Along with an often-paranoid aversion to women and minorities, two dynamics that the now fractured alt-right movement helped inject into President Trump’s base of support were a staunch opposition to military intervention, and a reliance on conspiracy theories to explain away complex problems.
Few problems are as complex as the ongoing conflict in Syria, and those dynamics have been on display among some in Trump’s base after the president, U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies as well as aid groups, blamed Bashar al-Assad’s government for an apparent chemical weapons attack that took place in the Damascus suburb of Douma last week.
BREAKING: Syria says it has invited mission from chemical weapons watchdog to investigate suspected attack.
— The Associated Press (@AP) April 10, 2018
Assad and Russia have both produced alternative theories for the presence of a chemical agent. And they are not alone.
Like other high profile incidents involving violence in Syria that has been blamed on Assad, conspiracy theorists leapt to call the attack a hoax, suggesting that pictures that appeared in The New York Times and other outlets of injured toddlers being treated by aid workers were staged in order to justify a war by the so-called deep state. And, although the far-right hardly represents the only contingent of Americans who are reluctant to embrace the idea of more war in the Middle East, Trump’s comments on Monday that “some major decisions” were expected about Syria this week, seemed to further fuel the far-right theory that war was being stirred in a fabricated manner through what Fox News’ Tucker Carlson called "foreign policy by viral video."
Carlson, who has gained devoted fans on the far-right after embracing Trump’s populist brand of conservatism, and has also expressed non-interventionist views in the past, noted on his Monday night show that the desire to go to war in Syria had received bipartisan support. He spoke critically of Assad, and added that he could have perpetrated the attack. But he also accused those who have tied it to him—like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and former DNC chair Howard Dean—for building their case without evidence. His rhetoric appeared to echo language that was used by fringier corners of Trump’s base earlier in the day.
“We should be skeptical of this—starting with the poison gas attack itself,” Carlson said. “All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children. But do they really know that? Of course they don’t really know that—they’re making it up. They have no real idea what happened.”
Carlson’s rhetoric was preceded by a wave of similar but even more explicit commentary that emerged from the far-right on Monday. Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who once vocally supported the president but has since adopted a more critical tone, tweeted on Monday in response to Trump’s comments about the apparent chemical attack: “Why is Trump fighting his instincts and doing the bidding of the Deep State?”
Nicholas Fuentes, a far-right podcaster with a large contingent of white nationalist support, wrote that, “the Deep State is currently attempting to lie us into another coalition war in the Middle East and they don't care that you know.”
Right-wing voices that dabble overtly in conspiracy theories were more direct in suggesting that the attacks were deliberately staged in order to form a precursor for war. Neo-Nazi trolling website Daily Stormer, who celebrated Carlson’s skepticism with a post entitled “MIC DROP: Tucker Killed It Last Night on the Syria Situation,” wrote before his show aired on Monday that “Everybody knows. Assad didn’t do this,” referring to the apparent chemical attack.
Squawker, a website that, like Daily Stormer, has promoted a number of demonstrably false conspiracies, including one positing that the Austin bomber who murdered four people last month was “Antifa,” suggested in a headline that the attack itself was “fake.” Some far-right social media accounts also posted about the attack using the hashtag #falseflag, which has been a familiar sight following violent incidents in Syria in past years. Anime Right, another far-right website, splashed its front page with a story alleging sordid connections between Trump administration officials and business contacts that operate inside of Syria.
Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and the author of a book about conspiracy theories in American culture, told Newsweek that a disbelief of what is seen in images circulating in the media has a long history on the right wing of American politics, going back to the rise of the John Birch Society, a far-right advocacy group frequently accused of promoting racism.
Fenster noted that finding a narrative for the far-right on Syria has been complicated by the degree to which many are invested in Trump being in power. If Obama were still in power, Fenster suggests, conspiracies might be louder. He notes that InfoWars, which has traditionally been a megaphone for stories about false flags, has been relatively quiet about the attacks.
“These things become more complicated when they’re invested in Trump,” Fenter says. “When you’re committed to the president your hands are tied.”
Further complicating the matter is that Trump himself has previously amplified conspiracy theories that begun their life on the fringes of the internet. And, as of Monday, he has a national security adviser who has dabbled in so-called "false flags." John Bolton used that very term when suggesting in 2016 that the hacking of Hillary Clinton's campaign during the election could have been committed by the Obama administration, rather than, as has been widely concluded, Russia.
More from Newsweek