A Campaign Based on Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories – suspicions without evidence – have become a bane of modern life, but Donald Trump seeks to make them a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, as Todd Gitlin describes.

By Todd Gitlin

After the weekend’s carnage in Orlando, Donald Trump didn’t wait long before launching yet another guided missile full of insinuation. He didn’t exactly say that the massacre was the doing of an unreconstructed Mau-Mau descendant born in Kenya. Trump is craftier than that. Monday morning, he told Fox News:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on… [Obama] doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other and either one is unacceptable.” [My italics]

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

Later he told NBC’s Today’s Savannah Guthrie: “There are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing, but there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. And that could be.” [My italics]

Something else in mind… Can’t believe it… There’s something going on… Maybe he doesn’t want to get it… People cannot believe… A lot of people think… These are Trump’s characteristic high-frequency whistles, repeated and restated and re-repeated to make sure he gets through to the feebler dogs out on the periphery of his adoring crowd.

There are two intertwined strands to the Trump brand of insinuation. One is that traitors have crept into our midst. They are Muslims, Mexicans and other alien inhabitants of Trojan horses, aided and abetted by those who cover up for them, who reassure you that these sinister forces are harmless.

The second strand is that Trump speaks for a movement of folks who get it. He’s not just the leader who glimpses the buried truth. The leader, after all, has the wisdom to channel the “people,” the stouthearted ones, the deprogrammed, those brave souls who can handle the awful truth, who all together will rise to strip the masquerade bare, to evict the aliens — along with corrupting serpents — so as to restore Edenic greatness. The truth that matters, in all fascist and para-fascist movements, is the truth that the savior-masters have unearthed.

In the minds of circle of the adepts, there’s always “something going on” — the inside story that compactly explains the apparent mysteries of the world. What’s “going on” is always deep and dark. A special craft of intelligence is required to discern it. They, the conspirators, either are invisible to the official channels of information, who are at best naïve — at worst, complicit — because they ignore the common sense of the common folks who do get it.

In this view, official opinion is made up by know-it-alls who really know nothing, because they have an interest in concealment. They’re cover-up artists, the liberal-mainstream-lamestream media and their elite pals. They suppress the knowledge that, against all odds, the circle of deep knowers have patiently scraped together. It takes a special brand of astuteness to join the ranks of the adepts, to get down with the connoisseurs of the International Communist Conspiracy and the grassy knoll and the “false flag” and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Jews who stayed home from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Here are words out of Trump’s mouth, to Bill O’Reilly, in 2011: “I’m a very smart guy. I went to the best college. I had good marks. I was a very smart guy, good student and all that stuff. Because what they do to the birthers, which is a term I hate because a lot of these birthers are just really quality people that just want the truth.”

We get it. They don’t. They refuse to. Because — well — you know about them…

Inventing Reality

Conspiracy nuts despise official knowledge. What they relish is their own knowingness. Just when you think you’ve refuted their canards, they dance away. One mark of this sort of conspiracy theory is that it never says die. Blocked at the end of one cul-de-sac, it reverses field and rushes off to find another one. So, during his effort in 2011 to force Obama to present his birth certificate to prove his citizenship, Trump implied to Fox News that the reason for the president not showing it was “because maybe it says he is a Muslim.”

President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on the U.S. Counterterrorism strategy to combat the Islamic State, in the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on the U.S. Counterterrorism strategy to combat the Islamic State, in the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Having lifted that rock, Trump couldn’t let it go undisturbed. Just this February, he tweeted:  “I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque?” Well, he didn’t say Obama was a Muslim, did he? He only implied that Obama has a special feeling for Muslims. Which takes us straight to his insinuations about Orlando.

Fortunately for the Trumps of the world, they have their own efficient, instantaneous, echo chambers at their disposal. They delude themselves that what other people think doesn’t matter, because they are deafened by the applause that reverberates through their own arenas.

This doesn’t mean that what mainstream media say and don’t say, expose and fail to expose, are irrelevant. Writing in The Washington Post, Paul Waldman goes too far when he laments that mainstream media exposés are now helpless because there is no single media figure who has the audience or the stature that Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite had. But the multiplication of sources has led to a Balkanization of information — there’s no common text among voters that functions the way the evening news functioned a half-century ago. Further, the profusion of opinion available to everyone means that there’s no perspective or analysis, no matter how extreme, to which the public doesn’t have access.

