Everyone following the election knows Donald Trump loves conspiracy theories. He was an original birther. He gives voice to anti-vaccine nonsense. He insists thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered on Sept. 11.
It's loathsome, crazy stuff. But Trump's reaction to the murder of nearly 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando demonstrates more than any of his other conspiracy theorizing just how harmful this defect in his thinking can become on the world stage.
On Monday, Trump spun the most bizarre theories about President Obama. On Fox News, Trump described Obama's position vis-a-vis Islamic terrorism this way: "He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it's one or the other and either one is unacceptable." That little insinuation "gets it better than anybody understands" is a kind of license to believe that Obama, in some way, sympathizes with Islamic terrorism.
Trump would later expand like this:
Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can't believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words 'radical Islamic terrorism.' There's something going on. It's inconceivable. There's something going on. [Trump]
Again, semantically, Trump leaves it to his audience to fill in the blanks. They can give his words a meaning that is conventional, and say that somehow Trump is referring to Obama's "politically correct" response to terrorism. Or, that "inconceivable" "something" could be interpreted as saying Obama is a type of sleeper agent. Trump will be asked about these comments for days to come, and you can almost guarantee that he won't disavow the possibility that Obama is some sort of Manchurian candidate of Islamic terrorism.
This is a maliciously stupid belief. And yet, it is a belief that will spread merely because Trump suggested it.
Americans are already getting used to living in separate information bubbles that are formed and malformed by their party affiliation. Now that Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, partisan energies will drive a larger segment of the country to find his ravings credible, or to defend his theories and words. As the campaign moves on, whatever crazed intuitions The Donald has about foreign affairs will be given extra legitimacy because he will be receiving intelligence briefings from the federal government.
Trump has amplified lots of conspiracies about Obama before. Most notably, that Obama wasn't born in America and that the birth certificates showing that he was were forged. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Almost every insane theory about Obama that gains enough traction on message boards ends up amplified by Donald Trump. Like the theory that Obama's biography was written by Bill Ayers. Or that Obama never even went to Columbia. Or that Obama will start a war to win re-election. Trump has implied that Obama made secret deals with the Saudis to keep gas prices temporarily low going into the 2012 election.
The gas deal theory is perhaps the most incredible to contemplate, because it may reflect Trump's view about what presidents can do. He may really believe that an American president can easily make secret deals with foreign governments to control the price of the world's most important commodity. In other words, Trump may believe in conspiracy theories because he wants to be the top conspirator.
Trump has an uncanny power to poison the well of information. Cable news channels, in their crippling fear of losing ratings to each other, just broadcast his rallies and speeches uninterrupted, and leave themselves little ability to report correctly on his record. This dynamic created by Trump "thinking out loud" and "saying what people are already thinking" can only become worse if he becomes president.
Instead of challenging a sitting president or a candidate from the other party with false and malicious accusations, a President Trump will be spreading idiotic theories about our allies and enemies. These may spoil our diplomatic efforts, or even the several war efforts that he will inherit from Obama in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. And once again, because America finds itself in competition and rivalries with other states, there will be a natural instinct for Americans to side with their president, no matter how irresponsible he is. Trump doubles down on his theories whenever they generate a big response on social media. And everything a president does or says generates a big response.
This is only the beginning.