Mainstreaming the Fringe: Conspiracies, Hoaxes & Propaganda

[ed note: The following article “100 Days of Trump’s America” is authored by Cassie Miller & is sourced from the Southern Poverty Law Center . Because the information is important to our understanding of these issues, it is republished here in its entirety.]

President Trump has a problem with “Fake News.” He sees it everywhere – CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post.

He claims to be the victim of a plot by malicious forces in the media – the “enemy of the people,” as he calls them. “[T]hey have no sources. They just make it up,” he said in a Feb. 24 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The reality is something far different.

President Trump is not the victim of fake news. Rather, he is the purveyor. He is also the beneficiary.

The undeniable truth is that Trump – first as a candidate and now, in his first 100 days as president – has given a giant megaphone to the baseless conspiracy theories and fabrications of the radical right, many of them freighted with racial and anti-Semitic undertones.

His election, in fact, represented a triumph for the true manufacturers of fake news. Arguably, his presence in the White House is the end result of a decades-long project by conservative politicians and media figures to delegitimize mainstream journalism and to herd a highly conservative segment of voters into a hermetically sealed echo chamber of rightwing media.

Trump’s brand won the day in a political and media culture in which actual facts are less persuasive or relevant to many partisans on the right than the paranoid, fact-challenged delusions of people like the far-right extremist Alex Jones, America’s most prolific conspiracy theorist.

Trump, in fact, won despite a series of lies and tall tales that in the past surely would have doomed a candidate for president of the United States.

He has continued the pattern in his first 100 days in office – spinning conspiracy theories about millions of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote, about a news media that covers up terrorist attacks around the globe and about an illegal plot by President Obama to wiretap him.

How did this happen? Why are so many conservative Americans willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to politics?

Though only recently has the internet provided a platform to disseminate disinformation to virtually every person in the country, American politics has for centuries been fertile ground for “conspiratorial fantasy” – an “arena for angry minds,” as the historian Richard Hofstadter put it in his famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Hofstadter’s still-relevant piece provides important insights that help explain what is happening today and how it relates to Trump’s appeal to white people who feel left behind in an increasingly diverse country experiencing dislocations related to technology and globalization.

What Hofstadter could not have envisioned is the role of the internet and the related diminution of the power of journalistic gatekeepers to act as a sort of firewall to block unsubstantiated, fringe propaganda from mainstream audiences.

But he did note a fundamental shift in the nature of conspiracy theories. For much of the nation’s history, they involved perceived enemies who threatened to rain down economic ruin or undermine the American way of life – secret cabals involving the Pope and the Catholics, the Masons, the Jews, the Illuminati, global bankers, gold traders or others.

During the 20th century, new conspiracy theories provided a general framework – and a set of enemies, even if illusory – for the dispossessed on the right who believed that they were losing control of their country. Now, the villains were leftist conspirators working from within: “The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”

What Hofstadter describes is largely the lore promoted by the likes of the John Birch Society (JBS), whose founder, Robert Welch, famously called Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” It’s what we saw during the McCarthy era – and it’s what we see today.

These ideas underpin today’s so-called Patriot movement, a collection of far-right militias and groups like the JBS who believe that powerful, secretive elites are plotting to institute a “New World Order” – a socialistic, totalitarian government that will destroy American democracy and enslave its people.

Clearly, most conservatives don’t believe the grander elements of these theories. But there are infinite mini-theories and ways that left-leaning figures and their agendas can be neatly folded into this generalized worldview. The Clintons, of course, are central players, as is George Soros – as is any politician who wants to enact, say, gun regulations, land-use protections or single-payer health care.

Because of people like Alex Jones and the platform provided by the internet, extremist conspiracy theories related to these notions now reach millions of people daily. They gain currency in the mainstream through the agency of rightwing politicians and commentators who fulminate on media venues such as Fox News and Breitbart, the website that presidential strategist Stephen K. Bannon bragged became “the platform for the alt-right” when he ran it.

Into this environment stepped Trump, the popular star of a reality television show.

Barack Obama, he said, was really a Muslim named Barry Soetoro who was born in Kenya and never really went to Columbia University. Hillary Clinton was “crooked Hillary,” the pawn of nefarious globalists, a woman who was seriously ill during the campaign and may have been on drugs during a debate. And, Justice Antonin Scalia was likely murdered. Then there’s Trump’s Republican primary rival Ted Cruz – “Lyin’ Ted,” whose father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The list of falsehoods goes on and on.

