Presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump may not be a conspiracy theorist, but he certainly acts like one. Indeed, this might be part of his appeal — dropping hints about ridiculous theories and giving hope to people who do really believe them.
The scary thing is that under a possible Trump presidency, The Donald might enact conspiracy theories into law. He could urge the Food and Drug Administration to space out vaccines, for example, in the belief that this would save children from autism. Or he could enact trade barriers which would hurt the U.S. economy because he believes foreign countries are manipulating us and that trade is a zero-sum game.
Trump has a method to his madness. Whenever he cites a conspiracy theory, he also distances himself from it in some way. He either emphasizes that he is “just asking a question” or he says “some people are very concerned,” or sometimes he declares, “I don’t care.” This is a brilliant strategy that achieves three things: it gives a conspiracy theory more air time, it encourages those who believe the theory that Trump is one of them, and it allows The Donald to claim he never supported the theory when pressed upon it later.
Here is a list of conspiracy theories The Donald has helped promote, from least to most consequential in terms of U.S. policy were he to become president.
1. Obama’s Arabic Ring
The idea that President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim works off of assumptions more than direct evidence. Yes, Obama refuses to use the term “radical Islamic terror,” and he did spend time growing up in Indonesia and attending Indonesian-language schools. But Obama claims to be a Christian, he attends Christian services, and he does not seem to pray five times a day facing Mecca (one of the five pillars of Islam).
The one piece of evidence conspiracy theorists seize upon to “prove” his Islamic faith is a ring which supposedly has the Arabic inscription “There is no god but Allah,” which is the first part of the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.
To say this evidence is scant would be an understatement. Most of the photos used to interpret the “Arabic writing” on the ring are blurry, and clearer photos reveal a simple squiggly line pattern. If Obama is a secret Muslim, this ring is not evidence of it.
Nevertheless, Trump encouraged the theory in 2012, with this tweet.
Why does Barack Obama’s ring have an arabic inscription? http://t.co/upa00265 Who is this guy?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2012
But of course, he was “just asking a question.” Next Page: Starbucks’ war on Christmas
2. To boycott Starbucks or not to boycott Starbucks, that is the question.
In November 2015, when Starbucks released the design for its new cups for the holiday season, Donald Trump called for a boycott. Or did he? “Did you read about Starbucks? No more Merry Christmas on Starbucks,” Trump declared at an Illinois rally. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care.” Starbucks’ cups during the Christmas season usually had a festive style, to match the holiday drinks the coffee chain serves, year after year.
But the special cups for the season had never said “Merry Christmas” on them, and instead included vague wintry themes. Nevertheless, the seasonal blend is still called the “Christmas blend.” As a conservative Christian who takes faith — and Christmas — very seriously, I was not offended in the least by Starbucks’ decision, and neither were the majority of my friends. But there were a few viral videos of Christians complaining, and Trump’s offhand remark may have rallied them to his cause.
3. Did Obama start a war to win the 2012 election?
In October 2012, Trump declared that polls were looking bad for President Obama, and that he might have to do something desperate to defeat Mitt Romney. He tweeted this:
Polls are starting to look really bad for Obama. Looks like he’ll have to start a war or major conflict to win. Don’t put it past him! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2012
Of course, Obama did not start such a war, and his administration was doing the opposite — trying to pass off the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, as a protest against some inconsequential YouTube video. Perhaps a more interesting conspiracy theory would be to ask whether the YouTuber paid the administration for the free advertising.
In any case, we did not see a sitting president rush into war to keep his seat, House of Cards style, and nothing Obama did in 2012 would suggest he was contemplating such a move.
Next Page: Was Antonin Scalia murdered???
4. A murder most foul?
In February, Mr. Trump theorized that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. “Well, I just heard today, just a little while ago actually, I just landed and I’m hearing it’s a big topic, the question, and it’s a horrible topic but they say they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”
PJ Media’s Andrew Klavan had a great response to this one:
No, of course he wasn’t murdered. What’re you, nuts? But the question perfectly represents the disconnect between the grave stakes of the upcoming election and the frivolous level of our current political discourse. …
And all right, I’ll cut the combover clown some slack on this one. It was the first he’d heard of it. And in fact, the pillow wasn’t found over the Supreme Court justice’s face but above his head. And the 79-year-old Scalia was in bad health and had discussed the possibility of his sudden death with his family. And what kind of super-de-duper New World Order Illuminati conspirator smothers a guy with a pillow and then leaves the pillow there on the guy’s face anyway? Maybe he was hoping no one would notice the body underneath… Ach, I’ll retire to Bedlam.
