Editorial: Beware conspiracy theories on coronavirus

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President Donald Trump makes remarks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. - Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/TNS

America has been fertile ground for conspiracy theories since long before radio, television and Twitter came along to spread them fast and furiously.

Political parties alleging subversion by Roman Catholics and the Masons flourished briefly in the 1800s. A century later, people fell for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false but fervid claims of Communist infiltration throughout the government. And during the last presidential election, a North Carolina man fired an assault weapon inside a Washington pizzeria where a widespread conspiracy theory claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring.

The historian Richard Hofstadter gave a name to the pathology in his groundbreaking 1964 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

“(N)o other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind,” he wrote. “It is the use of paranoid means of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

The problem is different now — and more dangerous — because, for the first time, a president of the United States, his family and many of his supporters are weaponizing it.

This month, President Donald Trump tweeted a vicious insinuation that “Psycho Joe Scarborough,” as he referred to his frequent MSNBC critic, had murdered an aide in 2001, while he was a Congressman from Florida. Independent fact-checkers soundly disproved it when Trump first spread it in 2017. The medical examiner found that the young woman lost consciousness and fell, suffering a fatal injury, because of an abnormal heart rhythm. She had told others she was not feeling well.

A few days after the president slandered Scarborough, Eric Trump — like father, like son — claimed on Fox News that the coronavirus is a Democratic hoax that will disappear “magically” after the November election. Democrats are exploiting it, he said, to deprive the president of his “greatest tool,” the mass rallies.

The nation’s COVID-19 death toll has passed 100,000. Many more would be dead without the shutdowns and social distancing measures that inspired Eric Trump’s brazen lie.

It’s doubtful that even he believes it. But he knows that many of his father’s supporters will. The “hoax” theory has become the party line with some Republican candidates.

Rarely, though, has political fakery been so dangerous. Calling the coronavirus a hoax encourages people to take risks with their own lives and the lives of others.

The coronavirus pandemic has spread paranoia almost as fast as the disease itself. Those who believe it’s a conspiracy defy distancing rules, refuse to wear masks, abuse those who do, and try to intimidate elected officials with armed protests.

Even people in the highest ranks of government have parroted unsupported suspicions that the novel coronavirus was either invented in a virus laboratory in Wuhan, China, or allowed to escape from there.

Scientists have conclusively debunked the man-made theory, showing that it is a naturally occurring contagion that spread to humans from animals exactly like many others, among them bubonic plague, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, avian flu and the Zika virus.

It’s true that U.S. Embassy officials who visited the relatively new Wuhan laboratory sent warnings about inadequate safety and management shortcomings. But no evidence has turned up that it actually let the virus escape from the bats it was studying. The long history of such animal-to-people contagions favors natural transmission instead.

Yet two of America’s notable conspiracy fanciers, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, spread misinformation that the U.S. had given $3.7 million to the Wuhan laboratory. That led the Trump administration to cut off funding for an American research project on how coronaviruses spread from bats to people. The researchers had spent only about $100,000 a year working with the Wuhan lab.

Trump carried paranoia to an even more reckless extreme when, citing China, he cut off all U.S. aid to the World Health Organization, the only international body equipped to deal with the virus across borders and oceans. He followed with a threat to withdraw the U.S. from the WHO entirely.

The WHO is fairly open to criticism for having responded too slowly to the outbreak in China, but defunding it would be an overreaction — like shutting down a fire department because it was slow to answer a call.

Americans have a penchant for lawsuits as well as conspiracy theories, and so at least nine have been filed against the People’s Republic of China on account of the coronavirus.

One of these cases, a potential class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court at Miami, makes plausible allegations that China was too slow to deal with the virus, to warn the world, and share its DNA sequencing with other scientists.

But the suit then strays into “an alternative theory” — in other words, conspiracy fantasy — that the virus escaped a Chinese laboratory because its researchers sold infected animals to a food market, “as researchers have been known to do in China, instead of cremating them as (Chinese) laws requires.” Only in some far-out media have Chinese researchers been “known” to do that.

The sole source for that allegation appears to be an unsupported New York Post op-ed by the head of the right-wing Population Research Institute, whose creed is “overpopulation is a myth.” The article cited a single incident, not in Wuhan, where someone allegedly sold surplus pigs and cattle, and went to prison for it.

It could be true that the Wuhan laboratory was careless. However, none of the lawsuits is likely to come close to establishing that. The lawyers would have to overcome U.S. law — the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act — that generally prohibits such claims against foreign governments. The Miami suit aims to get around that by suing the Chinese Communist Party, as well.

Two Republican senators are sponsoring legislation to expose China to U.S. courts. That is a bad idea, considering the many ways China could retaliate, and it provides an excuse to shirk our own government’s responsibility.

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)