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Renée Graham

The tinfoil hat presidency

(Illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo)

President Trump never met a conspiracy theory that he wouldn’t spread like manure.

Even before he invaded the White House, Trump rarely missed an opportunity to pump up unfounded rumors — such as the lie that President Obama was born in Kenya. Trump didn’t start that birther rubbish, but he — and his wife Melania — certainly promoted it in an attempt to undermine the credibility of this nation’s first African-American president.

His obsession with conspiracy theories has only metastasized with a presidency he uses as a bullhorn. That’s why his latest garbage is especially revolting — that Bill and Hillary Clinton had Jeffrey Epstein murdered.

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When news of the convicted pedophile and accused sex trafficker’s apparent suicide broke last Saturday, conspiracy theories flew as thick as a biblical plague of locusts. Some claimed Epstein was allowed to escape from his Manhattan jail cell, and was heading to his private Caribbean island. Others said powerful people encouraged Epstein to take his own life, like doomed mobster Frank Pentangeli in “The Godfather Part II.”

Then Trump retweeted a lunatic-fringe theory that Epstein had such damning information on former President Bill Clinton, the Clintons had him whacked.

This comes weeks after an unpublicized FBI intelligence bulletin identified “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing terrorist threat.

Now, it’s a fact that Clinton was friends with Epstein, even though Clinton has downplayed his connection since Epstein’s arrest last month. It’s also a fact that Trump hung out with Epstein, and once called him “a terrific guy” and “a lot of fun to be with.”

But Trump isn’t talking about that. He’s too busy linking a former president and a former secretary of state to the apparent death of a man who died while in the federal custody of Trump’s own Justice Department.

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While it’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s retweet as “a terrible man does another terrible thing,” that’s a misread. His amplification of conspiracy theories is always meant to stoke hatred and trumpet misinformation.

When he falsely hypes the criminality of immigrants, he’s playing to evergreen fears of rampaging brown men raping white women and getting white children strung out on drugs. When he lied that millions in California voted illegally in the 2016 election, Trump redirected attention toward the nonissue of voter fraud, and away from voter suppression. That unchecked problem will again probably rob millions of Americans, many of them people of color, of their right to vote next year.

When Trump claimed, without a scintilla of evidence, that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, it was a shiny spinning thing meant to distract from the real and ongoing harm his Russian masters are inflicting on American democracy.

On “CBS This Morning,” psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma said that “confirmation bias” drives many conspiracy theories. “Our brains seek information that it already believes.” Those already inclined to believe the worst about the Clintons, immigrants, or any other individuals are more likely to latch onto scurrilous conspiracies, discarding facts that don’t fit.

It was once funny when conspiracy theorists claimed to have spotted Elvis Presley eating a burrito at a gas station years after his reported death in 1977. Yet in this perilous time, the stakes have grown exponentially.

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In 2016, a man with an assault rifle went to a Washington, D.C., pizza shop in 2016 because he believed a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her associates were running a child trafficking ring there. Though shots were fired, no one was injured. That doesn’t make the incident any less scary — and that was before Trump became president.

From Pittsburgh to New Zealand to El Paso, we’ve witnessed and mourned the lethal effects of this president’s inciting rhetoric. And this tinfoil hat presidency will continue to ignite feral minds and domestic terrorists for as long as Trump remains the biggest bully with the biggest pulpit.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.