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Fringe Conspiracy Theorists Think Trump Is an Immortal Alien, Got COVID as Cover to Shapeshift

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Motherboard explores UFOs, UFO culture, and the paranormal.

“Earthlings, prepare to be attacked…” tweeted Richard Van Steenberg in response to the recent news that Donald Trump contracted COVID-19. Steenberg, like many others who believe nefarious aliens are visiting our planet, is concerned that Trump’s recent illness is a sign of the coming alien apocalypse.

QAnon is not the only movement getting worked up over Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis. Conspiracy theorists on the extreme fringe also suspect that Trump—who they believe might be an immortal alien—might have contracted coronavirus in an attempt to shed his mortal flesh and shapeshift into something else.

Steenberg started an online petition three years ago called “Disclose: Humanoid Extra Terrestrials Live Among Us.” His website highlights the bulk of his theories and with nearly 30,000 Twitter followers and over 10,000 signatures on his petition, Steenberg is confident he knows the truth. He is a purveyor of bizarre conspiracies that are largely divorced from anything happening in the observable universe. While he has a following among conspiracy theorists, his beliefs are fringe even for that space.

“If you take the time to understand the possibility of ET being able to exist in Humanoid form (Humanoid ET), you would realize they can live among us and we will just think they are EA (EArthlings),” Steenberg wrote in an email. Steenberg asserts that there are countless alien-human hybrids who coexist with humans on Earth, and that many hold established positions of power, such as being celebrities or corporate CEOs. He believes that these extraterrestrials are engaged in a plan to subvert humanity and take control via psychological manipulation. Trump, according to Steenberg, is most likely in on the plan. 

“The plan has been in action since they put us on the planet as cavemen,” he said. “I would say Trump is either a HET [human alien hybrid] or CEA [a human complicit in the alien plot] in that he has known what is going on certainly for the better part of his public life on EArth and would have known early on he would be President,” Steenberg explained. “If he’s an HET [human alien hybrid], it’s very probable he existed before EArth and took part in the design of the ETA [the plot to invade].”

Steenberg explained that he believes that human alien hybrids don’t really die, but are able to morph to look like whatever they want and not age. The news that Donald Trump has COVID-19 is just a distraction, as all world events are, to keep humans focused on smaller issues and not the extraterrestrials. Again, there is no evidence to back up any of this.

“So Trump getting Covid follows the same pattern,” Steenberg said. Humans will focus on the confusion surrounding the infection and how it will affect the upcoming debates and election. Spending its time worrying about Trump and Biden, humanity will not think philosophically about aliens and how they reside on Earth. 

Sherry Shriner, an Ohio based conspiracy theorist, internet radio show host, and self proclaimed daughter of God, ran a successful religious movement on Facebook and YouTube in the mid to late 2000’s until she died in 2018. Her doctrine, a mix of fundamentalist Christianity and UFO religion, proclaimed that Satan had contracted evil Reptilian aliens to take over the world. Using their advanced technology, and their powers of psychological manipulation, shapeshifting, and cloning, the vast majority of celebrities and world leaders were Reptilian aliens in disguise. Shriner’s cult made headlines in 2012 when one of her followers killed themself and again in 2017, when another one of her followers shot her boyfriend in the head at point blank range.

According to her books and various social media posts, Shriner explained that she was chosen by God to save humanity from the evil aliens and Satan, their Commander-in-Chief. A handful of her followers have picked up Shriner’s ministry and have continued to spread the word. According to posts on Facebook, Trump contracted COVID-19 because he is actually under the command of Satan. Citing the fact that he contracted the virus 33 days prior to the election, and linking to other oddball prophecies found in the Nicolas Cage film Snake Eyes, it all boils down to the number 666 and that Trump has been marked by Satan. 

While these are extremely bizarre conspiracies with no basis in fact, they exist in a news ecosystem, social media environment, and political environment where the truth often doesn’t matter—and where “the truth” can be very difficult to discern. People like Shriner and her followers and Steenberg and his followers exist alongside Republican operatives who suggest that Trump getting coronavirus is some sort of assassination plot either from the left or from China. Meanwhile, state-led disinfo campaign are likely continuing, though we don’t know if they’re having as much success as they had in 2016. 

Steven Hassan, an expert on cult psychology and the author of The Cult of Trump, explained that bizarre beliefs—even ones about shapeshifting aliens trying to invade the Earth—all serve to muddle the truth. 

“These cults and religious movements can often be linked to psychological operations,” Hassan explained over the telephone. Many people who fall into the UFO subculture are primed to believe other conspiracies, QAnon included. Dr. Steven Greer, a popular UFO pundit whose films appear on Netflix, has appeared several times on the Russian state sponsored news channel RT to talk about his method of alien contact and UFOs. In February of 2019, Greer told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze that three of his colleagues were assassinated by the CIA for attempting to disclose the truth behind a government run UFO cover-up. Moreover, in the 1950s, the US government did instruct American intelligence agencies to monitor UFO groups for dissident behaviour. A collection of people who are already predisposed to believe in something with little evidence, such as aliens on Earth, and already hold a distrust in the government and other established institutions, seem to be a prime target for easy manipulation.

These new movements which exist primarily on the internet all seem to challenge the basic foundations of democracy. The media and government is corrupted by an evil force and only “free thinking” followers can save it, predominantly via some sort of revolution or massive societal shift. 

“President Trump is a symptom of a problem that we have been dealing with for decades now,”  Hassan concluded. “It seems easy to write off people with strange or kooky beliefs. We shouldn’t because that is dangerous.”

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In SNL’s cold open, the final presidential debate becomes an absurd slugfest over coronavirus

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Saturday Night Live parodied the final presidential debate during its opening sketch on Saturday, depicting President Donald Trump as clueless and callous about the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as comically old-fashioned and goofy about everything.

Maya Rudolph, playing moderator and NBC journalist Kristen Welker, began the debate by reminding the participants that she had a mute button — a feature that was added to the actual final debate because of Trump’s relentless interruptions during the first debate in September.

“Tonight we have a mute button, because it was either that or tranquilizer darts — and the president has a very high tolerance for those after his Covid treatment,” Rudolph’s Welker declared.

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As the debate began, Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, immediately downplayed the virus as worthy of the public’s concern.

“Coronavirus — boring, right? We’re doing terrific,” Baldwin said. “We’re rounding the corner, in fact we’ve rounded so many corners we’ve gone all the way around the block that we’re back where we started in March.”

Biden, played by Jim Carrey, retorted, “C’mon man, we’re in the middle of a third wave! Where I come from if a girl gave you a third wave, you were practically married.”

Later on, Baldwin’s Trump promised that a coronavirus vaccine would be distributed by the military in spectacular fashion: “The army will come and shoot it with a cannon into your face.”

He then rambled about his own experience with Covid-19.

“Look, I had it, it was very mean to me, but I beat it, and now the doctors say I can never die,” Baldwin said. “And this virus said to me, ‘Sir, sir, I have to leave your body.’ Now the virus was crying, very sad. It didn’t want to leave my body. And the point is we’re all learning to live with it.”

Dramatizing the actual Biden’s response to Trump saying, “We’re learning to live with it,” on Thursday, Carrey said with a squint, “Learning to live with it? We’re learning to die with it man!”

Overall, Biden’s debate performance was characterized as “a little feisty,” and SNL satirized this by having Rudolph’s Welker halt the proceedings to observe, “Looks like Mr. Biden is so mad he’s Eastwooding it a little bit,” in a reference to actor and director Clint Eastwood.

“That’s right, now I believe the little lady asked you about a plan, why don’t you enlighten us, punk?” Carrey said.

Rudy Giuliani, played by Kate McKinnon, also made a brief appearance during the debate.

“Get ready for this truth bomb!” McKinnon’s Giuliani shouted. “Your son Hunter got $3 million from Moscow and his friend Tony Babdooey has emails right there on the wet laptop from hell! And our eyewitness saw everything and he is blind!”

The statement is a reference to a questionable story published by the New York Post alleging the discovery of inappropriate emails by Hunter Biden on a laptop dropped off at a repair shop. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop recently explained, “questions have been raised about whether that story is accurate and whether all the information allegedly on the laptop is authentic.”

