Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
In 2020, America is facing a deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, and devastating wildfires. In this context, Trump is searching for an effective campaign message against Biden. What is happening in America right now that would convince people to re-elect the sitting president?
Trump has decided to answer this question by making things up.
In an interview on Monday night with Fox News' Laura Ingraham, Trump claimed that Biden is controlled by "people that are in the dark shadows." When Ingraham pressed for details, things got even weirder. Trump said that the same people that are pulling Biden's strings flew a plane full of "thugs" to DC to disrupt the Republican National Convention:
TRUMP: They are people that are on the streets, they're people that are controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend. And in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that. They're on a plane.
INGRAHAM: Where is - where is this?
TRUMP: I'll tell you sometime, but it's under investigation right now. But they came from a certain city, and this person was coming to the Republican National Convention. And there were like seven people on the plane like this person, and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage.
The story, on its face, makes no sense. If you were part of a secret conspiracy to disrupt a political convention, why would you dress conspicuously in "black uniforms" and take over an entire plane?
By Tuesday, Trump repeated the claim but changed a major plot point. No longer was this a plane coming to DC to disrupt the Republican National Convention. Now, the plane of thugs was flying from DC to someplace else.
A person was on a plane, said there were about six people like that person, more or less, and what happened is the entire plane filled up with the looters, the anarchists, the rioters, people that obviously were looking for trouble. The person felt very uncomfortable on the plane... This was a first-hand account of a plan going from Washington to wherever...
Trump appears to have been inspired by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). In an interview on Fox & Friends last Friday, Paul discussed how, on his way back from Trump's convention speech on the White House lawn, he was shouted out by a group of protesters.
Paul said he had a "feeling" that the people shouting at him were from "out of town" and "paid" to attack him. (Video of the incident shows that none of the protesters touched Paul).
My feeling is that there is interstate criminal traffic being paid for across state lines, but you won't know it unless you arrest them. Otherwise, you just think oh, these are the -- you know, some normal hoodlums from a big city. I promise you that at least some of the members and the people who attacked us were not from D.C. They flew here on a plane, they've all got fresh, new clothes, and they were paid to be here.
...They were inciting a riot, and they would have killed us had the police not been there.
They all need to be arrested. And I'm not saying forever, but they need to be arrested, questioned. They need to say where are you staying? And the bills need to be subpoenaed by a judge to say who paid for your bill, how did you get here on a plane, and staying in a fancy hotel. And yet, you're acting like a criminal. Something's going on here, and it's much bigger than people think.
Shortly after Trump's interview with Ingraham, Trump's campaign tweeted a video of Paul's interview.
The most powerful man in the world parrots Facebook conspiracy theories
As NBC's Ben Collins notes, Trump and Paul are both parroting a Facebook conspiracy that circulated widely on the platform earlier this summer. One viral post claimed that a dozen members of Antifa "dressed head-to-toe in black" landed in Boise, Idaho, looking to cause trouble.
The rumor was circulated so widely, Idaho police responded with Facebook post assuring people it was "not accurate." The Idaho Statesman wrote a lengthy article debunking the conspiracy.
In June, similar conspiracy theories circulated in at least 41 cities, prompting many people to contact local law enforcement. No actual threat from Antifa ever materialized.
Embracing conspiracy theories is not new for Trump. He rose to political prominence pushing the birther conspiracy theory against Barack Obama. What is new is that Trump has succeeded in convincing the entire Republican Party to embrace or tolerate his approach. And he now has the ability to marshall the resources of the federal government to bolster his outrageous claims.
The conspiracy spin cycle
Trump is mainstreaming conspiracy theories that originate on social media. Once Trump speaks, social media helps amplify and legitimize Trump's claims. Tuesday on Twitter, a viral post claims that Rand Paul has will "SUBPOENA ANTIFA plane records."
Callesto is not a journalist — he describes himself as a "Digital Real Estate Manager" — and there is no indication that Rand Paul said anything about this on Tuesday. Regardless, Antifa is not an actual organization. That didn't stop the tweet from being retweeted 23,000 times in less than 8 hours. Images of the tweet are also circulating widely on Facebook.
Your tax dollars at work
The difference between 2016 and 2020 is that Trump now has the ability to use the power of the federal government to bolster his conspiracy theories. On Monday, the same day Trump began claiming Antifa thugs were being flown into American cities, Trump announced "the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security would open a joint-operation center to 'investigate violent left-wing civil unrest.'"
That night, the acting Director of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolfe, said law enforcement was looking to arrest the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This year, the FBI has deemed racially-motivated right-wing extremists, including white supremacists, to be a "national threat priority" on par with "foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS." According to an analysis by the centrist think tank CSIS, "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020." While there are violent left-wing extremists, they are a much smaller part of the problem.
Nevertheless, even before Monday's announcement, the Trump administration emphasized "left-wing extremists significantly more than the threat from right-wing extremists." What's driving the government's approach is not data or concern for public safety, but Trump's conspiracy-fueled politics.