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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Trump mainstreams conspiracy theories

By Trudy Rubin Philadelphia Inquirer

I guess it was only a matter of time before we got to this: Donald Trump has accused Hillary Clinton of leading a global conspiracy of international financiers who are out to destroy U.S. sovereignty. Does something about that language sound familiar?

“Whether intentionally or not, Donald Trump is evoking classic anti-Semitic themes,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. This is a new low in a campaign that lacks any depth controls.

But Trump’s language can hardly be accidental. After all, his campaign CEO is Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, a web haven for white nationalists who hate blacks and “jooz.” When such conspiracy theories elicit cheers from crowds of faithful followers, it means our democracy is in deep trouble, even if a majority votes Trump down.

I’ll get to the broader threat to democracy in a moment. But first let’s look at the conspiracy theory that Trump is promoting to divert attention from his sex scandal.

Referencing “WikiLeaks documents,” the Donald declared last week that “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors.” In his typical wink-wink fashion, the Donald avoided using the word Jews, but his implication was clear.

“Mr. Trump focused on the very issues and themes that obsess conspiratorial anti-Semites,” Greenblatt said in his statement. “They believe there is an elite group of Jews who control the media, the government, and banking, and who are trying to destroy white America. They also believe that most of Hillary Clinton’s donors are Jewish.”

Of course, not all Trump supporters buy into this trope. But, egged on by Bannon, Trump is legitimizing an “alt-right” core who have crawled out from under the rocks and have now entered the mainstream. These are the kind of people who write me email using the epithet “you jooz”; they have deluged several well-known Jewish journalists from national media with a blitz of anti-Semitic hate mail.

They are the kind of folks who left a sign bearing a swastika on a table reserved for press who were covering Trump’s conspiracy speech last week.

Of course, conspiracy theories are not new to America, nor to Trump. He built his campaign on a stream of racist and xenophobic conspiracy theories and outrageous claims, an outflow so endless that much of the country (mistakenly) began to shrug them off. For example: the racist birther lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, which Trump peddled for five years, and the claim that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in JFK’s assassination.

Now Trump has pumped his conspiracy theories up to an even more dangerous level. We have a presidential candidate who tells his followers that a global cabal, led by Clinton, is out to destroy America. He warns that Hillary (helped by, wink-wink, minorities) is about to steal the election.

Of course, Trump is helped in promoting his theories by social media. He damns the “mainstream media” as corrupt but, as the conservative columnist Max Boot points out, heaps praise on alternative media so extreme and conspiratorial they make Fox News look liberal. Among them Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and Infowars, run by Alex Jones, a conspiracy monger and radio host who claimed that 9/11 and Sandy Hook were carried out by the U.S. government.

When conspiracy theories go mainstream, democracy is in big trouble.

I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where governments use state-controlled media to promote conspiracy theories that obscure their bad behavior and place the blame elsewhere. Lacking any other information sources, much of the public believes what they hear.

Take Pakistan. When the Pakistani government failed to help victims of massive floods, the media claimed CIA technology had caused the flooding. When the Pakistani government is attacked by terrorists whom its own intelligence agencies covertly support, it blames the CIA.

Throughout the Mideast, media have long claimed the CIA and Israel engineered 9/11. In Russia, media promote the theory that Obama founded the Islamic State group. Turkey’s leader claims America was behind the recent coup attempt.

Now a large segment of Americans are fed outrageous conspiracy theories on the web, theories that are amplified and promoted by the GOP presidential candidate. Meantime, Trump overtly threatens to go after media critics should he win, in ways that smack of Russia or Pakistan or Turkey.

Trump’s latest warnings about a global cabal should convince any voters still on the fence that this man is truly dangerous. His threat takes aim at the underpinnings of our democracy, not just at the “jooz.”

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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