Donald Trump, Conspiracy Theorist

A conspiratorial vibe is central to Trump's campaign message.


Since Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death this weekend, conspiracy theorists have muttered amongst themselves that some sort of foul play may have been involved. Yesterday, Donald Trump added fuel to the conspiracy theorists' fire. 

Radio host Michael Savage asked Trump about the notion that Scalia may have been murdered, and Trump responded: "It's a horrible topic, they say they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow. I can't give you an answer." It's not an outright endorsement of the conspiracy theory, but he's not dismissing it either. Which means he's letting it live and grow. 

Trump has a history of this sort of thing. In addition to cozying up to popular conspiracy theorists on their radio shows, he generated media attention for himself in 2011 by playing to the birther crowd and its nutty ideas about President Obama's birth certificate and qualifications to be president. "You are not allowed to be a president if you're not born in this country. Right now, I have real doubts," he said. Trump made a big show of sending private investigators to Hawaii to look into the president's background, warning that they might reveal "one of the greatest cons in the history of politics and beyond."

On the same day, the White House released President Obama's birth certificate. Trump gave himself credit for the release, saying he was proud, "because I've accomplished something nobody has been able to accomplish."

All this happened as Trump was flirting with running for president on the GOP ticket. Ultimately, he chose not to run in 2012, but before he opted to stay out of the race, he rose as high as second place in preliminary polling.

You can think of his 2011 birther escapade as a kind of test run for his 2016 campaign. Indeed, the lesson Trump seems to have taken from that episode is that it served as a path to political success. "I don't think I went overboard. Actually, I think it made me very popular… I do think I know what I'm doing," he said in 2013.

So it's no surprise that he's now playing to the Scalia truthers now, nor that he is flirting with a kind of 9/11 trutherism when he accuses the Bush administration of having knowingly lied in order to push the country into war in Iraq, as he did in Saturday's GOP debate.

Now, as Byron York wrote on Twitter yesterday, you can reasonably interpret that charge as a general nod toward the idea that the Bush administration hyped the war effort beyond what the actual evidence could support, that the case for the war was, well, trumped up and ultimately misleading, built on insufficient proof, overconfidence, and mistaken assumptions. But Trump's attack also leaves room for more radical, less grounded conspiracies about Bush and the war as all, and I suspect this is not an accident.  

Indeed, Trump's entire campaign message is built on a kind of conspiracy theory vibe, if not a specific conspiracy theory: His basic pitch to voters is that the elites you don't trust have been lying to you, abusing you, refusing to tell you the truth about what's really going on in the country and the way the world really works. And Trump, the straight-shooter, is the only one willing to tell it like it is. He both acknowledging and affirming the conspiracist's outlook on the world. 

Whether or not Trump believes any or all of this himself is largely beside the point; he has figured out how to exploit it, and has made doing so central to his campaign.