Words by Moritz Piehler
Donald Trump has mastered the art of blurring the lines like few US presidents before him. This has included making the political calculation that even the most absurd conspiracy theories can never be denounced in their entirety.
On the contrary, since the start of his political career, Trump has appeared to benefit from the fact that some of his voters believe there are evil forces and secret manipulators operating behind the scenes.
Trump styles himself as their knight in shining armour. Yet playing with conspiracy theories is a dangerous game; it undermines trust in politics and democracy and deepens social rifts even further.
The birth certificate
Trump's toying with conspiracy theories is by no means a new phenomenon. He had already been fuelling the rumours circulating about Barack Obama's allegedly missing birth certificate four years before he launched his own candidacy. Primarily a businessman and star of reality TV shows at that time, Trump's intervention in the debate was surprisingly vociferous. Mainly using Twitter, which would later become his primary political PR tool, he perpetuated theories Obama had actually been born in Kenya and therefore had no right to be president .
Trump remained unconvinced even after the certificate was presented. On the contrary, he quoted an allegedly "highly credible source" who had told him that the document was a forgery. This is a pattern which he still follows today with assertions that cannot be verified. It is possible that Trump may have realised even then the appeal that conspiracy theories can have, and how he could use these for his own purposes. Trump recently revived this so-called "birther" theory by calling the birthplace of Democratic candidate for vice-president Kamala Harris into question.
The ‘dark forces’ behind Biden
Trump has repeated theories which he appears to pick up from the internet. The more he talks about these in press conferences and interviews, the more he appears to hope that they will become enshrined in voters' minds. The conspiracy theories that the US president voiced in a 40-minute interview with Fox regarding the anti-racism protests and the secret forces allegedly pulling the strings behind Biden are a good example of this.
Specifically, Trump stated that a plane full of criminals dressed in black was making its way to the Republican National Convention. According to research by the Washington Post, this rumour had already been posted on Facebook on June 1 by a man from Boise, Idaho. One of these men allegedly even had a tattoo saying "Antifa America." Although the sheriff responsible immediately refuted the rumour, the original post was shared more than 4,000 times - and was seized upon by Trump. The US president has history of sharing unverified content from the US right-wing scene on Twitter, with his tweets then ensuring that the assertions achieve coverage and legitimacy.
Trump has also made bizarre claims originating from the conspiracy scene regarding his opponent Joe Biden. Trump claimed in the same Fox interview that Biden was controlled by "dark forces” - though he failed to provide evidence of this. He alleged that there are people in "dark shadows" who nobody knows and who are controlling Biden. These obscure and vague assertions provide the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories; objective facts and well-researched articles are no use when it comes to countering conspiracy theories. Another fatal consequence is the fact that new life is even given to the narrative of the cover-up by the mainstream media.
Trump also told Fox presenter Laura Ingraham that Biden was taking drugs and demanded a drug test from the former vice president. He also claimed that Biden had spied on his campaign in 2016 using illegal means, although news channel CNN found no evidence of this whatsoever as part of a fact check. Trump later retweeted a video about Joe Biden, which was tagged with the hashtag #pedobiden, placing his political opponent at the centre of what is probably the most notorious conspiracy theory at the moment.
Pizzagate and the QAnon movement
This theory includes fantasies about secret government machinations in the world known as the Deep State. It includes outlandish claims that prominent Democrats would hold children captive and be treated with hormones from their blood. Trump is considered to be the only opponent of the dark forces and a kind of saviour to many QAnon supporters. It is no surprise, therefore, that he does not intend to put off these loyal voters.
The QAnon theory has its origins in the 2016 election campaign. Baseless rumours began to circulate via the Reddit and 4chan networks that a ring of prominent figures and Democrats around Trump's campaign opponent Hillary Clinton was running a child porn ring from a pizzeria in Washington. The conspiracy spread rapidly on the Internet under the name "Pizzagate." Members of Trump's team also spread rumours in more or less subtle ways. The former presidential candidate visibly enjoyed calling for Clinton's arrest at his election campaign meetings - ostensibly as a result of her e-mail controversy as secretary of state. The phrase "lock her up" became the battle cry for his furious supporters. The fact that conspiracy theories do not just exist in a virtual bubble became clear almost a month after Trump's election. A heavily armed man entered this same Washington pizzeria in December 2016 to free the children who were allegedly being held captive there. After firing two shots in which no one was injured, he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison the following year.
Conspiracy theorists on their way to the Senate
Despite these incidents, Donald Trump has avoided publicly denouncing conspiracy theories. When asked by a reporter directly what he thought of the QAnon movement, Trump simply said, "I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate." He denied knowing more about them, but that he had heard that "they are people who love our country."
The movement is now spreading its crude theories so openly that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have restricted or deleted thousands of accounts and pages with content based on conspiracy theories. Yet this has not had an impact on their popularity, and politicians other than Trump have also recognised this fact. Republican primary winner Lauren Witzke had to defend herself against accusations she supported QAnon (she told AP in January that she hadn’t promoted them in months) after victory in Delaware in September. Another primary winner - Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia - has also tried to distance herself from claims she is a sympathiser.
Any claim is difficult to counter once it has been stated
Some of the theories that Trump seizes upon are, quite simply, dangerous. He initially claimed, for instance, that Covid-19 could be prevented by drinking bleach, which is extremely harmful to health, or by taking the unproven malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Health authorities and doctors then experienced major issues countering these claims asserted by Trump. The uncontrollable publicity that Trump creates for himself via Twitter or his calls to TV shows is a significant - never before has a US president had such an immediate reach, and been able to use this unfiltered.
In September, for instance, he spread "information" on Twitter from a QAnon supporter that the US health authorities had admitted that only six percent of deaths from Covid-19 had involved patients who had actually died from the virus. In fact, the authorities had stated that Covid-19 was the sole cause of death in six per cent of the deaths reported, and that in 92 percent of cases, it was a combination of the virus with other health conditions. The picture is, of course, distorted if this fact is left out, further undermining confidence in the authorities. Trump has repeatedly undermined the scientists this way and, as a result, remains the only source of the "true facts" for his supporters. For Trump, one welcome consequence of this is that he can also dismiss any accusations levelled at him.
Preparations for electoral defeat
Trump has not slowed down his use of unproven claims - often initially disseminated in social media - during the election campaign.
He has repeatedly emphasised in recent weeks how unsafe postal votes are - most likely in light of his weak showings in the polls - despite there being no statistical evidence there are more irregularities in postal voting than when voters go to the ballot box.
Nevertheless, Trump’s actions spread uncertainty among voters. If he does lose, Trump has indicated that this could only be a result of electoral fraud. Even when he has been asked whether he would accept defeat against Biden, he has repeatedly left this question open.
And in contrast to this, Trump has even disseminated the rumour that he would run for a third term.
And even though that would be illegal under the US Constitution, anything seems possible in the realm of conspiracy theories.