If Donald Trump and his supporters weren’t so fond of conspiracy theories, the Ukraine scandal would never have unfolded as it did. In a now infamous July 25 phone call, Trump pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look for evidence that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike had hidden the Democratic National Committee’s server in his country, perhaps to conceal evidence that Russia hadn’t actually hacked the 2016 election—a right-wing media fantasy that Trump’s own former homeland-security adviser has called “completely debunked.”
And over the past week, Trump’s defenders have spread one conspiracy theory after another about the intelligence-community insider who exposed the call. Stephen Miller, Breitbart, and Fox News have all called the whistle-blower an agent of the “deep state”—a phrase, popularized by Alex Jones, suggesting that a cabal of spies secretly run the government. (The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once likened this notion to believing in the tooth fairy.)
On its face, this descent into self-delusion isn’t surprising. In the Trump era, Republican conspiracy theorizing has grown omnipresent. Trump himself has suggested that Antonin Scalia might have been murdered, climate change is a Chinese hoax, Ted Cruz’s father was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Clintons may bear responsibility for the murder of Jeffrey Epstein, and wind turbines cause cancer. In 2016, more than three-quarters of Trump supporters said Barack Obama was “hiding important information about his background and early life.”
But dig into the academic research on conspiracy theories, and you realize how odd the current environment actually is. Until Trump, scholars assumed that holding the White House inoculated parties from conspiracism. They viewed conspiratorial thinking as a weapon of the weak, which couldn’t seriously threaten the republic because its adherents wielded so little influence in government.
That’s what makes today’s GOP so unusual and so dangerous. Never before in modern American history has a political party been this paranoid and this powerful at the same time.
In their book, American Conspiracy Theories, which tracks paranoid thinking in U.S. politics from 1890 to 2010, the University of Miami political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent conclude that “conspiracy theories are for losers.” Such theories, they argue, are “most likely to issue from domestic groups who fail to achieve power, objectives or resources.” This makes sense. The more dispossessed you feel, and the less you identify with the people running the government, the easier it is to imagine them hatching a shadowy plot to screw you. Studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for instance, found a “widespread belief, particularly in the African American and gay communities, that the AIDS epidemic was a deliberate conspiracy by government officials.” At the time, many black people and gay people felt deeply alienated from the Reagan and Bush administrations. (Not to mention that the federal government had in fact spread disease among African Americans in the past.)
As people feel more empowered, however, their political paranoia tends to fade. “Large winning groups,” note Uscinski and Parent, “feel less anxiety, more in control and less need for conspiracy theories.” After their side wins the White House, partisans generally see fewer nefarious plots. Colin Dickey, who is writing a book about conspiracy theories, noted last year in The New Republic that after Barack Obama won the White House, the percentage of Democrats who told pollsters that 9/11 was an inside job fell by half. “When a Republican occupies the White House, conspiracy theories swarm around Republicans and capitalists,” Uscinski and Parent write. “When it is a Democrat’s turn, conspiracy theories dog Democrats and socialists.”
Yet in the Trump era, that’s no longer true. While Democrats’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories may have risen since Trump’s election, the GOP’s doesn’t appear to have gone down. The percentage of Republicans who believe Obama wasn’t born in the United States, Dickey notes, has not fallen since Trump took office. “Today,” write the political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum in their 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying, “conspiracism is not, as we might expect, the last resort of permanent political losers but the first resort of winners.”
The best explanation is that even though a white male Christian Republican holds the presidency, many white Christian Republican men still feel persecuted by those in power. Trump and other top Republicans fan this belief constantly. Earlier this year, Vice President Mike Pence told students at Liberty University that, while “throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian,” today “you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.” Trump called the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle a “very scary time for young men.” During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham exclaimed, “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up.”
This persecution of white male conservatives is largely fantasy. Republicans control the White House; until last fall they controlled both houses of Congress; they enjoy a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. In 2018, 95 percent of America’s Fortune 500 CEOs were men. In 2016, when The New York Times compiled a list of the 503 “most powerful people in American culture, government, education and business,” 92 percent were white.
But white male income has stagnated in recent decades, the country has grown more racially and religiously diverse, and gender norms have changed. And this has helped Republicans convince their supporters that they are America’s real victims. Republicans, according to polling this year by the Pew Research Center, are more likely to say that men face a lot of discrimination than they are to say women face a lot of discrimination. They’re more likely to say that whites face a lot of discrimination than to say blacks or Hispanics do. And they’re more likely to say evangelical Christians experience discrimination than Muslims do.
This itself reflects a detachment from reality. And it has made many Republicans susceptible to the conspiratorial thinking that, in the past, was reserved for groups that really were on society’s margins. But while the truly dispossessed rarely had much capacity to make the government an agent of their paranoia, Trump and his supporters do. That’s what makes the current situation so frightening. When Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate CrowdStrike, he made a conspiracy theory the basis of American foreign policy.
The real danger isn’t the Republican Party’s fantasies themselves. It’s the realities that Trump and the GOP can use those fantasies to create.
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