Under his leadership, the Republican Party is now openly embracing candidates of that same ilk — raising the possibility that those ideas will make their way to the halls of Congress.
In any other political universe, it would have been inconceivable that candidates espousing those views would rise to the top of the Republican field in their respective states. But Trump has ushered conversations that used to occur in the dark recesses of the internet out from the shadows by drawing attention to them in his tweets to his more than 82 million followers.
It isn’t just political candidates with conspiracy links whose political fortunes are rising. Over the past few years while exploring the backgrounds of potential and current members of Trump’s team, CNN’s KFile team uncovered connections to or affirmations of fringe conspiracy theories among more than a dozen Trump appointees, nominees or advisers.
Driving fringe theories to the center of the campaign
Trump realized long ago that championing conspiracy theories was a swift and easy way to generate publicity, and he often waded into racially divisive debates to maximize the attention he would draw. He has embraced so many off-the-wall theories that there are almost too many to count.
He’s also wielded conspiracy theories against his political opponents. During the 2016 campaign, he tried to stir rumors that there was something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health; that maneuvering largely occurred in the background and internet chat rooms.
This year, the President and his campaign have put their questions about presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s mental acuity at the center of their effort, suggesting there is something wrong with the former vice president. And this time, the Republican National Committee is actively promoting Trump’s theory.
On Wednesday, the campaign’s rapid response director sent an email to reporters with the subject line “Joe Biden’s cognitive decline before America’s eyes,” with a list of times the former vice president has misspoken on the campaign trail.
Biden ended his Tuesday press conference by responding to a question on whether he has been tested for cognitive decline: “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive ability to the cognitive ability of the man I’m running against.”
The next day, Trump tweeted a baseless assertion — simultaneously questioning the ethics of both the press corps and the former vice president — that Biden was fed questions in advance at his “so-called press conference” and then “read the answers from a teleprompter.”
“That means he was given the questions, just like Crooked Hillary. Never have I seen this before!” Trump tweeted without citing any evidence.
Democrats ignore Trump’s tactics at their peril
If Trump has proved one thing over the years, it is that he is incredibly skilled at driving fringe theories into the national conversation. Strategists for some of his political opponents, including Obama and Clinton, initially tried to ignore them — theorizing that acknowledging them would only give them more oxygen.
But his success in propelling the “birther” movement into a major news story is a cautionary tale for his opponents, including Biden — who has so far just tried to swat away Trump’s taunts about his mental capacity.
“Normally I would not comment on something like this,” the former President said, noting that every news outlet who investigated his birth “confirm that, yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, August 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital” — and yet, the story “just keeps on going,” he said.
Obama warned that the obsession was distracting from the many more serious issues facing the nation and the ability of leaders to “solve these problems.”
“We’re not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We’re not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We’re not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers,” Obama said in that appearance.
Now the carnival barker that Obama was presumably referring to is the President of the United States. And Obama’s words serve as a prescient warning to Biden and Trump’s other opponents about the dangers of allowing Trump’s conspiracy theories to fester, as his conspiracy-driven acolytes rise to higher and higher positions of power within his Republican Party.