“I have broken more Elton John records, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No we’ve broken a lot of records. We’ve broken virtually every record. Because you know, look I only need this space. They need much more room. For basketball, for hockey and all of the sports, they need a lot of room. We don’t need it. We have people in that space. So we break all of these records. Really we do it without like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth. Right? The brain, more important than the mouth, is the brain. The brain is much more important.”
- Actual quote from a July 2018 unofficial campaign rally in Montana at which Donald Trump described things, as usual according to many fans, “as they are”.
Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist, rich buffoon (inherited wealth), almost remarkably unsuccessful businessman whose main business strategy has been pushing for bankruptcies (“I do play with the bankruptcy laws – they are very good for me”), reality TV celebrity and 45th president of the US, since a large number of people apparently thought that would be a good idea. According to some, including himself, he is also “the chosen one” and the “King of Israel”, something that – apparently this needs to be pointed out – does not make electing him a better idea. Now, we are not going to try to provide anything resembling a comprehensive portrait of Donald Trump here. In particular, we will not cover his incompetence and ignorance (which he is proud of, remember); his moral corruptness; his feeble, rambling, vindictive incoherence; lack of integrity; infantile delusions; strategically problematic (idiotic) political decisions and visions (for an old one, here is his 2015 explanation for how he would fight IS, which reminds one of this); his total disconnection from reality; hypocrisy; striking character flaws (even those that have led to actual deaths) or his pandering to worrisome sentiments in the electorate. Heck, we won’t even comment (much) on his systematic (or, rather, mostly completely random) lying – a quick, outdated tally here – and well-established complete disregard for the truth, his fabrications (anyone still remember his claims about people in New Jersey cheering 9/11 and subsequent claim that a media conspiracy is suppressing footage and citing Infowars as supporting source?), complete lack of a bullshit detector and inability to distinguish reliable sources from InfoWars or random, genuine nazis on Twitter. Donald Trump is, in short, incompetent as a president, as well as generally incompetent as a human being (this description is pretty apt). What we will do instead, though, is to give a few, briefly described examples of Trump’s actual promotion of pseudoscience and (some of many) conspiracy theories. Even these will be kept at a superficial level, however: others write about these issues more comprehensively and eloquently than we do.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
- Donald Trump making a surprising discovery in 2017.
That said, it should be emphasized that Trump encapsulates, perhaps better than any other politician, the characteristics of a post-truth political rhetoric – the appeal to narratives, emotions and personality, and utter disregard for details, analysis, evidence or accuracy, as well as a tendency to treat facts, evidence and science as inherently political and dismissing those who disagree with him as having ulterior and nefarious motives. His tendency to label facts he doesn’t like “fake news” is an obvious case in point (an early, pre-presidential meltdown example is here), a strategy that not only reflects an attempt to discredit those whose claims he doesn’t like without having to engage with the content of what they say, but also serves to sow confusion about what fake news, and the threats posed by fake news, really are – thereby further enabling propaganda and casual rejection of inconvenient facts as political attacks to be dismissed among his followers. The rage he expressed when he was fact-checked on Twitter is also illustrative in this respect; Donald Trump has his own facts, and if reality doesn’t agree, then favoring reality is a form of bias – Twitter is “silencing” him, he reported (on Twitter).
Nor can we avoid mentioning Donald Trump’s completely uncritical reliance for information on sycophants who tell him exactly what he wants to hear – often by repeating claims Trump himself has made up a bit before. This is, needless to say, not a quality most sane people would be looking for in a president. Trump’s supporters, however, tend to accept any conspiracy theory, no matter how incoherent and wild-eyed, Trump pushes, giving the whole dynamics a cult-like tinge. (Such as when right-wing pastor Curt Landry told his viewers that they should listen to Trump and not medical experts on the COVID-19 outbreak, or Kenneth Copeland telling his fans that the Holy Spirit is guiding “king” (!) Trump through the coronavirus crisis.)
“All I know is what’s on the Internet”
- Donald Trump offering a fitting campaign slogan after being confronted with the fact that his claim that a demonstrator who attempted to storm the stage at a rally in Dayton, Ohio “has ties to ISIS” was based on a fake video.
The Deep State Conspiracy
Trump is setting out to dismantle every single aspect of the government that isn’t solely dependent on the President’s word, which is perhaps not, in itself, lunacy (just scary). His followers tend to cheer him on, because they tend to confuse division of powers and checks on power with deep state conspiracies. That, of course, puts the lunacy on them rather than on Trump. But Trump also seems to share those lunatic conspiracy theories, and that clearly qualifies him for the “deranged conspiracy kook” title.
Among the worst techniques the deep state employs, according to Trump, is the electoral college, which is used by the establishment to steal the election from the people. In 2012 he even called for “revolution in this country” (while under the misapprehension that Romney won the popular vote). Of course, Trump actually believes that he won the popular vote in 2016, too: “[i]n addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”. Trump’s own incoherent claims, attempted policy decisions and ideas about voter fraud, are a topic we need to set aside here, however.
Not all the deep state conspiracies are particularly deep, though. For instance, as Trump sees it, Obama’s deliberate efforts to import drug lords to the US to help the Democratic party, or his efforts to relocate Syrian refugees to Republican states were rather blatant, if not particularly non-ridiculous – though you should probably keep in mind the quality of the minds to which this sort of nonsense is addressed. (Mostly the same audience who’d put faith in his commitment to fight the War on Christmas – the standard for manufactroversies against which all other manufactroversies must be judged – against, apparently, himself.)
Back in the days, Trump was a major promoter of birtherism, relying for instance on an unnamed “extremely credible source” and the ramblings of criminal Joe Arpaio, whom Trump as a president later pardoned, falsely claiming for instance that president Obama spent millions of dollars “to keep this quiet” and that Obama’s grandmother confessed to witnessing his birth in Kenya. Accordingly, Trump declared himself a “proud” birther, noting that he (Trump) “went to a great college, the best” and “was a very good student” and “a very smart guy.” Trump has even claimed that Obama himself “said he was born in Kenya” and promised to write a “very successful book” laying out his birther theory. In 2012 Trump promised to give $5 million to a charitable cause in exchange for documents that would prove that Obama was not born abroad. He did not follow up on this promise either.
Other birther talking points made by Donald Trump include claiming:
- That a Hawaii official was murdered in a birth certificate cover-up
- That Obama’s birth name was Barry Soetoro (a common birther idea, which is so stupid that it beggars belief, even when the contrast class is other conspiracy theorists)
- That Obama never attended Columbia.
- That Obama was a “terrible student” when he attended Columbia
- That Obama is secretly a Muslim or sympathetic to radical Islam, and that his administration is secretly running guns through Bengazi to ISIS – Obama is, in short, not only a Muslim but an ISIS sympathizer. Not that many of his fans would ever think that there was a difference.
In fairness, Trump also pushed birther conspiracy theories about Marco Rubio.
Otherwise, Trump’s disregard for the Constitution probably needs a brief mention. According to his son Eric Trump, conservatives can trust Donald Trump to protect constitutional principles, but insofar as he cited his father’s engagement with the imaginary War on Christmas as his sole piece of evidence, few minimally reasonable people would be much swayed (“This is a guy who jumps up and down every time somebody says, ‘holiday tree.’ No, it’s not a holiday tree guys, it’s a Christmas tree,” said Eric Trump, who seems to have as little conception of what the Consitution actually is as his father.) Donald Trump has otherwise vowed to change libel laws to sue journalists who write “horrible” articles about him, urged the Federal Communications Commission to fine a media commentator who criticized him and urged Bill Gates to begin “closing that Internet up in some way” (no, you wouldn’t suspect him of knowing how the Internet works, would you?), while dismissing concerns about free speech rights: “Somebody will say, ‘oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.” In line with a typical fundie wingnut understanding of religious freedom, Trump has also called for a ban on Muslims from entering the country (not only immigration) and government surveillance of mosques, even suggesting that the government should begin tracking all Muslims in databases.
Denialism and general view of science
“Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, do they do a number – that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune – you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me – it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right – who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners – now it used to be three, now it’s four – but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years – but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”
- Donald Trump apparently establishing his scientific credentials while talking about the Iran nuclear deal (note that the whole thing is a single sentence. Immanuel Kant used long sentences, too.)
Donald Trump vacillates between claiming to know science better than the scientists and rejecting science and dismissing scientists as airheads who promote fake news (which seems to have become the regular conservative platform). He is, however, always ready to take them on (some examples here). So for instance, when he claimed some golf course he owns was also the site of a historic Civil War battle, and real historians told him this was not the case, Trump was ready to dismiss their objections in a manner that … some of us have become rather familiar with: “How would they know that? Were they there?”
“I know much about climate change. I’d be – received environmental awards.”
- Donald Trump on his climate science credentials.
