Trump lashes out with distractions and disinformation
President Trump has accelerated his attacks on government watchdogs, judges, reporters and other independent voices as he runs for reelection, escalating his spread of disinformation about perceived enemies and his administration’s record during the COVID-19 crisis.
Trump fired yet another inspector general, raged against a government whistleblower and repeatedly retweeted video of a local TV reporter being harassed in New York — all since Friday. He also amplified a sinister conspiracy theory he dubbed “Obamagate” in which he alleges, but never specifies, crimes by his predecessor.
On Monday, Trump abruptly said he has been taking hydroxychloroquine pills daily for “about a week and a half” as a preventative against the novel coronavirus, dramatically intensifying his efforts to promote an unproved anti-malaria drug that he has touted as a potential “game changer” for dealing with the pandemic.
His comments caused alarm because the Food and Drug Administration warned last month that the prescription drug has “not been shown to be safe and effective” at treating or preventing COVID-19, saying it could cause “serious heart rhythm problems.”
Experts struggled to think of a historical parallel where the president has turned the world’s most powerful and influential office into a megaphone for wholesale fabrications and bizarre claims in an effort to confuse voters and salvage his own political future.
“Trump is certainly not the first politician to lie or invent stories,” said Eileen Culloty, who researches disinformation at Dublin City University in Ireland. “But his history of making baseless, conspiratorial claims — whether it’s Obama’s birth certificate, linking Ted Cruz’s family to the Kennedy assassination or now Obamagate — is striking for its scale and frequency.”
Critics said Trump’s messaging was particularly destructive as Americans struggle with the pandemic, which has crippled the economy and killed more than 90,000 in the U.S. as of Monday.
“A pandemic is the perfect laboratory for disinformation because people are scared, they’re anxious — and all of the social science around conspiracy theories shows when people feel anxious and scared, they’re more likely to believe conspiracy theories,” said Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine and former senior State Department official.
“Trump has figured that out. This campaign is headed to a low point that we’ve never experienced before in American history, because he is not at all compelled to align his message with reality,” he added.