Opinion

Trump’s Conspiracy Theories Undermine Democracy and Advance Authoritarian Rule

The U.S. president’s endorsement of rumors linking Jeffrey Epstein’s death to the Clintons is ludicrous - and dangerous

Donald Trump and his future wife Melania with future convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who allegedly helped procure girls for sex for Epstein, at the Mar-a-Lago club on February 12th 2000
Davidoff Studios / Getty Images

Conspiracy theories are like a religion. Their adherents believe in higher powers that control human developments. They divide the world into forces of light and forces of darkness. They believe only they can perceive the real truth. Like most religions, conspiracy theories are immune to objective refutation: Contradictory facts are quickly digested and transformed into further proof that confirms the original theory.

Conspiracy theories have been around since the dawn of history. They flourish in times of hardship and crisis, from the rumors that Caesar Nero set Rome alight and sang to its destruction to the Italian mob that assassinated John F. Kennedy with the help of Fidel Castro. Famous deaths provide fertile ground for the proliferation of conspiracy theories: The Pope ordered the hit on Abraham Lincoln, MI6 masterminded the killing of Princess Diana, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by the Shin Bet, Hitler escaped to South America and Elvis is still alive.

Since they supposedly killed Jesus, Jews have played a starring role in conspiracy theories. They were the well poisoners and loan sharks. They kidnap and kill Christian children to use their blood in baking Passover matzahs. The Jews run the world in accordance with their Protocols, disseminate inhuman socialism, heartless capitalism, sinister globalism or Godless liberalism, control Hollywood and the media, masterminded 9/11 and more. The Nazi regime was based on a singular, all-encompassing conspiracy theory: The Jews are responsible for all of Germany’s ailments and afflictions.

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A European Union research project published a few years ago undercut the widespread perception that conspiracy theories are multiplying like never before: What has changed is the means and scope of their dissemination, from print newspapers through radio and television to Instagram and Twitter. The project was concluded, however, before the leader of the world’s greatest power, Donald Trump, turned out to be an ardent fan of conspiracy theories and their main distributor on the global stage.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, second from left, speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 12, 2019
Andrew Harnik,AP

Among other fantasies, Trump has claimed in the past that global warming is a Chinese hoax, Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, Barack Obama was born in Kenya, Ted Cruz’s father played a role in the Kennedy assassination, Mexicans are sending rapists and murderers across the border, vaccinations cause autism and more. His latest contribution to the genre came in the form of a retweet/endorsement of the conspiracy theory by which the Clintons engineered the death of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein: It’s a convenient way to deflect attention from the fact that Epstein was under lock and key and that it was Trump and his administration who were charged with his welfare.

Trump’s addiction to conspiracy theories may be ignorant and immature but he has turned it into an effective instrument of power. By repeatedly disseminating ludicrous accounts of “Deep State” forces of darkness conspiring against him, Trump cultivates enmity, inflames his base, absolves himself of responsibility for his own failures and vindicates himself in the eyes of his followers without providing any explanation for his behavior. Netanyahu may be wiser and more levelheaded than Trump, but he has enthusiastically embraced and emulated the U.S. President’s modus operandi, for obvious reasons.

Conspiracy theories, however, aren’t some quaint curiosity. Their acceptance by the public undermines democracy and underpins many authoritarian regimes. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” Thus, conspiracy theories erode public confidence in formal institutions, the free press and the legal and judicial systems, until the only thing left is the leader and his words, conspiratorial and manipulative as they may be.