5. The 9/11 terrorists had wives.
In explaining his plan to go after the families of terrorists, Donald Trump insisted that the terrorists who carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001 had wives.
“The wife knew exactly what was happening. They left two days early with respect to the World Trade Center and they went back to where they went and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center,” The Donald said in a March debate.
This is ludicrous for many reasons. The 9/11 Commission found that “not a single hijacker had a wife, girlfriend or family member in the country in the days and months before the terrorists executed their plan,” and that “only two of the 19 hijackers were married and only one had a girlfriend.”
Next Page: Who invented “Global Warming” and why?
6. The Chinese invented Global Warming — to hurt U.S. manufacturing.
This one is actually rather hilarious.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
So, let’s be clear. I very much disagree with the global warming theory — more precisely called anthropogenic climate change, meaning that the actions of human beings are drastically changing the climate — but the idea that the Chinese invented it is just laughable. The theory that human actions, and the burning of fossil fuels in particular, impact the climate traces back to the early 1800s. As with all scientific theories, it has undergone many changes and is yet to be conclusively proven (despite claims that a vast majority of scientists believe it). In any case, the idea is actually quite old, almost 200 years old.
By contrast, the reform of China’s economic system rejecting the communism of Mao Zedong began in 1978. China’s industry started to take off in the 1950s, growing by 11 percent annually between 1952 and 1985. In other words, China became an industrial competitor to the United States over 100 years after the birth of global warming science. To be clear, you can still be a skeptic (I myself wear that label proudly, as good science requires skepticism), and there are good reasons to think that scientists have an interest in government growth spurred on by climate change alarmism. While this may sound like a conspiracy theory to some liberals, it has a great deal of legitimacy. Donald Trump’s theory on how global warming came about, however, quite simply does not.
7. Rafael Cruz was involved in the JFK assassination.
One of the most despicable moments in modern politics came on the day of the Indiana primary, just before Texas Senator Ted Cruz dropped out of the race against Donald Trump. That morning, the Trump-connected National Enquirer — which had published a scathing sex scandal story about Cruz earlier — alleged that Cruz’s father Rafael was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After the National Enquirer story, Trump repeated its allegations on Fox News. “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said. “I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting? It’s horrible.” As usual, Trump did not actually say that Rafael Cruz was involved in the shooting, he was only “asking questions.” But the photographic evidence doesn’t add up. The National Enquirer used a photo of Rafael Cruz and a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, claiming that a man photographed with Oswald four months before the JFK assassination was Cruz. Experts attempting to verify the connection could not do so, and the tabloids sources only suggested the man in the photo with Oswald appears to be Cruz. Of course, Donald Trump, ever graceful, waited until Ted Cruz had dropped out, and then revealed that he never believed this conspiracy theory. “Of course I don’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. But I did say, let people read it,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. When did this kind of behavior become acceptable? Christianity needs a lobbying firm.
8. Christianity is one huge organization that can have its own lobby.
Very few people have accused Donald Trump of truly understanding the nature of the faith he professes to believe. “Two Corinthians” barely scratches the surface. After all, what active evangelical Christian could say with a straight face that he or she can’t recall asking God for forgiveness? But few of The Donald’s many flubs reveal his ignorance about this diverse religion than his claim that Christians need a “lobby.”
“We have probably 250 million, maybe even more, in terms of people, so we have more Christians than we have men or women in our country and we don’t have a lobby because they don’t want to lose their tax status,” Trump declared. This is one of the reasons he argued that “Christianity is being chipped away at in this country. … I mean, really, they’ve shut Christianity down.” I am very sympathetic to the idea that conservative Christians should have more cultural and political influence, but Trump’s declaration still strikes me as nonsensical. There are lobbying organizations which represent the Christian left, right, and center. There are law firms that exist to protect religious freedom. There is a movement which has convinced over 500 pastors to run for political office.
