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Trump Has Shown How Conspiracy Theories Can Supercharge Populism
The remedy is responsible politicians, even if they’re hard to find
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign started and ended with a conspiracy theory—first when he championed the “birthers,” and then when he launched his “Stop the Steal” crusade. The hollowness of that second conspiracy has been on full display in the televised hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, which has detailed how key members of Trump’s own White House staff rejected the theory to his face.
Yet Trump’s resort to conspiracy theories isn’t surprising: Conspiracism is a heightened form of populism, and the former president is a classic modern populist. What’s fascinating is how effectively he deployed his accusations. Understanding Trump’s use of conspiracism, combined with academic research on conspiracy theories, helps explain Trump’s improbable political success—and may help point the way to a less populist future.
Birth of the ‘Birther’ Candidate
In March 2011, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, Trump publicly expressed for the first time his interest in running for the presidency. He also said that he was “skeptical” of then-President Barack Obama’s citizenship, and that people who held the view should not be dismissed as “idiots.”
Trump was, in short, endorsing the “birther” conspiracy theory that held that Obama was not, in reality, a U.S. citizen and was therefore was ineligible to be president of the United States. Perhaps Obama was born in Kenya or held dual British-American citizenship—and perhaps, in the wilder speculations, he also happened to be a Muslim terrorist and/or the Antichrist.
So what are the links between populism and conspiracy theories? For one, they seem to share certain conceptual affinities, not least the rejection of elites. Theories of populism agree that populism divides politics into an opposition between “the people” and the “elite.” In this understanding, the people are essentially “pure” and moral, whereas the “elite” is fundamentally corrupt: witness Trump’s election to cries of “drain the swamp,” and his desire to take on the Washington “Establishment.” The same might be said of conspiracy theories: both the “birther” and “stop the steal” movement targeted the Democratic political elite. But some theories of populism and all conspiracy theories go one step further: It’s not just that elites are corrupt; they’re also actively conspiring against the people. Some of these theories are even specific about what the elites are doing and how.
The birther conspiracy is a case in point: Here, the ruling elites were purportedly united behind a foreign-born—possibly Muslim—ruler to keep real Americans and their values out of government. Trump tapped this anxiety about an unknown “other” during his ABC interview when he commented, in what was to become one of his trademark rhetorical ploys, about Obama’s childhood: “Growing up no one knew him.”
In the following months, Trump became the virtual spokesman of the birther movement, repeatedly calling on Obama to produce his birth certificate. When Obama finally released his long-form birth certificate on April 27, proving he was born in Hawaii, Trump took the credit, claiming he was “really honored and really proud” to have done something nobody else had managed to do. Running as the Republican Party nominee in September 2016, Trump declared that Obama had indeed been born in the U.S., “period,” again taking credit for having clarified that. He then accused Hillary Clinton of having started the controversy in the first place. He was elected president in November.
Harnessing the Political Power of the Conspiracy Theory
Part of Trump’s stunning success was pure populism. In his 2016 book The Populist Explosion, author and journalist John Judis explained that right-wing populism rejects not just elites, but also the racial “other,” whether Jews, immigrants, Islamists or African American militants like the activists at Black Lives Matter. Sometimes several elements combine—or appear to combine—in a single figure, such as Barack Obama.
When Trump made himself the megaphone of the birther movement, he rallied around him the substantial number of conventional Republican voters who thought Obama was foreign-born or Muslim or both. But they weren’t the only ones. Perhaps the most interesting moment in Trump’s election campaign was not when he faced off against Hillary Clinton for the presidency itself, but during the Republican primaries, when he brought many people who had not identified as Republican into the Republican camp. This was a relatively diverse group, including the “Alt-Right” leader Richard Spencer.
But it also included conspiracy theorists. This is interesting. Typically, conspiracy theorists don’t vote—or if they do, they vote for anti-system parties or candidates. By presenting himself as the “anti-system” candidate, Trump was able to bring these electors into the Republican fold.
What was different here? Joe Uscinski of the University of Miami, one of the leading experts in the field of conspiracy theories, has done fascinating work with several colleagues that sheds light on the answer. Their research suggests that the traditional left-right divide is not the only way to map political camps—that there is also a political dimension “orthogonal”—at right angles—to that divide. This dimension is an “anti-establishment” one that captures both conspiratorial and populist attitudes. If political elites and the highly politically literate position themselves on a left-right axis, a whole swathe of the population—up to a third, Uscinski and company estimate—don’t recognize themselves on that divide. Instead, they see themselves as rejecting the system as a whole.
What is fascinating about Uscinski’s study is its finding that while people on the anti-establishment dimension don’t recognize themselves on the left-right divide, they can be activated by political entrepreneurs and brought over onto a side of that left-right opposition. This is precisely what Trump did as he won the primaries, bringing in supporters from the anti-establishment dimension of politics. These were voters whose favorite social media platform is 4chan, where the “QAnon” conspiracy theory first originated.
