I’ve been writing about conspiracy theories since 2014. Back then, speculating about whether Diana was murdered, JFK was shot from the grassy knoll and NASA have been lying for decades about the shape of the Earth, was fun. To be fair, imagining what evil deeds powerful people might be committing behind the curtains still is fun. But in recent times I’ve learned that it depends on the conspiracy theory, who’s peddling it and, importantly, what people do in response to it.
For example, during the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century, Christians spread conspiracy theories about the Jews deliberately poisoning wells with the plague. As with most conspiracy theories, there was no evidence, only coincidence. Jews were less affected by the plague because many chose not to use the common wells of towns and cities.
But those conspiracy theories led to the annihilation of hundreds of Jewish communities, including the Valentine’s Day massacre in Strasbourg in 1349, when around 2,000 Jews were burned alive.
Now let’s look at America’s purveyor-of-conspiracy-theories-in-chief, Donald Trump. Since before his presidency started, he’s promoted that Syrian refugees coming into the US could be a ‘Trojan horse’ of ISIS terrorists. That Muslims in New Jersey cheered after 9/11. That climate change is a hoax. That Bill and Hillary Clinton murdered Jeffrey Epstein. That Barack Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the US.
That list has increased exponentially in 2020. A Cornell University study of 38 million articles in English-language media across the globe found that Trump was the single largest driver of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic, much of which has conspiratorial underpinnings. He’s pushed that China created Covid in a lab. That the seriousness of the pandemic is being exaggerated by Democrats plotting against him. That doctors are inflating coronavirus death counts for financial gain. And that the massive spike in cases that’s still going on is a “fake news media conspiracy”.
A systematic effort
These conspiracy theories have formed part of a systematic effort by Trump to downplay the pandemic and avoid taking responsibility for combating it. It’s led to huge swathes of his base angrily protesting lockdowns, refusing to wear masks and mingling in their thousands at Trump’s election rallies without bothering to socially distance.
Stanford University researchers looked at 18 Trump rallies that took place in the summer and found that they resulted in over 30,000 new coronavirus cases and likely more than 700 deaths. God knows how many more cases resulted from the rallies that took place through October, at a time when the US case rate started going through the roof. What we do know is that in the 2020 US election, 93% of US counties where the virus was most rampant voted for Trump.
So, Trump and his coronavirus misinformation campaign are directly responsible for the enormous rise in Covid cases and deaths in the US that’s still happening right now. It’s his supporters who are getting it and spreading it, and they’re getting it because they’re believing all the falsities he puts out in his speeches and on Twitter.
The theory Trump loves the most
And then we come to the conspiracy theory Trump is pushing harder than any other: voter fraud. In virtually every one of his tweets since he lost the US election to Joe Biden on 3rd November, he’s claimed that millions of votes for Biden were fraudulent. That Dominion voting machines deleted votes for Trump and/or switched them to Biden. That the mail-in ballots for Biden were illegally cast or counted. That election officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan counted votes behind closed doors, illegally denying access to Trump’s observers. Even that dead people voted.
What makes Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy theories different to all the others is that he’s been pushing them on the courts. The problem is, a conspiracy theory is just that. A theory. It only becomes a proven conspiracy when there are facts and evidence. Courts deal in facts and evidence. And that’s why all of the claims Trump’s making about voter fraud are being thrown out.
In Pennsylvania, where Trump lost to Biden by over 80,000 votes, Judge Stephanos Bibas, ironically a Trump-appointed judge, rejected Trump’s appeal and said, “Calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
Trump responded to this on Twitter, saying, “Specific allegations were made, and we have massive proof, in the Pennsylvania case. Some people just don’t want to see it.”
Then, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also rejected Trump’s lawsuit, the president said in a raging interview with Fox News, “We’re trying to put the evidence in, and the judges won’t allow us to do it. We have so much evidence… They say you don’t have standing… You mean as president of the United States, I don’t have standing? What kind of a court system is this?”
What’s getting in Trump’s way here is a little thing called the law. Right now, the law is inconvenient to Donald Trump. And the court system is the same as it’s always been. Trump’s just discovering, much to his frustration, that you can’t win a legal case with conspiracy theories.
Everything is rigged
All of this is, and has always been, Trump’s way. Anyone who says something negative about him is wrong, or corrupt, or fake news. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have described it better when she faced off against him in 2016. “Every time Donald thinks things are not going in his direction, he claims whatever it is is rigged against him,” she said. “He lost the Iowa caucus. He lost the Wisconsin primary. He said the Republican primary was rigged against him. The Trump university gets sued for fraud and racketeering; he claims the court system and the federal judge is rigged against him. There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV programme three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him.”
When Trump quipped back, “Should have gotten it,” Clinton concluded soberly, “This is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks and it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling.”
In essence, Clinton predicted that Trump would start spewing voter fraud conspiracy theories if he lost the 2020 election. The burning question is why. Is it just that he cannot face losing? Or does it go deeper than that? Since 2016, it seems that Trump has been on a singular mission to make the world trust no one who isn’t him. In effect, everybody but him is out to get you. Conspiracy theories are an excellent tool for such a mission, because they’re all about distrust and paranoia. This is why Trump’s revered as a god among his base, because he’s manipulated them into believing that everyone is lying but him. Even though objectivity and a couple of minutes’ research would reveal that, in fact, every other word Trump speaks is false, he’s brainwashed his followers to such an extent that they can’t and won’t see it. And they may not ever.
What I don’t know is whether everything Trump’s doing is premeditated and planned, i.e. he knows full well that he probably won’t win in the courts, but he knows he has a chance in the court of public opinion. And whether his constant conspiratorial ramblings are because he actually believes them all, or because he knows his followers will. The alternative is that Trump is simply a cretin. A child in the midst of a gargantuan tantrum, who doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to understand, how his country works.
Either way, his refusal to concede the election or accept the results of all the lawsuits he’s losing are succeeding in stirring the Trump base into a frenzy. His followers have been protesting for the past month, with some protests leading to violence and arrests. Now even former Trump loyalists in the Republican party are laying into the president for destabilising public trust and confidence in the election process.
Conspiracy theories as a weapon
The fact that Trump has turned conspiracy theories into a weapon that spreads fear and division makes me want to tread extra carefully when I write about them. Confined to the maddest fringes of the internet, conspiracy theories are harmless and silly speculation. But in the wrong hands, they’re dangerous. And in the last four years they’ve been in the hands of the president of the United States. A man of great power using them to amass more.
I suspect the damage done to the world by Donald Trump will be felt and talked about for many years to come. I only hope that with his exit from the White House in January, the conspiratorial thinking he’s brought into the mainstream will go with him, and conspiracy theories will be fun again.
After all, conspiracy theories are great stories—which is really all they should be.
Next: the truth behind the Christmas monster, Krampus