Conspiracy Theory's Big Comeback: Deep Paranoia Runs Free in the Age of Donald Trump
For several decades now, belief in conspiracy theories has been on the rise, as trust in institutions has declined. But Donald Trump’s candidacy supercharged that rise like nothing before it, and his impending presidency promises much more of the same. Conspiracy theory acts as a connecting bridge between the flood of false statements Trump constantly makes and the larger looming threat of a slide into authoritarian rule. Resisting conspiracism could be key to preserving and reinvigorating our democracy.
“Many authoritarian regimes throughout history are based on conspiracy theories — the prime example being the anti-Semitism of the Nazis which was an essential part of their ideology,” said cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, who researches conspiracism and climate science denial. (Salon stories here and here.) “I do not believe that a democracy can function for long when its leaders are steeped in conspiratorial thought that is disconnected from reality.”
Conspiracy theory can have a pervasive effect at the individual level, too. “There is evidence that the mere exposure to such conspiracy theories renders people more likely to incorporate those theories into their thinking, even if they do not accept those theories overtly,” Lewandowsky noted.
Of course, some conspiracies are chillingly real — Watergate, the Iran-Contra boondoggle of the Reagan years, the Tuskegee experiments, etc. — and others may be difficult to assess. So it’s helpful to focus more on the conspiracist mindset that persistently sees such conspiracies where they don’t exist, disregards all contrary evidence and ignores or severely distorts the broader historical context that helps make sense of what really happened. Such a focus reveals broader patterns, rather than getting dragged down into minutiae.
In a previous article, I described a set of six characteristics Lewandowsky investigated, which fall into three groups that help clarify the true nature of conspiracy-theory thinking. The first two establish a morally self-justifying framework — hidden conspirators are bad (“nefarious intention”), but conspiracy theorists are good (“persecution-victimization”) — which subverts the conspiracists’ purported interest in truth-seeking.
The second pair does this by managing unwanted information: First by ignoring or denying contradictory evidence (“nihilistic skepticism”) and then by building an elaborate fantasy edifice, incorporating random evidence (“nothing happens by accident”).
The last pair subverts truth-seeking by fending off sounder explanations, either by dogmatically insisting there’s a conspiracy even if no coherent account of it can be given (and, in the extreme, when conspiracists hold self-contradictory beliefs), or by insisting that evidence against the conspiracy is actually evidence in favor of it — proof of how badly the conspirators want to hide the truth (“self-sealing”).
Although conspiracy theories are believed all across the political spectrum, there is significant historical evidence that they appeal more strongly to conservatives, particularly in the United States. Conspiracy theory is especially strong among “paleoconservatives” like Pat Buchanan, the late Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich or Ron Paul, along with their predecessors in the John Birch Society. This makes sense from the perspective that “conspiracy theories are for losers,” a form of motivated reasoning used by those who feel excluded to question the legitimacy of those in power.
This observation was supported by the 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories” which found that alleged conspirators in New York Times letters to the editor came predominantly from the left when a Republican was president, and from the right when a Democrat was. But paleoconservatives are losers on a much more sweeping and fundamental level: They are fighting against the whole thrust of American history since at least the Progressive Era, and oppose everything from affirmative action to Social Security, minimum wage laws, federal income tax, direct popular election of senators, and even, sometimes, women’s right to vote.
Last July, I wrote about Trump’s affinity for paleoconservatism, including the notion that “political correctness” is a vast conspiratorial enterprise (dubbed “cultural Marxism” by long-time Weyrich associate William Lind) that is meant to destroy conventional morality and religion, undermine existing cultural institutions, promote multiculturalism and demote the dominance of white European-American Christians — especially men.
