In mid-January, a series of posts that put Donald Trump in the middle of a massive conspiracy theory came seemingly out of nowhere to get an incredible 164,000 retweets.
Does it break a massive piece of news about the Russia scandal? Shed light on the “real” reason Trump has fought so hard to keep the government shut down? Lay out all of the complicated and secret connections between Trump-world and the hidden sources of money that have propped his businesses up?
No, it’s about him being a time traveler, and several late 19th century books written about a man eerily similar to Donald Trump, including one about his young son, and another predicting him being “the last president.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the story of Ingersoll Lockwood’s books “Baron Trump’s Marvelous Underground Journey” and “1900: or, The Last President” has been in the mainstream for over a year-and-a-half. It was a July 2017 Newsweek article that amplified a conspiracy theory going around pro-Trump social media—that these books predicted the rise of Donald Trump with almost supernatural accuracy.
And at a quick glance, they seem to. The first book has a young man with the title of “Baron Trump” taking a magical journey around Russia with an older father figure named Don. The second predicts a wealthy, Fifth Avenue-dwelling tycoon and political outsider whose populist “common man” rhetoric and massive reform of the monetary system inspires violent protests and eventually a full-on civil war that brings down the country.
The Lockwood books have become something of a conspiracy theory totem that never quite go away—as evidenced by an exploding Twitter thread 18 months after they first came into the public eye.
Most of the mainstream pieces written about the books viewed them with amusement, relics from another time that happened to get a few predictions right.
But pro-Trump posters on Reddit and 4chan used the books as the crux of a conspiracy theory that Lockwood either had some kind of divine vision about Trump becoming president or that Trump somehow went back in time himself to write them, thanks to technology invented by Nikola Tesla. Naturally, he’s been hiding this time travel ability ever since.
So how did an amusing historical anomaly inspire a theory that gets more viral exposure than even Trump’s own tweets?
It’s all a valuable lesson in how a minor internet sensation turns into a lasting conspiracy theory. In fact, it can be traced step by step.
Find a very small, mostly insignificant thing, and imbue it with incredible significance
The Ingersoll Lockwood books are real. They’re available to read for free on the Library of Congress website. But the reason nobody had heard of them is that they all flopped, getting savage reviews. Lockwood was a lawyer and lecturer who dabbled in writing, producing two Baron Trump novels and the speculative fiction work “1900,” as well as some poetry.
They were all but forgotten until 2017.
I gr8ly sense .@realDonaldTrump ie #Q merged 1996 movie "White S[Q]uall" into today's #Q commc'tns. Just like the book "Baron Trump's Marvelous Underground Journey" by Ingersoll Lockwood. Remarkable relevance. What & who came first?? "No coincidences." #Qanon #MAGA— Eli7 (@dandyjo2) April 5, 2018
Pull in things that don’t have anything to do with the original thing, and decide that they do
“Baron Trump’s Marvelous Underground Journey,” written in 1893, is actually the second Baron Trump book, the first being “Travels and adventures of Little Baron Trump and his wonderful dog Bulger,” published four years earlier. Both are whimsical stories that clearly ape “Alice in Wonderland,” about the wacky adventures of a young German baron named Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Von Troomp.
“1900, or the Last President,” came along in 1896. That book has nothing to do with the Baron Trump books, despite many conspiracy theorists calling it a sequel. It’s written in a totally different style and isn’t really a novel, instead acting as a third-person historian’s view of how the U.S. collapsed—with almost no dialogue and few named characters (even the president character is only given the name “Bryan.”)
Over-emphasize irrelevant details, while ignoring those that falsify the conspiracy theory
Other than a character titled “Baron Trump,” an older character with the Spanish title “Don,” and a trip to Russia; “Marvelous Underground Journey” is pure fantasy. The book is full of alternate dimensions, monsters, giants, demons, racist caricatures of natives, and a long trip into the land of “Queen Galaxa.”
Meanwhile, while conspiracy theorists have jumped on “1900’s” populist president’s having a cabinet member with the last name “Pence,” that character is secretary of agriculture, and from Colorado. The only similarity with Vice President Mike Pence is the last name. “1900” mostly revolves around esoteric concepts in monetary policy and congressional procedure—one reason why the book was essentially forgotten.
Decide the entire thing has a supernatural or secret meaning that “they” don’t want you to know about
The few hits got played up with the many misses downplayed, and the conspiracy theorists decided that Lockwood had predicted the future, or that Donald Trump was a time traveler who left clues to his own rise to power in a pair of books that almost nobody read. Maybe it’s both.
Throw in a superfluous mention of a prominent conspiracy theory figurehead
That would be the great inventor Nikola Tesla, who, in his later years, told of a series of magnificent projects he was working on, everything from limitless power transfer to death rays to, yes, time travel. Tesla’s papers were sucked up by the FBI after his death in 1943, where they were examined by a renowned physicist working for the government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development named John G. Trump – the brother of Donald Trump’s father Fred.
So did Dr. Trump share the secrets of time travel with his nephew? Trump talked about his uncle’s genius from time to time, at one point declaring that “[Dr. Trump] would tell me, ‘There are things that are happening that could be potentially so bad for the world in terms of weaponry,’” as evidence that Donald was an expert on atomic warfare.
.@realDonaldTrump’s uncle John G. Trump was pivotal in the taking of Tesla’s papers when Tesla died in 1943.— Jordan Sather (@Jordan_Sather_) June 10, 2018
What secrets do you think got passed through the family?
“Unlock the mysteries of space & technologies of tomorrow…”
– DJT on Inauguration Day
The conspiracy theories go from there, claiming that John Trump harvested Tesla’s papers for secrets that he passed on to his little nephew, who decades later, is using them to make incredible weapons as part of a “secret space program.” The problem is that Tesla’s secrets were nonsense— and John G. Trump knew it.
Tesla spent his final years penniless, living in a New York City flophouse, and likely dealing with advanced obsessive-compulsive disorder. The fanciful inventions that conspiracy theorists ascribe to him almost all came from notes he made during these last few years. Indeed, Dr. Trump examined these papers hoping to learn information that would help the Allied war effort—particularly the “death ray”. He did not, instead writing that the last decade of Tesla’s life were “primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character” and produced nothing of scientific use.
Push it out to a large block of followers who are predisposed to believe conspiracy theories
The “Donald Trump got the secret of time travel from his uncle who got it from Tesla, then went back in time and wrote books about his own rise” conspiracy theory got credence and massive exposure thanks to shares from conspiracy theorists with massive followings, including hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. One, posted in August 2017, has 1.7 million views.
By that point, the mainstream media had already moved on from the Lockwood books.
But conspiracy theorists tend to never move on, they only add more details. So the Lockwood books continue to be “discovered” through YouTube algorithms and Twitter threads, piling on conspiracy after conspiracy, and acting as a parallel narrative to “explain” something that, in reality, is simple coincidence based on a selective reading of a few forgotten books.
But where’s the fun in that?