Conspiracy theorist: a person who holds a theory that explains an event or situation as the result of a secret plan by usually powerful people or groups (“Conspiracy Theorist,” n.d.).
President Donald Trump is a conspiracy theorist. Throughout his short political career, he has routinely demonstrated a blatant disregard for easily obtainable facts, in exchange for wild explanations and inflammatory ideas. This past January, as Trump prepared to embark on his first term in office, a troubling development occurred at his New York City compound Trump Tower. A meeting with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known vaccine skeptic, reignited interest in previous statements made by Trump regarding vaccinations and autism.
It is important to note that Trump’s alarming beliefs toward vaccinations were clear long before he sought public office. He first floated the theory that vaccinations are linked to autism during a 2007 interview with Palm Beach Politics stating, “My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children” (Hafenbrack, 2007). Trump cited no evidence at the time of the interview to support his theory.
Trump continued to hold the belief that there was a link between vaccinations and autism, clearly demonstrated by several tweets sent between 2012 and 2014. None of the tweets provided any scientific support to his statements.
In September 2015, during a Republican presidential debate, Trump again insinuated his disproven belief. There, Trump stated that while he supports vaccines, he wanted “smaller doses over a longer period of time”. He cited no evidence supporting the notion that altering current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended immunization schedules would have an effect on the rate of autism diagnoses.
During a fundraiser in August 2016, Trump reportedly expressed his skeptical views on vaccinations. Several anti-vaccine advocates, including Andrew Wakefield, who authored the controversial and retracted 1998 study published in The Lancet suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, attended the donor event. Trump also reportedly received a copy of Wakefield’s anti-vaccination propaganda film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe at the event.
That brings us to the meeting with RFK Jr. on January 10th; Kennedy emerged from a meeting with the then-President-elect and told the throng of reporters present that he was asked to chair a new commission on vaccine safety. Several hours later, Trump officials countered Kennedy’s statement by stating the President-elect was only considering such a commission, and that no final decisions had been made.
While speaking with reporters, Kennedy said, “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it” (Phillip et al., 2017). The Trump Administration has made no further comments related to autism since the meeting.
The creation of such a commission would directly contrast the widely established views of the medical community. Through numerous extensive studies, no link has ever been found between vaccines and autism.
In most cases, it would be a stunning development for a president to be so out of touch with modern medicine. For President Trump, however, it is not only unsurprising, but also predictable that the 45th President of the United States would subscribe to such a roundly debunked theory. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump continuously touted conspiracy theories and outright lies.
Donald Trump rose to political prominence by pushing the so-called “birther movement”, the idea that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States. There has never been any evidence produced that suggests Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
During a campaign rally in November 2015, Trump stated he witnessed thousands of people in Jersey City, New Jersey cheering during the September 11th terrorist attacks. There is no evidence or other witnesses to support this statement.
After the second presidential debate in October 2016, Trump suggested his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton took performance-enhancing drugs. No evidence was provided.
During the final presidential debate, Trump denied to acknowledge that 17 federal intelligence agencies agreed that Russian hackers were attempting to influence the presidential election stating, “our country has no idea”. Twelve days earlier, the Department of Homeland Security said otherwise.
Upon losing the popular vote to Clinton, Trump called into question the validity of the very election that put him in office. While providing no evidence, Trump stated numerous times that upwards of three million people voted illegally. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly the same amount.
Trump stated his inaugural crowd included 1-1.5 million people. The photographic evidence contrasts that estimate.
Most recently, Trump tweeted that Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the election. This assertion has since been denied by several government agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Justice.
With these lies and conspiracy theories in mind, it should come as no surprise that President Trump advocates for the discredited theory that there is a link between vaccines and autism. While President Trump claims to support vaccinations, his continual assertion that they cause autism negates that sentiment. You cannot claim to support vaccinations while promoting a baseless theory that they cause a neurological disorder.
Trump almost certainly does not think of the influence his words now hold, as an argument could be made that his own personal beliefs could have a strong impact on his supporters. While what President Trump says regarding vaccinations and autism does not change the facts, it does matter. In a time where alternative facts and fake news have altered the perceptions of some, the words of a president are still significant.
As president, Donald Trump is now in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health. His personal beliefs are directly at-odds with these institutes, and their ability to protect public health depends on federal funding. President Trump is the most powerful man in the world, and his belief in conspiracy theories holds a weight now that it certainly did not before.