Our leader's life is in danger.
The Conspiracy Theories.
Poisons, schemes, and psychic powers — why is the wellbeing of president such fertile ground for paranoid imagination?
The conspiracy speculations about Donald Trump 's illness were unavoidable. I'm not saying that only because the White House's mixed messages and lack of accountability made it hard to know what's going on, although that didn't help.
I'm not blaming social media, which may be a conduit for these rumors, but it didn't cause them. Any time a president faces a life-threatening event, conspiracy theories follow, without filling a major knowledge gap or credibility void.
When Andrew Jackson survived a assassination attempt in 1835, for example, pro-Jackson newspapers — and the president himself, in an impolitical moment — accused Mississippi Democrat Senator George Poindexter of plotting the assassination. As Jacksonian congressmen convened an investigation, some Jackson 's opponents responded that the whole incident may have been a false flag, with the president recruiting the gunman for public sympathy.
The first two office presidents to die were William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Both were felled by disease, but rumors circulated that one had died at the hands of a evil conspiracy. When he was elected, some supporters wrote him to warn about the plotters.
"General Harrison lived only a short time after he was appointed to the office," one letter declared, and "General Taylor lived only a short time after he took up his seat." It continued, "You, sir, be careful at the king's table what meat and drink you take." Another reported, "I have often heard it said by physicians, that it was undoubtedly a fact, that our two last Whig presidents, Generals Harris, were there.
These alleged plots featured prominently in John Smith Dye's "The Adder's Den," an 1864 conspiracy tract that treated both deaths—and Jackson's assault too—as part of a "Parallax View"-style series of Southern slaveholders' covert ops. This wasn't seen as a fringe position: The book was extracted in The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times ran a respectful notice telling curious readers to "get this pamphlet and read it for themselves."
Nor did it disappear after the Civil War. Representative James Mitchell Ashley, an Ohio Republican, declared during the effort to impeach President Andrew Johnson that both Harrison and Taylor had been "poisoned to put vice presidents in the presidential office."
Then America had another dead president. Lincoln 's death immediately sparked talk of conspiracies larger than that of John Wilkes Booth and his confederates, and Dye produced a new edition of his book blaming Booth's bullets for the same vast Southern conspiracy. Over the years, more Lincoln theories will surface, attributing the Vatican's assassination to everyone.
The next president killed in office was James Garfield, shot in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled job-seeker. The rumor mill soon reported the deed had been orchestrated by "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party, including Vice President Chester Alan Arthur. (A newspaper, The Baltimore American, was agnostic on whether Guiteau had acted alone, but called killing a coup "whether or not the assassin had accomplices")
Next, Leon Czolgosz assassinated William McKinley in 1901. Czolgosz was a self-described anarchist, so the police immediately questioned anarchists in jurisdictions across the world. On Sept. 11, five days after the incident, New York newspaper The World reported the Buffalo police had discovered evidence of a "great anarchist plot." (Buffalo's police chief called the accounts "absolute fakes" a day later in a follow-up article).
After Warren Harding fell ill and died in 1923, a rumor spread that the first lady poisoned the president. In "The 103rd Vote," his classic account of the Democratic Convention of 1924, Robert K. Murray discusses a more outrageous idea: some anti-Catholic cranks attributed Harding 's death to "hypnotic waves created by Jesuit telepaths."
Franklin Roosevelt 's death inspired another theory assortment. One tract, first published in 1948, implied that a Communist waiter had served Roosevelt "an Oriental poison passed down from the days of Genghis Khan." In a twist, the book reported that this crime took place at the 1943 Tehran Conference, that Roosevelt was either dead or incompetent soon after he returned to America, that an actor then played him in public, and that this double was the man.
That was no common theory, admittedly. But the concerns that accompanied John F. Kennedy 's 1963 slaughter were mainstream. At their height in 1983, an ABC News poll showed 80% of Americans finding it more likely than not to be a plot to kill Kennedy.
When Gerald Ford survived a pair of assassination attempts in 1975, rumors circulated that Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, or perhaps a group of Navy brainwashers, had pulled the strings of the would-be assassins, including the Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme.
Future president Ronald Reagan played footsie with another idea: Germond recalled at a 1979 meal with columnist Jack Germond, "Reagan unexpectedly brought up two assassination threats against Ford. The timing of these episodes, particularly the second, he said, was a little suspicious. Ford had been the beneficiary of Squeaky Fromme's 'sympathy vote,' and he, Reagan, had always wondered if it might have been structured for political purposes."
Reagan himself survived a two-year shooting. His vice president , George H.W. Bush, had some connections to the gunman 's family, and since then conspiracies have chewed on those connections.
When a powerful man has a fatal or near-fatal encounter, people are bound to speculate no matter what — in American politics, circumstances aside, conspiracies regarding the powerful are a permanent phenomenon. But in some social settings, such speculations thrive rather than others.
There was much more public theorizing about Jackson's brush with death than Ford's or Reagan's, for reasons ranging from president's responses to the 1830's press's more extreme partisanship. In Mr. Trump 's case, his disease is part of a pandemic that has turned American society upside-down — and epidemics themselves are devices to create theories of conspiracy. That's a possible mix.
And we've seen it before. In 1857, a deadly dysentery epidemic occurred at Washington 's National Hotel; three congressmen died, and President-elect James Buchanan became ill. Conspiracy theories naturally erupted. Some Southerners envisioned abolitionist plot.
John Smith Dye, throwing his doubts in the opposite direction, suggested a Rube Goldbergish scheme where Southern agents poisoned the hotel's lump sugar supply. Southerners drink coffee, postulated Dye, and coffee drinkers use granulated sugar to spare the Southern diners and ruin the tea-sipping Northerners.
One writer painted a more paranoid portrait of armed illness, not just at the National Hotel. An 1868 article in The New York Tribune reported that Washington was once "free of malaria—that is, for Democrats; but when the new Republican Party began to gain strength, and it was conceivable that they could become the ruling force in Congress, Washington's water suddenly became unsafe, hotels (particularly the National) became pest houses, and dozens of Democrat heretics.
More recently — that is, last week — a former Republican Congressional candidate in California, DeAnna Lorraine, declared it "crazy" that "no famous Democrats have had the virus, but the Republican list goes on and on." That's not really crazy, because it's not true. But you can't say it's unprecedented.