WASHINGTON — President Trump will do just about anything to get his daily, hypodermic fix of attention, including the spread of racist tropes and conspiracy theories.

And no, I am not starting a rumor that Trump is secretly a drug addict. It is a metaphor. But if my editors and their fact checkers were all on vacation, encouraging this lie would surely kindle enthusiasm in portions of the left, outrage on the populist right and tut-tutting from centrists concerned about damage to our democracy.

With a large enough dose of mendacity and malice, my fabrication might even go viral.

Michael Gerson mug

Michael Gerson

Instead, I will just engage in my normal, non-viral tut-tutting, thereby aiding Trump’s most recent attention grab — the retweeted implication that a former president was somehow involved in the apparent suicide of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Conspiracy theories are not new to American politics. They were arguably more prevalent and powerful in the past.

Many Americans believed that the Federalists were bought and sold by the British, or that Catholic migration was really papist infiltration, or that a Jewish cabal sought to bring America into World War II.

But contemporary conspiracy theories are different in two ways. First, they are carried widely and instantaneously on the internet, and often on social media that echoes and exaggerates preexisting convictions.

Current technology gives believers in conspiracy theories the illusion that their views are broadly shared. And conspiracy theorists are early adopters of new technologies, making innovation the ally of deceit.

Second, the most prominent and visible American — Donald Trump — regularly employs and legitimizes conspiracy thinking.

Much of the social scientific literature related to conspiracy theories paints their advocates as social outsiders, excluded from political power. But our main problem is not Alex Jones or 8chan; it is a president who is also a self-interested fabulist.

Trump employed conspiracy theories to question Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, and then accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower.

Trump developed conspiracy theories about voter fraud in case he needed to contest an unfavorable outcome in the 2016 election. He cultivated conspiracy theories about the “deep state” in an attempt to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation. He asserted that windmills cause cancer and that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was part of a conspiracy to kill JFK — because, well, he prefers epistemological chaos.

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Sometimes Trump has used conspiratorial thinking to shape perceptions of important issues. He accused the Mexican government of purposely sending criminals and rapists to America. He accuses refugees, against all evidence, of being a “Trojan horse” terrorist threat. The goal of these accusations was clearly to whip up hatred of foreigners and outsiders.

Conspiracy theories are a particularly complex and malignant social challenge.

Studies have found that mere exposure to anti-government conspiracy thinking reduces trust in governmental institutions — even when accusations are refuted by strong evidence. According to one study, just being told about conspiracy theories related to the death of Princess Diana shifted people’s views, without them realizing their views had changed.

This presents a problem for social scientists. Since they can’t even ask questions on this topic without influencing the answers, how do they measure the true influence of conspiracy thinking?

And this presents a problem for journalists, particularly opinion journalists. What if the process of answering Trump’s charges actually serves Trump’s purposes? What if sunlight is actually not the best disinfectant? And yet, doesn’t silence in the face of lies imply concession?

Without fully understanding how to deprive conspiracy theories of oxygen, we have a good idea how they are hurting our political system.

They sometimes have a direct influence on behavior — say, when conspiracy theories about vaccines cause immunization rates to fall.

They distract attention from other important issues — say, when a president promotes a conspiracy theory to change the topic away from gun-related violence.

Conspiracy theories can encourage cynicism and apathy about the political enterprise.

They can undermine democratic dialogue. If our neighbor is wrong, we can try to persuade them. If our neighbor is part of an evil plot, there is no option but to expose and defeat them.

And conspiracy theories can undermine a belief in truth itself. They elevate the arguments that serve your side, no matter how absurd or destructive they become. They honor what is useful above what is real and right.

All this may commend a different response. Rather than refuting specific conspiracy theories, perhaps we should focus on the character of political leaders who employ them. They are liars and enemies of self-government.

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Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson can be reached at michaelgerson@washpost.com.


(30) comments


Why can't this paper put an add reply button by each post?


