President Trump has long been known to peddle unfounded conspiracies, and has done so for years. Most recently Trump has revived years-old, long-debunked claims about widespread voter fraud, especially by mail. There is no evidence at all that voter fraud is significant, much less rampant, but nevertheless Trump succeeds in sowing uncertainty about the validity of the elections.
As The Atlantic recently reported, “According to new research, unfounded claims of fraud from Trump and his allies significantly undermine faith in the American election system, especially among voters who support him. Worse, the damage seems to be resistant to repair by fact-checking. ‘It may be that confidence in the election system is a soft target,’ Brendan Nyhan, a political-science professor at Dartmouth and one of the authors of the new paper, told me. ‘It’s complicated, hard to observe, unintuitive, and relies on trust. Trust in institutions seems to be easier to destroy than to build.’ Trump’s baseless warning of a “rigged” election was a hallmark of the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, as polls pointed to a Hillary Clinton victory. The Republican candidate wouldn’t commit to accepting the results if Clinton won. This time around, Trump has taken up the cry sooner in the campaign. Once again, polls show him trailing; this time, he is furious over pandemic-driven efforts to expand access to voting by mail in states where Democrats are in control, or where he seems to believe higher turnout would hurt him in November. (Trump shows conspicuously less worry about vote-by-mail in GOP-friendly states.)”
While there are many factors in Trump’s rise and election, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. No modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump. Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.
But Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American’s guns.
According to The New York Times, when asked by radio talk show host Michael Savage about conspiracy theories circulating soon after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Trump responded “You know, I just landed, and I’m hearing it’s a big topic… They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” Even though there was no evidence of foul play (Scalia’s family had known he was ill for some time, and a pillow was not in fact found over Scalia’s face) this coy response allowed Trump to implicitly endorse the plausibility of the conspiracy while not explicitly associating himself with it.
Trump’s best known conspiracy theory involves questions about Obama’s birthplace, which was of course an indirect but clear challenge to Obama’s legitimacy as president under Article Two of the United States Constitution. Trump, after investing what he claimed was millions of dollars on groundbreaking investigations of Obama’s birth, stated that Obama’s “grandmother in Kenya is on record saying he was born in Kenya.” In fact his grandmother is on the record as saying exactly the opposite, that he was born “In the state of Hawaii, where his father, his father was also learning there. The state of Hawaii.” Trading in political rumors is one thing, but perhaps more alarmingly Trump has also endorsed discredited, anti-science conspiracy theories including that childhood vaccines cause autism.
The Populist Appeal of Conspiracies
Why does Trump regularly use conspiracies in his rhetoric? Quite simply, it works. Controversial and inflammatory statements—whether true or even plausible—are guaranteed to get the attention of news media and keep Trump’s face in front of voters.
Research has shown that while conspiracy theories span the political spectrum there is a clear breakdown by ideology. Trump endorses conspiracy theories that appeal to his base. For example a 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found that over a third of Republicans and Independents “believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order,” with fewer than half that percentage of Democrats agreeing. Conspiracies evoking that fear find traction with many voters.
Conspiracy theories are fundamentally about insecurity, a theme Trump has masterfully exploited. Conspiracies are psychologically comforting to many people because they provide a sense of meaning, control, and security over their lives. Being “in the know” and smarter than the deluded “sheeple” makes conspiracy believers feel important. For many people it’s more comforting to believe that some powerful elite somewhere is pulling the strings—even if it’s seemingly for selfish or evil purposes—than it is to accept that no one is in control and the world is essentially a random series of events, causes and effects.
The worldview Trump offers, exactly paralleling that of conspiracy theorists, is neatly divided into two groups: winners and losers, good and bad, heroes and villains. You are either with us or against us, either part of the problem (that is, involved in the conspiracy or too stupid to recognize its threat), or part of a populist “grassroots” groundswell of ordinary citizens who feel manipulated and victimized by outsiders.