How Conspiracy Theorists Have Tapped Into Race and Racism to Further Their Message | United States of Conspiracy | FRONTLINE | PBS | Official Site

July 28, 2020

The claim making the rounds was false: That Barack Obama, elected in 2008 as America’s first Black president, had not in fact been born in the United States.

That didn’t stop the smear from gaining traction, in an effort fueled by people including hard-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars — and by future president Donald Trump himself, who fanned the “birther” flames in 2011 as he advanced in the political arena.

According to Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone, it was an effective strategy: “Trump understands among Republicans there’s a very substantial majority who have questions about Obama’s origins and how he just pops up out of nowhere to become a national figure and whether he was, in fact, eligible to serve as president,” Stone told FRONTLINE in 2016.

Jones, Stone and Trump have all vigorously denied allegations of racism, with Jones saying he has protested against the KKK; Trump saying, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”; and Stone pointing among other things to his opposition of “the racist war on drugs.”

But the success of the false theory embraced by Jones and Trump has been found to be correlated to racial grievance. One academic study found that “among white Americans, birther beliefs are uniquely associated with racial animus”; another indicated that belief in “birtherism” is “a function of both partisanship and racial resentment.”

Experts FRONTLINE spoke with echoed that assessment.

“In ‘birtherism,’ what you see is a group of Americans who resent the fact that there is an African American president in the White House,” reporter Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour says in the FRONTLINE documentary United States of Conspiracy. “And Alex Jones and all sorts of other people hand them this excuse that it’s, well, he wasn’t born in this country, this is really all a lie, and he is actually not who he says he is.”

Anna Merlan, a journalist who has covered conspiracy theories and misinformation for years, is blunt. “The conspiracy caught fire because people were uncomfortable with the idea of a Black president, and they were eager to believe any number of racist smears against him,” says the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. “I mean just plainly, it was racism.”

“Birtherism” would not be the first or last time conspiracy theorists like Jones — whether wittingly or not — tapped into aspects of race or racism to further their message. Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America,” Jones has at times stoked fears about racial conflict and the spread of Islam while making his primary argument that global “elites” are part of a secret conspiracy that controls the world. Jones has also made false claims about the LGBTQ community.

Additionally, critics say Jones has fanned anti-Semitic flames as part of his conspiratorial worldview. He has tapped into stereotypes about Jewish people, though he denies that he is an anti-Semite. The term “globalist,” heard often on his programs, has complex roots and has been described in some use cases as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

…(read more).

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