When President Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British fringe group this week, he went way beyond bigotry.
The president chose to publicize the message of a neofascist group called Britain First that is so extreme even the British far right disavows it. As if that weren’t enough, Trump dumped on Prime Minister Theresa May after she rebuked him.
By his act, Trump confirmed he will go to any lengths to whip up his uber-nationalist base, promoting groups that incite hatred of minorities. But equally scary, the president once again displayed his affinity for conspiracy theories and conspiracy websites that deceive and misrepresent reality.
Even as he viciously attacks responsible news media, Trump has become the nation’s most dangerous purveyor of fake news.
Just take a look at the videos that Trump retweeted, which were clearly meant to stir up fear of Muslim migrants. The first supposedly portrayed a “Muslim migrant” beating up a Dutch boy. But both boys in the clip were Dutch and neither was a migrant. The other two were old clips from Syria and Egypt taken in the midst of domestic violence.
Clearly the president had no interest in verifying the accuracy of the film clips. He apparently found the videos himself while surfing his Twitter feed. No vetting by any White House staffer.
Nor did the president bother to check the background of Jayda Fransen, the leader of Britain First who originally posted the videos; she was barred from entering any mosque because she has harassed and threatened Muslims. She claims Britain has become “sharia compliant,” a crazy theme also promoted by anti-Muslim groups in America encouraged by Trump.
British experts on far-right politics say Britain First is a small neo-Nazi fringe group; they fear Trump’s tweets will increase its numbers. So it’s no wonder that Prime Minister May told Trump he was “wrong” to share those videos with his millions of followers.
More to the point, as put by Sajid Javid, a former banker and current British secretary of state for local government: “(Trump) endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organization that hates me and people like me.”
In Germany too, where the far-right AFD party just garnered 13 percent of the national vote and entered parliament as the third largest party, Trump’s retweet created waves.
According to Anna Sauerbrey, the editorial pages editor of the Berlin newspaper Taggspiegel: “This resonates a lot in Germany where people are afraid these groups could grow. There was shock and criticism that (Trump) would pick up on those conspiracy theorists. To give these groups such power by retweeting to his 20 million followers is shocking.”
Clearly these concerns are of no interest to Trump.
That’s because, as we know well, the president is happy to create his own “facts” when he dislikes the real facts. And he has an unending appetite for embracing, and spreading, conspiracy theories.
As sexual harassment scandals mushroom, Trump is backing off his previous acknowledgement that the Access Hollywood tape was authentic. He continues to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He still promotes the conspiracy theory of voter fraud in the election. And, of course, he continues to falsely insist the Russia hacking investigation is “fake news.”
We have gotten used to Trump’s lies. And taken individually, they might be shrugged off as the misbehavior of a deeply flawed president. But lumped together they add up to an attack on the democratic system that must be confronted and publicized over and over again.
By encouraging conspiracy theories, and the websites and web actors that spread them, the president is confusing the public. By promoting sites like Breitbart and Infowars, and retweeting the rubbish of neo-fascists, he is encouraging his supporters to endorse theories that are dangerous – and false.
And even as he spreads fake news, the president continually attacks responsible news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times in ways that are more appropriate to autocrats and dictators. No, he doesn’t jail reporters, but he has encouraged violence against CNN reporters by his tweets.
I have long traveled in countries such as Pakistan and Egypt where conspiracy theories are prevalent because locals have no information source they can believe in. I have spent time in Russia, where the Kremlin controls the national media and many independent journalists have been murdered.
We have not reached that point yet. But, as Trump’s racist retweet proved, his disdain for facts and love of conspiracy theories undermines our system and values.
In a speech at the Naval Academy last month, Sen. John McCain warned: “We are asleep in our echo chambers, where our views are always affirmed and information that contradicts them is always fake.” This GOP elder urged people to “fight against propaganda and crackpot conspiracy theories.”
That means pushing back against the tweets and conspiracy theories promoted by Donald J. Trump.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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