Is conspiratorialism becoming the dominant world view? Transforming the breeding ground for conspiracy theories – and distrust in politics – into the foundation of his political support, Trump’s successes in the Republican Primary are on their way to proving that…
Trump is no stranger to unproven, conspiratorial claims: denying the eligibility of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on the ground that they weren’t born on American soil, claiming that vaccines cause autism, asserting that the government had been informed about the 9/11 attacks and chose not to act, stating that Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s death may have involved foul play to name but a few. Yet his message is carefully crafted and has fueled Trump’s irresistible thrust into the 2016 Republican Primary.
The “I Want to Believe” Vote
The conspiratorialist vote has been largely untapped, for obvious reasons. They represent a demographically small group, they are politically disaffected, and seducing that demographic would virtually exclude any potential candidate from being take seriously by the majority of other voters.
The skeptics, however, offer a much larger demographic (roughly a quarter of voters, and up to 35% in some cases) – and one that is active enough in mainstream politics that their vote can be counted on come election day.
On the periphery of the “I Believe” conspiratorialists, the “I Want to Believe” voters correspond to the “Not Sure” portion of any survey on conspiracy theories. They are unconvinced by the official explanation but don’t wish to offer an alternative explanation. They are the votes Trump is campaigning for when he points out the failings of the mainstream explanation.
Make America Great Again
Donald Trump isn’t the first Republican candidate to campaign with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” But he is the first to use it in a way which targets both mainstream Republicans and marginalized voters.
Ronald Reagan also used the slogan “Make America Great Again” in his presidential campaign in 1980. As with Trump, the main message is bipartisan: the same way Reagan wanted to oust a Democrat president (Jimmy Carter) Trump wishes to end 8 years of Democrats in the White House (Barrack Obama).
The latent message, however, is anti-establishment: Who knew about 9/11 and did nothing? Who continues to vaccinate children? Who eliminated a Supreme Court Justice? The whole political system is at fault, not just his political opponents.
Trump’s campaign message is certainly critical, but it operates on two levels. To Republicans, “Make America Great Again” simply means putting an end to Democrat control over the White House. To the “I want to believe” voters, it means over-turning corrupt institutions. And, according to Trump, Trump is the man for the job.
“Believe Me”: Trump’s Self-Referential Nightmare
One of the most recurring ‘Trumpisms’ is “Believe me.” A phrase he can pronounce countless times to his supporters, and which conveniently saves him from any further justification.
The reason for that? It isn’t just that Donald is lazy and can’t back up his views with well-researched facts (well, not only that). It’s also the problem when you engage in conspiratorialist thinking patterns.
Once you’ve asserted that all authority is corrupt, that all evidence could have be fabricated, that all statistics and figures are a matter of opinion, you’re left relying on “Believe me” and “I’m telling you” – another signature Trump phrase. Having discarded all other sources of information, Trump is left talking about information he has previously cited and discarding any other version.
Skepticism and Democracy
Democracy is founded on skepticism: it’s institutions check and balance one another, politicians are submitted to periodic elections, the media must remain independent from political power, and all candidates – even Donald Trump – are allowed to present themselves for office.
Conversely, too much skepticism can be toxic for a democracy. The conspiratorial brand of skepticism Trump brings to the table is of that ilk. It erodes the distinction between fact and opinion. It refuses to view opinions as valid only if supported by facts. It dismisses other, contradictory opinions while refusing to bring its own claims under scrutiny. And it alienates those who do not subscribe to his opinion.
The fact that it is impossible to engage Trump on a factual terrain – and that this strategy has paid off – shows the limits of democracy. It is a symptom of conspiratorial thinking and the hold of this mode of thinking on present-day political debate. Lastly, it also shows how undemocratic a future under Trump could rapidly become.