When pundits questioned what made the Republicans vote for Trump, there was no shortage of sweeping ideas. He appealed to those who felt left behind by the modern world. He energized bigots and racists in his base. He swayed fence-sitters with populist promises that he promptly ditched when in office. The base has become destructive and just wants to watch the world burn. We’re seeing the death throes of the Baby Boomers’ political dominance, and they wanted one of their own to try and turn back time for them. All of these are theories with evidence behind them, and all surely part of the bigger picture.
But one explanation that has only recently begun to get mentioned on a regular basis, and was only briefly noted during the campaign, may offer the best way to understand why the GOP has lost its way, then its mind, and none of the influential Never Trumpers’ rebukes seem to have any sway with their previously reliably rapt audience. Imagine the Republican Party not as the voice of conservatives but as a loose confederacy of conspiracy theorists united by team mentality and tradition.
Feeling entitled to perpetual economic and cultural supremacy, and furious that they’re no longer the only voices or people who matter, they’ve come up with all sorts of elaborate theories as to why, and scapegoats to blame. Evidence for this can be found in a study by The Economist based on an idea called “crank magnetism” in science blogging circles. Crank magnetism is the idea that conspiracy theories are like potato chips; you can’t have just one. Once you cross the threshold into Tinfoil Land, you’re more likely to believe other conspiracy theories. So, in a way, it’s a measure of how prone to conspiratorial ideation someone is.
What they found, unsurprisingly, is that while the majority of the population (60% or so) believes in some conspiracy theory, those who ascribed to the most conspiracies tended to be Trump supporters. We can see anecdotal corroboration by tuning into Fox News, which has been a platform for countless right-wing conspiracies about President Obama being born in Kenya, a shadowy “Deep State” cabal trying to bring down the Trump administration, and other sinister plots recycled from professional conspiracy theorist, and part-time Putin cosplayer, Alex Jones.
But this is nothing new. Conspiracy theories about evil forces trying to bring down America with everything from civil rights legislation to hip-hop music and nudity in movies has been a staple of right-wing graft since the 1960s. Many of today’s Republican bugaboos are on loan from the paranoid screeds of the John Birch Society, which saw communist spies and traitors around every corner and under every bed. For more than half a century, the right has whipped up its voters and ideological sympathizers into a fervor by siccing them on their friends, neighbors, and families. Conspiracies now saturate the very fabric of Republicanism.
Abandon Facts All Ye Who Enter
As a result, the GOP base has become what political scientists call intuitionists. Instead of going by evidence and hard logic, they tend to navigate important issues by gut feeling and thanks to the aforementioned long history of conspiracy-mongering by their favorite media, that feeling is always terrible. This is why they blight family holidays with bigoted, paranoid, authoritarian rants, attacking their friends and families as America-hating traitors. This is why they disdain basic norms, believing it ridiculous to be polite to the cultural equivalent of enemy combatants and that those norms are just another conspiracy to silence them.
This disdain for facts was writ large at the Republican National Convention. Journalists and fact checkers went hoarse trying to correct speech after speech which described the exact opposite of every data point collected by government and industry to no avail. Even if the data clearly contradicted literally everything they said, it felt true and therefore, was, Republican talking heads and party bigwigs said to incredulous reporters when asked for comment during their multi-day coronation of Donald Trump as the Republican Messiah.
And this gives us a different lens with which to view the King of Elder White Grievance. If we consider that Trump got his start in politics spreading the birther conspiracy on Fox, how many members of his cabinet ascribe to and promote conspiracy theories ripped from InfoWars and 4Chan’s trollish /pol/ board, and add it with his general inability to come up with a long-term strategy for, well, anything, we have to discard the notion that he’s simply another right-wing conman. Instead, he’s very much the victim of right-wing media histrionics, although I use that term very, very loosely.
