A lot of unexpected things have changed since Trump took office. But one of the oddest evolutions has been the mutation of the conspiracy theory.
The corners of the internet where conspiracies flourish have always contained a weird mix of light and dark. They were places where one could laugh at some of the far out ideas (“the moon landing was faked”) or be completely horrified (“the Sandy Hook shooting was faked”).
But with the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, the days of laughing at kooky theories like “Obama is a Lizard Person” or being mystified by Flat Earthers has given way to a far more troubling pattern.
Trump and his followers have managed to latch on to some wild theories and, using his massive platform, bring them into the mainstream. And now they have been weaponized by a president who doesn’t just indulge these toxic conspiracies but gives them a validity they don’t deserve.
Trump, after all, is a candidate whose political fortunes have been built on his promotion of an infamous and racist conspiracy: that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
But this example is hardly an outlier. Since entering the presidential campaign in 2015 and right through to present day, Trump has embraced a variety of conspiracy theories with open arms and even spun off his own.
And as these theories have wrought real world consequences, the idea of patrolling the web for the weirdest and most outlandish conspiracies has become not an exercise in entertainment, but one of legitimate anxiety and fear.
Violence seeps in
Threats of violence and conspiracy theories have often been linked, especially if Buzz Aldrin is involved. Unfortunately, Trump and violence have also been synonymous since before he became president, thanks to his incendiary rhetoric. When you combine all of these ingredients, it creates a combustible situation.
The best example of this thus far is “Pizzagate,” the theory that Hillary Clinton and several other high-ranking Democrats were involved in a child sex ring that was run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. The theory is, of course, far-fetched and not true; Comet Pizza, the restaurant in question, doesn’t even have a basement.
Yet that didn’t keep the theory from exploding online, perpetuated by figures on the far right that support Trump like InfoWars’ Alex Jones and toxic Twitterer Jack Posobiec. Eventually, that turned in to real life violence in December 2016 when Edgar M. Welch fired his rifle inside Comet Pizza in order to “self-investigate” the alleged scandal.
Welch has since apologized and been sentenced to four years in prison, but it was still a shocking moment — a man pushed to violence by a conspiracy theory pushed by those who Trump has embraced.
And now, with the move of QAnon from the dark corners of the web to the mainstream, there’s new concern about conspiracies prompting more violence. Though some have suggested that QAnon may have started as a hoax, it seems many of its followers think it’s very real, and its overlaps with Pizzagate gives some pause.
In June, an armed man blocked a road to the Hoover Dam in an armored vehicle, leading to a 90-minute standoff. After his arrest, the man wrote letters to Trump and others citing the QAnon conspiracy theory. Elsewhere in Arizona, another QAnon follower was arrested after illegally occupying a tower at a Cemex plant he was convinced was a hub for a sex slave ring.
And QAnon has apparently targeted at least one Trump opponent. Michael Avenatti, the outspoken lawyer representing Stormy Daniels, received several QAnon messages and even shared a photo showing a suspicious person hanging around outside his office.
We are trying to identify the man in this picture, which was taken outside my office yesterday (Sun) afternoon. Please contact @NewportBeachPD if you have any details or observed him. We will NOT be intimidated into stopping or changing our course. #Basta pic.twitter.com/YIKS6D0Grq
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) July 30, 2018
While it appears the man has a phone in one hand, it’s hard to identify what he has in his other hand. Speaking to The Daily Beast, Avenatti suggested it was a weapon: “That’s not a set of keys.”
It’s one thing to believe a conspiracy theory, but it’s another to act on it like Trump followers have. To make matters worse, the theories have sometimes been fueled by the president’s own words.
Even before he got to the White House, Trump was spewing conspiracy theories on the campaign trail where they were broadcast to the masses. It troubled many; it’s one thing for these theories to be discussed on Reddit, but in an opening, public setting by a major candidate for the presidency?
Even worse: Trump could casually toss them out to the thousands of MAGA-hatted voters who lapped up whatever he said, regurgitating theories wrapped in an adversarial layer of “fake news” to those who dared to question them.
Whether it was continuing to propagate the false claim that Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey were seen celebrating the September 11 attacks or straight up retweeting false anti-Muslim rhetoric by far right UK figures, Trump has harnessed and legitimized the racial anxiety of his supporters for his own political gain.
Trump also deployed plenty of other theories throughout his campaign:
Trump also used his own celebrity to bring validity to one of the worst conspiracy theorists alive by appearing on Alex Jones’ Info Wars show in December 2015.
Simply by being a guest, Trump gave Jones an even bigger platform and implicitly condoned Jones’ behavior for a wider audience. But Trump didn’t stop there.
“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told Alex Jones on InfoWars.
“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told Alex Jones on InfoWars.
Jones, who’s being sued for his Sandy Hook conspiracy, also played a role in the spread of the aforementioned Pizzagate conspiracy and has, among other things, suggested that Lady Gaga’s 2017 Super Bowl halftime show was a Satanic ritual.
But Trump has done something even more dangerous than promoting the theories of others: he’s given rise to his own set of theories, an even bigger step towards undermining the authority of the office he holds.
Spinning his own threads
Trump favors floating his own conspiracy theories in a suggestive way that gives them veracity but allows him to keep a distance from being a full believer. He’s like your conspiracy-minded friend who throws up his hands and says, “I’m just asking questions, man,” except, unlike your friend, Trump has his finger on the big red button.
He’s like your conspiracy-minded friend who throws up his hands and says, “I’m just asking questions, man.”