Liberal Christians, in particular, have a great degree of representation — albeit mostly through secular organizations. The conservative side feels embattled for good reasons, and many pastors worry that with the enshrining of homosexual marriage in national law, their churches’ tax exempt status might be at risk. Preserving religious liberty is fundamentally important, but being embattled is not the same thing as lacking political representation, and Trump should know the difference.
9. Was Obama born in the U.S., and does it matter?
In 2008 and 2012, many conservatives questioned whether Barack Obama was born in Hawaii as he claimed. They further argued that if he was not, he would not be a “natural born citizen,” and therefore would be ineligible to serve as president of the United States. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump took this one step further, claiming that Ted Cruz (who was born in Canada) may also be ineligible to be president. At one point, he even retweeted a supporter who suggested that Marco Rubio, born in Miami, FL, is also ineligible. I’m no fan of Obama, but the law is clear — anyone born to American parents (even if born abroad) and anyone born in the United States (even if not to American parents) is a “natural born citizen.” As Neal Katyal and Paul Clement wrote in the Harvard Law Review:
All the sources routinely used to interpret the Constitution confirm that the phrase ‘natural born Citizen’ has a specific meaning: namely, someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth with no need to go through a naturalization proceeding at some later time. And Congress has made equally clear from the time of the framing of the Constitution to the current day that, subject to certain residency requirements on the parents, someone born to a U.S. citizen parent generally becomes a U.S. citizen without regard to whether the birth takes place in Canada, the Canal Zone, or the continental United States.
This means that, even if Obama was born in Kenya, he would still be eligible to be president — because his mother was a United States citizen. Ted Cruz, being born in Canada, is still eligible — because both his parents were American citizens. Marco Rubio’s parents were not American citizens at the time of his birth, but he was born in the United States. While this seems to make him an “anchor baby,” both his parents became legal U.S. citizens after his birth, and anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen from birth.
Donald Trump has encouraged “birther” theories without entirely endorsing them. As Politico‘s Eliza Collins put it, “It’s not me, he feigns, others have questions about Rubio, I’m just saying it could be a problem, and maybe we should look into it.” By encouraging people to “look into” such an issue, he gives it a legitimacy it does not deserve. Next Page: Bush lied, people died, Republican-style.
10. Trump parrots anti-Bush liberal talking points from the 2000s.
During a presidential debate in February, Trump attacked George W. Bush for not “keeping us safe,” for the “big, fat mistake” of the Iraq War, and most importantly, for lying about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. He even said, “We have destabilized the Middle East.” “They lied,” Trump said of the Bush administration. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.” This is false on very, very many levels. In 2014, The New York Times reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Furthermore, even if there weren’t, two separate investigative bodies — the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — concluded that the Bush administration did not lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even if they were wrong, they didn’t mislead anyone deliberately. As PJ Media’s Rick Moran noted, calling the Iraq War a “mistake” may be “a reasonable conclusion in hindsight,” but that was “unavailable to American policy makers before we invaded.” The idea that the war “destabilized” the Middle East, however, goes too far. “It’s faintly ridiculous to blame our invasion for destabilizing what was already a chaotic region of the world anyway.” By the way, Rick Moran was right in saying this attack on Bush would not weaken Trump in the South Carolina primary. I thought it would, due to George W. Bush’s high favorability in that state, but I was wrong.
11. Mexico deliberately sends criminals to the U.S.
When Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president, he made an outlandish claim: that Mexico deliberately sends bad people to the United States. His campaign repeated it in an official press release.
The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. There are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc. … [The United States] has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world.
The statement added that “the Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States.” Immigration experts disagree on this point, and it is an important disagreement.
“No, the Mexican government doesn’t force anyone to move here illegally, though it certainly doesn’t object,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Tom Smith, a demographer at the University of Chicago, contrasted Mexican immigration with the Mariel boat lift from Cuba in 1980. “While most immigrants were simply part of the general Cuban population of people wanting to emigrate, it appears that the Cuban government did intentionally send a disproportionate number of those they deemed to be undesirables, including prisoners and other institutionalized groups,” Smith noted. In other words, Trump’s conspiracy theory about immigration is actually true — just not for the case he argues. This is emphatically not to say that all immigration is good (the tragedy of Kate Steinle proves otherwise), but that the specific claim which launched The Donald’s campaign is most likely false. Immigration is still a big issue, but Trump is overstating his case (not exactly a big surprise, I know). Next Page: A terrifying conspiracy theory — vaccines cause autism.
