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2 March 2017

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?

By Mehdi Hasan

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.

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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

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again