In the case of Rafael Cruz and the JFK assassination, Trump said he got the information from a supermarket tabloid. Many of his lies, however, have come directly or indirectly from InfoWars, the website and weekly radio show operated by Alex Jones. It’s important to remember that Jones earns a lucrative living by making the most scurrilous of unsubstantiated claims. He has asserted, for example, that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren was a government act, that Obama is a “hardcore Wahhabist; he is al-Qaeda,” and that Hillary Clinton“has personally murdered and chopped up and raped children.”

Trump is a big fan. He appeared on InfoWars in December 2015 and declared Jones’ reputation “amazing.” He told the internet fabulist, “I will not let you down. You will be very impressed, I hope, and I think we’ll be speaking a lot.” Jones has said that he spoke with Trump after the election. He also said in January that InfoWars has been offered White House press credentials.

It’s also important to remember Trump’s long personal association with two other men who plowed in the field of conspiracy theories for many years: Roy Cohn and Roger Stone. (Not to mention Michael Flynn, the anti-Muslim activist who was fired as national security adviser.)

Cohn was the chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who played a key role in the communist witch hunts of the 1950s, which relied on unfounded accusations that communist agents had infiltrated the highest levels of the government. In a June 20, 2016, article about his relationship with Trump, The New York Times described Cohn as “Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red-baiting consigliere.” Later, he worked as Trump’s lawyer and became somewhat of a mentor to the young man who would be president. The two men, the Times wrote, were “so inseparable that those who could not track down Mr. Cohn knew whom to call.”

It was Cohn who introduced Trump to Stone, the former Nixon man and smear artist who became a longtime Trump political adviser and confidant. Stone, also a former lobbying partner of fired Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, claimed in one of his books that the Clintons were responsible for the murders of as many as 83 people. In another, he claimed that President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the Kennedy assassination. Not surprisingly, Stone appears regularly on Alex Jones’ show. In his book The Making of the President 2016, Stone writes that Jones and his media network “turned out to be Trump’s secret weapon.”

New York magazine recently reported that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and closest adviser, reassured acquaintances during the campaign that Trump did not actually believe many of the outlandish things he was saying.

If he did believe them, it would demonstrate a dangerous degree of gullibility and ignorance. It would mean the president of the United States is incapable of critically assessing information and distinguishing between demonstrable fact and blatant falsehood.

On the other hand, if what Kushner said is true, it means Trump is deliberately lying – day after day – to the American public, a conclusion that many have already reached.

In any event, in his first 100 days in office, Trump has remained true to form, continuing to push conspiracy theories without providing any evidence to support them.

Below are the most prominent ones of his first three months in office.

Millions of illegal aliens voted – for Hillary

Days after the inauguration, Trump told congressional leaders at a White House reception that 3 to 5 million “illegals” had cast ballots in November, causing him to lose the popular vote. Trump called for a “major investigation into VOTER FRAUD” in a tweet later that week.

Trump then told ABC News’ David Muir that every one of the votes in the massive fraud operation went to Hillary Clinton. “They all voted for Hillary,” Trump said. “They didn’t vote for me. I don’t believe I got one. Okay, these are people that voted for Hillary Clinton.”

Earlier, in late November, he had tweeted that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Trump’s claim was traced to rightwing activist Gregg Phillips, who has been involved with rightwing groups promoting myths about voter fraud. On Nov. 11, Phillips tweeted: “Completed analysis of database of 180 million voter registrations. Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million. Consulting legal team.” Three days later, the InfoWars website ran a story reporting Phillips’ “findings,” with a headline that read: “Trump may have won popular vote.” A number of other rightwing media outlets also ran with the story.

Trump said in the same post-inauguration meeting with congressional leaders that he would have won New Hampshire if not for “thousands” of people bused in from Massachusetts. Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president, vaguely addressed the issue on ABC’s “This Week”: “I can tell you that this issue of busing voters in to New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics. It’s very real, it’s very serious. This morning on this show is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence.”

That’s because there is no evidence. Experts have roundly dismissed Trump’s voter fraud claims. To this date, no one – including Phillips – has provided any evidence whatsoever to support the claims. The reality, experts say, is that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

Journalists collectively ignore terrorist attacks

On Feb. 6, Trump claimed in a speech to the U.S. Central Command that the American media was intentionally failing to report terrorist attacks.

