Kathryn S. Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, has soberly studied what she sees as an understandable American impulse toward conspiracy theories.
Of front-running Republican candidate Donald Trump, Olmsted this week expressed a sense of intrigue at his penchant to be “outrageous and vocal.”
Trump “seems to be breaking all the rules in electoral politics,” she said in a phone interview. “One of the rules he is breaking is, you don’t spout conspiracy theories.”
Trump is undeniably a mainstream politician now that he’s winning Republican presidential primaries. He’s made so many quick, unsupported claims, his war against the GOP “establishment” sounds to skeptics like a war against established reality.
In a debate last September, he declared autism an “epidemic” and told of how “just the other day” an unidentified 2-year-old child had a vaccine, then “got very very sick” and “now is autistic.” Physician Ben Carson — who later dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump — felt compelled to note how studies show no correlation between immunization and autism.
Denying a Trump-branded “theory” can be easy work for its targets. Five years ago, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Trump looked humiliated as comedian Seth Meyers and President Barack Obama ridiculed his efforts to raise doubts about the president’s true birthplace.
Olmsted says, real-life secret operations and government cover-ups — revealed after the fact — help fuel conspiracist views and prod citizens to search for the “real” story.
Faith in the story can be stubborn. Trump exploits this more regularly than other mainstream politicians, who evoke the potency of sinister forces when it suits them. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton famously used the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” when her presidential spouse was under siege.
Olmsted notes in her 2009 book, “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11,” that Bill Clinton told friend Webster Hubbell before appointing him associate attorney general: “I want you to find the answers to two questions for me. One, who killed JFK? And two, are there UFOs?” Clinton was “dead serious,” Hubbell wrote in a 1997 memoir.
The difference between this and Trump’s conspiracy statements? The ex-president “didn’t campaign on that and didn’t say it publicly,” Olmsted said.
“Trump, as in so many things, is different.”
Trump has dropped the Obama “birther” stuff, though he sought to raise similar suspicion about fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s birth in Canada and his eligibility to run.
Regarding 9/11, Trump last month clearly excited self-proclaimed “truthers” by vowing that when he’s president, “you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center.” Last year, he claimed to have seen “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrate after the attacks.
And when Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump suggested without evidence that the Mexican government was using Pope Francis as a frontman: “I think Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”
A critic of Trump’s immigration stance, the pontiff laughed off the claim — perhaps as if someone suggested he wasn’t really born in Argentina.