Donald Trump’s use of conspiracy theories means his diagnosis is already being questioned

In the environment of “alternative facts” that the president has helped to create, many are asking why they should believe that he has Covid-19.

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Just after midnight Eastern Time this morning, Donald Trump tweeted that he and his wife had tested positive for Covid-19. This followed the news that one of his White House aides, Hope Hicks, had also received a positive test after travelling with Trump on Air Force One to and from the presidential debate on Tuesday (29 September). This announcement has dominated headlines and social media commentary in the hours since it was made public. Alongside the coverage, conspiracy theories have raced through the internet. 

Donald Trump first began talking about running for president in the late 1980s and briefly attempted to secure a nomination for the Reform Party in 2000. But his political standing among Republicans only became credible when, from 2010 onwards, he became the most prominent advocate of the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in America, but in Kenya, and that he therefore was ineligible to become US president. The "birther” movement campaigned for Obama to release his birth certificate (which had already been released in 2008) and argued that this supposed lack of willingness to do so proved that the president was not really American. Trump tweeted his support for the conspiracy theory more than 60 times.

Now, amid the news that Trump has tested Covid-19 positive, a similar movement has grown within hours to demand that he release a copy of his test result. On Twitter, 4chan, Reddit, and Facebook, countless responses to the news share the same sentiment: “Where is the proof that Trump has it?”; “This is a stunt”; “We don’t know for sure if Trump has #COVID19”. 

Having built his political career on questioning generally accepted truth, no one has done more than Donald Trump to create the ground for such conspiracy theories. The avalanche of comments questioning his test results cite their lack of trust in the president, a reputation he has spent a decade building. As one Twitter user said: “Until I see proof that he’s got Covid, I am assuming it’s just another Trump lie.”

While this particular conspiracy theory is the most prominent, as well as the most mainstream, others have proliferated in the deeper niches of the internet, with theories ranging from Trump having been deliberately infected for Democratic gain, to the idea that the president is pretending to have the virus in order to show that its impact is minimal.

Trump could, of course, release a copy of his test. But given that it has taken years to uncover his tax returns – which he dismissed immediately as “totally fake news” – this seems unlikely. And if he did, another Trump-style trap is laid for him: even when Obama provided further evidence of his birth certificate in 2011, the birther movement questioned its veracity (to this day, it still does). 

This story will undoubtedly dominate the news cycle for the next week, if not longer, both because of the average coronavirus infection period and the different effects it could have on Trump’s health. His diagnosis could have ramifications for the outcome of this election. What is certain, however, is that the explosion of conspiracy theories in the past few hours will be only the beginning – and this is partially thanks to Trump himself.

[see also: Why Donald Trump’s polarisation strategy may only lead to defeat

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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