As I noted last week, a good many journalists are at long, long last finding their ways through the conundrum of how to cover a serial liar without covering up. Untruths that passed unchallenged as run-of-the-mill Republican rhetoric during the primaries have now slipped into what the media scholar Daniel Hallin has called “the sphere of legitimate controversy.” Reporters are not so fearful of highlighting and challenging Trump’s steady assaults on truth. Investigative reports are catching up with his past of deception, greed and fraud. One reads this, for example, by Jenna Johnson in The Washington Post:

“For months, Trump has slyly suggested that the president is not Christian and has questioned his compassion toward Muslims. Years ago, Trump was a major force in calls for the president to release his birth certificate and prove that he was born in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly stated as fact conspiracy theories about the president, his rivals and Muslims, often refusing to back down from his assertions even when they are proven to be false.”

No wonder Trump just took the step of revoking the Post’s credentials for upcoming events. He made this decision before the Post did him the favor of this weasely headline: “Donald Trump spreads unproven theories.” Not “unproven” — false and crackpot!

A Hesitant Press

What took journalists so long to rise to the occasion? Aside from normal, everyday deference, false equivalencies and the fear of being seen as knowing too much (aka “partisanship”), mainstream journalists suffered from lack of material from campaign rivals. The New Republic’s Brian Beutler usefully explains that one reason journalists failed to puncture so many of Trump’s hot-air balloons is that they weren’t getting any help from other candidates’ opposition — or “oppo” — research:

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

“Political reporters have done a pretty good job unearthing the unflattering details of Trump’s past, but they can only do so much on their own. If the media could document everything untoward every candidate had ever done, campaigns and advocacy groups wouldn’t employ opposition researchers. But there’s a reason they do: In general, campaigns outgun and outpace the press at investigating rival candidates (particularly with respect to archival information that can’t be found online, and that requires expertise to obtain and decipher). They have more resources, no daily print deadlines and no need to worry about impartiality. …

“[R]epublican campaigns and anti-Trump activists did an absolutely abysmal job sifting through his dirty laundry between June 2015 and today… [F]or too long, most Republicans mistakenly assumed Trump would collapse on his own… They were also inhibited from attacking his wealth (or lack thereof), his tax avoidance and his barking-mad tax reform plan, because that would contradict fundamental conservative dogma: that taxes are terrible, that they can’t be cut enough and that the wealthy are wise to pay as little as possible.

“Most Republicans were loath to attack Trump in any meaningful way at all, until it was too late, because they didn’t want to alienate the front-runner and his millions of supporters.”

Can millions of supporters be wrong? As Lindsey Graham said in December: “[T]here’s about 40 percent of the Republican primary voter[s] who believes [sic] that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim.”

The freak show is not over. Fatuous commentaries and foolish questions still resound through cable TV land. On Fox, Howard Kurtz opined that “it probably would have been better if Trump had let one of his aides or surrogates” make the points the candidate made that he was “right on radical Islamic terrorism” and, “I said this was going to happen—and it is only going to get worse.”

Not better in the sense of more revealing of the actual sentiments of the putative Republican nominee — better in the sense of less damaging to Trump’s reputation, such as it is. No doubt more advice to Trump about how to airbrush his dirty pictures will be forthcoming in days to come.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin. [This article appeared previously at http://billmoyers.com/story/truth-according-trump/ ]

20 comments for “A Campaign Based on Conspiracy Theory

  1. Ross Beecham
    June 19, 2016 at 04:12

    A conspiracy theory is not “suspicion without evidence”, According to Webster, a conspiracy theory is “a theory that seeks to explain an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators”. There are ample examples of theories or hypotheses that have been put forward that have been branded, in order to devalue them, as “conspiracy theories” but that have turned out to be true and actual conspiracies. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that effectively started the Vietnam War is but one example. Those who started to question the veracity of “our boys are floating in the water” (LBJ) were howled down as a conspiracy theorists, but Robert McNamara subsequently confirmed the incident never happened. There was evidence for the theory that a conspiracy of the powerful had taken place, and further evidence from McNamara proved there was indeed a conspiracy. So Todd, it appears you lack evidence for your suspicion that those who dare to hypothesise that all might be as claimed by the powerful are nut cases.

  2. Gregory Herr
    June 16, 2016 at 13:36

    Would a moderator please e-mail me an explanation of why my comment was disallowed?

