Well wishes and tributes from people of all political stripes poured in on Wednesday evening after the news broke that Arizona Senator John McCain has brain cancer. Many of them commented on the toughness of a man who spent more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
But in some fringe corners online, the diagnosis was a sign of some darker, Deep State-level of intrigue.
"Weaponized cancer." A nefarious organ trafficking network helped along by the Clintons. Or even a Russian connection. Consider yourself warned — we're heading into tin-foil hat territory.
The Reddit forum known as The_Donald is generally a petri dish for the worst impulses of Trump's alt-right/white-nationalist/America First base. True to form, after the news broke of the diagnosis, Trump fans chimed in with their half-baked ideas about what McCain's brain cancer diagnosis could possibly mean.
These conspiracy theories may be connected to the ill will McCain has garnered over the years from the far-right. But a Phoenix political analyst and former majority whip for the GOP in the Arizona state house, Chris Herstam, said no such efforts to tarnish McCain's reputation as a POW and senior statesman have succeeded.
"Over many issues, McCain has been a maverick within an increasingly right-wing Republican Party and a lot of right-wing nut jobs have tried to do him in over the years, and they’ve all failed," Herstam told Phoenix New Times. "His maverick status and expert status in Washington, D.C., have allowed him to overcome a lot of right-wing negativism over the last decade or so."
Even so, these conspiracy theories on McCain's diagnosis are simply astonishing, no matter your ideology.
1. Timing of the Diagnosis
In particular, the timing of McCain's diagnosis (an aggressive form of brain cancer known as a glioblastoma) was of interest to The_Donald's toxic followers.
"So hypothetically, brain cancer eliminates McCain from being questioned, from pretty much all scrutiny," wrote a Reddit user, time_2_realign. "He's been involved in a lot of unsavory things and maybe the heat is getting turned up. Who's to say a songbird can't change its tune and spill more info?"
In this reading of the cancer diagnosis, the mounting investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia would have to continue without McCain. Or perhaps any investigations into McCain himself will be shelved. Only time will tell in the feverish universe of The_Donald.
2. Mayo Clinic Organ Trafficking
Conspiracy-minded Redditors also zeroed in on the hospital where McCain was treated: the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix. Recently, The_Donald forum had been excitedly discussing a lawyer who claimed to have information linking the Clinton Foundation to the nonprofit's work in Haiti, as well as to Mayo Clinic. McCain underwent a craniotomy at Mayo Clinic last week.
"Wasn't there some connection between Mayo Clinic (where he was diagnosed) and trafficking and organ harvesting?" user time_2_realign added.
To their credit, another user responded that the Mayo Clinic happens to be among the finest hospitals in the country, and is probably not a front for a Clintonian transnational organ-harvesting scheme.
3. "Weaponized Cancer"
Some made connections to other famous conspiracy theories. One Redditor floated the idea that the CIA was capable of a kind of "weaponized cancer" and intended to use it on Fidel Castro; maybe rogue members of a national security agency caused McCain to fall ill?
(This theory was courtesy of a Redditor with the username alpha_and_oMAGA, a moniker which made me want to throw my computer out the window.)
Not so fast, another Reddit user said. "IF you are correct THEN we must also consider WHO the Deep State will be trying to put in his place," they wrote. "They would not give up such a useful actor like McCain so easily without putting someone else in place to continue with their agenda."
At least as an academic exercise, it's interesting to note the dystopian thinking behind this conspiracy theory: a world where the Deep State is moving senior senators around like chess pieces in a grand game of strategy that serves their hidden agenda.
4. Fake News
You knew it was coming. Some people questioned whether McCain's brain cancer was even real, and speculated that it was more "fake news."
"If the deep state #fakenews is capable of lying about Russia hacking the election, they are also capable of planting a McCain illness story," @JeannaEckert wrote on Twitter.
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It's no secret that McCain was one of the most hawkish GOP senators, and repeatedly criticized the Trump administration for cozying up to Vladimir Putin. But some people think that now McCain has been targeted by Russia for precisely that rhetoric.
"McCain is a hawk on Russia. Now he has brain cancer. Hate tieing [sic] the two together, but.. that's kinda Russia's thing for dissidents," Jeffrey Kane wrote on Twitter.
In an impressive sort of conspiracy jiu-jitsu, some right-wing theorists took the occasion of McCain's cancer diagnosis to shift criticism onto Democrats. A common refrain: "How long until the liberals blame John McCain's brain cancer on Russia?"