicates he cares more about splitting the Republican vote (essentially ensuring the election of a Democratic president) than he does about actually electing Republicans. He also lacks the wherewithal and/or long-term funding to mount a legitimate presidential campaign were he to become the actual Republican nominee.

Let’s discuss each of these in detail:

Argument 1: Donald Trump is not actually a Republican (or conservative)

According to voting records, Trump is currently registered as a Republican, but in the past has been registered (and repeatedly voted) as a Democrat. In fact, he appears to have switched between the two parties at least three times in the past 14 years: In 2001, he switched from Democrat to Republican; in 2008, he re-registered as Democrat; in 2010, he re-registered as a Republican (and maintained that affiliation through 2013). So Trump is certainly a Republican, but only in the sense that any voter can register as a Republican; it’s not like party officials perform an ideological litmus tests on mere voters. (Complicating matters further is Trump’s New York City residency. Republican New Yorkers have been known to register as Democrats in order to participate in Democratic primary elections, which are frequently the only elections that matter in municipal politics.)

The question of whether Trump is conservative is trickier to answer. Within the modern conservative movement, for example, it’s more or less assumed that candidates representing conservative interests believe abortion rights should be restricted (in many cases, radically so). It’s also assumed that conservative candidates oppose the 2010 Affordable Care Act—not just the particulars of the legislation itself, but also the general idea of universal healthcare. But, as The Washington Post pointed out last month, Trump has publicly endorsed both abortion rights and universal healthcare in the past. He’s also endorsed increasing taxes on the wealthy and legalizing drugs. It’s true that Trump has since reversed his positions on abortion and the Affordable Care Act, but as many have noted, his change of heart is far from convincing.

One issue on which Trump is very right-wing, however, is immigration. Trump believes the United States is inadequately protected against invading Mexicans, and has accused undocumented immigrants from that country of raping Americans with impunity. The key to Trump’s appeal is his suggestion, which he utters repeatedly, that mainstream Republican leaders are deliberately sidelining both the issue of border security and the broader issue of immigration—a complex topic within both major parties—in order to shore up support among the country’s growing Latino population.

Trump’s implication of GOP cowardice is seductive to the segment of Republican voters who believe they’ve been sold out by the GOP to various elite interest groups who have relentlessly lobbied for immigration reform. At the same time, immigration reform happens to be an issue with which Democrats have bludgeoned Republicans among Latino voters, who are disproportionately affected by the inadequacies of the current immigration system.

In other words: Trump has focused his campaign on an issue that exposes the Republican Party to attacks from both its base (who want the party to move to the right) and Democrats (who have an obvious interest in portraying opponents of immigration reform—that is, most Republicans—as racist lunatics). If you were Hillary Clinton, it would be hard not to appreciate the strategic advantage of Trump’s campaign, which is doing the work of discrediting the Republican Party among its own voters, and the general public, for free.

Argument 2: Trump is friendly with the Clinton family

Based on his public statements, Trump seems to a) admire Bill Clinton, b) admire Chelsea Clinton even more, and c) regard Hillary Clinton with hostility. Here are some representative tweets:

Until very recently, the nature of Trump’s relationship with the Clinton family seemed entirely transactional. After all, Trump is a wealthy resident of New York, and Hillary Clinton, as a former U.S. Senator of the state, was all but required to mingle with people like him. During last Thursday’s Fox News debate, Trump even bragged about getting the Clintons to attend one of his weddings, knowing they wouldn’t refuse an invitation from someone who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to various Clinton causes, including Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and the Clinton Foundation.

Trump’s relationship with Bill Clinton, however, seems to have deepened in the past few years. On August 5, The Washington Post reported that Clinton spoke with Trump in May of this year about Trump’s political ambitions. Here’s the how the paper characterized the exchange (bolding ours):

Former president Bill Clinton had a private telephone conversation in late spring with Donald Trump at the same time that the billionaire investor and reality-television star was nearing a decision to run for the White House ... Four Trump allies and one Clinton associate familiar with the exchange said that Clinton encouraged Trump’s efforts to play a larger role in the Republican Party and offered his own views of the political landscape.

An aide to Bill Clinton characterized the exchange as merely “a casual chat” (those are the Post’s words), and Trump later denied the suggestion that the former President somehow persuaded him to run on the Republican ticket, but the fact that the exchange took place at all—that Clinton gives a shit about Trump’s rank within the Republican Party; that Clinton stated, whether obsequiously or sincerely, that Trump’s rank should rise—certainly suggests that Clinton could have pictured what Trump’s campaign would look like, and more importantly, what it would mean for his wife and her own presidential ambitions.

Argument 3: Trump clearly intends to run as an independent

Trump’s current threat to the Republican Party is potentially exceeded by the threat of him running against both the Republican and Democratic candidates on an independent ticket (assuming, of course, he does not secure the Republican nomination). Conservatives believe, with some justification, that an independent Trump campaign would carve away a significant chunk of otherwise Republican voters, thereby lending the Democratic nominee an easy victory. (There’s precedent: The conservative movement still blames Ross Perot’s independent run in 1992 for the election of Bill Clinton. Whether this is an accurate read has been, for years, a matter of considerable debate.)

It remains unclear whether Trump actually intends to run as an independent. But during the debate on Thursday, he pointedly refused to agree to a pledge to endorse whoever wins the Republican nomination—the strongest signal yet that he considers the Republican Party’s political and strategic objectives to be much less important than his own.

What Trump would do if another candidate won the Republican nomination is the key to the False Flag Candidate theory. The best case scenario for the GOP is that he loses and does not run as an independent, allowing the party to dismiss Trumpmania as a passing fancy. Democratic attempts to define the GOP as the party of Trump would be neutered; after all, a lot of Republican candidates look comparatively sane and electable when compared to Trump. In the absence of an independent ticket, Trump’s ridiculousness could help other Republican candidates. (The eventual candidate would still need to secure the support of the nativists Trump appeals to while attempting to win over the moderates he appalls, but that is a dance Republican presidential candidates have been practicing for years.)

But if Trump does run as an independent, then Allen Ginzburg’s suggestion above would prove correct: A Trump campaign based on the candidate’s sincere desire to become President, and a Trump campaign based on his hidden desire to see Hillary Clinton elected President, would be completely indistinguishable.

This scenario would, of course, be an unmitigated nightmare for the Republican Party. At the same time, Trump’s frontrunner status has placed party leaders, in particular the other viable candidates, in the seemingly impossible position of attempting to disavow Trump (in order to shield the party from accusations of vicious racism) without completely pissing him off (in order to lessen the possibility of an independent Trump ticket in 2016). How do you marginalize someone like Trump without marginalizing him too much?

Still, it’s unclear how an actual independent Trump campaign would unfold, given what we know (and don’t know) about both the candidate’s finances and the plans of the wealthy donors who fund Republican campaigns. Whether or not Trump is willing to spend his own money on a campaign that would almost certainly help Democrats, not Republicans — and even whether he believes that an independent Trump campaign would help Democrats — remains to be seen.

So is Trump really a Hillary Clinton plant?

There is, we’re sorry to say, no definitive evidence that Trump and Hillary Clinton are colluding to wreak havoc on the Republican Party’s 2016 primary campaign for the purpose of securing a Clinton presidency. This does not preclude the possibility that Trump has secretly decided that he wants Clinton to be president, and is now sabotaging the GOP in order to help the Democratic frontrunner; nor does it mean that Bill Clinton didn’t encourage Trump to run in order to wreak havoc on the GOP nomination process. Even in those scenarios, however, the likelihood of smoking gun is close to zero.

The lack of evidence is not the biggest problem with this conspiracy theory, though. The biggest problem is that the theory’s most important underlying assumption—that Trump is anomalous, a xenophobic buffoon posing as a Republican—is wildly ignorant of actual Republican policies.

Boiled down, Trump’s appeal to the Republican Party’s base consists of his willingness to say nakedly racist statements and his promises to enact equally racist legislation. But why is that appeal surprising? In its contemporary manifestation, the GOP has repeatedly sought the support of voters who wish to disempower and intimidate racial minorities. This isn’t just about the party’s bizarre obsession with upholding the sanctity of the Confederate flag. To this day, for example, the party continues to advocate for Voter ID laws, which are ostensibly designed to combat in-person voter fraud—a virtually non-existent phenomenon—but in practice help prevent a disproportionate number of eligible non-white voters from actually voting. Its intellectual leaders have dismissed the ubiquitous threat of police violence towards black people as illusory.

Donald Trump’s popularity indicates that this country’s most fervent conservatives are primarily concerned not with reducing abortion rights, or repealing Obamacare, but rather with preserving white hegemony in the United States. For years and years, the Republican Party has happily accommodated these kinds of conservatives under the unspoken assumption that they would never be powerful enough to publicize their own candidate. Trump speaks to the error of that assumption.

In this context, the theory that Donald Trump is secretly helping Hillary Clinton get elected is not really about the Republican Party’s hostility toward Donald Trump or its habit of inventing conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. (Although both factors have certainly helped with its formation.) It’s the result of a major political party coming to terms, however illogically, with who exactly its supporters are.

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