Opnion: What arrest of ex-cop in Houston shows about danger of conspiracy theories

The repairman had done nothing wrong. The retired officer thought he was part of an anti-Trump election conspiracy, according to the Houston police affidavit.
Frida Ghitis
It was another surreal moment in today’s dystopian, Conspiracy States of America, and a disturbing reminder of what such theories have wrought throughout history. No matter how ludicrous and eye-rolling they may seem in the abstract, their potential implications — including real, actual danger — when they take hold, are not to be dismissed.
According to CNN reporting, the former police officer, Mark Anthony Aguirre, was allegedly working for a pro-Trump group called the “Liberty Center for God and Country,” which, prosecutors said, had paid him more than $260,000 to investigate alleged ballot schemes in the Houston area. He thought the repairman was the mastermind of a grand election fraud operation and was carrying 750,000 fraudulent ballots, the Harris County district attorney said in a statement. He was just a repairman, said police.
Aguirre was arrested Tuesday and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He posted $30,000 bond that afternoon and is out of jail, according to Harris County court records. His attorney maintains he’s the target of a “political prosecution.”
Aguirre found no fake ballots. In fact, no one has found much of an election conspiracy other than one led by President Donald Trump to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, despite scores of lawsuits and a vicious intimidation campaign against election officials.
It may seem reassuring that President-elect Joe Biden will soon assume the presidency, and that the empty accusations of fraud are getting laughed out of court, found to have zero evidence behind them. But when conspiracy theories take root, they have a tendency to continue growing.
The United States, especially since President Donald Trump entered the political fray, has become fertile soil for conspiracies. Aguirre didn’t kill anyone that day, but that hardly means conspiracy theories are victimless crimes.
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Countless Republican election officials have come under withering attack from Trump and his acolytes; some have received death threats. But the danger from Trump’s unfathomably irresponsible attack on US democracy, and his false claim that he won, will not end when Biden takes the oath on January 20.
Most Republican Trump voters still believe the lie. A Reuters poll found 52% of Republicans said Trump won, compared with just 29% who said Biden did. (The poll showed 73% of all those polled agreed Biden won.)
And history is replete with examples of just how destructive grand lies can become, regardless of whether they have any basis in fact. The theories may anger believers, but they also help interpret reality in a way that is somehow soothing, more consistent with their wishes and ideologies, often with calamitous results.
In the Middle Ages, before medicine understood viruses and bacteria, whenever the plague — the black death — devastated communities, the claim that Jews were responsible routinely resulted in their massacre. Jews were a favorite target of conspiracy theorists across the centuries.
Potentially more relevant to our situation is a conspiracy theory that arose a hundred years ago. After Germany lost World War I, far-right antisemitic groups started a rumor that German Jews had plotted to betray their country and it was because of them that Germany suffered a humiliating loss. German Jews had fought and died alongside the rest of their countrymen in the war, but facts, as we can all see now, can prove irrelevant to those who listen to the siren song of conspiracies telling them what they want to hear.
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Among those listening to the WWI “stab in the back” myth was Cpl. Adolf Hitler, who used the fabrication to help fuel his political rise on the strength of the need to extract vengeance. We know how that ended.
Allowing the myths to take root is extraordinarily dangerous. That’s why I have criticized Biden for his reluctance to more forcefully refute Trump’s poisonous claim that he will be an illegitimate president. Biden made a start this week, but he should face this threat with the urgency it deserves.
Social media has turbocharged mythology mills, and the spreaders of political lies have found it easy to slither their tentacles throughout society. When Trump became President, they benefited from the world’s most powerful megaphone.
Even before he took office, the “Pizzagate” fabrication, a preposterous claim that Hillary Clinton and her allies were operating a child sex-trafficking ring with a Washington pizzeria as a front, led a man to drive hours to the location and fire an assault rifle in an effort to free the children. There were no children.
Pizzagate has exploded into the madness of QAnon, still obsessed with pedophilia, with the Clintons, and filled with thinly veiled antisemitic ideas.
QAnon, all but endorsed by Trump, will have a presence in the next Congress, with one candidate who has promoted the theory, Marjorie Taylor Greene, elected to the House. (Another incoming Rep., Lauren Boebert, has engaged with the QAnon theory but later distanced herself, saying she was not a follower of the movement.)
Whether or not GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who campaigned with Greene — and faces a runoff vote for her seat next month — will remain in the Senate, remains to be seen.
We don’t know just how destructive the full impact of Trump’s election lies will be on a number of fronts, from undermining Biden’s ability to govern to corroding the fabric of American democracy.
History dictates we should be on our guard, and it also reminds us that, when looking to the guilty, we should glance beyond the likes of a former Houston policeman, and hold responsible political figures who promote the lies by repeating them or failing to deny them.