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Trump Is Doing Conspiracy Theory All Wrong

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 2/11/2016 Drake Bennett
Donald Trump © Reuters/Mike Segar Donald Trump

(Bloomberg) -- In December 2013, a small plane carrying Hawaii’s health director, Loretta Fuddy, crash-landed in the ocean. In the ensuing chaos, she died of acute cardiac arrhythmia triggered by stress. Later that day, Donald Trump tweeted:

Trump’s tendency to refer to shadowy conspiracies and dark bargains among corrupt elites is a hallmark of his presidential campaign, and of his longer-term transition from real estate magnate and reality-television star to unorthodox politician (a transformation that has been less than total). Along with promoting the notions that President Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., forged his birth certificate, and had a public official murdered as part of the coverup, he’s also suggested that Obama didn’t write his own memoirs and ran guns to Islamic State through Benghazi.

The president hasn’t been the Republican nominee’s only target. Trump, 70, has suggested that the father of a former campaign rival, Senator Ted Cruz, helped assassinate John F. Kennedy, that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, that doctors are covering up the dangers of vaccination, that climate change is a hoax created by China, and that voter fraud is rampant and accounts for Obama’s 2012 victory. Just in case it needs saying, there is no credible evidence for any of these claims—and abundant evidence against them.

Hillary Clinton has pounced on Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories, and so have many in the media. But do his utterances really deserve that moniker? True conspiracy theorists reject the name, deeming it a label tossed about by those who choose to live in ignorance of what’s really going on. But the term isn’t a pejorative to everyone. A small community of academics and writers study conspiracy theorists with the care and focus that the latter apply to blurry photographs. And among conspiracy-watchers, the consensus is that Trump isn’t, in fact, a conspiracy theorist. To call him one, they argue, debases the term.

Conspiracy theories aren’t theories the way that evolution by natural selection or general relativity are theories; they persist not because of, but in spite of, the balance of evidence. Nevertheless, conspiracy theories are still attempts to explain the world, and the people who create and contribute to them take the whole thing very seriously.

“They’re self-appointed journalists,” said Timothy Melley, an English professor at Miami University of Ohio who has written about the culture and literature of conspiracy. “They’re actually trying to do what democracy wants us to do, which is to be suspicious of power.”

Fired up by a sense that they are exposing hidden truths about a secretive government, conspiracy theorists contribute significant amounts of work, thought, and even expertise to the cause, and the results have the complexity and heft of scholarship. (Conspiracy theorists love footnotes.) Among the proponents of the idea that the American moon landing was a hoax, Melley points out, were engineers and scientists who scrutinized the way shadows in official photographs did and didn’t line up. Several of the leading voices claiming that Sept. 11 was an “inside job” formed an organization called Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasised conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his famed 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. “It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.” 

“He’s just pushing rumours out there, and he’s weaponising them.”

Trump, on the other hand, is not striving for evidence, heroically or otherwise. “Trump is just saying shit,” said Mark Fenster, a University of Florida law professor and author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Rather than investigating suspicious circumstances or trying to fill in the gaps in the official account, Trump just tweets out suggestive, pregnant questions—citing “extremely credible” sources or just “many people”—and leaves them to smolder. “It’s not really like he’s elaborately investigating some of these things and trying to develop a reasoned case for them,” Melley said. “It’s just kind of rumor-mongering. He’s just pushing rumors out there, and he’s weaponising them.”

More than a conspiracy theorist, Trump is a propagandist who happens to use the tropes of conspiracy thinking. Annie Jacobsen, a journalist and the author of books on two staples of conspiracy theories, Area 51 and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, compares Trump’s rhetoric with the “influence operations” that national intelligence agencies wage against the populations of opponents. (One of the most effective was the KGB and East German state security service’s coordinated campaign during the Cold War to spread the idea that AIDS was created by the CIA.) “It’s a disinformation campaign, a bad-faith manipulation of someone else’s belief system,” Jacobsen says of Trump’s accusations.

The question of whether Trump is a true conspiracy theorist is separate from the question of how effective his one-man Twitter influence operation has been. The doubt he’s raised about the election, or even of Obama’s birth certificate, gained traction not because Trump offered a detailed counter-history but because his insinuations fed off suspicions about the machinations of a distant, secretive, sprawling federal government (and the racial resentment of many white Americans).

What Trump seems to instinctively understand is that for many consumers of conspiracy theories, the details are beside the point. A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Kent in England found that people who believe certain conspiracy theories are more likely to believe others, even if the two theories are contradictory. For example, people who believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead before U.S. Navy SEALs raided his compound in Pakistan were also more likely to believe he was still alive after the raid. The point to them was that the official account was a lie and that a darker truth lurked beneath. 

Last December, Trump appeared on the TV show of Alex Jones, who has claimed that the Boston Marathon and Oklahoma City bombings, the Newtown, Conn., and Orlando, Fla., mass shootings, and the Sept. 11 attacks were all “false flag” operations carried out by the U.S. government. “I will not let you down,” Trump told Jones, without specifying exactly what he meant. “You will be very, very impressed.”

To contact the author of this story: Drake Bennett in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Rovella at

©2016 Bloomberg L.P.

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