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The Cruelty of Conspiracy: A Personal Story

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” ― Mark Twain
May 13, 2020
The Cruelty of Conspiracy: A Personal Story
Donald Trump speaks to the press prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

I know that I should really be writing about the clash between Anthony Fauci and Rand Paul, the arguments in the Supreme Court about presidential immunity, the cultural war over masks, and the new polls out of Wisconsin.

But I’m stuck on this story about Trump and Joe Scarborough. As CNN”s Oliver Darcy writes, there was time when it would have been a major news story if the president of the United States “had promoted a conspiracy theory that a major cable news host is a murderer.” Now it’s just another data point in the dossier of Trump’s viciousness.

It doesn’t feel that way for me.

On May 1, 2007, my mother was killed in a fire. I was planning to visit and she was cooking dinner for me, when her sleeve caught on fire. She was 87.

She was an amazing woman, who taught me a love for literature and she stayed sharp and engaged to the end, even though I had begun to worry about her staying in her home alone. Back then I had a daily radio show and I made a point of calling her on the way home every day.

I was at one of my son’s tennis matches when my former wife pulled me aside and told me that my mother was dead. She drove me to the police station and I think I was probably in shock.

Family, friends, and much of the community rallied around with words of support. But the next day a radio host named Michael McGee, a former Milwaukee alderman, and a frequent critic (I had a lot of those) went on the air and said that he was glad my mother was dead; and suggested that perhaps I had killed her.

 “Mother Sykes, she dead. To me it’s the vengeance of God. I ain’t got no tears. Matter of fact a woman that would have a fool like that deserve whatever is coming her. She raised a sure enough idiot,” McGee said on his radio show. “My instincts say Charlie Sykes killed his momma, cuz she live out in this big palace in Mequon all isolated. He got tired of waiting for her money.”

I can’t remember who told me about it, but frankly I was just too numb to care. By the time I surfaced from what felt like an endless tunnel of grief, McGee had been fired (although the radio station gave his slot to his son). I suppose I could have sued, but I just didn’t have the heart for it.

No one believed McGee and the condemnation was universal. There were lines that could not be crossed, even in moments of intense political warfare.

For Trump, however, there are no lines. And, apparently no consequences for suggesting that a political critic might have been a murderer.

There are, of course differences between my story and Scarborough’s: I was attacked by a talk show host, not the president, and we aren’t talking about his mother.

But we are talking about real people, with families, and loved ones.

The young woman’s name was Lori Klausutis and she died of an undiagnosed heart ailment.

She was married and 28 years old, and one can only imagine the devastation her family felt. And now the president of the United States is dredging it all up again, with a farrago of conspiracy theories, misrepresentations, and vicious smears.

Last month he tweeted: “Then you have Psycho Joe ‘What Ever Happened To Your Girlfriend?’ Scarborough, another of the low I.Q. individuals!”

This week, he lashed out again.

Via the Wapo:

 The sun had not been up for an hour when the president of the United States, in his ninth tweet of the day, said MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough might be a murderer.

It’s an old claim, debunked by The Washington Post in 2017. Trump often smears those who challenge him. He has a long-running feud with the “Morning Joe” husband-and-wife team of Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

But it remains astounding to see the president make a thinly veiled murder accusation devoid of evidence. Many of the 18,000 false and misleading claims in our Trump database feature overheated rhetoric. Few of them rise to these vicious heights.

The circumstances of Klausutis’s death have spawned conspiracy theories, but authorities never suspected foul play. Her death is not an unsolved mystery or a cold case waiting for answers. Klausutis’s death on July 20, 2001, was ruled accidental and the police concluded there was no reason to further investigate. A police investigator told The Post in 2017 that authorities had left “no stone unturned.” PolitiFact has given Trump’s claim its worst rating, “Pants on Fire.”

The Washington Post’s fact-checker gave Trump “Four Pinocchios. We wish we had more to give.”

It doesn’t seem enough, does it?

And  I’m still thinking about it, trying to come up with the words to describe the vileness, the pure evil,  of Trump’s attack. It’s a measure of how numb we have become that we’re no longer shocked by something like this.

His ugliness has become simply the background noise of our lives. Anti-anti-Trumpers have become accustomed to simply averting their eyes. His acolytes continue to believe that he “tells it like it is.”

But I can’t help thinking that somewhere there are people who loved Lori Klausutis who are grieving all over again.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.