On November 5, days before voters would turn out, a man tried to assassinate Donald Trump.
While he was delivering a speech to thousands of supporters in Reno, Trump cut himself off. He raised his hand towards his forehead to block out the beaming lights, and squinted his eyes, as if to take a closer look at what appeared to be growing unrest in the crowd.
Suddenly, after hearing somebody in the crowd shouting ‘GUN’, two secret service agents rushed to his side. They shielded him from danger, and escorted him off stage. Scenes became chaotic. His largely bewildered supporters began chanting, and then shouting, as security staff leapt into the crowd to apprehend a would-be assassin, and remove him from the venue. Footage, released soon afterwards, corroborated these events.
Minutes later, Trump returned to the podium, and told his supporters: “Nobody said it was going to be easy but we will never be stopped. We will never be stopped.” While Trump was finishing his speech, accounts of what had happened began to take shape.
Trump’s media aid, Dan Scavino, retweeted a message reading “Hillary [Clinton] ran away from rain today. Donald is back on stage minutes after an assassination attempt” while his son, Donald Trump Jr, wrote: “As Donald Trump just showed the American people, no matter what happens he will not be deterred and he will not give up fighting for you.”
But there was still a lot of confusion as to what actually happened.
Photos of the chaotic scenes began to emerge on Twitter; showing armed officers, and a man being dragged out. Journalists at the rally began reporting what members of the audience were telling them; that they had seen a man pull a gun. Others, meanwhile, claimed the ‘Trump assassin’ reached for the gun of a secret service agent before he was detained. And in even these early stages, supporters were speculating on social media that the assassin may have been planted by the Clinton campaign.
There was only one problem. Absolutely none of it was true.
Not only was the man unarmed; he wasn’t an assassin. He was a protester, carrying only a sign – “Republicans against Trump” – that he had printed off the internet.
He was identified as Austyn Crites, a 33-year-old inventor who worked with balloons. He was a registered Republican, and more importantly, completely harmless – which the secret service agents realised shortly before they released him.
But Donald Trump’s aides took advantage of the confusion. They had already begun to spread the message online that their candidate had survived an assassination attempt, while bizarrely, at the same time, Austyn Crites was speaking with journalists outside the venue to explain to them what had actually happened.
According to Crites, as he was moving closer towards the front, he raised his sign. Trump supporters had, by this point, noticed him. At first they booed. “And then,” he said “all of a sudden people next to me are starting to get violent; they grabbing at my arm, trying to rip the sign out of my hand.”
According to Crites, the crowd then began piling on him, kicking, punching, holding him on the ground, and even, grabbing him by the testicles. He claimed they were “wrenching on [his] neck” so much “they could have strangled [him] to death.”
It was at that moment he heard somebody shouting “something about a gun,” before police officers arrived and put him in handcuffs. He told the Guardian newspaper he felt relieved. And, as officers removed him from the venue, they continued to fend off supporters who were trying to attack him.
He was taken to the back of the venue, searched, subjected to a background check, and released shortly after. He wasn’t even aware, until the journalist he was speaking to outside told him, that Donald Trump had been rushed off stage.
But by now, even though barely any time had passed, Donald Trump supporters became utterly convinced their candidate had survived an attempt on his life. They had seen the news break on television, and relied on other supporters on social media, pro-Trump Facebook pages, and sources they trusted, to fill the gaps.
Rumours continued to spread – although now they knew the name of the ‘Trump assassin’. And, fuelled by the Trump campaign’s refusal to back down from this narrative, even more ludicrous theories were being fostered online.
Trump supporters found Austyn Crites on Facebook, as well as members of his family, including his brother, and found evidence they were conspiring to commit voter fraud.
Some suggested his Facebook page was fake, having only been created a day ago, while others claimed it had been deleted, meaning he had something to hide.
They learned that he had been campaigning for Hillary Clinton – something which Crites openly admitted to the Guardian journalist who interviewed him – but something they would not learn until they found his name listed in a Wikileaks database of the leaked Podesta e-mails, as many as seven times, along with information suggested he was a Democratic Party donor.
Others, meanwhile, landed on evidence confirming, in their eyes, that he was an agitator – a paid Democratic Party operative with the intent to cause violence or emotional disruption at Trump rallies. And some, who said they had read further into the leaked Podesta emails, became convinced that he had ties to a black ops shadow intel group known as STRATFOR.
But these conspiracy theories were then suddenly legitimised. They were being spread by Trump’s surrogates, and members of his team.
Ann Coulter, a notorious surrogate, retweeted links and posted conspiracy theories to her more than 1 million Twitter followers, while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, refused to condemn members of her team for spreading false information.
Speaking to JakeTapper on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday morning, she said: “I’m glad nobody was hurt, but it does remind you that in these closing days, especially as the polls tighten, many of us are getting more death threats, getting more angry messages on social media and elsewhere. It’s a pretty fraught environment there. I think that’s the real focus here.”
She continued: “If you’re Don Jr and you’re on a live TV set while you’re watching this unfold, it’s pretty rattling to think of what may have happened to your father, so I’ll excuse him.”
When Tapper pushed back, saying Crites was not trying to assassinate Trump, Conway attacked CNN itself, saying: “First of all, that’s really remarkable, I have to say, that that’s what the storyline is here. Is CNN going to retract all the storylines, all the headlines, all the breathless predictions of the last two weeks that have turned out not be true? ‘The race is over. The path is closed. It’s going to be a blowout.’ You guys retract that and I’ll give a call to Dan Scavino about the retweet.”
The Trump campaign later released a statement, written by Trump himself, saying: “I would like to thank the United States Secret Service and the law enforcement resources in Reno and the state of Nevada for their fast and professional response. I also want to thank the many thousands of people present for their unwavering and unbelievable support. Nothing will stop us – we will make America great again!”
Trump did not provide any details about the incident, and, in the days that followed, Trump’s team refused to back down over the ‘assassination attempt’ narrative – meaning it has continued to mutate across the internet.
This is only a single, isolated example of how Donald Trump has defeated journalism – partly by accident, and partly by design. He and his team are able to lie, and get away with it, because they know their supporters have stopped paying attention to the mainstream press.
Trump is able to plant simple ideas into the minds of his supporters, while his team sits back, and watches these grow into fully-fledged conspiracy theories without having to so much as try.
Meanwhile, all the work the media organisations do to verify claims and establish facts has become irrelevant.
Whether Donald Trump wins the presidency or not, he has set the template for a more sophisticated and sociopathic breed of politician to exploit in the future.