For instance, not long after entering the White House, he started to posit that the voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape wasn’t his, even after he owned up to it and apologized (sort of) for his comments.
Once he got to the White House, he still had plenty of time to indulge his own fantasies about those he felt had wronged him. The most notorious example are March 2017 tweets in which Trump alleged that Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump’s campaign.
I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
To accuse a predecessor of such a crime was unheard of from a U.S. president. The Department of Justice eventually said Trump’s claims were baseless but it didn’t matter — Trump continued to push the theory that Obama had spied on the Trump team.
Wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI “SPIED ON THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN WITH AN EMBEDDED INFORMANT.” Andrew McCarthy says, “There’s probably no doubt that they had at least one confidential informant in the campaign.” If so, this is bigger than Watergate!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2018
But perhaps the most dangerous theory he’s concocted has been his repeated claims of voter fraud during the 2016 election. It started before the election even happened when, in late October 2016 as it looked like Hillary Clinton would win, Trump suggested the election was rigged against him and that he wouldn’t accept the outcome. A day later, he revised his statement by saying he’d accept the results if he won.
Even after he won, Trump couldn’t leave it alone, suggesting that millions of illegal votes were cast. Trump blamed undocumented immigrants for the fraud, saying three to five million illegitimate votes were cast. (Coincidentally, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Trump by about three million votes.)
Trump never offered proof nor has any other concrete proof ever been presented. The commission Trump set up to find evidence of voter fraud was shutdown without ever offering any evidence.
In another theory that seems to spring from president’s narcissism, Trump and others, including prominent conservative figures like Sean Hannity, have been pushing a conspiracy of the “Deep State” since his inauguration. The theory suggests that a cabal of figures spread throughout the government are working quietly to usurp Trump from what he sees is his rightfully elected position.
Those pushing the “Deep State” conspiracy have particularly latched on to the case of a pair of FBI agents that they say were working to undermine Trump’s presidency. One of those agents, Peter Strzok, has been the target of much of this speculation thanks to anti-Trumps text he sent to the other agent involved, Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
“The most profound question of our era: Was there a conspiracy in the Obama Department of Justice and the FBI to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President of the U.S., and was Strzok at the core of the conspiracy?” Judge Andrew Napolitano
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2018
Trying to one-up a conspiracy theory with another conspiracy theory is about the most Trumpian thing one could do. And, sure, Strzok and Page’s actions don’t look great but, so far, there’s been nothing to support Trump’s claim this delegitimizes the Mueller investigation.
Ironically, perhaps the most prevalent conspiracy theory involving Trump has the president as the target.
The golden Trump theory
The idea that a video showing Trump in a compromising position involving two urinating Russian sex workers seems as outlandish as anything Trump has thrown out to the masses and is one of the most lurid theories in presidential history.
But it’s gotten a lot of traction amongst Trump detractors thanks to being part of the (in)famous Steele Dossier. While no proof has surfaced to corroborate the existence of the alleged “pee tape,” Trump’s ongoing deferential treatment to Vladimir Putin, on particular display at their recent summit in Helsinki, has helped fuel speculation that Russia has some sort of incriminating information on Trump.
Putin laughs when asked about having compromising information on Trump, makes a sideways reference to the “pee tape,” denies having such information pic.twitter.com/u95PZvnvfE
— Marcus Gilmer (@marcusgilmer) July 16, 2018
The “pee tape” sits at the center of a bigger conspiracy theory surrounding the Trump campaign: that they willingly colluded with Russia to help win Trump the presidency.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
But the more Trump tweets and talks about this particularly conspiracy, it’s starting to look like less a theory and, possibly, more of a reality. Take, for instance, the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 when Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner met with a group of people, including an attorney with ties to the Russian government.
The excuses and explanations given by the Trumps have twisted and evolved over time to the point where, just a few days ago, Trump seemed to admit that his son took a meeting with Russians to collect damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018
Of course, even as Robert Mueller tries to suss out if anyone on Team Trump was actually involved, Russian interference in the 2016 election isn’t theory — it’s fact. But that doesn’t matter because Trump has already succeeded in one way that will continue to have unintended consequences: he’s made it acceptable to posit, indulge, and believe in far-fetched conspiracy theories just because it supports the narrative you want.
What Trump has done is take conspiracy theories from the darker corners of the internet and weaponized them, using them to spread disinformation among his base and wielding them as his own demented forms of proof. And in the process he’s divided the nation.
The thing about conspiracy theories is that they can be ludicrous ideas spun out of small grains of truth. But just because there may be some Obama-appointed holdovers in the federal government who opposed Trump’s proposed policy doesn’t mean there’s a government-wide conspiracy to rebel against the president.
Trump’s dissemination of these conspiracies has undermined the authority of the bedrocks of our society: our democratic process, our intelligence agencies, the press. That’s not to say any of these things are perfect; they’re not and they deserve a discerning eye to keep them honest and improve them. But Trump is using a blowtorch in situations that require the nuance of a scalpel.
Conspiracy theories are no longer things to laugh at while you procrastinate online. (Well, in fairness, multiple Melanias is pretty amusing). Gone are the days when they could be easily dismissed with a few seconds of googling (say, that the moon is really a projection). They now carry an extra weight that comes from the association with those promoted by Trump, and undeserved suggestion that maybe that theory isn’t too outlandish to some since others are true, facts be damned.
And with that approach, Trump has continued to erode our norms, allowing a frightening and dangerous rhetoric to seep into not just the mainstream, but into the fabric of our society, a move that could, ultimately, rot our democracy from the inside out.