Trump is, predictably, a global warming denialist, and so much so that he at one point even cut a “life-saving” program that helps children specifically because said program mentioned climate change, a term he has banned from being used in his administration. More importantly, his administration has made great efforts to eliminate environmental protections and prevent government-funded agencies from doing any scientific research on climate-related issues and limiting the extent to which government and governmental agencies can rely on, or even refer to, science in their decision making (we’ve already covered Scott Pruitt, and it was Trump who appointed him, together with industry lobbyists like Robert Phalen, who complained that the the air is “too clean” in America, after he fired all the scientists from the EPA).
As for his own views, Trump says of global warming that “a lot of it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, OK? It’s a hoax, a lot of it” because if you repeat it three times it becomes true.
Apparently, the idea of global warming is merely the result of scientists “having a lot of fun.” On other occasions, the whole “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”. After all, conspiracy theorists are not deterred by contradictions. What matters is that his opponents worry about global warming, and his opponents include both scientists and the Chinese, in addition to the Democrats. Trump was naturally critical of Obama’s talk about climate change: “he’s talking about climate change. I call it weather. I call it weather. You know, the weather changes [no, of course he doesn’t get the difference – what did you really expect?].” He did admit that “[m]aybe there’s a little bit of change, I don’t happen to believe it’s manmade.” (One might wonder what he thought there might be a little bit of change to insofar as he rejects the distinction between climate and weather, but we are very sure there would be no point in asking.) Then he repeated the oft-repeated utter falsehood that scientists in the 1970s said that the earth was cooling.
He is apparently also an ozone depletion denialist. “If I take hair spray, and if I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer? I say, no way, folks. No way, OK? No way,” said Trump, apparently unaware that gases sprayed inside will eventually get outside or in general how doors and windows work (unless he was planning on storing said hair spray in his lungs).
Trump is, moreover, an asbestos denialist. In his book The Art of the Comeback (which he is, in fairness, unlikely ever to have read), he denied any association between asbestos exposure and cancer, stating instead that the asbestos scare was a conspiracy by politicians afraid of the asbestos-pushing mob. It is notable that Trump was still pushing asbestos denialism in 2018 via his EPA director Scott Pruitt, who announced that the EPA would cease evaluating asbestos hazards in the environment. Meanwhile, Trump does believe, falsely, that wind turbines cause cancer. (Later rants about wind turbines, including wind turbine “fumes”, have been even less coherent).
Trump’s education policies would be worth a separate chapter, starting with him tapping Jerry Falwell jr. for his education panel and appointing anti-public education activist Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.
Trump has, on several occasions, expressed sympathies with the antivaccine movement and promoted antivaccine conspiracy theories. His long antivaccine history (up until 2015) is recounted here. Trump has, after casually asserting that “I’ve gotten to be pretty familiar with the subject” (false), claimed that vaccinations lead to autism and, in particular, that autism comes from a “monster shot” – “have you ever seen the size of these inoculations? You can’t pump that much fluid into a little baby’s body,” said Trump, who has evidently never seen the size of the inoculations. He has elsewhere pushed the “too many, too soon” myth, which tends to be the favored gambit among antivaxx activists at present (some of Trump’s defenders seem to have missed that dogwhistle). As he put it in 2007: “When I was growing up, autism wasn't really a factor. And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic [it isn’t]. Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it [he doesn’t] because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’ve giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.” And no: he doesn’t seem to have changed his mind on the issue – indeed, his 2014 update was that his theory was “being proven right about massive vaccinations – the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.” He wasn’t, but then again no one has ever really suspected Trump of really having any clear idea about what’s going on, have they? Meanwhile, Trump campaign spokesperson Elizabeth Emken, a former Executive Director of Autism Speaks, decided to brazenly lie about what Trump was saying to try to make it as palatable as possible both to antivaxxers and to those who rightfully view antivaxxers as dangerous conspiracy theorists.
Like most antivaxxers, Trump doesn’t like being called “anti-vaccine”; according to Trump “I’m all for vaccinations, but I think that when you add all of these vaccinations together and then two months later the baby is so different … I’ve known cases,” which reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how evidence works even if his observational claims were true, which we suspect they aren’t. When Fox host Gretchen Carlson intervened as a voice of reason (!) and informed him to say that most physicians disagree with this position, Trump dismissed the idea in an all too familiar fashion: “Yeah, I know they do. … I couldn’t care less”.
Trump’s foundation, which tends to be stingy with donations, did give $10,000 to Jenny McCarthy’s “charity” Generation Rescue. In 2014, Trump asserted that “If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM.” Of course, he hasn’t quite acted on that promise (and probably doesn’t remember giving it), but in 2017 leading antivaccine conspiracy theorist Robert Kennedy jr. claimed that Trump had asked him to head a “commission on vaccine safety” (a Trump spokesperson confirmed the meeting – Trump has also met Andrew Wakefield – but denied that anything had been decided with regard to the commission).
