Trump’s Mainstreaming Of Conspiracy Theories Poses A Long-Term Threat

Very few have done more to push false conspiracy theories into the mainstream than Trump. After he's gone, we're left with the consequences.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Aristotle Kallis is professor of modern and contemporary history at Keele University. His research interests relate to the comparative study of fascism and the contemporary radical right; the genealogies of populism; and Islamophobia.

In his first major live public appearance following the elections of 3 November 2020, Donald J Trump blamed a powerful conspiracy of ‘big media, big, money [and] big tech’ for interfering in the election process and manipulating the results of the public vote.

Resorting to conspiracy theories should not come as a huge surprise when it comes to the outgoing US president. This was but the latest episode of a year in which Trump articulated and normalized all sorts of theories about foreign and domestic enemies working in a clandestine fashion to undermine him, his government, and/or the power of the USA. It came from the mouth of a public figure who built his populist power base on outlandish claims, becoming the de facto political spokesperson for the birther fringe movement directed at former President Barack Obama.

Conspiracy theories are far from being a new phenomenon. They have spanned historical eras and derived from all sorts of imaginations. Like all new ideas competing for attention, they appear as new claims that are however sustained by pre-existing beliefs, prejudices, and anxieties. Most come and go almost unnoticed by the mainstream, at best ending up as residues in the very fringes of the political spectrum. Some, however, catch on; and a few of them have shown extraordinary staying power over time, not only surviving in various forms across generations but also mutating into new derivative claims and in the process traversing geographic, cultural, and political boundaries.

But is there something unique about the recourse to conspiracy theories by Trump? The history of conspiracy theories underlines how the tendency to blame shadowy forces with alleged enormous power and malicious intent for all kinds of ills is not an exclusive right-wing trait. Although nationalists always have a shorter radius of community trust and sharper disjunctions with ‘others’ outside it, conspiracies have been sustained by, and continue to be, from most other political constituencies.

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In fact, some have argued that it is not beliefs themselves but rather the strength of believing that makes people and groups more likely to embrace conspiracy theories. In other words, the more extreme, cult-like, or marginalized by the mainstream the belief, the more likely its capacity for sustaining conspiracy theories and the higher the chances of it being believed by its core supporters.

Therefore, regardless of provenance or target (a bewildering spectrum of constructed national ‘enemies’, religious and social ‘others’, intrusive global superpowers, media empires or shady corporate ventures – not to mention bizarre claims to plots that have involved combinations thereof), conspiracy theories reflect a deeper breakdown of social trust.

They feed on an insurrectionary mood against the perceived official mainstream that is evidently neither exclusively right- or left-wing nor even solely identified with so-called populist constituencies. Rather than linked to a conspiratorial ‘mindset’, they are rooted in moments of (perceived or ‘real’) crisis, lack of trust, long-term erosion of authority, of cultural disorientation, and anxiety about the immediate future. They may be propelled into the limelight by short-term fear and anger but they are buttressed by embedded, if often delegitimized cultural undercurrents.

There is something special about Trump’s recourse to conspiracy theories, however. By virtue of this political role since 2016, he has been the most ‘mainstream’ purveyor of the most extreme and sweeping conspiracy claims. Whereas conspiratorial allegations have often cast a shadow on mainstream politics, society, and culture – not to mention how they have poisoned election events even in the recent past – they have rarely been voiced so unequivocally and consistently as the mainstream discourse itself.

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Trump has done more than anyone in normalizing the widest set of delegitimized, subjugated, or simply outlandish taboo claims. To normalize means to render so standard, so ubiquitous, in the end so untroubling to more and more mainstream social constituencies. It refers both to the process (to make something more and more ‘normal’) and to the outcome (to reach a stage where the previously fringe and taboo claim has become so embedded in mainstream discourse and cognition that is no longer considered deviant or morally troubling).

The intellectual scaffolding of even the most outlandish conspiratorial schemes consists of rather pedestrian pre-existing cliché beliefs. Yet some of these elemental beliefs are more widely shared and/or easier to internalize than others. Where right-wing national populists of the likes of Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán will always enjoy a huge advantage is in the very banality of their us-v-them schemes that underpin their conspiratorial claims.

In times when trust in the mainstream narratives of truth has been so effectively eroded, the dystopian clarity of the populist message appears more than ever comforting, cogent, and flattering in its strategies of blame displacement to familiar ‘others’. More disturbingly, the damage that populist conspiracy claims incur on social trust will most likely outlive their original populist purveyors. This is because conspiracy theories – even those that become officially discredited – leave behind sedimentations of toxic distrust and resentment, awaiting another populist to summon them, normalize them, build them into new clusters of insurrectionist discourse, and weaponize them against the proverbial shady hordes of imaginary scheming ‘others.’

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // CARR / Conspiracy Theories / Disinformation / Donald Trump / Radical Right / Republican Party