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Trump, Republicans give voice to Ukraine conspiracy theories
[NEW YORK] They have been viewed as bogus for months, but President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters are giving unprecedented publicity to conspiracy theories as they fight Democratic Party attempts to impeach him.
Analysts say the repetition of debunked claims could have damaging long-term consequences for American democracy, particularly since Democrat supporters are not immune from peddling conspiracy theories of their own.
The Republicans's conspiracy theories currently centre on Ukraine. They have claimed repeatedly that it was that country - not its neighbour Russia - who interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
Kiev hacked Hillary Clinton's emails, not Russian operatives, the theories go, and it is Ukraine who is in possession of a Democratic National Committee server.
Former National Security Council expert Fiona Hill denounced the theories as a "fictional narrative" advanced by Russia to harm the United States.
"These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," she told lawmakers during her testimony on Thursday.
Republicans constantly allege that Mr Trump's potential 2020 challenger Joe Biden may have acted corruptly in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker called that "not credible".
Republicans continue to use them as a mantra anyway.
Devin Nunes, the most senior Republican on the committee that is conducting the impeachment hearings, repeatedly cites them, as does Donald Trump Jr and conservative Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.
Trump himself often relays these long debunked stories to his 67 million Twitter followers.
Conspiracy theories have prospered online for decades, but they are no longer on the sidelines.
Analysts say that the election of Mr Trump has brought them into the highest spheres of public consciousness.
The hearings, broadcast live on television, are testament to that.
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, says other presidents, notably Richard Nixon, have flirted with conspiracy theories but never referenced them so openly.
"Trump seems to be just the opposite, where he's just very forward with these theories and he uses them to motivate people who are sort of outside of the party mainstream."
"He also uses the conspiracy theories to deflect criticism," Mr Uscinski told AFP.
Conspiracy theories are not new. Polls regularly indicate that a majority Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only shooter in the November 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy.
Eric Oliver, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, argues that conspiracy theories have spread more widely since the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s.
"These are people often times who have a very intuitionist worldview and by that they sort of really draw on their gut feelings as a guide to what's going on.
"They are also entertaining a lot of supernatural beliefs and apocalyptic beliefs and this type of thinking coincides well within a conspiratorial viewpoint," he said.
Mr Oliver conducted a poll recently in which 18 per cent of respondents said they believed Ukraine tried to manipulate the 2016 vote.
He says fact-checking, which has become very popular in recent years owing to the large amount of information disseminated online, fails to have any impact on Americans with strong beliefs.
"When people often encounter facts that are inconvenient to their prior beliefs, they just simply dismiss the facts and they think about something else," he said.
Mr Uscinski sees similarities among some Democrats, particularly supporters of left-winger Bernie Sanders.
"His entire campaign is built around a conspiracy theory. That the one per cent of the richest people control all politics and the entire economy, which isn't true," he said.
For Jonathan Kay, author of "Among the Truthers", a book about the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories in the United States, "It's not a liberal or conservative thing".
"Whoever is jealous of their power or insecure about their power, those are the people that are vulnerable to any conspiracy theory," he told AFP, citing conspiracy theories around the 9/11 attacks which originated on the left.
"It gives people a bridge between what they see and what they believe," he added.
Experts worry about the long-term damage that the popularity and visibility of dubious theories could have on America's democracy.
"Where we see democracies are in trouble is when rational discourse gets undermined by demagogues and conspiracy theories," said Mr Oliver.
Mr Uscinski worries that Mr Trump may base some of his decisions on false theories or indirectly push others to act on them if he doesn't.
Until recently Mr Oliver thought Mr Trump just propagated conspiracy theories for political ends but his repeated calls for Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden has made him think otherwise.
"The president himself seems to be a genuine conspiracy theorist," he said.