The Donald Trump era requires a new theory of conspiracy theories
Richard Nixon may have had his enemies list, but no president has ever publicly embraced conspiracy theories quite like Donald Trump. From claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States to insisting that millions of people voted illegally in 2016, Trump’s rise and presidency have been filled with vague, false accusations targeting his enemies. When one drops, another follows. Trump only gave up on birtherism during the presidential campaign by preposterously declaring that it was his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, who had first raised doubts about Obama’s origins.
Trump’s taste for the conspiratorial might be a source of idle curiosity were he not the president of the United States. But he also might not be the president of the United States if his style of rambling insinuation and intimidation didn’t resonate with many voters. More than two-thirds of Republicans have consistently expressed doubts about Obama’s citizenship, making Trump’s birtherism an early campaign asset. Trump leaped to the top of primary polls on the strength of an announcement speech filled with baseless assertions, including the claim that Mexicans were sending “rapists” across the border. And now that he is president, his style is spreading, taking on a self-reinforcing logic.
But what is this style, exactly? And what is its broader impact? A new book by political theorists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum offers timely and insightful answers to these questions. They call this practice “the new conspiracism.” And in their book, A Lot of People Are Saying, they explain why this nihilistic form of political discourse is so hazardous.
Conspiracist thinkers have long claimed special knowledge about the secret workings of the world and its hidden levers of power. But the new conspiracism is, Muirhead and Rosenblum write, “something different.” If classic conspiracism is corkboards overloaded with index cards and string, the new conspiracism is messy spaghetti tossed angrily and performatively against the wall, sauce and all. It is Alex Jones claiming that the parents of Sandy Hook victims were “crisis actors.” It is William Barr saying that he thought the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Unlike the conspiracism of the Progressives, who saw corruption everywhere, these assertions are not ideologically coherent. They don’t hint at remedies. The goal is simply to make a hash of things by casting doubt on the motives and workings of one’s opponents, undermining the foundations of compromise.
This, Muirhead and Rosenblum worry, “makes democracy unworkable.” Democracy, after all, requires a degree of shared understanding and the potential for legitimate agreement. It requires faith in the ability of knowledge-producing institutions to generate basic facts, and for politicians and political parties to argue over which facts are most important and what to do in response to them. The new conspiracism takes a hammer to these possibilities. It sets out to sabotage government agencies, universities, political parties, and other key institutions, leaving only authoritarian demagogues to impose their own reality on the wreckage.
Trump, for example, sought to delegitimize an unfavorable court ruling by pointing out that the judge had Mexican ancestry and was therefore presumptively untrustworthy. He chalks failures up to a bureaucratic deep state determined to sabotage him. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” he once told a Kansas City crowd.
This has a self-reinforcing logic. If government agencies are made to seem illegitimate, for example, morale falls. Good people leave. Government agencies perform worse, thereby justifying the criticism. The cycle feeds on itself.
Over time, people acclimate themselves to the disorienting feeling that everybody in power is lying to them, and nothing can ever be believed—what historian Robert Jay Lifton calls “malignant normality.” The disappearance of common sense (in the most literal meaning: widely shared understanding) means that collective political action is, as Muirhead and Rosenblum write, “closed down by disorientation.” Adding to the danger is that, like many slow-moving processes, this one is hard to detect, because we adjust. The new conspiracism “hollows out our democratic institutions little by little, day by day.”
Muirhead and Rosenblum offer two main explanations for the new conspiracism’s emergence: technology and tribalism.
Technology has cast aside traditional knowledge gatekeepers, like newspaper editors and television news producers. Things used to be “true” because they came from trusted news sources. Today, they become “true enough” through sheer repetition—because a lot of people are saying it. You see enough people in your social media network sharing stories about Pope Francis endorsing Trump (to pick just one prominent example), and of course it must be true. (It was not.) Retweets and Facebook shares have replaced editors as validators and judges of newsworthiness.
Us-versus-them tribal politics contributes to the problem by obviating the need for verification. If “we” believe that “they” are evil, then bare assertion is all the proof that is needed: My opponents are bad people. Of course they’re out to get me. In the world of highly polarized politics, we already know we’re right. Who needs more evidence?
Muirhead and Rosenblum are keen to the asymmetries of the new style. Though the new conspiracism isn’t inherently a partisan project, it is far more aligned with the antigovernment agenda of the Republican Party. Most government programs are actually quite popular. But by tearing down faith in government through nihilistic attacks, antigovernment elites can win the support of voters who might otherwise be turned off by an agenda that includes cutting social safety programs.
Antigovernment activism helps explain why the new conspiracism is most evident in the United States. The Republican Party is an outlier among major right parties in advanced democracies, which have all accepted broader government involvement in the economy and the modern social welfare state in some form. No other major right party wants to return to its country’s pre-1932 approach to economic policy.
American two-party polarization is also relatively unique, and this binary lights up ancient and emotionally charged friend-versus-foe switches in our brains, shutting down reason. Comparative studies of “affective polarization” (how we feel about other partisans) find that cross-partisan hostility is highest in the U.S., precisely because our elections pose a simple us-or-them choice. In other countries, where the presence of more viable parties keeps politics from collapsing into a long-standing, one-dimensional political conflict, partisans tend to be less hostile to each other.
A Lot of People Are Saying is a tremendous contribution because it identifies and names a new style of political discourse and clarifies the danger it poses. Yet, as is common with many scholarly books that bring great insight into describing problems, the solution section falls flat.
For example, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that political leaders should be “speaking truth to conspiracism . . . even if it means electoral defeat.” This is fine advice on paper. But it is hard to heed, since reelection is the primary incentive guiding most politicians. There is a reason that most elected Republicans, despite their original opposition, are far more likely to cheerlead and defend Trump than criticize him.
In making their peace with Trump, they’ve updated their mental models. Trump may not be perfect, but the Democrats are the real danger. And at least Trump is supporting the right policies, even if his behavior is reckless. And besides, if I challenge him, I’ll lose, and be replaced by somebody else who’s even less likely to control his excesses. The human mind is capable of remarkable gymnastics in the art of self-preservation and self-justification.
This is the same underlying partisan polarization that powers the new conspiracist mind-set in the first place. In a two-party political system with distinct, sorted parties, dissenting voices have no place for representation. Once they dissent, they are quickly out of power, where far fewer people listen to their speeches.
Perhaps, then, one way out of the destructive political binary that helps power the new conspiracism is to support electoral reforms that would create a system of proportional representation, enabling multiparty democracy. In such a system, Never Trump conservatives might have formed a party that could win political offices, fighting back against the new conspiracist mind-set from a place of power.
Reforming our electoral system is a tall task. But it may be vital. As Muirhead and Rosenblum show, our current political discourse existentially threatens American democracy. At a time when so much attention focuses on Trump’s formal abuses of power, A Lot of People Are Saying shines an illuminating spotlight on the even more destructive power of his words, and the wild eddies of unreason they unleash.
Unfortunately, tearing down is far easier than building back up. Whether American democracy can contain and marginalize this new conspiracism remains to be seen. But we are running out of time. The more it grows, the harder it becomes to stop.