While Trump hasn’t explicitly embraced this paranoid worldview — he’s more of a broad-brush, big-picture blowhard — it fits well with what he has said, and with the alt-right movement that has supported him so vigorously. It was further reflected in a cluster of three racist or ethnocentric conspiracy theories that were critical to Trump’s rise: His “birther” attack on Obama’s legitimacy as America’s first black president, his false allegations of a Mexican government scheme to send “rapists and murderers” to the U.S., and his multiple anti-Muslim conspiracy narratives, including the false claim that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Trump also drew on conspiracy theories to delegitimize all sorts of political obstacles he faced. He falsely claimed that Ted Cruz’s father had associated with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, repeatedly suggested that protesters at his rallies were paid by his opponents, railed against the “dishonest media” (in terms suggestive of the Nazi-era insult LÃ¼genpresse, or “lying press”), launched unfounded accusations of mass voter fraud and attacked sources of objective data — from economic statistics to climate science — as intentionally deceptive.
In all these respects, Trump has built on the works of others. But he has given individual conspiracy theories greater prominence than they’d ever enjoyed before, he’s woven different conspiratorial narratives together, creating a whole that is far more radically removed from reality than any of its parts taken separately, and he’s given them a specific partisan connotation as well. More than anything, he has constantly repeated the aforementioned core elements of conspiracy theorists’ moral framework — hidden, evil conspirators versus noble conspiracy theorists good — which has increasingly polluted our political discourse. This creates a cultural resonance supporting the wide range of fragmentary lies he tells, which can very often be understood as pieces plucked out of larger conspiratorial narratives.
I asked Lewandowsky about the spill-over effect between the different conspiracy theories Trump has promoted, and how they have eroded people’s grasp on reality. He answered on two different levels, first socially. “The terms ‘post-fact’ and ‘post-truth’ were virtually unknown a few years ago, but they both rose to prominence in the media in 2016,” he pointed out. But individual psychology matters as well. “There is evidence that most people who believe one conspiracy theory will also believe others,” he said. “One factor that explains that predisposition is whether people feel disenfranchised or resentful about society. People who are resentful and (frequently) distrustful are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories.”
This fits in well with the paleoconservative worldview Trump echoes, but it’s been a long time coming. “I think that what we are seeing now is the culmination of trends that have been at work for 10 to 20 years,” Lewandowsky said. “The clearest example of this are data from 2003 to 2005, which show that at the time people who obtained their news from Fox were systematically misinformed about many issues — most prominent among them the mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.”
But Democrats opposing Trump can fall prey to conspiracist beliefs as well — along with anyone in between. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently tweeted, “Liberals who talked a big game during Obama years are about to fall victim to a bunch of misperceptions & conspiracy theories too.”
Perhaps. But research by Joanne Miller and Kyle Saunders, who discussed it with Salon last March, suggests a more muted response. They found that more knowledgeable conservatives were more likely to believe conspiracy theories, but more trusting conservatives were less affected. They had expected liberals to be affected as well, but less than conservatives, who appeared to be the ideological losers at the time. Instead they found that liberals were virtually unaffected by conspiracy theory, suggesting that other factors may play a role.
Conservatives are known to be “more vigilant, very sensitive to threat, and therefore more likely to notice threat,” Miller told Salon at the time. “There’s a big leap from that to conservatives supporting protectionist policies, or being afraid of everybody who’s not like them. And we don’t have the evidence linking everything in that chain.” With roles reversed, and a Republican in the White House, we might be able to gain more insight.
But Trump is not your typical Republican. When I contacted Miller and Saunders more recently, they said they thought it would take six months or so before liberal-centric conspiracy theories were likely to emerge. “I would feel much stronger about these predictions if [John] Kasich or Cruz had become president,” Miller cautioned. “Trump is a different animal.” The way he campaigned on what might be termed a “cultural loser” identity could muddle the tendency for ideological losers to generate the larger share of conspiracy theories.