Trump’s ebola virus reactions in 2015 did not exactly suggest a mind that understands what goes on around him either. His various hunch-based responses to and (often dangerous) takes on Covid-19 are a chapter in itself that we will have to set aside here. (His son Donald jr.’s take on the pandemic is, if possible, even more deranged).
Trump University and the Trump Network
Trump University was a diploma mill at which students could supposedly earn real degrees (on the topic of real estate) from random people Trump himself had never met in exchange for an exorbitant “tuition”. (The institution was basically run independently of him, though he received a cut for allowing them to use his name). The “institution’s” claim to offer degrees was in violation of New York law, and in 2014, the New York Supreme Court held that Trump was personally liable for running an unlicensed school and making false promises through his “university”. In 2016, Judge Curiel ruled that Trump must face a civil trial for fraud and racketeering under RICO. This is the case in which Trump attacked a “Mexican” judge’s ancestry (the judge is from Indiana) because he didn’t like the ruling.
In 2009, Trump “partnered” with the founders of Ideal Health International, a multilevel marketing business, rebranding their pyramid scheme as The Trump Network. Of course, “partnering” really means allowing them to use his name for a steep fee (and appearing in their promotional materials claiming “that was certain to lift thousands of people into prosperity”). The “business” consisted of selling a urine test device with customized vitamins, which is of course pure quackery, properly described as a “naturopathic weight-loss pyramid scheme”). Yes, they do have a quackwatch entry.
A selection of other conspiracy theories promoted by Trump
In 2015 Trump claimed that Muslims in California knew about the San Bernardino shooters and their plans but did nothing to stop them or turn them in, as part of a general campaign against Muslims in America (“they hate us so much,” says Trump, but apparently we still have to figure out why).
In 2016 he at least expressed some sympathy with conspiracy theories over Justice Scalia’s death, and the same year he also promised to reveal the truth about 9/11 if elected president. He has previously promoted Vince Foster murder conspiracies. Now, it’s not that he necessarily places any credence in this kind of nonsense, but his willingness to pander to the ridiculousness of his fans (like Michael Savage) excellently illustrates his penchant for post-truth techniques and rhetoric. He did seem more committed to his claim that Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, was linked with the CIA and with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald based on an old photograph that some conspiracy theorists think looks like Rafael. After all, Ted Cruz was at that point a competitor, and the more of a threat you seem to be, the more willing people like Trump will be to believe the most unhinged and unfounded bullshit about you. (After Cruz had dropped out, Trump said he never actually believed the Oswald connection, which may or may not be true but in any case wouldn’t make the accusation any more reasonable.)
On multiple occasions, Trump has entertained audiences with a chain-email-like tale of an American general in the Philippines who supposedly solved the country’s “tremendous” terrorism problem by massacring a large group of Muslims with bullets washed in pigs’ blood. Apparently the story brings forth memories of a time when American leaders were “tough” and not politically correct or concerned with rules against committing war crimes – rules Trump has declared that he wants to change. Of course, to many people the major worry with Trump’s claims might not be the fact that the story isn’t true, but it certainly isn’t. When the story was called into question, Trump urged his supporters to trust his historical expertise, falsely claiming that “the press was saying it was a rumor; it’s not a rumor, it’s a true story.”
He also said that the IRS was auditing him because he is a “strong Christian”. We seriously doubt that Trump believes that he is a strong Christian, but given Trump’s general mindset it is hard to know. (He has at least admitted that his relationship with the evangelical right is based on a deal: he grants them power, and they refrain from criticizing him.)
In 2014 Trump claimed that Net Neutrality was a conspiracy by Obama to attack conservative media. Given our assessment of the extent to which Trump understands net neutrality, we don’t really doubt that he believes this. As a president, one of the first things he did was to ensure that net neutrality was gutted, to the detriment of us all.
There is a 2016 list of (58) conspiracy theories until then pushed by Donald Trump here, though keep in mind that there have been plenty new ones since then. There is an instructive commentary on how Trump’s political persona is founded on conspiracy theories here.
Counterpoints to our assessment
“I’m, like, a smart person”
- Donald Trump explaining why he doesn’t need the daily intelligence briefings his predecessors have received.
On the other hand, Donald Trump has on several occasions assured the world that he is “a very stable genius”. To prove his point, he has repeatedly challenged people to compare IQ tests. So there is that.
Remember also that he is very humble; indeed, he is “much more humble than you would understand.”
Diagnosis: You probably don’t need us for this part.