Conspiracy theorists and Trump disciples: ignorance, hatred, and the platforms that encourage them.
In 1960 when John F. Kennedy was running for president, one of the tactics used to slow down his campaign was the promotion of a theory that Kennedy, because he was a Catholic, would be beholden to the Pope first, then the Constitution. There had never been a Catholic president before, though in 1928 Al Smith had lost to Herbert Hoover. (Although most historians blame Hoover's economic plan, very similar to Trump's, for the intensity of the Great Depression, many claim Mr. Smith dodged the bullet by losing.)
And so Kennedy became the first Catholic to live in the White House, and not to speak evil of the dead, but most historians would agree that JFK was more interested in figures like Marilyn Monroe than in religious figures Pope John XXIII.
Of greater significance, the Kennedy-Pope goofiness existed in a world quite different from ours. There was no social media to further the conspiracy, to enhance it, exacerbate it, and disseminate it. It was spoken in whispers and always with a hint of skepticism.
The whispers are gone. The flames of today's conspiracy theories are fanned by our elected leaders. I am discounting the lunatic ravings of Alex Jones or the politically motivated sycophancy of Sean Hannity—they're bit players on the world stage, especially when the chief conspiracy theorist spews his misinformation and lies from the Oval Office.
It all seemed to reach a tipping point last weekend.
A recent Twitter attack on MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and, by extension, the deceased wife of T.J. Klausitis who died of a heart ailment while working on the Scarborough staff in 2001, became so excessive and sadistic that even Twitter—the site that gleefully washes its hands of everything—began to fire back, choosing to flag Trump's more insane tweets. Grading the president's insanity could easily become a full-time job for someone, but Twitter owes us that much—at least the hint that some of his posts are not even tangentially connected to truth.
Trump's recent tweets and his reaction to the Covid-19 crisis have engendered a re-evaluation of his disciples. Not that they would care—since humanity in general does not concern them—but I used to think their 2016 vote came either from being misinformed or from a desire for anyone who was not "political." Now I see a much more ominous voting bloc forming: people who see nothing wrong with tormenting a widower twenty years after his wife's death, who see social distancing and masks as a bother to themselves—damn everyone else. These voters don't merely tolerate Trump's lack of empathy because he's their guy, they support and relish it because it reflects their own viewpoint of the world.
In recent weeks we have seen that voting bloc assailing health care workers, waving their guns at administrative personnel, condemning people who practice the Covid-19 guidelines developed by their own president. We've seen their list of victims in the past, from John McCain to Khizr Khan to Myeshia Johnson to Christine Blasey Ford to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—part of a list that lengthens daily, and whose only connection is a willingness to testify to the president's venality, egomania, and criminality.
In recent weeks it appears that some of his support is peeling away—maybe 100,000 dead Americans have created some pangs of conscience, or maybe those voters are bemused by the fact that the president seems more interested in litigating an imagined Obama conspiracy than of acknowledging this tremendous loss of life. Or maybe humanity wins out in time. History has shown us that the most barbarous and malevolent leaders have eventually been toppled, though there has always been a price to pay. It's possible that the pandemic is that price.
Unfortunately, since many Trump disciples view the whole "pandemic thing" as a liberal conspiracy, I'm afraid we're not done paying.