Sheffield explained that unlike previous Republican presidents who largely ignored the fringe figures who populate conservative opinion programming, Trump not only took his cues from such personalities — including Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and others — but actively promoted them and brought them into mainstream GOP discourse.

“People like Alex Jones had always had millions of listeners and followers, but Trump brought them into the big tent, and [his supporters] started listening to them,” he said, adding that Trump tapped into a Republican conspiratorial underbelly that had been present since the mid-20th century, but had always been kept at arm’s length by previous GOP presidents.

This embrace of the fringe, he said, has created a truly dangerous situation for American democracy no matter what happens to Trump himself. That’s because it has turned the Republican base into addicts who will seek out a disinformation fix anywhere they can find it if they can’t have their own beliefs confirmed by mainstream sources.

“The inmates have gradually taken over the asylum, and now they’re running the place and the guy who opened the last cell door lock — Trump — can’t do anything about them,” he said. “It’s hard for them to put this back in the bottle — it’s like they have fully opened Pandora’s box.”