Looking back at the 2016 campaign, much that happened conformed with Miller and Saunders’ earlier findings. “On the ideology side and the trust side, we would have expected conspiracy theories to come more from the right, because they were still on the losing side of politics,” Miller said. The role of knowledge is less clear-cut, though it does appear that high-knowledge/low-trust conservatives played a larger role in spreading conspiracies and fake news stories, while lower-knowledge voters may have played an unexpected role in winning key states.
But even more surprising “was just the amount of it — the fake news that largely peddled in conspiracies,” Miller said. “The sheer amount of it is new, absolutely.” There are long-term trends involved, they pointed out, such as declining trust in institutions, erosion of the institutions themselves and the democratic norms they uphold, and the emergence of a coherent authoritarian worldview, as described by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler in “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.” But all these factors converged to produce a phenomenon larger than the sum of its parts.
Miller pointed to the way Trump capitalized on distrust of government, “out groups” (including Muslims, immigrants and minorities in general), Hillary Clinton herself and so on, weaving them all together. Saunders pointed to distrust on both sides combined with an environment where misinformation and conspiracy theories spread rapidly, with few people able to counter the conspiracy theories with facts. That combination “allowed an environment where Trump could exploit that — exploit the environment, exploit his own supporters, exploit the overall system as it currently stands,” he said.
Rather than blaming the public — especially “low-information voters” who turned to Trump — Saunders went on to discuss what he calls “elite cue-taking,” and “Trump’s ability to control the agenda with a single tweet that spread like wildfire.” The media would respond with “sometimes uncritical coverage, just, ‘Here’s this tweet. Isn’t it amazing what he’s saying?’ That in turn allows the conspiracy theory or the misinformation to continue to move and spread throughout the networks.”
Amid alleged Russian hacking and the interference of WikiLeaks and FBI director James Comey, Saunders said, “We had all kinds of outside actors who were easily exploited as potential conspiratorial actors. It wasn’t that they were ginned up out of nothing. It’s an information environment where the truth is very hard to parse from the misinformation. That is so easily exploitable, and I think Trump’s a master of it.” The larger problem, Saunders suggests, is that other political actors will follow his lead. “What is the check on them from doing so?” he asked. “That’s yet another deterioration of democratic norms, because you’ve had somebody successfully employ this strategy and gain power from it.”
Findings from a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll showed that Trump voters, but not Clinton voters, were far more likely (by 64 percent to 12 percent) to say that “Over the past few years, average Americans have gotten less than they deserve,” as opposed to saying that “blacks have gotten far less.”This reflects a profound sense of white grievance signifying that Trump voters think of themselves as losers, especially compared to African-Americans. The fact that this is wildly untrue only intensifies the likelihood of conspiracist ideas taking hold. The absence of rational explanations for what is essentially a subjective emotion provides a powerful incentive for inventing them.
As Miller told me last March, there experiments show that people experiencing loss of control are more likely to see images in random dots on a computer screen. “If you think of conspiracy theories as making connections between things that don’t really belong together,” she explained, “conspiracy theories are one of the things that we go to in order to try to explain something that is unexplainable, because we need to restore control.”
It’s a cognitive tendency to which all human beings are prone, which is why liberals must also be alert to the allure of conspiracy theory. Lewandowsky warns against falling into the same trap. “I would recommend a healthy dose of skepticism,” he said. “For example, after the election there was some chatter on social media about the possibility that Russia hacked U.S. voting machines. I thought that was quite far-fetched and I worried that this might entrench itself as a conspiracy theory among Trump opponents,” he said. “Fortunately, it now appears that this entrenchment did not occur.
“There would be nothing gained if Trump opponents created another conspiratorial parallel world in response to Trump,” Lewandowsky said. “I think we should do everything we can to restore the cultural authority of facts and reasoned evidence, and so I personally am shying away from anything that might take me into conspiratorial territory. There is enough known about Trump in broad daylight that opponents can focus on: His failure to release his tax returns or his medical records, his record as a serial sexual predator, and so on. There is no need to resort to anything that might resemble conspiratorial thought. That is best left to Trump and his ilk.”