Photo illustration by John Lyman



Trump, Dmitry Rybolovlev, QAnon: The End of Politics

The current state of the US was poignantly put on display when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she believed that God had wanted Trump to become US President. The ritualistic exaltation of the president stems from Trump’s belief that the United States owes nothing to anyone. This way of thinking is giving rise to ever more outrageous conspiracy theories about his presidency, both on the side of his supporters and his adversaries, with negative consequences for America’s political culture.

Trump’s presidency has given rise to numerous conspiracy theories, from Pizzagate to the saga of Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev and the world’s most expensive painting. For the longest time, such theories were the product of niche groups and laughed about in society at large. But under Trump, they have become a part of daily political routine. And with them finding acceptance among large parts of the population, politics as we know it is no longer possible. The kind of rational, reflective debate on political and societal issues required for the political process to function is quickly becoming a relic of a bygone age.

This modern tragedy is exacerbated considering that these theories are all easily debunked. Take the most recent and prolific one about former potash mogul Dmitry Rybolovlev, who sold Da Vinci’s re-discovered masterwork, Salvator Mundi, in 2017 for $450 million, and probably never thought it would be used to tie him to Trump a year later. The story goes that Rybolovlev and a cabal of Gulf sheiks colluded in order to benefit Trump and launder money through the paining’s sale. Allegedly, Rybolovlev consigned Salvator Mundi to auction house Christie’s, knowing the Saudis would intentionally overpay to channel the money to an Israeli PR firm that was involved in the presidential campaign. Proponents of this theory point out that the masterpiece hasn’t been seen since.

For evidence linking the Rybolovlev and Trump, theorists advance the fact that the Monaco-based billionaire acquired Trump’s Florida mansion in 2008. However, it is clear this argument doesn’t hold up: Four years later Rybolovlev bought a New York penthouse from Sandy Weill, a billionaire banker and a Clinton supporter, a fact that conspiracy theorists casually omitted. In fact, the truth is, as so often in contrast to conspiracy theories, rather mundane and simple: far from a sinister plot engineered by foreign actors to hoist Trump to power, the case of the Da Vinci is nothing but an elaborate defrauding scheme in the opaque art world.

While Rybolovlev bought the Salvator Mundi in 2013, he later learned that his longtime art dealer Yves Bouvier had been fleecing him for 10 years. Bouvier would purchase the artworks himself and then re-sell them to the Russian with exuberant mark-ups. In what became known as the “Bouvier Affair,” Rybolovlev accused the Swiss in 2015 of defrauding him of approximately $1 billion over the purchase of 38 artworks between 2003 and 2014. Sotheby’s reportedly helped Bouvier find artworks and produced appraisals justifying the enormous mark-ups. Rybolovlev is now suing Bouvier in multiple jurisdictions for fraud and also filed a claim against the New York auction house.

And if experts had any currency left with the public in this brave new world, the Da Vinci conspiracy theory would have been snuffed out long ago. Georgina Adam, the editor of The Art Newspaper and author of a book about the art market’s lack of regulation, dismissed the idea expounded in the theory as “completely bonkers. Would you launder money in public?” Likewise, Artnet’s Ben Davis, who recently published his own debunking of the Trump-Salvator Mundi conspiracy, agrees with Adam, arguing that “If you’re going to do something really, really shady, you might not want to do it in a way that’s designed to put a big arrow over your head that says, ‘Look at me! Investigate me!’”

What it comes down to is the fact that very opaque institutions dominate the art market. Coupled with sky-high levels of polarization in society, people seek to fill the gaps of what they don’t know with theories to make sense of the increasingly disturbing behaviour of the White House, one that only serves to undermine America’s institutions, so long believed unshakable.

This is what the alleged Trump-Rybolovlev ploy has in common with other conspiracy theories that have risen out of the past two years: a systemic mistrust of the leaders or the institutions – depending on the political convictions of the conspiracy theorists – meant to keep them in check. It is this systemic, deeply ingrained doubt that motivates the purveyors of outlandish theories, sometimes with deadly consequences, as the Las Vegas 2017 shooting showed.

Here again, conspiracies should have been easy to dispel. However, since the Pizzagate absurdity, it has become poignantly clear that facts have stopped mattering. The apex of fear and suspicion, however, comes in the form of QAnon, also known as “The Storm.” Widely popular among radicalized Trump supporters, the theory claims that the chaos in the administration is but a smokescreen for Trump’s super secret plan to expose thousands of high-ranking pedophiles among the political elite, including the Clintons and Barack Obama.

Even if no traceable, reliable sources were unearthed, this hasn’t stopped QAnoners from believing the most outlandish theories? After all, denying or recanting accusations is only seen as further proof of QAnon’s veracity – with devastating implications for political life in the post-truth world. Currently, any perspective for having civilised debates, rational discussions and reaching compromises are reaching a dead end. After all, it is impossible to compromise with those who are unwilling to do so.

At a time when public discourse is so starkly divided along partisan lines as rarely ever before, and with Trump fanning the flames whenever possible, it is no wonder that conspiracy theories are blossoming on both sides of the political spectrum. However, even when Trump will eventually be gone from the White House, the toxic feelings of mistrust will linger. Although steps are being taken to halt the spread of conspiracy theories, with YouTube recently vowing to change its algorithms to slow down the spread of viral conspiracy videos, only time will tell if America can ever heal.