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President Donald Trump has been known to dabble in conspiracy theories — be it that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya, that global warming is a hoax created by China, or that Bill and/or Hillary Clinton had child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein murdered in prison.
But his latest whopper — that his political opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is secretly being controlled by a roving band of black-clad violent extremists who like to fly on commercial airlines — is more than just another conspiracy theory. It’s also disturbingly reminiscent of a disinformation tactic commonly deployed by dictators around the world to discredit legitimate political opposition.
On Monday, Trump told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham a wild story he’d heard about a supposed plane full of “thugs” who had traveled together on a commercial flight to an unnamed American city to stage protests during the Republican National Convention. These same thugs, in Trump’s telling, are secretly pulling Biden’s strings from the “dark shadows.”
These are “people that you’ve never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows,” Trump said. “They’re 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.”
The president wouldn’t offer any more specifics because he said the whole incident is under investigation — another claim for which there’s no public evidence — but added “a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage.”
It’s unclear if Trump is referring to an actual story he was told by the unnamed “somebody” who was supposedly on this plane, or if he’s just repeating old, unproven rumors that have circulated on social media for months about roving gangs of antifa activists flying around the country to terrorize suburban cities.
Either way, the story itself is highly suspect. Even more suspect, though, is the idea that these roving gangs are secretly controlling Joe Biden from the shadows.
That allegation is so far-fetched that it hardly seems worth even addressing as a serious argument. But while the substance of the claim is patently absurd, Trump’s purpose in making such a claim is worth addressing.
Trump is purposely drawing a straight line between the former vice president and violent extremists where one doesn’t exist. His goal, almost certainly, is to stoke fear of a Biden-led America run by lawless radicals, essentially offering the election-friendly message of “vote for me to keep you safe and the country from descending into anarchic chaos.”
This tactic of painting legitimate protesters as terrorists and political opponents as secretly in thrall to extremists is nothing new — in fact, it’s one frequently used by authoritarian leaders around the world.
From Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, strongmen have long used the threat of terrorists at home and abroad — real or imagined — to claim they alone can safeguard their countries.
“It’s an eminently familiar approach and strategy,” said John Carey, an expert on why authoritarian regimes promote conspiracy theories at Dartmouth College. “We’re seeing a politician who’s quick to deploy some of those same rhetorical tools.”
Which, unfortunately, puts Trump in some pretty nasty company — regardless of how slapdash his entree into that community was. “Most strongmen come up with more coherent conspiracy theories,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), formerly a top State Department official for human rights and democracy, “so that would be an insult to strongmen.”
Why authoritarians use conspiracy theories
There’s a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, released this year, in which political scientists Julien Giry and Doğan Gürpınar outline exactly why dictators like to promote such obvious and dangerous falsehoods.
“Conspiracy theories are used as propaganda, allowing regimes to identify and denounce perceived enemies and silence political opponents,” they write. “In authoritarian contexts, conspiratorial rhetoric used by the regimes is expedient for mobilizing masses, reinforcing incumbent structures of power and authority, and assuring the loyalty of the people. Conspiracy theories are used to reaffirm the dominant and established values of an ingroup while identifying and subsequently portraying outsiders in a negative light.”
It’s discomforting to acknowledge, but that’s precisely what Trump was doing in the Ingraham interview. By saying there was plane full of thugs willing to unleash violence and secretly control his political opponent, Trump hoped baselessly tarnishing Biden would rally his supporters behind him, the self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate. It might also put the Democratic candidate on the defensive, forcing him to respond to the allegations, thereby breathing more life into the conspiracy theory.
Dartmouth’s Carey said dictators use this play when they want to shift focus away from problems they can’t solve. For Trump, that would be his inability to stop the coronavirus from raging or protests from continuing. “It’s a standard approach usually in response to criticisms,” he told me. “In a way, it’s an acknowledgment of those criticisms by pushing a ‘well, things could be worse if my opponent were in charge’ narrative.”
It’s a dastardly authoritarian design by Trump, but one that has ample global precedent.
Trump is following a horrifying decades-long tradition
What Trump did in that Ingraham interview may be quite new for him, but it’s old news in some of the world’s troubled spots.
In 2016, a coup led by factions within Turkey’s military failed to depose Erdoğan. Since then he’s blamed nearly everyone — from the United States to a longtime political opponent — for plotting to depose him. The dictator has found that language helpful for consolidating power and cracking down on domestic and foreign dissent, going so far as to say the pope was part of an “evil front” for recognizing the Armenian genocide Turkey has long denied perpetrating.
“Some circles, at home and abroad, are at a junction,” Erdoğan said in 2016. “They will either side with us, or with terrorists. There is no middle way.”
Throughout the Syrian civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said anyone fighting to remove him from power is a terrorist. To bolster his point, Assad did the unthinkable: He actually released hundreds of terrorists from prison so he could claim there were terrorists opposing him. That move, among others, destabilized Syria and the broader region, leading Assad in 2014 to encourage the Obama administration to bomb his opponents harder because they were all terrorists.
And Hungary’s Orbán has used the fear of extremists to stifle immigration to his country. “Of course it’s not accepted, but the factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants,” he told Politico in 2015, shortly after a terrorist attack in Paris. “The majority of our leaders in the West deny the fact.”
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp reported three years later, Orbán purposely rode a growing sense of unease with migrants in Hungary to power — and has since fomented the public’s fear to gain more and more control over the country, decimating its democracy in the process.
“Orbán saw a political opportunity in rising public anxiety about migration. His rhetoric began to focus almost monomaniacally on migrants and the threat Muslim immigration posed to Europe’s Christian identity and culture,” he wrote. “While Hungary no longer faces a large influx of refugees, Orbán hasn’t slowed down the anti-migrant rhetoric. If anything, he’s stepped it up. Billboards around the country hyped up fears of ‘illegal migration’ during the 2018 election,” and state-run media outlets “relentlessly cover reports of migrant crime and violence in Hungary and other European countries.”
The common theme here is authoritarians claiming opponents are violent enemies to gain or consolidate power through fear. Srdja Popovic, who was a leader of the movement to oust Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević in 2000, was very familiar with this tactic when asked about it in 2011. “Ah yes, the conspiracy theories of dictators. The language hasn’t changed in 20 years — terrorists, junkies, foreign mercenaries, traitors,” he told the Washington Post.
With Trump’s comments on Monday night, it can safely be said the language now hasn’t changed for 30 years.
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