  3. Gregory Herr
    June 16, 2016 at 12:03

    Certainly Trump plays with unsubstantiated “ideas”. Obama is secretly Muslim, he wasn’t born in Hawaii, and he wants to confiscate guns. Congratulations Gitlin. You are on to something!
    Clinton plays with some bad ideas as well. Putin is an aggressive “threat”, Iraq is a business opportunity, and Assad is a brutal dictator that must be removed. Is this “official”?

    Yes Gitlin, there are lots of unsubstantiated ideas out there. But let’s try to address ideas and the elaboration of theories on an individual basis. To conflate ridiculous ideas with substantiated ones that go against what you deem to be “official knowledge” is unsavory.

    I should also suggest that the perspectives and analyses that most Americans are subjected to constitute a pretty narrow range. What is accessible has little to do with what is actually in the field of play. Is this suggestion “extreme”?

  4. exiled off mainstreet
    June 16, 2016 at 03:00

    Hillary’s record in Libya and Syria is documented and rises, at least certainly in Libya, to war crimes, making her unacceptable. Those supporting her candidacy are therefore engaging in a sort of conspiracy.

  5. Paul
    June 15, 2016 at 17:11

    There are many grounds on which to blast Trump. The lack of coherency to his foreign policy — which wants to retreat and advance at the same time. Or his alleged desire to rebuild America’s infrastructure by spending less on the military, and yet his promise to increase the size of the US military at the same time. He wants to get out of the mid-east and yet attack it ruthlessly, apparently including Iran. The list could go on.

    Mr. Gitlin focuses instead on Trump as a conspiracy theorist. But if you want to attack Trump on rhetorical grounds, wouldn’t it be more accurate to just say that Trump engages in innuendo and character assassination without any basis? Trump very often argues by means of destroying (or attempting to destroy) his opponent, and not by reasoning of any sort.

    Unfortunately, this is a very common type of argumentative style in the U.S. today. Ironically, the accusation of conspiracy theorizing very often is also a kind of character assassination. Which conspiracy in particular is nutty? All of them? Is it nutty to speculate about the Reichstag Fire? Who decides and on what evidence? The problem with the use of conspiracy theory rhetoric in the U.S. is precisely that it is the same kind of argumentative style as is used by Trump: it aims to destroy the opponent, period. Of course there are nutty conspiracy theories too, but in the above, as usual, no care is taken to define anything. The Kennedy assassination example is particularly laughable. But I don’t expect a reasoned discussion about it, or really, about anything else. That’s the tragic thing. Reasoned discussion is already not the norm in the U.S. Trump is only one of many, many sad results of that fact.

  6. Zachary Smith
    June 15, 2016 at 13:59

    There is no doubt that Donald Trump deserves a hell of a lot of kicking around.

    That said, I still made a quick search of these terms – Todd Gitlin and “Hillary”. For some reason or other I was unable to find any harsh remarks made by Mr. Gitlin with regard to HRC. Maybe I wasn’t (as my grandfather used to say) holding my mouth right – possibly that would explain the results I saw.

  7. Madhu
    June 15, 2016 at 12:36

    Conspiracy theorists are, unfortunately, aided and abetted by the lack of an adversarial media and recent events like the Iraq war, and the intelligence and public opinion manipulation leading to it.

    Some ages make it that much easier. Rounding out this paper might be how genuine concerns over official propaganda mingle with the more out there stuff.

    I’ve been looking back on archives and stories about Gary Webb, and, well, the truth is sometimes so shocking that it absolutely turns to conspiracy at the edges because humans minds try and process dark events in complicated emotional ways.

    Actors within the CIA expediently ignoring drug ties to those they would like to use for another purpose becomes, “they were doing it intentionally to destroy black people.”

    Trump is the result of a lot of bad trends in our society and while people ought to be responsible for their own reactions, you can’t say our age doesn’t reenforce negative emotional reactions and trends.

  8. LondonBob
    June 15, 2016 at 10:29

    I don’t understand what you are so worked up about? Hysteria masquerading as serious analysis, you could get a job at the Washington Post, or a degree in sociology. Of course the media pumps out biased nonsense, thankfully we have the internet to give us alternative perspectives to then draw our own conclusions.