“You’ve seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it’s happening,” he stated. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”

Trump offered no evidence, but the administration later gave reporters a list of 78 terrorist attacks “executed and inspired by ISIS.” A White House official said that the attacks, which occurred from September 2014 to December 2016, “did not receive adequate attention from Western media sources.”

The list appeared to be hastily assembled and contained a number of typos. Media outlets responded defensively by republishing their reporting on each attack. Many of the attacks had, indeed, received exhaustive coverage, including the nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, and shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Trump’s false claims about the media cover-up appear to have stemmed from stories published on InfoWars. For months, the website had been claiming that the mainstream media whitewashes stories of terror attacks to further a political agenda. One typical headline: “SCANDAL: MASS MEDIA COVERS UP TERRORISM TO PROTECT ISLAM.”

Terrorists strike in Sweden – and no one but Trump notices

At a rally in Florida on Feb. 18, Trump mentioned a terrorist attack in Sweden. “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden! Sweden! Who would believe this, Sweden!” he told the crowd.

“They took in large numbers [of refugees and immigrants]. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels. You look at what’s happening all over the world. Take a look at Nice. Take a look at Paris.”

In fact, nothing had happened in Sweden.

Trump’s claims came from a Fox News segment that aired the night before with filmmaker Ami Horowitz, whose new documentary links immigration with areas of high crime in Sweden. As Horowitz described rampant violent crime, including rape, in “no-go zones” – areas “cops won’t even enter because it’s too dangerous for them” – images of a dark-skinned man attacking a police officer and a burning car repeatedly flashed across the screen.

In a clip from the documentary, two Swedish officers appear to confirm the filmmaker’s contention that immigrants were responsible for a surge of crime in their country.

After the controversy erupted, however, the two officers said they had been taken out of context, that immigration was never mentioned in the interview. “We don’t stand behind it,” one of the officers said. “It shocked us. He has edited the answers. We were answering completely different questions in the interview.”

A riot did occur in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Stockholm days after Trump’s comments. The incident was an isolated one, and an analysis by a Swedish newspaper showed that between October 2015 and January 2016 refugees were responsible for only 1 percent of the country’s criminal incidents.

Obama – and the Brits – tapped his phone

One of the more bizarre episodes of Trump’s first 100 days began on March 4. At 5:35 a.m., Trump tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

In three tweets that followed over the next half hour, he compared the episode to Watergate and called Obama a “bad (or sick) guy.”

The tweets set off a series of events that led House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to a secret rendezvous on White House grounds to review documents and then, on April 6, to Nunes’ decision to step aside from his committee’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election.

A spokesperson for Obama dismissed the “false” claims, saying that neither Obama nor any other White House official “ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.”

Speaking to reporters two days after the tweets, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded simply that Trump’s tweets “speak for themselves.” In an interview with New Jersey paper The Record, Kellyanne Conway listed household items that could be used for spying: “What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other. You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets – any number of ways – and microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera.”

By March 20, FBI Director James Comey weighed in, telling the House Intelligence Committee that he had “no information that supports those tweets.”

Trump’s claims appear to stem from a Breitbart article published the day before his tweet. Drawing on allegations made by radio host Mark Levin, Breitbart constructed a timeline that it said proved “the Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorization to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign.”

Levin characterized the unsubstantiated events as a “silent coup.” Levin is no stranger to conspiracy theories. In 2013 he claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had “infiltrated our government” and that Obama was a Muslin Brotherhood “sympathizer.”

Trump and administration officials at various times attributed the claims to news reports they had read or seen on TV. At one point, Trump and Spicer both said British intelligence agents had wiretapped Trump’s phone at Obama’s behest. On March 17, Trump said, “All we did was quote a very talented legal mind.”

The legal mind to which he referred belongs to Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey state judge and commentator on Fox News who has a long history of promoting conspiracy theories. Napolitano has appeared repeatedly on Alex Jones’ show, where he once cast doubt on the government’s account of the 9/11 attacks. Fox News quickly disavowed Napolitano’s reporting about the wiretapping, and Napolitano was temporarily taken off the air.

The administration has continued to stand by its claims, though no evidence has been produced to support them.

SOURCE: Southern Poverty Law Center