Has the absence of the Reply button kept you from answering me?

"Do you believe Czeczok is using multiple names, capedcrusader? If so, why do you believe this? If not, why have you asked me if I believe he is using multiple names?"


The left has tried for 3 years to over throw Trump, so I guess when that issued is cleared up, we can start anew but I wouldn't hold my breath. Its a little late to stop now in the middle of three investigations but should they produce nothing we still want to proceed with the impeachment procedures and I agree with that. If Democrats see it that way, they should by all means proceed. You should do what you say if you believe it to be true. I think a majority of Democrats now feel they should proceed.


Well, goodness gracious! If new2 sees the need for impeachment proceedings, let them begin! I guess these past two years and seven months of Democrats voicing their disapproval of Trump has just worn the old HR man down. I thought by now we would all, Democrats and Republicans alike, be anxious for the Trump years to end and to get somebody with decency and a sense of responsibility back into the White House. I did not foresee the astonishing gullibility of Trump's core followers, nor did I foresee the Democrats doing their best to misread the hopes and convictions of the vast majority of the voting public, the centrists. So I would, sad to say, have to think right now it is a 50/50 proposition of whether or not Trump wins again in 2020, though Trump is doing his best to blow up the record continuous economic growth that he inherited. So it looks like a draw for now, but I would say it is beginning to trend against Trump.


Warn down, not by a long shot. I said, if Democrats feel the need and truly believe impeachment is the way to go, please do so, have the power of your conviction. What puzzles me somewhat is the fact you think this guy Trump has a chance at about 50/50. How could a guy as bad as you claim, be at anywhere near 50/50. 95% of the media presents nothing but negative comments on Trump and you give him a 50/50 chance of winning. I think if what you say is true about Trump it should be nearer 30%. I guess he must not be as bad as you and the media project him to be.


That's a good point. He's so terrible and unpopular and evil and racist that he has a very good chance of being reelected.


Well, boys, I can't write a Gerson-length essay on this, nor do I actually have the expertise to do so, but let me give it a fast go:

Trump has, as you know, as you are each a member of it, an obdurate core of loyalists that amount roughly to 35 to 40 percent of the electorate. They may be a distinct minority, given that more than half of American voters say they disapprove of Trump's conduct of the presidency. But they are loyal and can be counted on to come out in droves to vote. That is especially important in low-population rural states, which are traditionally Republican, anyway. The key is the Electoral College. In a state like Wyoming, with just a few hundred thousand population, by virtue of the electoral college, each Wyoming voter's vote counts like 50 or 60 votes in our more populous states. That is why twice in the last 20 years the presidential candidate who lost the popular vote won the presidency. This could be overcome if swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida voted against Trump in 2020. But to do that, the Democrats have to field a candidate who is attractive to a wide range of voters in the middle -- not the most liberal wing of the party. If they don't come up with somebody Democrats in the middle -- and moderate Republicans, for that matter, who despise Trump -- the number of people turning out at the polls to vote Democrat will likely be down considerably. If they don't turn out and Trump wins two or three of those swing states, he will win the presidency again, even though he will lose the popular vote again, almost certainly.


He doesn't appear to be all that worn down. Of course when the most strenuous part of your day is tweeting... I'm continuing to think they have Trump on better meds now. Although we'll probably never find out the truth about those just like his tax returns and his school transcripts that mysteriously disappeared.


Another brilliant column by Mr. Gerson. He has an uncanny talent for cutting through all the b.s. and window dressing and simply and clearly describing the situation we find ourselves in.

Rick Czeczok

You mean like the whole Russian conspiracy that was proved to be fake? Did you know your man Billy Clinton was one of this guys (Epstein) best buddies? He flew on his plane 27 times according to the plains log book? And we all know how Billy like to play now don't we. Now what were you saying about conspiracy's? Now lets start a conversation about Hillary should we. The AG's report once released is one I'm betting you will not like. Figures a guy like you would stick up for a guy like Epstein, sicko.....


ricky boy/veteran, lay off the martinis and straighten up. You are making another fool of yourself. No one cares one iota what you think. You and conspiracy theories are so much alike, just dumb!


How was it proven to be fake?


Well, martian and caped, give our boy Ricky a chance to prove himself here. Perhaps he could find one poster who in the last two weeks has "stuck up" for Epstein. Ricky has all these facts at his command, so he should not have any problem coming up with that.

He might consider this accumulation of facts about Trump's association with Epstein, coming from Vox:

--Media reports from the late 1990s and early 2000s frequently mention Trump attending Epstein-hosted social events, and Epstein attending events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

--“Friends and associates” of the pair told the Washington Post that Epstein and Trump “had socialized for years, drawn together by a mix of money, women and power.”

--NBC News recently aired a video from 1992 of Trump and Epstein together at a Mar-a-Lago party, discussing women and laughing together.

--The New York Times reported that, according to businessman George Houraney, Trump asked him to organize a “calendar girl” party at Mar-a-Lago — and said he and Epstein would be the only men in attendance.

--The New York Times also reported that Epstein has claimed to people that he introduced Donald Trump to Melania — though this hasn’t been corroborated.

--Trump called Epstein twice in November 2004, according to message pads seized from Epstein’s Florida mansion by the government.

--Several phone numbers for Trump, including an emergency contact and a number for Trump’s security, were among many notable people’s numbers listed in Epstein’s “black book” (which was later obtained by the government).

--Epstein’s brother Mark testified that Epstein once took Trump on one of his planes to go from Florida to New York, saying he thought it happened in the late 1990s. Mark Epstein also told the Post Trump flew on Epstein’s plane “numerous times.”

--At some point around the time of Epstein’s legal problems, the friendship appears to have ended. Trump has spread the story that he banned Epstein from Mar-a-Lago for making sexual advances to a masseuse. However, the New York Times reported that by some accounts the two men only fell out “after a failed business arrangement between them.” The Washington Post reports that they were rival bidders for the same Palm Beach estate (Trump won).

Perhaps Ricky could lay out his case against Bill Clinton. Shall we all hold our collective breaths awaiting to hear from him? In say "we", I of course do not include crank, who gets pissed off if I speak for him.


How was it proven to be fake?


Must there always be a conspiracy? No, but there must always be TALK of a conspiracy. For all those who seek to distract and confuse the American People, to keep them from focusing on fixing this country's shattered political system and our social dysfunctions, constantly talking about conspiracies in an absolute MUST. First and foremost, our tabloid news media must do it, as they profit the most from it. Corrupt politicians must also do it to keep the People's noses out of their business. The worst part is that the People are willing partners in this shameful con.


Well I do believe they have Trump on better meds these days. And yes, everything is a conspiracy. Just ask Buggs Raplin.

Rick Czeczok

We got it, you hate the president. Get over it as you have another six years of hate coming your way. Start living and enjoy life. Hatred is a cancer that eats away the soul. I know you hate me just because I don't hate you


Thank you, Ricky, for that message of peace, love and amity. Coming from you, it means a great deal to all of the rest of us, with the exclusion, of course, of crank, who gets so pissed off when I speak for him.


Again... oldhomey insists I’m angry but clearly he’s projecting his own emotions. #troll

Also, again, using that word “us” as though he believes he’s been appointed spokesperson for a group. Pethaps he’s become so accustomed to using multiple screen names that he believes he is actually more than one person so has switched his pronoun to “us”. #puppetshow


What did I tell ya? That crank! He may not have an ethical bone in his body, but he also has no sense of humor. Big fella, indeed.