  9. June 15, 2016 at 09:19

    “It takes a special brand of astuteness to join the ranks of the adepts, to get down with the connoisseurs of the International Communist Conspiracy and the grassy knoll and the “false flag” and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Jews who stayed home from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

    It takes no astuteness at all, just a willingness to remain uninformed and unable or unwilling to make elementary distinctions, to lump all these “conspiracy theories” together, while leaving out the most “outrageous” (to use Bush 2’s word) conspiracy theory of all, which is the official 9/11 story. Gitlin has obviously not read David Ray Griffin on 9/11 or James Douglass on JFK (there is much more, but this is all one needs). Gitlin’s language is as sloppy as his thinking, since conspiracy theories are not “suspicions without evidence,” but allegations of the crime of conspiracy, which is defined by law. What Trump has said about Obama, however stupid, is not a “conspiracy theory,” since saying that someone has an ulterior motive or is lying is not “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful,” to take the plain-language definition. To claim that there is “no evidence” of conspiracy in the case of 9/11 is blatantly absurd, since the official story is itself a conspiracy theory, and the same is true of the “grassy knoll” (assassination of JFK), as the majority of the population has known for a long time.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 15, 2016 at 10:49

      Michael, some of what author Gitlin said in regard to conspiracy should probably bother you, but on the other hand, why let it bother you. I say this, because I do frequent this site. One reason I read the articles, and comments here, is because most of the commenters when theorizing the tragic events of the day have references galore to back up their statements. There is a big difference between a Donald Trump throwing out conspiracy theories, and a James W Douglas detailing JFK’s last days. Trump would not even be a contender if he hadn’t had the greedy rating groping MSM to cover, and highlight his every word. Our media doesn’t cover real news, and certainly does a good job at avoiding any intelligent though. These are the times we live in. I think most people do, or are, trying to get it right, but no one puts a microphone in front of them. So, it is good that we all can come to a site such as this one, and share our references with each other. Mr Gitlin apparently isn’t a consortium news reader, and if he did, well consortium does have some diverse opinion inside its comment section, so why not it’s articles, and why not Gitlin. Actually, when it comes to being accepted by the Gitlins amongst us, I’m use to wearing my tin foiled hat to some degree. I love watching their eyes widen as I crush the lonegunman theory, or watch them look clueless when I bring up the 1967 USS Liberty Israeli attack. Here’s a test, ask an average American person if they know who Victoria Nuland is, let me know their answer. It passes the time away, and oh I think Trump is just a clown, a bombastic uncle, or some rich guy who listens to Alex Jones and Fox over his morning coffee. This is what I call, living in America in the 21st century. Take care Michael JT

      • June 15, 2016 at 12:25

        It bothers me, JT, because it is so typical of the academic head-in-the-ground approach to anything important that is even more exasperating than the mainstream media because it is coupled with extreme and unjustified arrogance and comes from a privileged place (academia) that is supposed to be something else than it actually is — just as the media is supposed to be something else. Where can we turn for real information and debate? Yes, websites like this one, but all the more reason to try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

        • Bart Gruzalski
          June 15, 2016 at 13:07

          Michael and Joe.

          I do much appreciate your comment Joe. When I read something on the site and I give myself the assignment to make an accurate comment, whether the article is grand or crap, it’s like I’m at a professional meeting plugging away. It is good when an author offers citations for alleged facts. It would even be better if authors were required to reply back. Obviously the professor above chose not to so his article floats on a lot of hot air (but he’s a professor of communication? So?)


          • Joe Tedesky
            June 15, 2016 at 16:02

            Bart, from my memory I recall that Jim DiEugenio, Ray McGovern, and Coleen Rowley may at times correspond with this comment section. I also like when the author contributes to the conversation. Your idea is a good one, also I like reading your comments. You add to this site a lot of relevance and that is something we all need more of…thanks JT

          • Sfomarco
            June 15, 2016 at 16:34

            This article was probably offered to CN by Gitlin’s syndicate. Gitlin probably doesn’t monitor comments where his pieces are published, and if he were required to, he would would demand addtl compensation.

          • June 16, 2016 at 02:51

            I heartily agree, Bart. I was going to make the same suggestion myself.

        • Joe Tedesky
          June 15, 2016 at 13:52

          I hear you, Michael. Please continue.

    • Bart Gruzalski
      June 15, 2016 at 11:06

      Michael Morrissey, well said. I wonder what the professor will say to that? I’ve decided to send the professor an open letter:

      Dear Professor Todd Gitlin, As a professor of the communication arts I’m sure you are well versed in how to get a message across as well as all the bells and whistles a good communicator can use. I’m confident you are a heavy hitter, so I assume you (as I do) welcome criticism on what you write.

