On a CNN special report Monday, commentator Fareed Zakaria delved into how President Donald Trump built his political career off conspiracy theories — and how those conspiracy theories have threatened American democracy.
"I'm worried about repeating misinformation," said Zakaria. "But it's urgent, the theories circulating now are dangerous and the president of the United States is trafficking in them. When Donald Trump tells us that elections are rigged and 'Obamagate' is the biggest scandal in history, some know that the ideas are are wholly false and others are less certain. Especially when they hear a story full of details that seem to explain everything."
"Donald Trump's rise to power began with a conspiracy theory," said Zakaria, posting clips of Trump peddling the "Birther" conspiracy against Barack Obama. "Donald Trump understood how to tap into an ugly racial undercurrent. The idea of whether he was born in the United States, that's a metaphor, it's, is he one of us? Answer, no."
However, noted Zakaria, "there's been no bigger Trump target than Hillary Clinton. The darkest Clinton conspiracy theory has a huge following on the internet. Trump and his allies have promoted it, even has it has grown increasingly toxic. This is Edgar Maddison Welch. He is driving from his North Carolina home to Washington, D.C., recording a message to his two young daughters. He is preparing to risk his life to save children he doesn't even know. You may consider him a good man. But this mission of mercy was actually a dangerous delusion. Welch fell prey to a twisted conspiracy theory, called Pizzagate. He believed that Hillary Clinton and other Washington elites were running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C."
Welch was ultimately arrested after menacing the store with an AR-15.
"Now, disturbingly, teenagers have grown obsessed with Pizzagate. They believe celebrities have joined Hillary Clinton to abuse children," said Zakaria. "The social media site TikTok, popular with teenagers, has logged more than 18 million views for posts with the Pizzagate hashtag ... and in the last few years, it has grown into an even bigger conspiracy theory called QAnon. A mysterious character or characters called Q, supposedly high up in U.S. intelligence, give followers hints about deep state co-conspirators who are out to destroy Donald Trump."
And this has been singled out as a potential terroristic threat by the FBI — even as Trump retweets QAnon memes and major Trump supporters, like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, take the QAnon "oath."
"Trump's conspiracy theories resonate deeply with the voters. That raises the most troubling aspect of the story," said Zakaria. "Pew Research shows that America's trust [in government] has been dropping for decades ... by the time Donald Trump was elected president, belief and faith in democracy had reached an all-time low. Trust in the media took a similar plunge. And Donald Trump knows it."