WASHINGTON — While trying to define Democratic rival Joe Biden as an avatar of lawless anarchists, President Donald Trump has warned about rioters in the streets of liberal American cities. He has fanned fears of low-income minorities invading the suburbs.
And this week, he offered a new alert: “Thugs wearing dark uniforms,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham, had crowded en mass onto a plane to fly to Washington and wreak havoc at the Republican National Convention last week.
“A lot of people were on the plane to do big damage,” Trump declared in a prime-time interview on Monday. When asked to elaborate Tuesday, the president told reporters that a well-known figure, who was also aboard, had informed him. “The entire plane was filled up with the looters, the anarchists, the rioters, people that obviously were looking for trouble.”
Lacking details, the fantastical tale took on the wild, conspiratorial tone of a subversive Reddit subchannel or a foreign government disinformation campaign. That it was coming from Trump on a popular cable news show highlighted how his long-standing willingness to promote and disseminate conspiracy theories has become, in his view, central to a reelection effort that has foundered during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory,” Ingraham remarked after Trump stated that people in “dark shadows” were controlling Biden’s agenda.
In recent months, Trump has touted the effects of sunlight, bleach and hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as potentially beneficial to protect against the virus — despite warnings from medical authorities that such practices are ineffective or even dangerous. He has promoted a false conspiracy called “Obamagate,” which holds that Biden and other Obama administration figures tried to “spy” on his 2016 campaign.
He also publicly embraced the “QAnon” movement — which posits that Trump is defending the country against a satanic cult of pedophiles — and he refused to repudiate a discredited theory that Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif), whose parents immigrated to the United States, is ineligible to serve as vice president. And he has invited questions from reporters for One America News, Gateway Pundit and the Epoch Times, fringe, pro-Trump outlets that traffic in falsehoods, conspiracies and hoaxes.
“The thing that concerns me is that people are looking to blame someone in all these crises, and so what Trump is able to do is to give them a target to blame shift blame onto something else. These are very convenient conspiracy theories for him to play off of,” said Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco under president Bill Clinton who now serves as president of the Coalition for a Safer Web.
Ginsberg’s organization has examined ties between QAnon, white nationalist groups and Republican politicians. Trump’s conspiratorial talk about anarchists on the streets during the social justice protests has contributed, Ginsberg said, to pro-Trump elements on the far-right rallying to defend him as self-styled militias.
On Tuesday, Trump visited Kenosha, Wis., where a 17-year-old who attended a Trump campaign rally in January has been charged in the shooting deaths of two men during a night of street protests last week. In Portland, a man who appeared connected with a pro-Trump group was shot and killed after Trump supporters clashed with protesters.
“He’s giving ammunition as the figurehead to all these groups that more or less support his agenda,” Ginsberg said. “If he was discounting them and disowning them and marginalizing them, I don’t think they would feel as empowered.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews defended Trump’s Fox News interview by stating that his anecdote about the “thugs” on a plane was intended to raise questions about “who may be funding travel and lodging for organized rioters” in U.S. cities.
After Trump’s renomination address at the RNC last Thursday, protesters accosted Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other Trump supporters as they filed out of the White House grounds onto public streets.
In Kenosha, Matthews said, “violent rioters who were arrested hailed from 44 different cities. An investigation is underway to determine who is funding these organized riots happening across the country.”
On Tuesday, Trump’s account of the thugs on the plane began changing from what he said the night before. Trump told Ingraham that the plane was headed to Washington, while on Thursday he said it going from Washington “or wherever.” He also said Monday he couldn’t say more about the incident because it was under investigations, but then told reporters on Tuesday that he would ask his acquaintance whether they would talk to reporters about what they supposedly saw on the plane.
Trump’s story about the plane is similar to unfounded assertions posted on Facebook and other social media sites earlier this year that alleged without evidence that there was a secret network that was organizing protesters and transporting them to different areas of social unrest across the country.
Trump has willfully promoted baseless conspiracies for years, rising to political prominence a decade ago as a leader of the false birther movement that sought to discredit former President Barack Obama as foreign born. In the final days before the 2016 election, Trump’s campaign released an advertisement that suggested a shadowy cabal of wealthy, Jewish elites — including financier George Soros, then Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein — intent on maintaining a globalist economic system were orchestrating Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
This cycle, Trump has seized on the protest movement to promote a “law and order” message that has framed Black Lives Matter and other liberal groups as lawless mobs intent on riding a Biden presidency to upend America’s social fabric. In his telling, Trump is the lone figure strong enough to stop that threat, and he has heavily courted law enforcement groups and denounced Democratic mayors and governors as failing to keep their streets safe.
In Kenosha, Trump met with law enforcement officials, but he did not meet with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man whose shooting in the back by police last week prompted street protests. Before leaving Washington, Trump told reporters that he had watched coverage of the protests and saw people breaking into the home of Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, a Democrat, who had asked Trump to refrain from visiting over concerns that his presence would inflame community tensions.
The president’s remarks, Antaramian said Tuesday, were “completely false.”
“I want to dispel the president’s statement that angry mobs were trying to get into my house last night,” he said. “Nothing of the sort happened.”
Mark Fenster, author of the 2008 book “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture,” said Trump is “not really a conspiracy theorist in classic sense” because he’s not interested in unearthing evidence.
“He does not sit in the library and comb sources to piece together bits of information to devise a conspiracy,” said Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida. “It’s all intuitive, or he picks it up from someone else. He’s really more of a conspiracy broadcaster.”
Trump allies said his ties to fringe groups such as QAnon are exaggerated by the media, pointing out that the president never mentioned that movement, whose adherents have held signs at his rallies, until a reporter asked him about it two weeks ago.
“Well, I don’t know much about the movement,” Trump responded, “other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
Allies also noted that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows affirmed that Harris meets the requirements to hold the vice presidency.
Yet experts on extremist groups warned that the president’s embrace of conspiracies has helped accelerate the mainstreaming of once-fringe ideas. Last week, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who won a GOP primary in a Georgia Congressional race, attended Trump’s renomination speech at the White House. Trump praised Greene, who has said Muslims don’t have a place in Congress, as a “future Republican Star” in a tweet last month.
Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who provided key testimony to Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said the president’s efforts to blame antifa, a loosely defined movement of far-left, anti-fascist groups, for provoking violence amid the social justice protests has contributed to severe misinformation.
Far-right groups, Watts said, present a significantly greater threat of domestic terrorism.
But Trump is exceedingly effective at “boiling everything down to the most basic component,” he added. “Don’t create some intricate narrative. Just go, ‘Antifa, antifa, protests, antifa, guys on a plane, antifa.’ It’s all scary things.”