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The Infowars president: how do we combat Trump's love of internet conspiracy theories?

What will a president with such a fondness for kooky theories say or do next time there's a terrorist attack? Or a public health crisis?

On 2 December 2015, the aspiring Republican presidential candidate and real-estate mogul Donald Trump appeared on The Alex Jones Show. “Your reputation’s amazing,” Trump told Jones. “I will not let you down.”

Even by Trump’s standards, it was an eye-popping pledge. Alex Jones is a scream-prone, far-right radio host and the founder of the wacky fringe website Rolling Stone once called him “the most paranoid man in America” and, according to the
Anti-Defamation League, he “may currently well be the most prominent conspiracy theorist in the United States”.

Jones sees “false flags” everywhere. This self-described “founding father” of the “9/11 truth movement” has declared that the twin towers were brought down by “controlled demolitions” orchestrated by “criminal elements of our government”. The Boston Marathon bombings, he avers, were also “a false flag . . . a staged event”, and the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, in which 20 children and six adults died, was a “giant hoax” involving actors.

Then there are the Jews: according to Jones, there is a “Jewish mafia” in America that runs “Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you. They’re going to hurt you.”

An “amazing reputation”, indeed. Yet the US president has never been asked to explain his odd relationship with Jones, or whether he shares the radio host’s paranoid delusions. Jones, on the other hand, has bragged about how Trump apparently rang him three days after the election to thank him and his audience for their support.

Two of the president’s most outlandish claims in recent months were midwifed on “Report: three million votes in presidential election cast by illegal aliens”, read a headline on Jones’s website on 14 November. Thirteen days later, Trump decided to undermine the US electoral process by tweeting, without a shred of evidence, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Last summer, a headline on read “Scandal: mass media covers up terrorism to protect Islam”. By February, the most powerful man on Earth was repeating this noxious and nonsensical claim: “It’s gotten to a point where [terrorism is] not even being reported. And, in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”

Forget Fox News. Trump is the Infowars president. In recent years, he has declared that climate change is a “hoax” invented by the Chinese; linked his Republican rival Ted Cruz’s father to Lee Harvey Oswald; observed that it was “pretty unusual” that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead with a pillow over his head; called Barack Obama “the founder of Isis”; implied that Hillary Clinton was “pumped up” on drugs during the second presidential debate; claimed to have witnessed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks; and suggested that vaccines were behind an (imaginary) “epidemic” of autism. As Trump confessed to NBC in March last year: “All I know is what’s on the internet.”

This is no laughing matter. Climate change, for instance, costs lives – as did measles, before widespread vaccination. Trump’s rhetoric is as irresponsible as it is irrational. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. A recent study found that conspiracy theories appeal “to individuals with exaggerated feelings of self-love, such as narcissists”. Remind you of anyone?

It has been more than 50 years since the US historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed “the paranoid style in American politics”, based on what he called a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy”. Sound familiar?

Trump is a purveyor of conspiracy theories partly because he sees them as a means of delegitimising the mainstream media in the eyes of his supporters, thereby undermining an institution that is supposed to be a check on his power, and partly because it wins him votes. Remember that Trump built his political career on “birtherism”, the racist theory that Obama was born in Kenya and so was ineligible to be president. It was catnip for the far right. Trump’s ratings soared when he started calling for the release of Obama’s birth certificate and, as late as August 2016, only one in four registered Republican voters agreed with the statement that Obama was born in the US.

The big question is this: how do we engage with, cover, analyse, report on and respond to an Infowars president? Normally, conspiracy theorists are shunned or mocked by polite society; they don’t often end up with their finger on the nuclear button. It is surely time to reconsider how we do politics and journalism to avoiding normalising the utterly abnormal.

What will a president with a fondness for kooky conspiracy theories say or do the next time there is a terrorist attack on US soil? Or a public health crisis? And how can US allies take seriously the pronouncements of a leader who is also a card-carrying paranoiac? How many journalists at the daily White House press briefing recognise that this is an administration that treats the crackpot Alex Jones as a reliable source of information – perhaps a more reliable source than any of them? As Jones remarked in August, “It is surreal to talk about issues here on air, and then word for word hear Trump say it two days later.” “Surreal” is perhaps an understatement. “Beyond belief” might be closer to the mark. “Beyond parody”, too. But above all else, “beyond the pale”.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear