QAnon, Tampa and Trump: Not All Conspiracy Theories Are the Same

Conspiracy theories motivate voters on both sides of the aisle — but with strikingly different results

On Aug. 3, two days after Trump’s Tampa rally served as a kind of “coming out” party for enthusiasts of the QAnon conspiracy (according to which Trump is totally in control, working secretly with Robert Mueller to put the entire Democratic Party leadership in prison — probably Guantánamo), political scientist Joe Uscinski, co-author of “American Conspiracy Theories,” along with Joseph Parent, tweeted:

It struck me as an odd tweet in a number of ways, not just because QAnon itself is so obviously newsworthy, particularly with this public display, but because the rise of conspiracies on the left is historically unsurprising, as Uscinski’s own book shows, and because the left-wing conspiracy theories cited in the stories he linked to seem far less coherently developed into a widely-shared alternative reality.  

The Vox story, for example, was a severe critique of Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains,” which, it should suffice to note, has had nowhere near the impact of classic conservative conspiracy texts such as “A Choice Not An Echo" or “None Dare Call It Treason” in the 1960s, or Pat Robertson’s “The New World Order” in the 1990s — all of which were far more removed from reality.

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Indeed, another story — at the Atlantic — expressly denied any left-right equivalence: Before we go on, let me try to quiet the cries of “False equivalence!” before they begin: No, these personalities and publications do not yet wield the same influence in the Democratic Party that their counterparts do in the GOP. But ignoring them would be a mistake.

That sort of balanced perspective is what I would have expected from Uscinski, given the findings in his book, which as I mentioned here in March 2016, “looked at letters to the editor to the New York Times from 1890 to 2010, and found that the villains in conspiracy theories were more often on the left when a Democrat was president, and on the right when a Republicans was in the White House.” The ratios were three-to-one in both cases, and the book makes the more general argument that “Conspiracy Theories Are for Losers” — the title of chapter six.

So by the logic of Uscinski’s own book, QAnon is more exceptional, which should make it more newsworthy, and coverage of it less overblown. So why not say so, I wondered? Why throw the emphasis the other way? “Why should the examples you pointed out (in the 4 articles you linked to) be considered remarkable?” I asked him, via email.

“They shouldn’t, as far as I am concerned,” Uscinski responded. “They show exactly what the ‘Conspiracy Theories are for Losers’ argument predicts. The left turned to conspiracy theories quickly – in a vocal way -- as a salve for their loss in 2016,” he added. “There seems to be little Trump can do without it being treated as a conspiracy by some people on the left. This was no different during the Bush Administration.”

Oh, really? Well, perhaps there was good reason. After all, the Bush administration actually did conspire to mislead the world into war with Iraq, as the Downing Street memo later revealed. With actual conspiracies like that, who needs theories, anyway?

“Do any of those articles indicate an equivalent degree of conspiracist influence on the left today?” I asked.

“My point by posting the articles was that even journalists at left leaning publications noticed an uptick in conspiracy theories on the left since Trump took office,” Uscinski answered. “To me, the most important thing is that conspiracy thinking in the public – as far as my data has shown -- is largely even between the two parties. Sure, we can find places where there are small differences, but these are rarely big if measured in an even-handed way.”

It’s important to understand what he means by “conspiracy thinking in the public.” His book defined individual predispositions toward conspiratorial thinking via previously-used survey questions that “were selected because they address general concepts and get to the heart of conspiratorial thinking: powerful groups covertly controlling events against the common good.”

It’s these predispositions which are largely even between the two parties. This certainly captures an important dimension of conspiracy thinking. But it’s not everything that everyone studying conspiracy thinking means. By excluding some dimensions, they’ve made the problem more manageable, a time-honored strategy in science, but one that inevitably has a time-limit on it. Following the tweets to the four articles, Uscinski concluded:

The problem with this tweet is twofold: first, there are some individual differences between left and right — which I wrote about in that March 2016 article mentioned before — and second, individual-level differences are not the whole story — not by a long shot. Diamonds and coal are both made of carbon. At the atomic level, they’re identical. At the molecular level, not so much. It’s not what they’re made of that makes them different, it’s how they’re put together.

The same is true of political coalitions. Consider two flagship examples the media has used: birtherism and 9/11 trutherism. The study cited in that March 2016 article found almost no difference between liberals and conservatives on a 9/11 truther question, but in his book Uscinski cites a poll discussed by Brendan Nyhan, which shows relative parity between the two views. Does it matter which result is right? Of course it does — but not in terms of political impact.

Donald Trump rode his promotion of birtherism all the way to the GOP nomination, and (with a wink and a nod) to the White House as well. No one even dreamed of doing something similar with 9/11 trutherism on the Democratic side. And Trump wasn’t alone, just much more flamboyant. Trump was unique in taking advantage of the situation. But the situation was there for him to exploit within the GOP. There was no such situation on the Democratic side.

Or consider the “death panel” conspiracy theory used to whip the newly-formed Tea Party movement into a frenzy during the August 2009 recess. While not strong enough to prevent the Affordable Care Act from being passed, it played a crucial role in laying the foundations for the GOP’s wave election victory in 2010 — one of the most consequential midterm elections in American history. Is there anything remotely like it on the Democratic side?

Recall the conspiratorial books I mentioned above: “A Choice, Not an Echo,” “None Dare Call It Treason,” “The New World Order.” Is there any comparable book on the left? And what about media? Is there any left counterpart to conspiracists like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Alex Jones? Is there any left conspiracist narrative like voter fraud? Or like the strain of global warming denialism that paints global warming as a conspiracy?

In short, coal and diamonds aren’t just aggregates of carbon atoms, and neither are political cultures merely aggregates of individual psychology. It’s the cultural level where left/right differences regarding conspiracism come most sharply into focus.  The argument is not that everyone on the left is "sound and savvy" while everyone on the right is a "conspiracy nut." It's that conspiracist thinking has a much larger influence in conservative circles than it does in liberal/progressive ones, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons.

When I put this argument to Uscinski, he responded: "This is something that I can’t really speak to because it makes a mushy claim that could be tightened up and studied, but hasn’t been yet. We could go back and forth with anecdotes showing that each set of partisan elites engage with conspiracy theories in one way or another. Until a systematic study measures this “influence” you are talking about, I am unwilling to accept a claim that one party’s elites or “circles” are more influenced by conspiracy theories than the other. If future studies show that there is a difference, then so be it."

But I had some very specific frameworks in mind. First is the asymmetry of American politics, described by Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins in “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.” Although they do not argue it themselves, the more unified ideological nature of the GOP they describe sets up the preconditions for widely-shared conspiracy narratives much better than the pragmatic coalitional nature of the Democratic Party.  

These include much higher levels of ideological self-identification, stronger, sharper us/them dividing lines, with a more cohesive sense of "us," and less focus on policy specifics, which would divert attention away from conspiracist narratives. A second reason for asymmetry in the intensity of conspiracism springs from different models of human cognition, as described by Chris Mooney in “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality,” where he argues, accurately, that the GOP/conservative focus on persuasion is far more in line with the evolutionary record than the Democratic/liberal focus on fact-finding.  

The right's greater focus on persuasion appears to be perfectly consistent with a greater propensity to conspiracism under the model in "American Conspiracy Theories," given that widespread communicative responses to perceived threat are required in order for them to spread. Individuals on the left might be just as inclined toward conspiracism, in other words, but shared models and practices about how to think and what to think about politically create a less hospitable environment for conspiracy theories to thrive, so they will cohere less readily, even with similar individual-level tendencies to engage in conspiracist thinking.  

I asked Uscinski for his response to these arguments. “I am familiar with these works and with the asymmetry arguments more broadly,” he said. “When I started my work on conspiracy theories, I expected the right to be big conspiracy theorists. But that is not what my data found, and I have to side with my data. I am sure there are differences between right and left on some dimensions, but for now I have to go with what my data says. If new data shows changes on this point, then I will change what I say to be in line with the new evidence.”

But I don’t expect individual-level data to be the key here. Especially the kind that fits his under-dimensioned model of what conspiracy theories involve. Several things in particular seem missing: the question of how realistic such thinking is, what traditions it draws on, how elaborate and artificial or fanciful or bizarre it becomes. Consider the question of realism, for example. Human societies generally are run by elites, who constitute “powerful groups,” who generally exert control through a combination of overt and covert means, with varying degrees of coinciding with the common good. Hence, Uscinski’s definition of conspiratorial thinking is factually accurate for at least some periods of time.

But feelings of grievance are not necessarily accurately connected to causes, which brings us to the question of the traditions being drawn on. Using Jews as a scapegoat in times of mass suffering was long a favorite strategy of European elites. Hence, the saying, “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” Unfortunately, Uscinski’s approach wipes out that distinction. Neither questions of realism nor of tradition enter into his thinking when he equates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, as he did in discussing why 2016 has produced more GOP conspiracism than his theory predicts. The reason he says (“provisionally”) is Donald Trump:

Trump entered the Republican primaries against 25 other Republicans, all more experienced and more Republican than himself. To differentiate himself, he turned to conspiracy rhetoric to mobilize the conspiracy-minded wing of the Republican Party.

