Donald Trump is a liar. About a week and a half ago he went on TV and said that he had witnessed “thousands” of Muslim Americans in New Jersey “cheering” on Sept. 11, 2001, as the World Trade Center collapsed into rubble. “It was on television,” Trump insisted. “I saw it.” In the days since he’s been pushing back against an avalanche of fact-checks, pointing to various snippets of contemporaneous news reports that make vague references to law enforcement agencies investigating small groups of Muslims in New Jersey. None of it corroborates his original claim to have witnessed TV reports of thousands of celebrating Muslims, but Trump (with the help of credulous and fawning pro-Trump conservative websites) is nonetheless claiming vindication.
One of the supposedly vindicating sources Trump pointed to was an Op-Ed published on Infowars.com, the website of radio host Alex Jones. And just yesterday, Trump sat down for a half-hour interview with Jones to discuss, among other things, Trump’s correctness about Muslims on 9/11. This was an important moment in the 2016 presidential race not because of anything that was said during the interview, but because the interview itself took place. Donald Trump is the front-running candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and he had a long friendly chat with Alex Jones, an authentic lunatic and scam artist “who has made a career out of rage-induced conspiracy theories.”
Jones may not be a household name, but he has a large and devoted audience that eats up his angry conspiracism and happily forks over money for his bogus herbal supplements and doomsday preparation gear. Rand Paul (who is something of a conspiracy theorist himself) has a long history with Jones, but moved to distance himself from the crazy loud man heading into 2016, recognizing that he didn’t need Jones’ toxic baggage weighing him down. Trump, however, has happily brought this birther and 9/11 conspiracy theorist right to the forefront of 2016 media coverage.
This is actually a running theme of the 2016 election. The large Republican field contains a number of candidates who have direct links to people who populate the eccentric and scummy underbelly of conservative and libertarian politics. As these candidates have risen in the polls, intense press scrutiny has helped draw the extremists and hucksters in their orbits out of the shadows.
Earlier this year, when Mike Huckabee was entertaining the prospect of another presidential campaign, the New York Times reported on the former Arkansas governor’s work as a pitchman for companies promoting dubious health products, like a cinnamon-based diabetes treatment, and “a miracle cure for cancer hidden in the Bible.” Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy investigated the company behind these scams, Agora Inc., which has been “stirring up and cashing in on the conservative psyche” since the late '70s. As Murphy writes, Agora’s business model took off during the Clinton administration when conservative paranoia and conspiracism spiked. The company and its properties have been fined and reprimanded by several government agencies for fraud and making false statements.
Huckabee’s not the only candidate with ties to a disreputable vendor of health products. Ben Carson has a long-standing relationship to Mannatech, a company that makes “nutritional supplements” and, as Gizmodo dryly noted, resembles a “pyramid-shaped business organization.” The company was charged with fraud in Texas for claiming its supplements could cure autism and cancer, among other diseases. At the CNBC debate in October, Carson vehemently (and falsely) denied having a relationship with Mannatech, but also acknowledged giving speeches promoting the company and its products.
And then there’s Ted Cruz. The Texas senator recently faced some uncomfortable questions for his appearance last month (along with Huckabee and Bobby Jindal) at a conference organized by Kevin Swanson, an anti-gay extremist who speaks openly about putting gay people to death. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked Cruz’s campaign to respond to Swanson’s opinions about executing people simply for being gay, and the campaign refused to distance itself from Swanson, saying only that his remarks were “not explicit” enough to warrant further comment.
All these people are running for president! Some of them even stand a decent chance of capturing the nomination of their party. And through their attempts to rise to the top of American politics, they’re bringing to light some of the muck and grime that usually stays safely buried within the right-wing fever swamp.