Conspiracy theories are nothing new in America, but for perhaps the first time, the country’s chief executive is a big fan. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered. If 2016 was the year conspiracies started to go mainstream on the right, 2017 was the year they exploded across the spectrum, with the hunt for clues tying Trump to Russia creating a cottage industry feeding left-wing obsessions as well. Below are just a few of the most prominent conspiracy theories of 2017.
False flags from sea to shining sea
Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones went back to one of his most tried and certainly not true tropes in 2017, claiming the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead was a “false flag” attack. According to the Infowars host, the government perpetrated the attack, an elaborate plan that involved the prison release of former NFL star O.J. Simpson. The same phrase was used to describe the violence in Charlottesville, Va., which included a white supremacist running over protesters with his car. Jones pinned that episode on “Jewish actors.” He has raised the “false flag” canard repeatedly over the years, including in reference to mass shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the Pulse Night Club in Orlando.
In 2015 Trump was interviewed by Jones and proclaimed himself a fan, saying the broadcast had an “amazing” reputation. It was reported in August that chief of staff John Kelly had cut down on the amount of Infowars Trump was reading.
Evil yogurt empire
Another Jones contretemps erupted over his charge that the Chobani yogurt company was responsible for funneling crime, disease and “migrant rapists” to the town of Twin Falls, Idaho. In response to a lawsuit by the company, Jones doubled down, stating that he was going to Idaho with a camera crew to prove the accuracy of his claims. “I’m choosing this as a battle,” said Jones in response to the suit. “On this I will stand, I will win, or I will die.”
Jones folded a month later, settling the lawsuit and apologizing: “On behalf of Infowars, I regret that we mischaracterized Chobani, its employees and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did.”
Trump Tower being wiretapped
The typical progress of conspiracy theories is to start at the fringes of society and work their way into the mainstream, but there was a major exception this year when the president of the United States launched an attack on his predecessor.
“Terrible!” wrote Trump on the morning of March 4. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
When pressed for evidence in the ensuing days, the White House had none. “Everybody acts like President Trump is the one that came up with this idea,” spokesperson Sarah Sanders told ABC News. “There are multiple news outlets that have reported this.” (No outlets had reported it.) Press secretary Sean Spicer then said Obama might have relied on British intelligence services to carry out the surveillance, a claim that was called “utterly ridiculous” by the Brits.
Six months later after numerous investigations that dragged in members of Congress and executive staff, the Justice Department affirmed that it could find no evidence that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower.
The president made another evidence-free claim about millions of people voting illegally in the 2016 election — supposedly for his opponent, although he would have no way of knowing even if the claim were true in the first place. Insisting that he didn’t actually, or honestly, lose the popular vote by 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton, Trump dispatched White House officials to defend his statement and established a commission to look into it. In February, White House staffer Stephen Miller made the rounds on the Sunday shows insisting that fraudulent voting was common knowledge in the Granite State.
“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” said Miller on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s very real. It’s very serious. This morning, on this show, is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence.”
In the months since then, Miller has yet to find the ideal venue to lay out the evidence. The White House’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was also established under the pretense of finding illegal votes, although many critics believe it’s more likely to be used to justify voter suppression. The head of the group, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has pushed unproved theories about election legitimacy and in his own state employs a flawed crosscheck system that could potentially eliminate legitimate voters from rolls.
Near the end of summer, word began to spread among conservative websites and YouTube personalities that groups of anti-fascists (“antifa”) were going to take to the streets on Nov. 4, sparking the United States’ second civil war. October was spent with messages urging Americans to stock up on guns and ammunition in order to fight back against the black-masked hordes that would descend, along with a number of people mocking the fear. In actuality, a group called Refuse Fascism had planned protests in 20 small cities, but instead of armed insurrection, the group called for a “passionate speak-out with music and participatory art.”
No civil war erupted on Saturday, Nov. 4. What happened to the insurrection? According to the same people who promoted the event as a potentially apocalyptic confrontation, it was because the armies of revolutionaries that never existed in the first place were simply too scared of them.
The Earth is still flat
The concept of our planet being flat is certainly not a new one, but it somehow found itself in the headlines in 2017. First was NBA player Kyrie Irving, who spent a year at Duke, stating that he thought the Earth was flat. (Irving later tried to say he was joking but didn’t actually admit to the roundness of the planet.) The rapper B.o.B. attempted to take things to the next level, launching a sketchy GoFundMe in order to raise enough money to prove that the Earth is not round. While they are two of the more famous orb deniers, Irving and B.o.B. aren’t alone — the Flat Earth Society Facebook group has over 100,000 members.
The Trump-Russia Investigation
Right-wing outlets did not have a monopoly on absurd conspiracies in 2017. As legitimate congressional committees and independent counsels investigated potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, a plethora of left-wing theorists burst forth to offer their own interpretations of what was happening. While many voices found themselves with an eager audience, the star of the show was Louise Mensch, a former Conservative member of the British Parliament who built a large following despite difficulty with facts.
“My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for Steve Bannon,” wrote Mensch on Twitter in July. “I am pro-life and take no pleasure in reporting this.” (The Breitbart executive and former White House adviser had not been arrested or executed as of the third week in December.) In April, she stated with certainty that Russia had funded riots in Ferguson, Mo. In May, she published a blog post co-written by Claude Taylor — who uses the Twitter handle @TrueFactsStated — that the formal process of impeaching Trump had begun. The original post had numerous errors about how impeaching a U.S. president works, and Taylor later apologized when it was pointed out they were victims of a hoax.
Despite her affinity for wholesale fabrication, Mensch still found herself published in the New York Times, which sparked a minor civil war between the paper’s newsroom and opinion pages. Her unverified tales also tripped up Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who passed on information from one fabricated report to viewers on CNN, stating that a grand jury had been convened to investigate the 2016 Republican campaign. (There wasn’t one.) 2017 proved that no matter which side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, there’s a conspiracy theorist to match your preferred tastes.
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