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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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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