Partisanship and Paranoia: Why Clinton Foundation Conspiracy Theories Won’t Die

photo:  Anthony Correia/shutterstock

photo:  Anthony Correia/shutterstock

Hillary Clinton joked the other day that she was resigning as Fox News's president of the United States.

The quip came amid a recent onslaught of Fox coverage of the Clinton Foundation and the so-called Uranium One scandal. The network and other conservative media outlets, as well as Republicans in Congress, have given so much attention to these allegations that you might very well think that Hillary Clinton was the president. The U.S. Justice Department is even said to be considering a special counsel to investigate.

If you’re just tuning in, and not via Fox News, here’s what you need to know about the Uranium One scandal: It’s pure nonsense. The allegations focus on how a donor to the Clinton Foundation, Frank Giustra, supposedly received payback for his gifts when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smoothed the way for him to sell a majority stake in his mining company, Uranium One, which controlled 20 percent of U.S. uranium reserves, to Russia’s nuclear energy agency, Rosatom.

PolitiFact and other independent sources have repeatedly shown that the Uranium One allegations are unfounded. And some conservatives, like national security expert Max Boot, have also said it's hogwash. “There’s no Uranium One scandal,” Boot said yesterday. “Repeat: There’s no Uranium One scandal.” But no recitation of the facts has stopped feverish discussion of this conspiracy theory on the right.

It isn't a mystery why the drumbeat about Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation has become exponentially louder lately: Fox News and other Trump allies have used it to distract attention from a very real scandal: The effort by a hostile power to influence the 2016 election, possibly in collusion with the Trump campaign.

The disinformation—and kookiness—around Uranium One will be familiar to students of U.S. politics, and especially those who’ve followed attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton stretching back a quarter-century. In the 1990s, for example, a Republican committee chairman in Congress, Dan Burton, was fixated on allegations that the Clintons had a hand in the death of White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide in 1993. These charges still regularly surface on fringe conservative media sites. More recently, Republicans in Congress chased another white whale with an investigation into the Benghazi attack that included 37 hearings. 

But what makes the Uranium One conspiracy different—and why I’m writing about it here in IP—is that it involves the Clinton Foundation and philanthropy. For years now, the foundation has been a favorite target of right-wing attacks that have gotten quite a bit of traction. In one poll taken before the election, nearly half of voters expressed concerns about conflicts of interest at the foundation. Many Republican voters today are eager for the Justice Department to investigate the Clinton Foundation—never mind that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s careers as elected officials are over.

What might the world of philanthropy learn from all this?

One takeaway is that the opaque realm of elite funders all too easily intersects with what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics.” Writing in Harper’s in 1964, after Barry Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination, Hofstadter described a tendency among "angry minds" to engage in "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy...."

Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style waxed and waned through U.S. history. Today, in an age of viral fake news created for both partisan and financial gain, it may be at an all-time zenith—thriving most on the right, as usual, but increasingly found on the left, too.

Over the past century, the paranoid style has regularly manifested itself in conspiracy theories about philanthropy. The Rockefeller family’s giving, in particular, has been the subject of countless nutty screeds that allege plots of world domination. More recently, George Soros has emerged as a leading figure of fear and suspicion on the right. Breitbart regularly sounds the alarm about his foundation’s activities both in the U.S. and overseas.

Like quite a few other top philanthropists of our time, Soros made his money on Wall Street. He’s also Jewish and liberal. And his foundation is not very transparent. Stir together all these elements—a Jewish financier bankrolling left-wing causes through an opaque global institution—and you can see why Soros gets so much attention on the right. The Clinton Foundation has been an even more irresistible topic for feverish imaginations and political attack. In retrospect, the foundation’s creation—to save lives in Africa amid an unchecked HIV/AIDS epidemic—was bound to pour gasoline onto a bonfire of Clinton paranoia and disinformation. 

Which leads me to a second takeaway: Partisan politics and philanthropy, however well-intended, don’t mix so well. Most Americans, including politicians and journalists, don’t know much about foundations. But many do have intense partisan passions and ideological loyalties. This combination of tribal beliefs and ignorance is always dangerous, and the 2016 election showed just how dangerous: The endless drumbeat of false or exaggerated charges about the Clinton Foundation—which even quite a few Democrats came to believe—helped sow voter distrust about Hillary and drive up her unfavorable ratings.

(Ironically, another foundation, the Mercer Family Foundation bankrolled by hedge fund winner and Trump donor Robert Mercer, played a key role in financing a strategic attack on the Clinton Foundation that began a few years before the election and achieved exactly its desired results.)

While we may never see a replay of the unique circumstances in which fear-mongering about a charitable organization was exploited for partisan gain in a high-stakes election, there’s a different danger illustrated by the Clinton Foundation episode: Namely, that involvement of political figures in philanthropy could erode public trust of the sector overall.

This is something for Barack and Michelle Obama to keep in mind as they ramp up their new Obama Foundation. Right now, that foundation talks airily about its mission “to inspire and empower people to change their world.” But the former president is keenly interested in voting issues, among other subjects, and is said to be lending his support to efforts to challenge gerrymandering in Republican-dominated states. How long will it be before Fox News is attacking the Obama Foundation?

Related to this, an increase in politicized philanthropy by donors on both the right and left—giving to advance electoral gains or sharply ideological goals—has resulted in rising negative press coverage of the sector. The more that the public hears about tax-subsidized donations being used in ways that sound partisan, the more they may question why such tax breaks should exist in the first place.

And that brings me to a final takeaway from the Clinton Foundation dustup: There are, in fact, real reasons to be distrustful of elite philanthropy in an era when the far upper class routinely abuses its wealth and power for personal gain.

Many of the charges about the Clinton Foundation don’t actually sound so outlandish if you follow the shenanigans of the 0.1 percent. While most of the specific allegations about the foundation have either been false, exaggerated or downright ludicrous, there’s no denying the overall unpleasant odor of insider back-scratching, money grubbing, and political opportunism that regularly wafted from Clinton world over the years. The attack on the foundation took root in fertile soil.

It’s hard to say when the next philanthropy scandal, real or manufactured, may emerge. But it’s a safe bet that we’ll see this sector getting more of the wrong kind of attention down the line. There’s no shortage of partisans and paranoiacs who are eager to find enemies within the philanthropic world. And increasingly, there are plenty of donors and foundations pushing the envelope with behavior that could trigger headlines—whether in Breitbart or the Washington Post. While the American public still trusts the charitable sector far more than other sectors, that could change—and may already be changing in the wake of an election in which the foundations of both presidential candidates came under close scrutiny.

The sooner the charitable sector faces up to its problems and vulnerabilities in a populist era, the sooner it can get ahead of the curve—or the pitchforks—and take seriously the need for reforms to increase transparency and prevent financial abuses.