Watch CNN’s town hall “Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action” live on Wednesday, February 21, at 9 p.m. ET on CNN TV and CNNGo.
It hadn’t even been one week since a gunman murdered 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, before the conspiracy theories about the surviving students began bubbling up.
David Hogg, a student journalist who documented the shootings as they happened, was a “crisis actor” – someone who didn’t even attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He and several other “students” speaking out about the need for legislative action on guns were plants by gun control advocates – professional rabble-rousers aiming to take political advantage of a tragedy.
“Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen,” an aide to state Rep. Shawn Harrison told the Tampa Bay Times’ Alex Leary on Tuesday. (The aide was later fired.)
Or the students were plants of the FBI, because Hogg’s father is a retired FBI agent.
“Why would the child of an FBI agent be used as a pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation?” asked the conservative blog Gateway Pundit. “Because the FBI is only looking to curb YOUR Constitutional rights and INCREASE their power. We’ve seen similar moves by them many times over. This is just another disgusting example of it.”
Or Hogg and his classmates are simply being used by national liberal groups to forward the longtime goal of limiting the rights of gun owners.
“Do we really think — and I say this sincerely — do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally,” said former Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston in an interview with CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
None of these theories are true. Hogg, as confirmed by Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie, is a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That his father is a retired FBI agent is an interesting but largely irrelevant fact. And there’s simply no evidence that George Soros – as Kingston suggested – or any other major liberal activist or donor was involved in organizing the trip the students took to Tallahassee on Tuesday night or the national rally for gun control being planned for next month.
The lack of verifiable facts to prop up these conspiracy theories has done little to stop their spread, however. As Michael Grynbaum notes in a terrific piece for The New York Times:
“In written posts and YouTube videos — one of which had more than 100,000 views as of Tuesday night — Gateway Pundit has argued that Mr. Hogg had been coached on what to say during his interviews. The notion that Mr. Hogg is merely protecting his father dovetails with a broader right-wing trope, that liberal forces in the F.B.I. are trying to undermine President Trump and his pro-Second Amendment supporters.”
To be clear: Conspiracy theorists have always existed. We didn’t actually land on the moon. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job. The murders of children at Sandy Hook elementary school didn’t actually happen.
And the arrival of the Internet has allowed these conspiracy theorists to connect with one another, providing an infinite feedback loop of affirmation for their zaniness.
But there’s another factor that has poured fuel on the fire of conspiracy theories like the noxious ones coming out of Florida this week: the election of President Donald Trump.
Remember that the genesis of Trump’s political relevance can be directly traced to a conspiracy theory: The disproven idea, relentlessly promoted by Trump earlier this decade, that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump’s flogging of that fallacy earned him credibility within some segments of the conservative movement ready to believe the absolute worst about Obama and support anyone willing to say it.
Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy was replete with conspiracy theories. Muslims were celebrating on New Jersey rooftops on 9/11. Former Clinton aide Vince Foster didn’t actually commit suicide. Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died under suspicious circumstances. The infamous “Access Hollywood” tape might be a fake. Several million votes were cast illegally, costing Trump a popular vote victory.
You get the idea. Trump is someone who has taken conspiracy theories from the fringe to the center of the national conversation. He has mainstreamed not only specific conspiracies but also conspiratorial thinking.
At the root of Trump’s entire political ethos is the idea that “they” aren’t telling you the whole story. That the elites are protecting themselves by hiding inconvenient facts from the people. They always have been. And they’ll never stop.
Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories provides a massive amount of cover for those who peddle in this filth. Even if he doesn’t specifically give voice to the idea that the Parkland murders were some sort of false flag operation designed to engender anti-gun sentiment, he has already made the sort of conspiratorial thinking that gives rise to these ideas part and parcel of our everyday dialogue
If liberals could find a way to cast millions of illegal votes, after all, why couldn’t they also find a way to exploit and engineer reaction to a school shooting?
This is the broader – and less covered – impact of Trump’s fundamental re-imagining of what a president can and should mean to our country and the world. Whether or not Trump agrees with any of the conspiracy theories about Parkland pinging around the Internet and conservative talk radio, he has enabled them – by his past words and actions – to get a far broader hearing than they deserve. And that’s a damn shame.