Why Donald Trump's conspiracy theories are strangely popular

Just how big a threat are Trump's conspiracy theories to the democratic process in America?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S. September 28, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa, U.S. September 28, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Donald Trump and his campaign have spewed out their fair share of conspiracy theories since he started campaigning for the U.S. presidency. In the last week alone, Trump accused Google of deliberately rigging search results to hide negative stories about Hillary Clinton, while also suggesting he was given a faulty microphone during the recent NBC debate. Earlier this month, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an article suggesting Clinton used an earpiece during a live TV forum discussion.

Some other theories Trump he has either embraced or pushed include: The election is riggedObama wasn’t born in HawaiiObama didn’t attend Columbia University, Obama wore jewellery with Arabic inscriptions, Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered, Ted Cruz’s dad is linked to the JFK assassinationMuslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11, Clinton White House aide Vince Foster may have been murdered, refugees coming to America have ISIS flags on their cellphonesSyrian Christians can’t come to the U.S., and then there’s this bogus idea on climate change.

All of these claims have no factual merit, and yet Trump continually finds a way to boost myriad conspiracy theories—some small, some large—to a mainstream audience. To find out more about the audience Trump is targeting, how conspiracy theories spread, and their potential damage to democracy, Maclean’s spoke with University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.

Q: Are there any of Trump’s conspiracy theories in particular that stand out to you?

A: The birther stuff [claiming President Obama wasn’t born in the United States] has been a vein that’s run through Trump’s ascendency. There’s also the general tendency about Trump to articulate his complaints in a manner that there’s a conspiracy against him.

Q: One that stood out to me was his claim that Ted Cruz’s dad was somehow linked to the assassination of JFK.

A: That one was totally out of left field. At various times, especially during the Republican primary, it seemed as though Trump’s Twitter account would just be free association games of whatever came across his Twitter feed that he’d just retweet.

Q: Why are people so fascinated by conspiracy theories—whether they subscribe to them or not?

A: They tell a great story. What is particularly interesting for Americans about them is we have very populist politics. Populism on the right and the left—Bernie Sanders was not immune from this—he tells the story of have’s and have not’s, and of elites that have power that others don’t. It’s a staple of American politics.

Q: How do conspiracy theories get their start?

A: Well, they don’t start with Donald Trump. That’s an important thing about Trump. The typical conspiracy theorist is entrepreneurial in some way, but they are also really diligent. They are collecting details, following links, writing articles, collecting video. Trump is doing none of these things. He himself said: “I didn’t start the birtherism.” During the campaign, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” That’s not something a real conspiracy theorist would do. They’d say: “I found this, so pay attention to me.”

His position is using conspiracy theories to draw attention to himself. When he gets onto something, he’ll talk about it for awhile but then he’ll drop it and move on to the next thing. Conspiracy theories are a tool for Trump.

Q: How does a conspiracy theory make it from the fringe sites of the Internet to getting a hold of the public at large?

A: It’s helpful when the Trump campaign utilizes it. I say “Trump campaign” loosely. Sometimes it’s the websites that are behind Trump or have some affiliation. Breitbart doesn’t have any formal affiliation but it just so happens its chairman is now his campaign manager.

Q: Or Infowars?

A: Alex Jones [who operates Infowars] is an interesting character and so is his relationship to Trump. Going on Alex Jones’s website and calling into his show is a classic way of Trump giving him attention. Trump brings his fame to Alex Jones. Alex Jones brings his followers to Trump. The difference between the margins and mainstream is razor thin—especially with Trump.

Q: Is there a common thread that helps a conspiracy theory catch on?

A: The ones coming off the debate were tied to an existing narrative. The notion that mainstream media is all in with Clinton means the earpiece and Lester Holt’s performance feeds into that. The [malfunctioning] microphone would be another example. These aren’t big theories. They’re data points that fit into the larger narrative. It’s easy for those to catch the imagination of people when they fit into an existing narrative.

Q: How does Trump maintain mainstream appeal when he attaches himself to these fringe ideas?

A: Dog-whistle politics. You are speaking to multiple people at the same time and using different phrases or certain innuendoes that part of the audience doesn’t recognize as significant but that speak directly to a small part of the audience. Trump seems to be good at that.

Q: Is there an audience that’s more susceptible to believing conspiracy theories?

A: There’s a recent political science book that makes the argument that there’s a particular conspiracy disposition. There’s a certain segment of the public that will be particularly interested in conspiracy theories and will be sufficiently alienated from mainstream American politics to be willing to consider conspiracy theories. The politics of those people doesn’t work out in a left-wing/right-wing continuum. When you have a Republican in office, it tends to be folks on the left more interested in conspiracy theories and when you have a Democrat in the White House, you have the opposite.

But people who believe in conspiracy theories will often tell a narrative of themselves: “I never thought about these things until I saw this video on the web.” Presumably these folks are already open to conspiracy theories but it’s not clear to me that we can identify the personality type or cognitive practice and say these are the people who will believe in them.

Q: How is Trump using these conspiracy theories to his benefit?

A: The John Birch Society, a group of hard right-wingers who supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 and presaged the growth of Reaganism, were mostly small business owners in the Midwest and South, who were strong conspiracy theorists. They believed there was a rise of global government that was going to come in and take over sovereignty of the United States. For Trump, there’s an existing demographic that has a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories—or at least believe there are forces stronger than them trying to take away their rights and wealth.

Q: Before the polls started to tighten over the last month, and it looked like a potential Clinton landslide, Trump was telling his supporters at rallies that he thought the election was going to be rigged. Whether he wins or loses, could this one have real lasting damage?

A: I don’t know whether in the latter stages of the campaign he will emphasize that more or not, but clearly the threat of it is real. Trying to not only say your opponent is not to be trusted, but to say that she should be locked up, is deeply problematic because it suggests that the election could be rigged and if she wins she would be illegitimate—which is what he was saying during the birth certificate controversy [with President Barack Obama]. A democracy depends upon the peaceful transition of power from one individual to another and from one party to another. When you start challenging that, democracies don’t last.

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