Far from being a charismatic aberration to the GOP, Trump is the party base distilled into a single person. Older. White. Paranoid. Frightened by change he doesn’t understand and patronizingly dismissive of actual experts who do. Nursing countless grudges. Like his ardent base, he lives in a world where the United States is collapsing, the borders are overrun by cartels, gangs, and terrorists, while foreigners are stealing all the jobs, Europe is being turned into Saudi Arabia by secret al Qaeda and ISIS cells posing as refugees and creating no-go zones, and immigrants are being imported en masse to vote for an Illuminati takeover of America and to erase nation’s white population.
In this world, treasonous Marxist Demon-crats will send them to FEMA re-education camps then give all their confiscated money and property to immigrants and minorities they’d send to rig elections and bring about a homosexual Muslim MS-13 New World Order. Which is why they need guns no one should be able to trace, with no paperwork or background checks you see. Only huddled under the glow of Fox News, with Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh screaming bloody murder on the radio as they wait for UN thugs to kick in their doors will they truly be free.
Interestingly enough, extreme conservatism tends to lead to such views according to research in both neurology and political science. Those who identify as more conservative tend to have a larger amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing fear and threat response. This tangentially corroborates what political scientist Eric Oliver lays out in his upcoming book Enchanted America, and in a brief exchange with me, that “conservatism tends to be a more apprehensive belief system, drawing heavily on fears of threat” more so than liberal ones. He also noted that intuitionists often tend to come from more conservative homes and “have more authoritarian dispositions.”
Why Conspiracies Have Consequences
Now, I know that your reaction right now might be to laugh, say it’s a little crazy, and move on with your life. That certainly would’ve been my reaction as well until recently. But think of the implication here. The president of the United States believes his country is under attack from shadowy organizations and the majority of the country who disapproves of his job performance are either brainwashed by these groups, in on the conspiracy, or rooting for it to succeed. If that’s not absolutely terrifying to you, please shake yourself awake.
Really, it’s one thing when a supplement salesman is trying to scare the wits out of his paranoid followers on a rambling broadcast, so they buy more snake oil and placebos. It’s a very different ballgame when the person able to sign bills into law and launch a world-ending nuclear strike openly despises nearly two-thirds of the nation he’s supposed to govern, calling them “my many enemies” while taking a post-election victory lap.
So dare we hope that Trump and his base can understand that the people they imagine plotting against them probably don’t even think about them that much until they maliciously interfere with their lives in retaliation for imaginary slights, goaded by sociopaths making tens of millions to pit them against their family and neighbors, and millions more selling snake oil and raising money to protect them from some nefarious liberal conspiracy of the week? Paranoia and rage course through their veins like a drug, and trying to unplug them from their daily drip of Fox, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller causes immediate and violent withdrawal. Have they been this way for too long to recover and look to the future with at least vague positivity?
Until they realize that no one is actually out to get them, that everyone is trying to manage the transition to a post-industrial society and carve out a way forward in a world where virtually no one seems willing or able to tackle the big questions and problems with anything more than watered down incrementalism, there is little common ground to be had with them. They filled their lives with toxicity, gloom, and doom, and now refuse to leave that toxic echo chamber, wasting immense psychic energy on fear and hatred of their fellow humans.
For years, experts, liberals, and yes, conservative elites have been trying to explain to them that the world changed because that’s how entropy and capitalism work, and their angst comes from their refusal to adapt to it. That too many of them voted for politicians who twiddled their thumbs and found scapegoats as small, one-employer towns they called home collapsed with no one coming to the rescue, then decided that the improving lives of urban minorities and immigrants must’ve been where the bailout money and resources they were entitled to must have disappeared. But according to Oliver, arguing facts and numbers to show this is a dead end because “largely, intuitionists use their beliefs as emotional ballast” and their worldview “is not one that prioritizes reason, fact, or logical deduction.” Still, he doesn’t rule out reasoning with Trump supporters.
Possible routes to persuasion involve acknowledging their apprehensions. Another route is to translate rationalist ideas in more intuitionist terms. For example, intuitionists are typically unresponsive to concerns over global warming but are highly sensitive to ideas of toxins in the environment. By recasting CO2 emissions as pollutants rather than simply a greenhouse gas, one can communicate in terms intuitionists respond to.
