People in the world beyond the US who live in authoritarian regimes—from the Middle East to Asia, Africa and South America are scratching their head in disbelief. A list of features of the US presidential campaign and the first days of Donald Trump's presidency remind them of presidential or general election campaigns at home. Suggestions that the intelligence service is involved in the smearing one of the candidates, talk of foreign interference in the election, let alone conspiracy sound familiar in many Middle East countries but also in Turkey, Eastern Europe and Asia.
President Trump has accused the mainstream media of lying and engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him, he refused to take questions from a CNN reporter which is a departure from standard practice in America. The media in turn accuse Trump of lying—the new president's relation to the truth is indeed devoid of the political correctness. But lies are hardly new in the Media. Many of America's friends might have been willing to believe that the US had blundered in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of false intelligence, rather than deliberately lying to make the case for war but across Africa, the Middle East and much of continental Europe, most people have lost faith in US and many of their leaders speaking the truth for some time. Threatening the press publicly in the US is new, but threatening whistle blowers and wayward journalists is not. The lies of Mr Trump are frequent and flagrant but the dishonesty of Dick Cheney and George W Bush with regard to Iraq started the rot and immensely damaged the image of the US abroad and the future of democracy in that country.
The truth is that the accuracy of news in print and on the air has declined in the West in recent years across the world—and the Middle East has been the focus of much manipulation. Be it Iraq, Syria, Iran or Libya, distinguishing truth from falsehood in western news is becoming increasingly difficult. It president Trump increases the lies out of the very top echelon of power in the US, he will only open the door for floodgates of Russian dishonesty. Vladimir Putin claims that everybody lies and manipulates but he was unable to, convincingly, deny that Russian weaponry was used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. Were Trump to resort to systematic lying he would quickly reach a point during an international crisis when the world would be no more inclined to believe him more than the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
The beauty of conspiracy theories is that they are complex and can be made to fit the political or ideological foil of those who believe in them.
Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy or was talk of such a conspiracy a sophisticated liberal conspiracy to bring down the republican candidate?
In many countries across the world, the media are not free and news is manipulated. The love of conspiracy theories is growing in Europe and America and elsewhere but nowhere are conspiracy theories more beloved than in many parts of the Middle East.
It is ironic that Trump's America is reviving the conspiratorial tradition at a time when America should be offering the example of rational thinking and tolerance for free expression.
Vol. 49, No.32, Feb 12 - 18, 2017