Ha doesn't take much to get crank going! Yes it was decided at last week's meeting at John"s bar that Homey would be the spokesman for "us." So crank if you don't like it you should of been there and nominated someone else. Of course they are choosy on who is allowed at John's bar so you might not of made it in to the front door. Their standards are higher than you qualify for.


crank, you have come out and said that you aren't using more than one name. Do you believe Czeczok is? You are convinced oldhomey is but you never make that claim about anyone else. Why is that?


Simple, capedcrusader...I've only made that claim about oldhomey because he is the only one I suspected, scrutinized and found to be doing this. Oldhomey would have you believe I'm tracking anyone who has disagreed with me all over the internet while attempting to uncover/reveal their identity. Uh, no... and the enemieslist thing is his M.O.

Do you believe Czeczok is using multiple names, capedcrusader? If so, why do you believe this? If not, why have you asked me if I believe he is using multiple names?


Dennis from Sparta checking in. When is the meeting next week? I have the agenda put together 1. Socialism 2. Trump is a crook and a slime ball 3. RickyBoy is Veteran 4. Crank is angry 5. Newt and Redball are in love . Email me any other agenda items


"suspected, scrutinized and found to be doing this." OK there crank head let's have it then. Sure sounds like you got some kind of proof on Homey and I. Show some courage and let all of us see. What's that? Can't do it you say, of course cause it doesn't exist. You are wrong as can be, but will never admit it. Cowards like you are a dime a dozen, or even less than that.


Thank you, caped, for giving the lie to crank's latest whopper that he only "investigated" my actual identity. He said he did the same to martian, too, lying as he did about me that he found information on us. But he seemed to take special interest in Physics, as I have saved a post from him regarding Physics:

"crank Jun 18, 2019 10:38pm

"This brings us to today. Scribbled on a scrap of paper on my desk were some notes with info about Physics (I believe). You sure have spent a great deal of time trying to imagine some scenario which might bring me to know details about a man neither of us have ever met . . .

" . . . Physics was worthy of a scribble because of the amount of data revealed by this relatively simple exercise. A note jotted only with a ballpoint pen can only be purged manually from my messy desk directly to a waste basket. It doesn't happen automatically every 14 days which is the only reason the info survived. Of course you, who keeps an enemies list, would certainly consider this some sort of dossier to be used for 'cyber stalking'. To me, a messy desk provides opportunity to demonstrate in some fashion that my 'boasts' as you call them are not boasts at all. You suddenly seem reluctant to make that 'bet'. (not that I have any expectation at all you would ever make good on it...) All hat and no cattle, little fella?"

I may be confused (and anybody regularly reading these posts will know that I often am just that), but I believe it is Physics whom crank believes to be Dennis. He later apologized and said he was wrong, but then subsequently began calling him by that name again. There is no accounting for what crank does and says. He has no scruples, so you can always expect the worst.


I apologize, Physics. I sent out an email on the next meeting, but somehow I had it in my mind that you were some guy named Dennis from Sparta, and I could not find an email address for you. How embarrassing! I have since sent the email to you directly. Please, however, don't mention in any post on these boards the day or time or bar that we will be doing the meeting in, as we do not want Ricky or crank to sneak in to hear us conduct our business. John's has enough kooks in there, anyway, and we don't need two more. And Wednesday night seems to be a night that a lot of them come in there. So remember from your wise old leader, mum's the word. We gotta be smart about this. I have already penciled in your agenda. I like getting things on paper instead of the computer, because notes on paper don't get purged automatically, unless I leave them in my pockets and my wife throws them out when she does laundry.


I am looking forward to the meeting. I suggest we use our native espanol for our get togethers in the future. That way if any of the rubes overhear our discussions they will not understand.


No I don't hate you Czeczok I just hate your dishonesty. I don't hate Trump either. I hate his dishonesty. Is that true Czeczok? You are "A Veteran" too?


No I don't hate you Czeczok I just hate your dishonesty. I don't hate Trump either. I hate his dishonesty. Is that true Czeczok? You are "A Veteran" too?

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