While it may sound ironic that we can’t just use facts and numbers with people who often tweet about “FACTS!” and complain that “libtards just want to talk about their feelings” in a case of projection so classic that Freud’s ghost would raise an eyebrow, as social media informed us, irony died last year, so we should mourn its loss and proceed accordingly.
The Art Of The Productive Conversation
With that in mind, allow me to say something that may sound bizarre. The death of American consensus about anything though hyper-partisanship has been greatly exaggerated. And when I say greatly exaggerated, I mean it was invented by pundits unable to look past the surface of blue vs. red absolutism of election maps. While it’s true that elections have become less competitive and district by district results look rather stark, focusing on these facts alone ignores demographic changes, gerrymandering, and the massive influx of dark money into politics. If we look past the public rage that floods the national conversation, we’ll find Americans happy and willing to agree on a wide variety of topics.
Believe it or not, you can find examples of this on Reddit. Threads asking conservatives and liberals on what they agree on surface roughly once a month and seldom go off the rails. How? Well, experts in cognitive psychology, or the science of how we think, will generally tell you that it’s much easier to negotiate and build relationships with someone to whom you can relate, or at least nod sagely to something he says. And this is exactly what those threads do when they explicitly ask conservatives and liberals for anything they think is a good idea from the other side, fostering productive, civil discussions in the process.
Ordinarily, I would say I took a page from it right here at Rantt, endorsing a number of policies often favored by conservatives but that’s half the story. The other half involved trips deep into Trump country in Florida and Ohio, talking to Trump voters who were shocked to learn that they weren’t sitting across from someone who demands they house undocumented migrants or that minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour, but someone posing questions about the future and asking about their plans, offering criticism in the form of polite anecdotes and preferring to avoid the topic of Trump or political parties altogether. This fits quite well with Oliver’s first suggestion; to show that we understand their apprehensions.
For a number of them, it was an unusual way to talk about politics. They were used to either screaming matches with those who disapproved of their pro-Trump ways or cold, detached stenography by reporters who’d relay either a soft focus story about a lost and confused Red America, or implicitly frame their responses in a longform get-a-load-of-these-freaking-people expose in Politico. Perhaps the most common theme I found was their obvious observation that the world as we know it is pretty broken and they don’t know what to do or how to fix it, so maybe some outsider given enough power can.
Yet, if they tell you that a trade war with the Chinese would reopen the closed plant down the street, their confidence will be shaken when you explain in great detail how machines could do the work of most humans on a production line and ask whether they or anyone they know is qualified to code, maintain, or fix those machines because that’s what the handful of jobs would be for any modern factory in a post-industrial, developed nation. That’s the only way it will be profitable instead of becoming a useless, Soviet-style, government-subsidized sham.
“But what do you do?” they ask, knowing deep down that no one has given their future much, if any thought because the corporate culture they praised valued only efficiency and ROI. At the same time, companies determining where one should work or live would be even worse since a decision on their part that doesn’t go in your favor could devastate your life and future. They decide to up and move to another town? You’re coming. Don’t want to? Well, enjoy the ruins of what’s left behind with your severance check. In some ways, this is exactly what happened in the Rust Belt with one-employer towns still being romanticized by the dwindling population of locals whose kids are fleeing to the big city as fast as they possibly can.
Intellectually, many of them understand there’s no magic fix and times are changing. This is in part why they like to wax nostalgic about the good old days, when median salaries adjusted for inflation were almost $19 an hour, the same as they are today incidentally, while the newest generation to enter the workforce is earning 20% less than them, despite additional education and having beat out robots and cheap outsourced labor to land a job, and has to compete with people buying their third or fourth wildly overpriced and over-renovated investment property to own their first home. They are objectively leaving America a worse place than they found it, and they’re keenly aware that it’s happening right in front of their eyes.