      The initial problem I have with your piece comes at the very beginning: “Conspiracy theories – suspicions without evidence.” You MUST know that this is an inaccurate definition of “conspiracy theories.” The online definition of “conspiracy theory” is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.” Notice that evidence does not any role in this definition. “Suspicions without evidence” seems better a definition for a kind of paranoia.

      Your first criticism of Trump was your interpretation of what he means when he says things like “Something else in mind… Can’t believe it… There’s something going on… Maybe he doesn’t want to get it… People cannot believe… A lot of people think… These are Trump’s characteristic high-frequency whistles…” He’s just pointing out, with Trumpian rhetorical skill, that Obama’s refusal to point to “radical Islamic terrorists” as the culprits. Trump “can’t believe it,” Obama must “have something else in mind,” “maybe he doesn’t want to get it.” Nothing weird about any of that, is there?

      Now you peg Trump as a fascist. You really should be careful with the various words pointing to fascism. You write: “the truth that matters, in all fascist and para-fascist movements, is the truth that the savior-masters have unearthed.” Trump does not identify himself as a savior–if he believed that he would have told us, given his habit of tooting his own horn. Furthermore, he never says he’s discovered the truth; rather that he’s expressing what a lot of people already know.

      Shortly you are going to mention the grassy knoll and the “false flag.” So I assume you believe that Oswald killed Kennedy and that we were attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin and so were forced to fight back, and that became the Vietnam War. Frankly I don’t know anybody who thinks that the Gulf of Tonkin so-called “incident” was not a false flag.

      Next: “I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque?” That was a skillful way of slamming Obama for not going to the funeral of Justice Scalia. I would have said, and so will, that maybe Obama didn’t go was because he had a conflicting tee time.

      Now you really bash away, calling Trump a “serial liar.” First, can you reference any lies that Trump has said? Maybe you could have one of your graduate students put together a collection and then you and that person could put up a piece on Consortiumnews entitled “The many lies of Donald Trump.” The only identifiable liar among the three (Clinton, Sanders and Trump) is Clinton who is known to be a pathological liar. Since you are a professor of communication skills, which includes journalism, you probably remember that Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Berstein fame, said on CNN that Clinton has had such a “difficult relationship with the truth” for quite some time that she now has become a “specialist” in fudging facts. “Why has she become a kind of specialist?” Bernstein rhetorically asked. “It has to do I think with the peculiarity of the Clinton situation. It had partly to do with the history of Bill Clinton and women in which she’s had to defend him. It’s been very difficult to do with the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

      Please put some Trump lies in a reply to this comment and please add whatever references you have for each so that readers can confirm for themselves.

      I’ve enjoyed analyzing your article and writing this comment. Reminds me of the good ole days in academia.

      • Anon
        June 15, 2016 at 14:53

        “Furthermore, he never says he’s discovered the truth; rather that he’s expressing what a lot of people already know.”

        Trumps off-the-cuff stuff is like he’s consumed (if not fully digested) the attitudes and beliefs of his imagined (fairly broad) audience, and is representing them, intermingled with his own, in a streaming, broken-mosaic dialogue: what I know, what I think, what THEY think, what I may not know but a lot of THEM think, which may be correct, or may not, but in summary, here’s what I know, take it to the bank.

      • J'hon Doe II
        June 16, 2016 at 21:25

        Bart Gruzalski, would you analyze this piece.. ?

        Iran-Contra’s ‘Lost Chapter’

        By Robert Parry (A Special Report)
        June 30, 2008

        As historians ponder George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency, they may wonder how Republicans perfected a propaganda system that could fool tens of millions of Americans, intimidate Democrats, and transform the vaunted Washington press corps from watchdogs to lapdogs.


    • Secret Agent
      June 17, 2016 at 09:07

      For years now it’s been clear that the establishment narritive is BS. The purpose of BS is not to deceive anyone but to conceal the BS#*tters real intention.

      Since by now millions of people in the west know they are being fed BS they struggle to find out that the real agenda is. Some theories that come out of this struggle are nuts but many others are close to the truth.

      Why does the NSA spy on everyone?
      Google William Binney

      Why does Washington seem intent on restarting the Cold War with Russia and China?
      Google Aurther McCoy

      Why is Washington intent on the destruction of Syria?
      Google Seymor Hersh the redirection.

      What is the true meaning of globalization ?

      What’s the true meaning of American leadership?, and exceptionalism?

      Add it all up and it looks like Washington is chasing a global empire. But you can’t tell the voters that so you have to BS.

      Google On Bullshit, and you will get it.

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