U.S. authorities continue to uncover new instances of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and critics of U.S. President Donald Trump, but some Trump supporters have pre-empted the findings of the ongoing investigation by suggesting that the mail bomb deliveries are a “false flag” perpetrated by Democrats or their sympathizers.
The president’s own son, Donald Trump Jr., has “liked” Twitter posts pushing this theory.
One tweet dubbed the pipe bombs “FAKE BOMBS MADE TO SCARE AND PICK UP BLUE SYMPATHY VOTE,” and bore the hashtag #FakeBombHoax, which is being used by pro-Trump online outlets and accounts to blame Democrats for the bombs.
The “false flag” theory holds that the Democratic Party or its supporters orchestrated the mail bomb deliveries to garner sympathy ahead of the upcoming Nov. 6 midterm elections, which could be crucial to shaping the future of the Republican legislative agenda.
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Michael Flynn Jr., son of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and infamous proponent of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, tweeted that the mail deliveries were a “total false flag operation” whose execution just before the midterm elections was “HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS.”
He later deleted the tweets and issued a more subdued take:
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh also entertained the false flag theory on his show on Wednesday. Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs asked in a since-deleted tweet, “Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?” while Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera said he believed the bombs were part of “an elaborate hoax” that was “intended to further divide the American people.”
All of this was before Friday, when Democratic Sen. Cory Booker and former national intelligence director James Clapper were added to the list of people sent pipe bombs and suspicious packages, which includes former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, former president Barack Obama, former vice-president Joe Biden, Democrat-supporting actor Robert De Niro and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, among others.
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On Friday, authorities revealed that they had arrested 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc, a registered Republican, in connection with the pipe bombs.
Still, many Trump supporters remained unconvinced. Right-wing provocateur Laura Loomer, who has over a quarter of a million Twitter followers, tweeted that the stickers on Sayoc’s van “look like they were printed yesterday.”
President Trump has so far stopped short of labelling the mail bombs a hoax or conspiracy, but issued a tweet on Friday stating that “this ‘Bomb’ stuff” has caused news media to stop talking about politics, thereby slowing Republican momentum going into the polls.
Joseph Uscinski, an American political scientist who specializes in the study of conspiracy theories, says the popularity of conspiracy theories in Trump’s base is partly the result of an intentional strategy on the president’s part, dating back to when he was battling it out with far more experienced politicians for the Republican nomination to the presidency.
“In order to scoop the system, he went after the under-served market of Republicans: … people who have a strong conspiracy mindset and wouldn’t normally be excited about voting for a Jeb Bush because he’s too establishment, but would be excited about voting for Donald Trump, who spoke their conspiracy language and gave credence to their conspiracy ideas,” said Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and co-author of the book American Conspiracy Theories.
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Uscinski said polls have revealed that people with the most conspiratorial mindsets were the ones who supported Trump.
“So Trump was mobilizing conspiracy-minded Republicans to support him. And since these people brought him to the White House, these are his base. He needs to continually motivate them with conspiracy theories.”
But it’s not just people on the right side of the political spectrum who fall prey to conspiracy theories.
One poll found that over half of Democrats believed that former president George W. Bush had a hand in the 9/11 attacks, Politico reported.
“9/11 conspiracy theories were very popular among the left for a long time. Now, they’re gaining popularity on the right too,” Uscinski said.
He adds that conspiracy theories can be a convenient way to shift the blame away from oneself onto others.
“It looks obvious to the naked eye that it’s a Republican doing this to blow up people on Trump’s enemy list. That’s what it would look like. So the obvious political strategy is to say, ‘No, it’s a false flag, it’s obviously Democrats doing it for their own advantage in the upcoming election,” he said.
“Right now, what this has become is a political volleyball. … It’s partisan bickering but with a conspiracy tinge to it.”
It’s a tactic that transcends politics, Uscinski added, citing disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and climate change deniers as examples of people who use conspiracy theories to defend their positions.
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Rob Brotherton, a psychologist and author of the book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, says the prevailing, polarized atmosphere of U.S. politics could make people more likely to cast aspersion on their political rivals.
“Increasing polarization may contribute to assuming the worst of one’s political opponents, which could manifest as openness to the idea that the other side is capable of a false flag attack, or as openness to the idea that the other side is full of deranged conspiracy theorists,” Brotherton told Global News in an email.
In still-unfolding cases such as the pipe bomb deliveries, where so much remains unknown, the information vacuum makes for a prime breeding ground for the dispersion of conspiracy theories, Uscinski said — and these theories tend to be lapped up by people who already have similar ideas.
“The same thing happened with the MH370 airliner that disappeared. Nobody knew anything and that allowed everyone to make up their own thing. And it went on to the point where CNN was discussing whether or not it was a black hole that opened up in the atmosphere and sucked the plane away,” Uscinski said.
“We’re in an information vacuum, which means people will be able to say anything or proffer an explanation that already matches what they already believe. So you have the conspiracy types saying, ‘Oh, it must be a conspiracy’ and you have Democrats saying, ‘Oh, it must be the Republicans.’ So you have everyone just saying what they would automatically think anyway.
“What people should do right now is say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘We don’t know’ who did it. Because that’s the only honest answer.”