12. Trump believes vaccines cause autism.
In 2007, The Donald laid out a theory about autism. “My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children,” Trump declared. In 2014, he pledged he would promote this theory from the White House if elected president. In a debate, Trump doubled down. “Just the other day, two years old — two and a half years old — a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic,” he said. The problem is, science does not back this up. A 2013 CDC study “found no connection between the number of vaccines a child received and his or her risk of autism spectrum disorder.” This has been backed up by many, many scientific studies and medical institutions. Furthermore, Trump’s suggestion that parents spread out vaccines for their children actually leads to tragedies like the measles outbreak in Disneyland last year. Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA, explained how.
“To suggest that you make your own schedule is dangerous,” Offit argued. “That’s why we saw the measles outbreak in Disneyland this year,” because parents chose to delay vaccinating their children. Spacing out the vaccine schedule leaves children susceptible to diseases for longer periods than necessary, argued Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative science at Vanderbilt University. While Kentucky Senator Rand Paul argued for parental choice on this issue, there is a public health argument that might take precedence. In any case, the evidence does not support the “anit-vaxxer” position.
13. International trade is a zero-sum game.
Much ink has been spilled on Donald Trump’s trade skepticism, and he does have a few valid points. Nevertheless, the way he frames the issue has arguably promoted a certain kind of economic conspiracy theory: that foreign trade is a zero-sum game, and especially that other countries are “ripping us off.” This idea states that in every exchange, there is a winner and a loser. In a truly free market, however, this is not the case. Both the buyer and the seller exchange something they value less for something they value more: they both end up winners. This also works on a global scale, so long as there is no foul play. Trump would argue that there is foul play, but his constant rhetoric suggests that foreign trade itself is a zero-sum game. Trump says America has been taken advantage of. When it comes to China, “they’ve taken our jobs, they’ve taken our money, they’ve taken our manufacturing, our base.” The Donald routinely says that trade partners are “ripping us off,” and while the current deals may be much less than perfect, Trump’s way of stating their failures stokes a general anger at foreign trade which has a terrifying history.
Such trade restrictions have a very bad track record. Although the Great Depression is dated to the stock market crash in 1929, the market was actually recovering well in 1930. Then the Smoot-Hawley tariff took effect. Industry, labor, and farmers demanded higher tariffs, and the government obliged, raising the 25 percent average tariff to 50 percent. U.S. trading partners responded by imposing tariffs of their own, shutting down world trade. This trade shutdown not only made the Great Depression worse — it also contributed to the causes of World War II, as Germany and Japan sought more land in part because they needed the resources of other countries for their economies. Furthermore, the Smoot-Hawley tariff actually hurt the very people it was intended to help. U.S. exports fell from $5.2 billion in 1929 to $1.7 billion in 1933, and farmers lost $1 billion in worldwide business. International trade only occurs when it helps both parties, or when one party can force the other party to engage in the trade. In the current system, there is no such blatant coercion. It may be that America’s trade deals have encouraged foreign workers to take jobs once held by Americans, thus weakening America’s jobs market and hurting many workers. In this case, the workers are clearly losers, but the American economy as a whole still benefits, as individual Americans and American companies gain from trading with individual foreigners and foreign companies. This is what Trump’s movement is calling attention to, and the struggles of America’s middle class do deserve attention. Donald Trump is not necessarily calling for a 21st century version of Smoot-Hawley, but his anti-trade rhetoric has obscured the fact that free trade benefits both parties overall. Trump may be right that we need to negotiate better trade deals with other countries, and that seems to be the substance of what he is calling for. Nevertheless, the way The Donald addresses foreign trade plays into the theory that trade is a zero-sum game where whole countries are losers, and that is false. Next Page: Are the Koch Brothers really pulling the strings?