Trump went after the voters who:

1. Would normally be less likely to turn out to begin with, and

2. Would not be excited by an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush.

Trump mobilized these conspiracy minded Republicans and won the primary with a plurality (Sanders did the same thing on the Democratic side and got an equal amount of support using his ‘the 1 percent rigged everything’ conspiracy theories).

Sanders only warranted a parenthetical mention, but it’s a telling one. Adopting an under-dimensioned model of conspiracism, Uscinski feels perfectly justified in treating Sanders as equivalent to Trump. For him, there is no difference between socialism and the socialism of fools. Or consider another equivalence from his book — the way in which he deals with the conservative voter fraud conspiracy.  

First, he quotes Jonathan Chait, accurately describing the situation: “Bizarre, counterfactual beliefs about massive electoral fraud exist on both right and left. The important difference is that left-wing electoral conspiracy theories are almost completely marginal, rejected by even highly partisan outlets like Daily Kos, whereas the right-wing equivalent enjoys mainstream support.”

Rather than respond to Chait’s claim, Uscinski shifts focus to a poll of individual attitudes — from the level of coal vs. diamonds to the level of carbon vs. carbon. Fifty percent of Republicans said voter fraud would be very or somewhat likely if their preferred presidential candidate didn't win the election, versus 44 percent of Democrats, "about a tie."

But then Uscinski shifts focus again, rather dramatically. Using his lens of under-dimensioned conspiracy thinking, he equates voter registration on the one hand with voter suppression on the other:

Each side believes that when the other side wins cheating is to blame, and they believe it about equally. These beliefs rebound upon each other. Democrats, responding to the belief that their voters had been suppressed in 2000 and 2004, made herculean efforts at voter registration and mobilization in 2008 and 2012. Republicans saw these efforts as an attempt to commit voter fraud by stuffing ballot boxes.

Responding to their perception, Republican governors and legislatures across the states attempted to institute tougher restrictions on voting, including requiring voter identification. In response to this, Democrats accused Republicans of manufacturing phony assertions of voter fraud as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to curtail Democratic voters’ access to the polls. This spiral of hostility is bound to continue.

Needless to say, this is a cartoon version of what’s actually happened — a story with a much longer history, dating back to the earliest days of our republic. Suppressing voters is a long-standing conservative tradition, upheld by Southern Democrats more than anyone, when they had the most to fear from both blacks and whites without property.

In the 1990s, after Democrats passed the Motor Voter bill, integrating voter registration into a wide range of citizen/government interactions, there was fierce state-level opposition to implementing it by Republicans, a story told by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Clower in their book, “Why Americans Still Don't Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way,” an updated version of a book that was crucial in getting Motor Voter passed in the first place.

It was only after the updated version was published, in 2000, that Democrats began to grow more interested in registering new voters, while Republican obstructionism only deepened. To this day, the United States remains unique in its high level of voter non-participation. Nowhere else does this level of sustained conflict to suppress voters exist. Yet Uscinski’s account turns it into just another case of “both sides do it.”

Another dimension of conspiracism that Uscinski’s account leaves out is how elaborate it becomes, and the kinds of flawed reasoning involved. In a January 2017 story, I ticked off a set of six characteristics of conspiracist thought investigated by Stephan Lewandowsky, which I had described in detail in a previous article,

They come in three pairs: 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”).

This kind of focus on the thinking process involved is perhaps the most striking, simple way to distinguish between the very different worlds of Donald Trump and QAnon, on the one hand, and Bernie Sanders and DSA on the other. There is simply no similarity in how they develop and defend their arguments.

In short, Uscinski’s work leaves me with two conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate what he’s done with his simplified model of conspiracy thinking — it’s clarified a lot. On the other, I’m frustrated by what it excludes, and by the distorted picture that results. Sanders and Trump are not two peas in a pod, nor is voter registration the flip side of voter suppression, and any theoretical framework that supports such views is seriously incomplete, at best.

The truth is, we’re only just beginning to understand the phenomena of conspiracy theories and how they fit into the larger scheme of all the things humans do. We need more creative thinking about how the different aspects of this all fit together, more critical thinking to evaluate those creative ideas and, finally, more rigorous data, as reality will be the ultimate test.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.