In making his closing statement, Carrey’s Biden presented himself as the safe option by likening himself to a reliable car.

“Look, everybody, you know who he is and you know who I am,” he said. “I’m good old Joe. I’m reliable as a rock. I’ve got a five-star safety rating and I’m ranked best midsize in my class by J.D. Power and Associates. I don’t have a gold toilet seat. I have a soft, spongy one that hisses whenever I park my keister.”

“There’s only two things I do,” he added. “I kick ass and I take trains. And I don’t see any trains in sight. And that ladies in gentlemen, is no malarkey.”

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‘Boycott French products’ launched over Macron’s Islam comments

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Several Arab trade associations have announced the boycott of French products, protesting the recent comments made by President Emmanuel Macron on Islam.

Earlier this month, Macron pledged to fight “Islamist separatism”, which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France.

He also described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

His comments, in addition to his backing of satirical outlets publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, has led to a social media campaign calling for the boycott of French products from supermarkets in Arab countries and Turkey.

Hashtags such as the #BoycottFrenchProducts in English and the Arabic #ExceptGodsMessenger trended across countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In Kuwait, the chairman and members of the board of directors of the Al-Naeem Cooperative Society decided to boycott all French products and to remove them from supermarket shelves.

The Dahiyat al-Thuhr association took the same step, saying: “Based on the position of French President Emmanuel Macron and his support for the offensive cartoons against our beloved prophet, we decided to remove all French products from the market and branches until further notice.”

In Qatar, the Wajbah Dairy company announced a boycott of French products and pledged to provide alternatives, according to their Twitter account.

Al Meera Consumer Goods Company, a Qatari joint stock company, announced on Twitter: “We have immediately withdrawn French products from our shelves until further notice.”

“We affirm that as a national company, we work according to a vision consistent with our true religion, our established customs and traditions, and in a way that serves our country and our faith and meets the aspirations of our customers.”

Qatar University also joined the campaign. Its administration has postponed a French Cultural Week event indefinitely, citing the “deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols”.

In a statement on Twitter, the university said any prejudice against Islamic belief, sanctities and symbols is “totally unacceptable, as these offences harm universal human values ​​and the highest moral principles that contemporary societies highly regard”.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) described Macron’s statements as “irresponsible”, and said they are aimed at spreading a culture of hatred among peoples.

“At a time when efforts must be directed towards promoting culture, tolerance and dialogue between cultures and religions, such rejected statements and calls for publishing insulting images of the Prophet (Muhammad) – may blessings and peace be upon him – are published,” said the council’s secretary-general, Nayef al-Hajraf.

Al-Hajraf called on world leaders, thinkers and opinion leaders to reject hate speech and contempt of religions and their symbols, and to respect the feelings of Muslims, instead of falling captive to Islamophobia.

In a statement, Kuwait’s foreign ministry warned against the support of abuses and discriminatory policies that link Islam to terrorism, saying it “represents a falsification of reality, insults the teachings of Islam, and offends the feelings of Muslims around the world”.

On Friday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned what it said was France’s continued attack against Muslims by insulting religious symbols.

The secretariat of the Jeddah-based organisation said in a statement it is surprised at the official political rhetoric issued by some French officials that offend French-Islamic relations and fuels feelings of hatred for political party gains.

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How bookstores are weathering the pandemic

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The pandemic arrived early for Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The state had one of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US in February. As she watched more cases pop up across the country, “I felt an increasing sense of panic and crisis,” she said. On March 15, she abruptly closed her stores in the middle of the day. She immediately shrank her staff from 500 to 60 who were “just helping us turn the lights off and put out-of-office messages on the website.” Almost overnight, she shifted her business entirely to online orders.

She’s since been able to bring back around 150 employees, and thanks to a flood of online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and partial reopenings of her stores, she’s made it this far.

Still, Powell’s and other independent bookstores across the country face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still low, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt. Independent bookstore owners dug deep into their wells of creativity and passion and found ways to transform their businesses to cope with Covid-19. But even so, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, the ABA says.

