Reagan himself survived a shooting two years later. His vice president, George H.W. Bush, happened to have some ties to the gunman’s family, and conspiracists have been chewing on those connections ever since.
When a powerful man has a fatal or near-fatal experience, people are bound to speculate no matter what — conspiracies about the powerful are a durable phenomenon in American politics, circumstances aside. But such speculations will flourish more in some social contexts than others.
There was a lot more public theorizing about Jackson’s brush with death than Ford’s or Reagan’s, for reasons ranging from the reactions of the president to the more intense partisanship of the 1830s press. In Mr. Trump’s case, his illness is part of a pandemic that has turned American society upside-down — and epidemics themselves are machines for generating conspiracy rumors. That’s a potentially potent combination.
And it’s one we’ve seen before. In 1857, there was a lethal outbreak of dysentery at the National Hotel in Washington; three congressmen died, and President-elect James Buchanan became sick. Naturally, conspiracy theories exploded. Some Southerners imagined an abolitionist plot.
John Smith Dye, casting his suspicions in the opposite direction, proposed a rather Rube Goldbergish scheme in which Southern agents poisoned the hotel’s supply of lump sugar. Southerners drink coffee, Dye postulated, and coffee drinkers use granulated sugar; so the Southern diners would be spared and the tea-sipping Northerners killed.
One writer painted an even more paranoid portrait of weaponized disease, and not just at the National Hotel. An 1868 article in The New-York Tribune claimed that Washington had once been “free of malaria — that is, for Democrats; but when the new Republican Party began to gain strength, and it was possible that they might become the ruling power in Congress, the water of Washington suddenly grew dangerous, the hotels (particularly the National) became pest houses, and dozens of heretics from the Democratic faith grew sick almost unto death.”
More recently — that is, last week — a former Republican congressional candidate in California, DeAnna Lorraine, declared it “odd” that “no prominent Democrats have had the virus but the list of Republicans goes on and on.” This is not actually odd, because it is not actually true. But you can’t say the idea is unprecedented.
Jesse Walker is the books editor of Reason magazine, and the author of “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.”
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