Campaign politics tends to be a lowest-common-denominator business. If something works -- no matter how loathsome or even untrue -- then it gets used. The end always justifies the means -- and the end is always and only winning.
And yet, even by that incredibly low bar, what some right-wing pundits have done in the wake of 10 mail pipe bombs being sent to prominent Trump critics, Democratic politicians, party donors and CNN's New York office is astonishing. In short: They have suggested -- with zero evidence -- that is all one big hoax designed to help Democrats in the 2018 midterms, a classic "false flag" operation.
Bombs and explosive devices
Business and industry sectors
Business, economy and trade
Government and public administration
Transportation and warehousing
US Democratic Party
US political parties
Weapons and arms
Even President Donald Trump himself seemed to pick up on the theory Friday morning, tweeting: "Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this 'Bomb' stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows - news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!"
The President's tweet came shortly before news that federal authorities have arrested a man in connection to the suspected explosive packages, according to multiple law enforcement sources Friday.
While talk radio host Rush Limbaugh was far from the only conservative to toy with the "false flag" idea, he explained it best:
"[Democrats] have thrown every trick at Republicans. Their media acolytes are doing their tough lifting for them — and none of it, none of it, none of it has worked. So what would you do? Democrat operative, best way to turn all of that around? How about a day like this? How about a day like this where you create a scenario where it looks like the mobs are on both sides.
"It looks like the Republicans have a mob, too, or at least an 'insaniac.' There's some Republican out there sending bombs to decent, good Democrats and media people — former Democrat presidents and the harmless people at CNN. Wouldn't it serve your ... up here if you're a Democrat operative to make it look like the Republicans are a bunch of insane lunatics and have some mobsters on their side as well? The very same people the media says Republicans hate the most! Isn't this interesting?"
This is both hugely cynical and incredibly logistically difficult. The cynical part is self-explanatory. But consider what Limbaugh and his ilk are suggesting -- from a purely logistical perspective. Here's what would have had to happen for the events of Wednesday to be a false flag:
1. Someone or someones who wanted to help Democrats -- and the media, I guess, somehow? -- would send a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats around the country.
2. Then Democrats or the media or, again, someone, would have to have coordinated with the state and local police -- not to mention federal authorities -- so that law enforcement said that they initially assessed these were functional bombs (even though, again, according to this theory, they weren't).
Which, um, is not what happened. As any reasonable person -- regardless of your political affiliation -- can recognize that that sort of broad conspiracy not only stretches the bounds of the possible but snaps them in two.
The problem, of course, is that Limbaugh -- and people like fellow talk radio host Michael Savage and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs -- are playing to an audience that already believes some mysterious "they" are working to pursue a secret liberal/socialist agenda that aims to countermand the will of the broader public.
That way of thinking isn't new. It's the same ridiculousness that led some to label the murders of 20 6-and-7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School a "false flag" operation aimed at creating a more sympathetic national environment in which to pass new restrictions on gun owners. And to insist that the man who came to Washington and fired an assault rifle at a local pizzeria where he believed there to be a pedophilia ring being run by Hillary Clinton was all just a grand bit of theater to throw people off the scent that there really IS a pedophilia ring at that spot (To be clear: THERE ISN'T).
The natural reaction here is to dismiss all of this out of hand. But, to not engage with this sort of conspiracy crap is to let it fester. These "false flag" claims are like a college bar: They don't hold up when you shine a little bit of light in/on them. Let's shine that light.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional reporting.
- Debunking the despicable 'false flag' theory on the mail bombs
- Cooper debunks congressman's conspiracy theory (2017)
- Trump condemns 'terrorizing acts' as despicable
- Former House IT staffer at center of debunked conspiracy theories avoids jail time
- Mail bombs: Hate speech can have consequences
- Miami bomb squad inspects mail facility
- Trump repeats debunked voter fraud claim
- Debunking the myths surrounding George Soros