Between mid-April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) distributed $2.7 million to store owners in need. “That equals the distribution that we had had in the previous eight years,” said executive director Pamela French. The individual grants it gives out have increased 443 percent over last year. The level of need has subsided somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, but it’s remained consistently elevated, even with many stores now open.

A number of bookstores shut their doors voluntarily before any government lockdowns were imposed. “We were one of the first places in our town to close down,” said Suedee Hall-Elkins, manager of Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her store’s aisles are very narrow, so they felt the need to close “for morally responsible reasons.”

Closing off browsing meant a seismic shift in bookstore business models. Kris Kleindienst’s shelves at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, were fully stocked with newly released books in March. “All of a sudden, they just became décor,” she said.

Still, owners pivoted as quickly as they could. “These independent bookstore owners are just tenacious,” French said. Owners suddenly found themselves arranging curbside pickups, shipping thousands of online orders, and staging completely virtual events.

Many factors boosted sales just when stores needed them. Customers flooded online ordering systems, many in the hope of helping their local stores, others simply desperate for something to read during lockdown. Amazon started prioritizing essential goods over things like books, giving an edge to independent stores. Annie Philbrick’s online orders at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, are about 10 times what they were each year for the past five. Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, sold 50,000 books during his city’s lockdown.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd took off, prompting another deluge of purchases as readers were eager to get their hands on books about race and racism. “The summer was mostly fulfilling … anti-racism orders,” Kleindienst said.

The switch to online and curbside ordering saved bookstores from ruin. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it enjoyable. “It started to feel like a fulfillment warehouse for widgets,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California. “It really took a toll on us psychologically.” What kept him going, he said, was getting notes in online orders saying thank you.

Philbrick took it upon herself to pick up books from her two stores and drive them to customers’ homes. “I was a UPS driver for a month or so,” she said. She would hang bags of books on their doors, ring the bell, and walk back to her car. She even drove an hour and a half out of town to bring books to a couple who would leave her snack bags in thanks. “That was a pleasure,” she said.

In many ways, online ordering is the antithesis of what independent bookstores are. “We are a community space that thrived with that in-person, face-to-face conversation about ideas and literature,” said Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her store typically stages 300 events a year, and the in-store ones pack 50 people “elbow to elbow,” she said. Now, she’s been entirely focused on online orders, which requires “10 times as much work for a sale of one book.”

Stores like Gustafson’s quickly moved their programming — author events, book clubs, classes — to online platforms. But it’s a difficult and often money-losing way to do them. Stores typically make money from free events when people buy books, often getting them autographed. Online, it’s different. “Sales are down even though audience levels are, in some cases, up,” Graham said. Readers also now have a vast array of stores’ events to choose from because they’re all online. “The competition has just become fierce,” Philbrick said.

Despite the many hurdles small-business owners faced in getting PPP loans, all of the stores I spoke to were able to secure loans, and the money was vital. “The thing that got us this far and avoided bankruptcy was the PPP money,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. Even so, it was gone within a couple of months.

Other money came from unexpected places. Philbrick got $5,000 from Spanx, which was offering grants to women-owned businesses. That, she said, was a turning point of sorts, when she realized that not only would she have a cushion to get through, but “we’re all in this together trying to figure this out.”

Some customers even gave their local bookstores donations in the hope of keeping them alive. Gustafson’s store launched a GoFundMe, which was a “lifeline,” she said. She raised more there than she got in PPP money.

But at this point, most of the money has dried up. “Given the current level of economic activity, it’s not realistic to think that bookstores or other retail businesses can, on their own, make a go of it,” Graham said with a heavy sigh. “More federal assistance is needed so long as the pandemic persists.”

Some stores are doing as well as they would otherwise expect thanks to loyal customers and a thirst for books as people stay closer to home. But those factors aren’t making the numbers work for everyone.

Vroman’s, which bills itself as the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, has warned that without a significant increase in sales, its 126-year tenure will come to a close. Powell’s has exhausted its PPP loan and isn’t making enough in sales to support the business. Politics & Prose is still not breaking even, and the store will need to make enough in the next few months to have a cushion headed into 2021. “It’s not a sustainable position to continue to operate in the red,” Graham said. Laughing, he added, “You don’t need a degree in anything to understand that fact.”