This is why they wrap themselves in that soothing cocoon of conspiracy theories and numb themselves with hatred towards scapegoats often featured on Tucker Carlson’s White Power Hour during prime time cable news. Couple that with constant outrage, real and imagined, that sets the tone for all right-wing media today, and they’re even happier to absolve themselves of responsibility for their fate and the uncertain fate of future generations. They’ll gladly accept Trumpian boasts because it allows them to pretend that things went wrong through no fault of theirs, but they put America back on track, even if they know it’s not true.
How To Deal With Rebels With A Bad Cause
If this sounds sympathetic, it shouldn’t. There’s nothing praiseworthy about not holding your politicians accountable for their lack of vision or good ideas. There is nothing admirable about falling for snake oil salesmen and demagogues casting the passage of time and ascent of new generations and new ideas as evil plots against you. There is nothing relatable about letting racism and bigotry be your responses to more people asking to have a voice in society and not taking abuse laying down. And there’s nothing laudable about abandoning basic human morals like not supporting an alleged, lawless pedophile to help a political party that rode into power on conspiracies and scapegoating keep a key seat in Congress.
And we shouldn’t sugar coat any of this either. Preliminary studies have found that attacking the mindset behind particularly repellent conspiracy theories can be more effective than trying to debunk them because it speaks to that gut level, something that works best when you know that the believer does not care much about the facts unless they can be cherry picked to avoid the mental anguish of cognitive dissonance. Show them where their choices lead and the mockery to which America has been subjected across the world for electing Trump. How, ironically, he and his cabinet of fellow paranoid conspiracy theorists have made it the laughing stock it never actually was by refusing to engage with the world as it is, not as their delusions frame it.
Why would someone want to believe their nation is constantly under attack? Why does one refuse to ask politicians why they’re not doing their jobs and letting others take the blame? Why be loyal to a political party that says it cares about you but refuses to help you with anything but feeding you more Culture Wars outrage and passing symbolic bills and deficit-exploding tax cuts for the wealthy? Why would anyone allow themselves to live in constant fear of bogeymen that supposedly wait in every closet, under every bed, and in imaginary no-go zones? Why immerse oneself in constant outrage and grief, instead of conceding that maybe, just maybe, not every person you meet with a different take on tax cuts or healthcare is a treasonous Illuminati plant?
Certainly, we could and should debate the best ways to get where we want to be. To paraphrase an old military saying, no plan survives first contact with reality, and we should encourage a lot of different ideas to avoid innovation-killing, fact-myopic groupthink. (Which is why diversity is so important, by the way.) But with ardent Trump supporters, we are not there yet. It would be like renovating a house and talking about what style of faucets should be installed and the design on the shower curtains before you even decided where the bathroom goes. That’s where we are at this stage: just agreeing on which rooms in the house will perform what function. Until we can get on the same page, almost any discussion will be past each other for the benefit of different audiences, not a productive back and forth.
But what about the unrepentant racists and bigots and the pathologically paranoid, you may ask. What if they refuse to listen? Well, yes, they probably won’t listen. But the goal isn’t to turn every Trump voter into a liberal progressive with a foolproof playbook. The goal is to get enough of them to agree on a shared reality, principles, and national identity to reject the unreasonable, ignorant, woefully unqualified politicians way past their prime with whom we’re stuck now and make the ones who’ll be left a minority so sane adults can talk about important issues. And most importantly, just because Republicans decided that any government agency or branch not led by them is illegitimate doesn’t mean we should flirt with the same folly. No matter what, they’re still Americans with whom we have to share a country.
There’s a lesson for members of the media here as well. Conspiracy theories may be fun to talk about, but they are conspiracy theories and need to be treated accordingly. A good rule to keep in mind when covering something out of a Trump advocate’s mouth is to check whether it was approvingly quoted by, or lifted from InfoWars or a site like it. If that’s the case, treat it the same way that you would treat 9/11 Truthers, people who insist school shootings are staged by “crisis actors” hired by gun-grabbing foreign evildoers, or that the country is secretly run by a Satanic cult. We simply can’t have a sane, rational 21st-century government with miserable, perpetually angry and terrified conspiracy theorists with an authoritarian streak in charge and allow them to dominate the national discourse by apathy and pseudo-journalistic rubbernecking.