14. The Koch Brothers are pulling the strings in the Republican Party
Very few conspiracy theories hold such political weight as the bogeyman of campaign finance. “Citizens United,” “Koch brothers,” and “corporations” have become some of the most hated words in the English language. Liberals villainize Charles and David Koch on the floor of the Senate, and organizations exist to repeal the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Donald Trump built on this hatred toward the Kochs and the fear of “dark money” by publicly self-funding his campaign and attacking his competitors in the G.O.P. primary as Koch puppets. These two tweets reinforced the weird paranoia surrounding the influence of the Koch donor network:
I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets? — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2015
Little Marco Rubio, the lightweight no show Senator from Florida, is set to be the “puppet” of the special interest Koch brothers. WATCH!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
The urge for campaign finance reform comes from good intentions — or at least it has a few good complaints about the current system. Big businesses do give vast amounts of money, and lobby for laws and regulations that help them. This is called “crony capitalism” and it is rightly condemned by both the left and the right. The difficult thing is, any limits to political giving only end up making the system even worse.
It also confuses the political giving of businesses in bed with the government and the political giving of individuals and groups aimed at influencing public policy on the outside. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that “corporations” have free speech rights, like individuals. This has been widely misinterpreted, because the court’s opinion used “corporation” to refer to a group of individuals, not to a large business entity.
The Supreme Court case defended a conservative non-profit’s ability to advertise a video about a political candidate (in this case Hillary Clinton) less than 90 days before a primary election, which was a violation of Federal Election Commission regulations. The Supreme Court struck down those regulations under the group’s free speech rights, and expanded the freedom of individuals and groups to spend money to advocate in politics.
The decision applies to unions, non-profit organizations, and various civic organizations, in addition to businesses and other groups of people. In this light, the liberal attack against the decision — attacking the notion that “corporations are people” — is trite and very misleading.
In this light, the political advocacy of the fundraising network headed by Charles Koch is but one of very many outlets for a certain kind of political speech — in this case dedicated to smaller government, criminal justice reform, treating veterans well, and so on.
Unfortunately, by demonizing the Koch brothers and the idea of money in politics, Trump has contributed to the confusion and misplaced anger on this issue.
(Disclosure: This author worked for Citizens United, and his wife works for Freedom Partners, an organization in the Koch donor network. He knows firsthand how hard it really is to influence national politics, and how misrepresented the goals of these organizations are.)
Finally, what may be the worst conspiracy theory of all. Seriously, it’s really bad.
15. The Washington Post is investigating Trump so Amazon can avoid antitrust regulations
The Washington Post may have mistreated Donald Trump, especially recently in the wake of the Orlando shooting, but the allegations he leveled against Jeff Bezos last month were patently absurd. When news leaked that the Post was assigning 20 reporters to cover Trump’s campaign, he replied with blatantly false allegations of antitrust violations — against Amazon!
Trump declared that Jeff Bezos, who owns both the Post and the retail website Amazon.com, was breaking anti-trust law. On this he was tragically, even laughably, wrong.
The Donald argued that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon the way they should be taxed.” But Bezos is “worried about” Trump, because he’ll clamp down on their tax loopholes, and so he is using the Post “as a tool for political power against me.”
Now, the Post is not generally friendly to Donald Trump. Many outlets are not friendly to Donald Trump. But assigning 20 people to cover the presumptive nominee of a major political party is not out of the ordinary — especially for a politics-focused outlet like The Washington Post.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that Bezos bought the Post for political influence — he did not replace the top editors, and the publisher Fred Ryan said Bezos “does not get involved in the journalism,” but “focused on the technology and customer side.”
Worse, Amazon isn’t even seeking to avoid paying taxes — that was so last decade! Amazon did gain an edge over other retailers by not collecting and paying sales taxes, but now state government changed their laws, and Amazon is trying to make other retailers pay taxes, too.
In 2013, the online retail giant actually sent a letter thanking U.S. senators for proposing a bill to force online retailers to pay state and local sales taxes. The company has already gone from plucky upstart to cronyist business — it’s no longer seeking an edge by avoiding to pay taxes, but rather is forcing its smaller competitors to pay the taxes it already does! Since Amazon is so big and well-known, it can’t avoid paying, so it wants to force everyone to do so.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias argued, “if Donald Trump had started talking about a proposal to change antitrust law in a way that would be bad for Amazon, and then suddenly a legion of Washington Post reporters showed up coving Trump, that would be suspicious,” but this is the exact opposite of that.