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President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to Florida.

In the late 1980s, Donald Trump got into a feud with another prominent New York developer, Leonard Stern, over a story that a Stern-owned magazine, 7 Days, ran about the weak resale value of some Trump condominiums.

Stern was also funding an unflattering documentary about Trump, and amid the squabble Trump confided to his advisers at the Trump Organization that Stern was part of a broader cabal of jealous Manhattan builders out to get him.

Shortly after that, as he started to tip into corporate and personal bankruptcy in the early 1990s, Trump lashed out at reporters, telling his advisers that unflattering stories about financial difficulties he brought upon himself were the work of a vindictive cabal of media types also out to get him.

There was some paranoia laced through all of this, of course, and some of the emotional and psychological tensions that make an avid conspiracy theorist. But none of it amounted to the purposeful and broadly orchestrated plot mongering that Trump unfurled when he embraced birtherism in 2011 and aggressively promoted the idea that Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. (and therefore wasn't qualified to be president).

One of the telling aspects of Trump's turn to sprawling conspiracy theorizing eight years ago, and his subsequent immersion in it, is that it's one of the few signature pieces of his current repertoire that isn't a throwback.

Most of Trump's behaviors are decades old. Peddling conspiracies is a relatively recent phenomenon. And his deployment of half-baked, bonkers schemes attached to former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as some of his ludicrous theories about Ukraine as a haven for interference in the 2016 presidential election, have boomeranged on him in ways I'm sure he never anticipated.

When Trump was able to get airtime on national television shows by questioning the whereabouts of Obama's birth certificate - and then saw his standing in early 2012 among Republican presidential contenders soar from fifth place to a tie for first, in part, for the same reason - lights must have gone on in his head. Trump the businessman was intimate with the powers of spin, hyperbole and celebrity, but Trump the politician - a much more recent invention - had to find his way.

Trump was never going to be someone who distinguished himself politically through policy expertise or visionary leadership. But as someone who could appeal to the fear of outsiders (like Chinese exporters and Mexican immigrants, for example) or stoke racism (toward Obama, for one) and clothe that sentiment as "politics," bingo.

Conspiracies, scantily sourced as "people are saying" and often so fact-free that they left Trump as the sole arbiter of their merit, offered a convenient way to erode voters' faith in opponents or institutions and became one of his go-to political tools.

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds," the historian Richard Hofstadter observed in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," his famous 1964 essay. "I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."

The Rev. Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic "radio priest" of the 1930s, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who used a new medium, television, to stoke the anti-Communist red scare of the 1950s, were exemplars of Hofstadter's thinking. Trump, who's used social media and Fox News' talk shows to propagate conspiracies, stands squarely on their shoulders.

"Donald Trump's supporters lap up every conspiracy theory he pushes out there," one pollster noted in 2016, the year in which lessons Trump learned from selling birtherism helped pave his way to the White House.

Trump launched his presidential campaign by accusing the Mexican government of plotting to export rapists and other criminals to the U.S. As the campaign wore on, he took to stating that Muslim Americans broadly and secretly supported terrorism.

Trump regularly quotes or tweets conspiracy theorists and has spouted tin-hat stuff on everything from the Deep State, Obama's efforts to wiretap Trump Tower, Muslims trying to establish sharia law in the U.S., and global warming as a Chinese hoax, to windmills causing cancer, white genocide in South Africa, voter fraud in the 2016 election, questions about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the health risks of asbestos as a "con" pushed by organized crime, and the big one, Robert Mueller's "witch hunt."

Trump got attention, and traction with his electoral base, with much of this. None of it really hurt him. But his recent efforts to choreograph, and not merely disseminate, a grandiose conspiracy theory - that the Bidens profited from corruption in Ukraine and that that country itself was the real villain of the 2016 election - have snapped back on him.

His phone calls to Ukraine's leader to further the scheme have landed him in an impeachment inquiry. The machinations of loose-cannon compadres like Rudy Giuliani have come to haunt him.There's still much that has to play out in all of this, but at a minimum the president is getting a very rapid political education.

He's learning the difference between promoting myths that are merely incendiary or hateful and more broad-based conspiracy theories that test the limits of the law.

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Timothy O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.

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