Conspiracy Theories Dominate Republican Politics

Heather Cox Richardson

At about 1:30 this morning, local time, the Dali, a 985-foot (300 m) container ship operating under a Singapore flag, struck the steel Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, that spans the lower Patapsco River and outer Baltimore Harbor. The bridge immediately collapsed. 

Eight maintenance workers were on the bridge repairing potholes when the ship hit. Two were rescued from the water, but the other six remain missing. Search and rescue operations were complicated by twisted metal and debris from the collapsed bridge. This evening, the Coast Guard called off its search. Tomorrow morning, divers will begin recovery efforts.

It is possible there were motorists on the bridge, too, but fewer than there might otherwise have been. Crew members issued a “Mayday” call—an internationally recognized word meaning distress—that Maryland police heard. At 1:27, police radio recorded an officer saying a ship had lost control of its steering as it approached the bridge, and to stop traffic and evacuate the area. There were cars submerged in the water, but they may have belonged to the construction workers.

The loss of the bridge will tangle traffic and disrupt supply chains. Named for the Maryland lawyer who in 1814 wrote the poem that became the national anthem, the Francis Scott Key bridge carries I-695, the Baltimore Beltway, and is used by about 30,000 people a day. 

The Port of Baltimore is one of the nation’s largest shipping hubs, especially for both imports and exports of cars and light trucks. About 850,000 vehicles go through that port every year. So does more than 20% of the nation’s coal exports. In 2023 the port moved a record-breaking $80 billion worth of foreign cargo. Now the shipping lane is closed and must be cleared of debris. 

“There is no question this will be a major and protracted impact on supply chains,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said from Baltimore today.

Perhaps learning from the 2023 East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, when the government response was fast but quiet and thus opened a window for right-wing complaints they weren’t doing enough, the administration was out front today. Buttigieg rushed to the scene from a trip out West, and Maryland governor Wes Moore told reporters Buttigieg had called him at 3:30 am, just two hours after the crash.  

By around 6:00 am, the National Transportation Safety Board already had a team of 24 people on the scene to launch an investigation into the cause of the collision. 

Speaking today, President Joe Biden said: “I’ve directed my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as…humanly possible. And we’re going to work hand in hand…to support Maryland, whatever they ask for. And we’re going to work with our partners in Congress to make sure the state gets the support it needs. It’s my intention that federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect…the Congress to support my effort.”

Former member of President Obama’s 2012 campaign Jason Karsh noted Biden’s speech and said on social media: “[B]ecause Biden got infrastructure spending done for the first time in over a generation, and because [Pennsylvania] was able to rebuild that bridge that collapsed in record time, Dem[ocrat]s have the credibility to say things like this. Competence in government matters.”

It remains far too soon for any solid understanding of what caused the deadly crash.

Despite the impossibility of solid information in the hours immediately after the collision—or perhaps because of it—verified accounts on X (formerly Twitter) began spreading conspiracy theories. They posted that the accident was linked to terrorism, Jewish people, or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. “Did anti-white business practices cause this disaster?” one posted. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones wrote that the collision was “deliberate” and that “WW3 has already started.” 

Technology reporter Taylor Lorenz, who studies social media patterns, explained in the Washington Post that many of these accounts are “engagement farming.” This is the practice of posting extremist comments to generate attention, which can then be monetized by, for example, getting a cut of advertising that appears near those comments. Comments with heavy engagement can receive thousands of dollars. 

For a long time now, America’s political right has riled people up with wild political rhetoric to get them to buy stuff. Just today, Trump began to hawk Bibles for $59.99, plus shipping and handling, with a video message saying “Religion and Christianity are the biggest things missing from this country, and I truly believe we need to bring them back…. That’s why our country’s going haywire—we’ve lost religion in our country.” 

That system appeared to be in play as Trump supporters apparently flocked to today’s public offering of the Trump Media & Technology Group, the company behind the Truth Social app, sending the stock upward 16%. That surge would value the company at more than $7 billion, although in the first nine months of last year it had only about $3 million in sales and lost nearly $50 million. Julian Klymochko, founder and CEO of Accelerate Financial Technologies, told NPR’s Rafael Nam that the $7 billion valuation “is completely detached from any sort of fundamentals.” 

Buying stock in the company is “more of a political movement or just a speculative meme stock [a stock driven by social media] that’s completely detached or unrelated to the underlying business fundamentals of Truth Social,” Klymochko said.

As well as convincing supporters to buy products, extremist rhetoric can push them toward violence. Yesterday, John Keller, the head of a Department of Justice task force set up to protect election workers, told reporters Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen has put the U.S. in a “new era” in which election workers are “scapegoated, targeted, and attacked.” 

Today, on his social media network, Trump attacked individuals related to his upcoming election interference case. He lashed out at one of the prosecutors on Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s staff who previously worked for the Justice Department; Judge Juan Merchan, the judge in his upcoming criminal case for election interference; and the judge’s daughter. Of the judge and his daughter, Trump told his angry followers: “These COUNTRY DESTROYING SCOUNDRELS & THUGS HAVE NO CASE AGAINST ME. WITCH HUNT!” 

Legal analyst Joyce White Vance of Civil Discourse called out Trump’s “rank effort at intimidating the judge by threatening his family,” which she said “merits a gag order but also serious pushback from [Republican] leadership—which we know won’t come.” 

Republican leadership indeed stayed quiet, but the judge noted Trump’s pattern of using  “threatening, inflammatory, [and] denigrating” statements against individuals in his legal cases and placed a gag order on him. Merchan noted that in the past, Trump’s statements had intimidated the individual targeted and required them to hire protection. 

Trump can still talk about Merchan or Bragg, but he cannot comment on any attorney, court staff member, or family member of prosecutors or lawyers. He can’t make statements about any potential or actual juror. 

Other news today suggests that Americans outside the MAGA bubble are turning against the poisonous politics that appeals to fear and hatred so its perpetrators can gain money or power.

The outrage over NBC’s hiring of former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel was so strong that today the chair of NBC News, Cesar Conde, emailed staff to tell them he had “decided that Ronna McDaniel will not be an NBC News contributor.” McDaniel had trafficked in lies to support Trump and had worked with him to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine today, observers thought the justices seemed inclined to back away from the decision of extremist antiabortion judge Matthew Kacsmaryk taking the abortion drug mifepristone off the market. Antiabortion activists have long sought to ban abortion nationwide, but a strong majority of Americans support reproductive rights and have made their wishes known at the ballot box. 

Voters’ frustration with the extremists who have captured the Republican Party appeared to be behind the results in today’s special election for a seat in the Alabama legislature. There, voters in a swing district elected a Democrat, who ran on protecting abortion access, to replace a Republican. In 2022 that Democrat, Marilyn Lands, won about 45% of the vote. Today she won almost 65% of it.

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