A number of stores have opened their doors simply to remain as financially solvent as possible. When we spoke, Gustafson was preparing to open with limited hours and days. “Our rent is still due and we still have payables,” she said. “We want to survive, so it’s like, ‘How do we make this work?’”

“We face this tension between the need to welcome in more customers for the holiday shopping season in order to at least get back in the black,” Graham said, “while at the same time being very careful not to create a public health hazard.”

Public health has been at the forefront of the minds of owners who have reopened as fully as possible. All stores have reduced their hours as well as their capacity. Everyone has installed Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and hand sanitizing stations throughout their stores. There’s crowd control not just to limit the number of shoppers but to ensure that masks are worn correctly. Many stores have rearranged their layouts so customers don’t have to squeeze by each other in tight aisles.

Hall-Elkins went even further, installing UV lights and ionizing cleaners in all three of her HVAC units, putting fans around the store, and keeping the door open as much as possible to better ventilate. She replaced her old carpets and installed touchless credit card systems.

Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, in May 2020, before reopening at limited capacity.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Owners have found themselves in entirely new roles, worried not just about their business’s finances but the health of their employees, their customers, and their own families. Hall-Elkins finds herself up late reading medical articles. “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety for sure,” she said. Laughing, she added, “I feel responsible for everybody’s life, and that’s a really weird thing to feel as a manager of a bookstore.”

Some have kept their doors closed. When we spoke in the first week of October, Kleindienst said she was planning to open that weekend by appointment and only after 6 pm. “Our staff really did not feel like they wanted people to be just walking in off the street and wandering around,” she explained. “It just didn’t seem like it was worth risking our lives.” She’s hoping that allowing a very select group of customers back in will be enough to keep the store afloat. But, she added, “I don’t see us opening the doors to walk-in traffic for quite a while.”

The holiday season will be crucial. Nearly every bookstore owner mentioned how important the season is normally — and therefore what it will mean now. Graham said the store typically makes anywhere from a quarter to a third of the whole year’s sales in December alone. “It’s an absolutely critical period.”

To help stores that need to see high sales without big crowds, the American Booksellers Association has begun a campaign urging consumers to shop early called “October Is the New December.” Other things will have to change, too. Normally, Salardino’s store offers gift-wrapping for a fee, and he’d have a long line of people waiting to have books wrapped. That’s not possible now.

One book could make or break the future for many stores: The first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoir will be released November 17. Not only is it destined to be a bestseller — the publisher ordered a first printing of 3 million copies — but it’s pricey, coming in at $45. “I literally think that that book is going to save a lot of stores,” Fusco-Straub said. His store will be ordering a whole pallet.

The future, of course, remains completely uncertain. It’s difficult just to plan ahead. Philbrick noted she’s ordering paperback copies of hardcover books that she struggled to sell during the shutdown, which means the data she typically relies on to predict future sales are almost useless. “As a business person, we’re all used to being able to forecast,” Powell said. But now, “we can’t see beyond a 30-day time horizon.”

Hall-Elkins worries that a virus spike or just cold weather will keep people home from holiday shopping. Then there’s what could happen with the election or the economy. The immediate pandemic-caused contraction appears to be turning into a full-blown recession. “We don’t know how much folks will be able to shop,” Powell noted. “Books aren’t … groceries or rent. How much will people be willing to come out to our stores?”

Few owners were willing to contemplate what another complete shutdown would mean. “I don’t even know what we would do,” Hall-Elkins said. “We would probably be in pretty big trouble.”

Losing an independent bookstore is a huge blow to a community. “These are places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas,” French said. Bookstores “provide everything from sanctuary to just meditative spaces.” And they help keep an economy humming, retaining money in the local community and generating jobs and tax revenue.

Still, independent bookstores have been through a lot, including competition from big chains and Amazon. “People have been predicting the end of indie bookstores since the Great Depression,” said Kate Weiss, programs manager at BINC. Even with a pandemic, 30 bookstores have opened this year so far, although that’s still a far cry from the 104 that opened in 2019.

“We’re a stalwart bunch,” Philbrick said. “We’re just going to keep going. We’re not dead.”


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