For three years, President Donald Trump has served as the Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, elevating wild and outlandish ideas that once only existed in the dark provinces of the internet.
Under his leadership, the Republican Party is now openly embracing candidates of that same ilk – raising the possibility that those ideas will make their way to the halls of Congress.
The latest example of the surreal twist that Trump has wrought on his party is the primary upset in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District where Lauren Boebert, a right-wing challenger who sympathized with the pro-Trump deep state conspiracy known as QAnon, unseated five-term Congressman Scott Tipton.
The political fortunes of Boebert, who argued she would be a better advocate for Trump’s agenda in Washington than Tipton, rose along with two other QAnon supporters: Georgia congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene and Oregon GOP Senate Nominee Jo Rae Perkins. In Trump’s shadow, the one-time fringe candidates are now potential standard bearers.
All three candidates have either sympathized with or actively support QAnon, a theory that there is a high-level government official known as “Q” who leaves clues around the Internet about a “deep state” conspiracy. Those who embrace the theory believe that previous presidents before Trump were part of a criminal enterprise, and Trump is the emissary allied with the military who will root out that corruption. Trump elevated QAnon in a series of retweets in late 2019, as chronicled by the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer in his extensive reporting on the movement.
In any other political universe, it would have been inconceivable that candidates espousing those views would rise to the top of the Republican field in their respective states. But Trump has ushered conversations that used to occur in the dark recesses of the internet out from the shadows by drawing attention to them in his tweets to his more than 82 million followers.
It isn’t just political candidates with conspiracy links whose political fortunes are rising. Over the past few years while exploring the backgrounds of potential and current members of Trump’s team, CNN’s KFile team uncovered connections to or affirmations of fringe conspiracy theories among more than a dozen Trump appointees, nominees or advisers.
The latest is Trump’s nominee to be under secretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense, retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata. CNN’s KFile uncovered how Tata promoted theories that John Brennan, the former CIA director, wanted to oust Trump from office, pushing one false theory that Brennan sent a coded tweet to order Trump’s assassination in 2018.
Driving fringe theories to the center of the campaign
Trump realized long ago that championing conspiracy theories was a swift and easy way to generate publicity, and he often waded into racially divisive debates to maximize the attention he would draw. He has embraced so many off-the-wall theories that there are almost too many to count.
He led the “birther” crusade questioning Barack Obama’s birth in Hawaii. He falsely asserted in 2012 that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese “in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”
As President, he has entertained and normalized a broad array of conspiracy theories from the Oval Office. Chief among them: his baseless assertion that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election, along with many others that cast doubt on the work of law enforcement officials in his own administration. In a threat to the November election, which will unfold in the middle of a pandemic, he has inaccurately said that voting-by-mail is “corrupt” and “dangerous.”
Perhaps his most embarrassing interlude as President with an internet rumor was when he said that injecting or ingesting disinfectant might be able to knock out the coronavirus. That set off a scramble by public health officials who raced to warn the public about the dangers of ingesting bleach or disinfectant. (And still poison control centers saw an uptick of calls from Americans asking about the technique Trump described).
He’s also wielded conspiracy theories against his political opponents. During the 2016 campaign, he tried to stir rumors that there was something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health; that maneuvering largely occurred in the background and internet chat rooms.
This year, the President and his campaign have put their questions about presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s mental acuity at the center of their effort, suggesting there is something wrong with the former vice president. And this time, the Republican National Committee is actively promoting Trump’s theory.
On Wednesday, the campaign’s rapid response director sent an email to reporters with the subject line “Joe Biden’s cognitive decline before America’s eyes,” with a list of times the former vice president has misspoken on the campaign trail.
Biden ended his Tuesday press conference by responding to a question on whether he has been tested for cognitive decline: “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive ability to the cognitive ability of the man I’m running against.”
The next day, Trump tweeted a baseless assertion – simultaneously questioning the ethics of both the press corps and the former vice president – that Biden was fed questions in advance at his “so-called press conference” and then “read the answers from a teleprompter.”
“That means he was given the questions, just like Crooked Hillary. Never have I seen this before!” Trump tweeted without citing any evidence.
Democrats ignore Trump’s tactics at their peril
If Trump has proved one thing over the years, it is that he is incredibly skilled at driving fringe theories into the national conversation. Strategists for some of his political opponents, including Obama and Clinton, initially tried to ignore them – theorizing that acknowledging them would only give them more oxygen.
But his success in propelling the “birther” movement into a major news story is a cautionary tale for his opponents, including Biden – who has so far just tried to swat away Trump’s taunts about his mental capacity.
In an April 2011 letter to The New York Times, Trump posited that there was a “very large segment of our society who believes that Barack Obama, indeed, was not born in the United States,” but instead in Kenya.
Trump and others were so effective in driving the theory into the mainstream that Obama’s team ultimately published the President’s long-form birth certificate later that month. And Obama took the extraordinary step of explaining why he was releasing the birth certificate during an appearance in the White House briefing room in late April 2011.
“Normally I would not comment on something like this,” the former President said, noting that every news outlet who investigated his birth “confirm that, yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, August 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital” – and yet, the story “just keeps on going,” he said.
Obama warned that the obsession was distracting from the many more serious issues facing the nation and the ability of leaders to “solve these problems.”
“We’re not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We’re not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We’re not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers,” Obama said in that appearance.
Now the carnival barker that Obama was presumably referring to is the President of the United States. And Obama’s words serve as a prescient warning to Biden and Trump’s other opponents about the dangers of allowing Trump’s conspiracy theories to fester, as his conspiracy-driven acolytes rise to higher and higher positions of power within his Republican Party.