The political and social climate in the United States has become increasingly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Leading the charge is Donald Trump, a candidate who has promoted a laundry list of factually questionable theories, ranging from the idea that Antonin Scalia’s death may have been the result of foul play to his bizarre relationship with the birther movement, which questions President Obama’s birthplace.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. From 12th-century anti-Semitic conspiracies to modern moon landing hoaxers, the rumor that people are being misled by groups of elites with ulterior motives has been swirling for centuries.
To be fair, people on all sides of the political spectrum can fall prey to these alluring theories. One study, in fact, suggests that the type of thinking that is often associated with political extremism – a desire for simple solutions to complex problems – is also associated with a belief in conspiracy theories.
The problem is that conspiracy theories are dangerous.
Research suggests that exposure to these unorthodox ideas can influence how we see the world. For instance, in one experiment, participants who were shown a video that suggested that climate change is a hoax later expressed less confidence in the scientific consensus that climate change is real. Conspiracy theories can erode what we think we know about the world by promoting arguments based on poor evidence, evidence that’s been debunked or no evidence whatsoever. They can even be used to vilify entire groups of people and justify their mistreatment.
Social scientists have long been interested in conspiracy theories. Their research can help explain Trump’s rise – and why he seems so eager to embrace just about every conspiracy theory he’s ever heard.
Living in a world that can’t be explained
One school of thought argues that the rise of conspiracy theories is an inevitable result of our increasingly complex and globalized society.
The famous sociologist Max Weber argued that modern society was characterized by rationalization, with systems like the global economy humming along seemingly on their own, driven by the rules of commerce. These systems are complicated and opaque, and even experts struggle to fully explain them. They’re also dehumanized; there is no real answer to the question, “Who’s in charge of the global economy?” The result is a state of anxiety where people feel as though their lives are being pulled along by forces beyond their control – stock markets, globalization and political parties that seem unresponsive to their needs.
One of the core facets of enlightened thought is that science can help us better understand how the world works. But not even science can save us from this anxiety about an increasingly complicated world. Increasingly specialized and technical, primary research is difficult for nonscientists to work through. Although Americans generally hold science in high regard, perceived doubt and disagreement between scientists can encourage people to become uncertain about issues that experts agree on.
Now, in fairness, science is a process of contention and continual revision. But modern media take these lab-room discussions and pump them out more than ever before. Things that are generally “settled” among scientists no longer seem like they are. Think again about how climate change is covered in the media, with a climate scientist on one side of the screen and a denier on the other. As these conflicts play out in full public view, the public becomes less certain about the truth.
For many people, then, science seems like it can no longer explain what’s going on in the world.
How conspiracies lead to scapegoating
Conspiracy theories are our attempt to make sense of these complex world systems. They fill the gaps where personal experience and science have failed us. Capitalizing on feelings of alienation and anxiety, they – and the politicians who promote them – create what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” of politics. This style of politicking encourages people to believe that corrupt, shady elites and dark forces are conspiring to disenfranchise the masses.
The paranoid style and the proliferation of conspiracy theories are problematic because they make thoughtful deliberation over public issues impossible: Political opponents are not even talking about the same set of facts. But they become decidedly dangerous when combined with a process described by literary critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke as scapegoating.
Burke argues that scapegoating begins when people stop identifying with established social structures – like governments or political parties – leading to a sense of disorder within society. This disorder causes people anxiety and the sense they can no longer control their own lives. They feel guilty about their loss of place in the world and search for a way to alleviate that guilt.
The scapegoat provides that relief.
Politicians who scapegoat will identify political or social groups within society – racial or religious minorities, for instance – and spin a new story that places the blame for society’s ills on these minorities.
Unfortunately, this can have the effect of making those in the majority feel empowered.
A conspiracy candidate is born
Communications scholar Jaclyn Howell argues that the birther movement, which originated in articles on conservative websites in 2008 and was publicly promoted by Donald Trump in 2011, is a prime example of the scapegoating process in action.
Birthers, Howell argues, faced a loss of economic status during the 2008 financial crash, which created a sense of fear and guilt. This discomfort led them “to explain all of the nation’s sins [and thus the social disorder of the times] by making the ‘foreign-born’ president the scapegoat.”
During the current campaign, we see scapegoating playing out again as Trump calls immigrants criminals, says first-generation Americans can’t serve as unbiased judges, says “there’s no way to tell” whether Syrian refugees are potential terrorists and says Black Lives Matter activists are encouraging violence against law enforcement officers. Fingering these groups not only gives disenfranchised Americans someone to blame, it also empowers them by promising to punish these “others.”
In a sense, then, the success of candidates like Trump is the logical extension of the paranoid style and scapegoating. Scholarship suggests that people who feel close to their communities and feel that these communities are threatened are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. Likewise, people with extreme political views are more susceptible to conspiratorial beliefs.
Trump not only embraces many conspiracy theories – from the idea that Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen is keeping interest rates low at Obama’s request to claims that Hillary Clinton is planning on rigging the election – but he also presents his own radically simplified and anti-factual worldview to his supporters. He clarifies problems and promises to only tell the truth (“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” he said in his acceptance speech), while at the same time exposing the liars and thieves and punishing them (hence the calls to imprison Hillary Clinton).
Claiming he is an arbiter of truth gives him permission to spread misinformation, whether it’s telling Americans that the Obama administration is covering up the “real” unemployment rate or assuring voters that Muslims cheered on September 11.
The fact that his claims are seldom truthful (PolitiFact ranked a whopping 54 percent of his statements as “False” or “Pants on Fire”) is beside the point.
Meanwhile, his campaign surrogates actively encourage people to accept their feelings as facts (Newt Gingrich famously said in an interview that “The average American does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer,” despite myriad statistics showing crime rates are down). He continues to hint that something very concerning is going on with Hillary Clinton’s health.
In an environment where people are mistrustful of expertise and knowledge, Donald Trump can easily thrive. Many feel insecure due to economic and social changes in society; many are seeking a narrative that makes sense of the world.
And they are particularly fond of narratives that not only validate their sense of powerlessness, but promise to correct it.