Authorities have given little indication as to who might be responsible for the string of suspicious packages targeting Democratic figures and other critics of President Donald Trump in entertainment and media, but right-wing commentators and pro-Trump pundits are already claiming to have identified the culprit by asking themselves a simple question: Who benefits most from an apparent terrorist plot against the president’s enemies?
The answer, they say, is Democrats, so Democrats must therefore have hatched the scheme as part of an elaborate hoax designed to drum up a negative news cycle for Trump and the GOP in order to boost their party’s chances in the upcoming midterm elections.
To be clear, there is no factual basis for these claims. Although the simplicity of this explanation appears tempting to some, the question of who benefits isn’t as obvious or straightforward as Trump’s supporters seem to think it is. Perhaps more important, by focusing on how this plot affects the current political narrative, people ignore that this sort of terrorism has very real consequences, regardless of who’s behind it.
Knee-jerk speculation about a Democratic-led false flag operation is perhaps not entirely surprising coming from Trump’s supporters. He has propelled his political career with baseless claims about various conspiracies, and he has continued to play to his base by engaging in conspiratorial rhetoric from the White House.
The question of who benefits from an act offers a reliable springboard for these sorts of conspiracy theories, said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who has written two books on conspiracies and their followers.
Human brains are hardwired with “cheater detectors” to guard against being taken advantage of, he said. When there’s a vacuum of authoritative information, as in this case, people with overactive detectors may be more likely to assume ― without evidence ― that the beneficiary of an action must have also been involved in pulling it off.
“It’s not so much about the false flag. It’s about being able to blame the people who they normally blame for everything anyway,” Uscinski said.
Ask people of a different political bent who they think benefits most from this bomb plot, and they might give a completely different answer, which may not be grounded in fact either. Partisan interpretations aren’t worth much until we have more verified information, he said.
“Right now, the place where everybody should be is, ‘We don’t know,’” Uscinski said.
While law enforcement works to identify the culprit or culprits, the apparent terrorist plot is likely already taking a toll on newsrooms around the country, said Peter Sterne, a senior reporter for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Trump has repeatedly referred to the media as the “enemy of the people.” It seems doubtful that outlets around the country are reassured by the idea that the bombs could all be part of a massive hoax rather than the work of a deadly serious individual who sees the targets as legitimate threats that need to be silenced ― or worse.
“When you use violence in retaliation for someone saying or writing something that you don’t like, the message is pretty clear,” said Sterne. “The bomber wants to send a message to CNN reporters that their life could be in danger if they report critical stories about Trump, in order to discourage them from reporting critical stories about Trump.”
Democratic lawmakers and other Trump opponents may have gotten the same message. If terrorism is meant to intimidate people for political purposes, the bombs have already likely succeeded in having that effect on the president’s critics, no matter who sent them.
In that way, it’s insensitive to respond to an incident like this by immediately pointing fingers after asking who stands to gain the most politically, said Uscinski. But the factious tone we’re seeing right now extends far beyond the world of conspiracy theories, he added.
“There seems to be an overall lack of sympathy and empathy,” he said. “We have people receiving bombs in the mail, and there could be more bombs coming to other people, yet a lot of our discussion isn’t about bombs being terrible. It’s about who’s going to gain in the election next week. If that’s the question you’re asking, then you’re sort of ignoring the fact that people could get blown up with bombs.”