There is an irony here. Populism, which is based on opposition to elites, ends up being quite elitist, notably in its call for a strong leader to lead “the people.” These leaders tend to be drawn from elite milieus. Trump might not have been part of America’s political elite, but as a billionaire star of the popular TV show “The Apprentice,” he was certainly part of the country’s financial and media elite.
By endorsing the birther conspiracy theory, Trump validated the views of conspiracy theorists—a not insignificant percentage of the population (studies suggest they represent up to 25%). His imprimatur meant that finally, conspiracists had someone who represented their views.
But by also stating that Obama was born in the US “period,” Trump was able to keep more-mainstream Republicans on board, quickly putting the pressure back on Hillary Clinton by claiming she was the one who started the birther conspiracy in the first place. Not long after, Trump’s conspiracy gambit gave rise to QAnon.
From One Conspiracy Theory to the Next
Four years later, in November 2020, when Democratic nominee Joe Biden was declared winner of the presidential election, Trump refused to acknowledge his loss. Resorting to a conspiracy theory again, he immediately alleged widespread voting fraud.
Having brought politically alienated conspiracy theorists into his political movement, Trump had a core receptive audience for his allegations. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, made claims about an international communist conspiracy, rigged voting machines and polling place fraud, none substantiated. Alongside the classic antisemitic claim that Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros had “stolen the election,” one of the more colorful Trumpian theories was “Italygate,” which claimed that satellite and military technology based at the U.S. Embassy in Rome was used to remotely switch votes from Trump to Biden.
Like all classic conspiracy theorists, Trump persisted in his claims despite the overwhelming evidence against them. His “Stop the Steal” movement reached a climax on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol as Congress began to officially tally Biden’s and Trump’s electoral votes. The crowd had been whipped up by Trump, who claimed the election was being stolen by “radical-left Democrats” during his speech earlier that day. The mob was a mix of people, including the far-right groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, but perhaps the most memorable figure of the attack was the “QAnon Shaman,” Jake Angeli, wearing a fur hat and horns.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, started on the online chat-forum 4chan, alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping, child-trafficking pedophiles was conspiring against Trump during his term of office. The cabal is meant to include Hollywood actors and senior Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who were secretly preparing a coup from which Trump was meant to liberate America during the day of reckoning known as the “Storm.”
QAnon captures something essential about conspiracy theories: The belief that a shadowy cabal actually controls everything that happens in the world, whether it is in politics, economics or the environment. All conspiracy theories refer back to this fundamental belief in one form or another. In this context, the various “Stop the Steal” election theories promoted by Trump and his supporters wouldn’t seem particularly outlandish.
Belief in conspiracy theories is linked to support for violence as the solution to social problems. It is not surprising that Trump’s rise to the presidency, beginning with a conspiracy theory, ended with another one—one that led to violence.
Toward a Less Conspiratorial Society
Belief in conspiracy theories arises from a sense of exclusion. Although conspiracy theorists can be found in all walks of life, people who are unemployed, live alone or with their parents, and have lower educational attainments are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. These theories help make sense of the world they live in. The existence of a small group of powerful and unknown people who have it in for you provides an explanation for why you have no job, no partner, or no friends. The people who would do this to you are clearly bad—so bad, in fact, that QAnon could be right that they like preying on defenseless kids. In contrast to that, you’re good, no matter your social status.
Fear, uncertainty and a lack of trust in public institutions play a role too. We have an anthropological fear of what an unknown group might try to do to us: Are they friend or foe? And when an unexplained event occurs, raising disquieting questions, conspiracy theories help fill the void with an explanation. Moreover, if you distrust the state, you’re more likely to believe the government is out to get you. All these emotions can make conspiracy theories easier to accept.
There’s no doubt that today’s highly polarized political climate, which is based on a fear of those on the other side of the political divide, only fans the flames of conspiracy theories. This dynamic isn’t helped by social media, which tends to promote salacious content: What is more salacious than conspiracy theories mixing sex and power? Enter QAnon, stage right.
Yet politicians also have a responsibility. The assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 shows what can happen when politicians like Trump promote exclusion, suggest violence, use inflamed rhetoric, look down on people and refuse to consider the possibility that their own ideas might be wrong. Repeating this Trumpian formula only invites more political violence, though with even less excuse now that Jan. 6 has demonstrated where this political strategy can lead. If, on the other hand, our elites begin to consider it their social duty to resist this polarizing, galvanizing rhetoric and behavior, they might create an environment less amenable to conspiracy theories in the first place.
And conspiracy theorists are fed up with being talked down to. They are people too. That doesn’t mean we need to talk like conspiracy theorists, but we should talk to them. If we do, we might see that their beliefs are in reality an expression of a deeper malaise concerning their political, social and economic position.
Research suggests that conspiracy theorists will always represent a significant percentage of the population. In the post-Trump era, hoping they will remain disengaged from politics is probably no longer an option for aspiring politicians. The challenge for democratic politics is therefore to bring these “anti-establishment” voters into the democratic game without intensifying the psychological conflicts that sometimes drive them. Politicians who do so will separate themselves from the Donald Trumps and have a better chance of starting and ending their political careers with something everyone—not just conspiracists—can believe in.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.