That Donald John Trump will be the 45th President of the United States still seems unreal and that sensation is not helped by the realization that millions of the Americans who voted for him may have done so because of runaway conspriracism. As the improbable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the billionaire real estate developer/reality television celebrity played to conservative gullibility by appealing to birtherism and climate denialism.
As primary candidate and nominee he railed at the unfairness of pro-Clinton news coverage. Wingnuts at his rallies were even heard chanting the Nazi slogan lügenpresse or “lying press.” However and inevitably the most extreme conspiracism was presented in social media. Anyone with a Facebook account noticed that many Trump supporters, together with creepy Trump supporters pretending to be progressives, endorsed a variety of conspiracy theories some of which are nothing less than tinfoil hat crazy.
Prominent themes included rage at journalists and news organizations, the “criminal enterprise” accusation that the Clinton Foundation is a vehicle for official corruption, the “Killary” accusation that Hillary Clinton has had political opponents assassinated, the accusation that Clinton aide Huma Abedin is an Islamist infiltrator, and the accusation that Bill Clinton is part of a pedophile ring involving financier Jeffrey Epstein. Anti-Semitism as crude as anything in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer also appeared. Who knew that any but the most marginal still credited the idea that the Rothschilds secretly ruled the planet?
Before exploring why this nonsense was propagated, it helps to survey some of the better, or at least popular, election necropsies.
- Thomas Frank argues that insider Hillary Clinton was the wrong Democratic nominee for the populist mood of the country. Failing to appreciate the extraordinary depth of popular anger, Democratic Party elites refused to select an outside candidate like Bernie Sanders or a man of the people like Joe Biden. The unmistakable pro-Clinton bias of the bulk of broadcast news and major newspapers – something only hardcore Hillary Democrats seemed unable to detect – further fueled popular anger.
- Glenn Greenwald blames Democratic Party elites for knowingly gambling our future on a “deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate” because she represented their interest in maintaining the status quo. Major media elites played along in part because they were prisoners of groupthink.
- Garrison Keillor blames the willful stupidity of resentful red state voters. Trump’s supporters were portrayed as giving into the same cowardly sentiments that characterize schoolchildren desperate not to be the target of a bully or rejected by the popular kids.
- Steve Benen blamed third party voters, an evasion requiring that the awful performance of the Clinton campaign. Multiple possible combinations of states could have produced a majority of electoral college votes for Clinton. Fewer combinations were available to Trump. If only every Green Party and half of the Libertarian Party voters had been willing to sacrifice their ideals and support the candidate of the status quo liberalism that they despised!
- L.V. Anderson blames white women for “selling out the sisterhood.” More than half of white women voted for Trump because, as Anderson would have it, they were persuaded to vote their race rather than their sex. That Hillary Clinton failed to connect with them on other levels is surely also relevant.
- Robby Soave thinks that Trump represented a rebellion against “political-correctness-run-amok.” Why that alone would have been sufficient is unclear, but it does seem that Trump represents what the political philosopher Jodi Dean “America’s id.” He offers Americans Žižekian permission to engage in the obscene. Many of Trump’s supporters are clearly unable to escape from infantile rage. Which brings us to the possibly independent effect of conspiracism.
For all their pro-Clinton bias, what the major news sources got right was that bug-eyed fear and resentment featured heavily in support for Donald Trump. Xenophobia directed at Hispanic and Muslims. Racism focused on Black Lives Matter activists. White male anxiety about gun rights. Hostility to Obamacare. Anti-abortion zealotry. If a different candidate had won the Republican nomination they would have made coded appeals exploiting the same themes. What was remarkable about the Trump campaign was not just the lack of coding, but that conspiracism was so explicit and salient.
Trump’s public certainty and exploitation of conspiracist themes empowered the less discerning to adopt similarly illiberal attitudes, most evidently in social media. Politely questioning the veracity of Facebook posts of patently fake news stories and sweeping generalizations of memes would arouse an explosion of true believer outrage. The sort of isolated, powerless individual attracted by the certainties of conspiracism might be sweetness incarnate in face to face exchanges, but when online could become a petty tyrant demanding complete agreement. Dissent became verboten in the humorless virtual dictatorships of conspiracists’ Facebook pages.
Even if Trump benefitted from the uncritical way his supporters construct their world views from fake news and memes, he isn’t responsible for their gullibility. They are responsible for failing to critically assess what they encounter online. To be sure, they have been socialized to believe rather than doubt what feels good by conservative politicians, Evangelical clergy and commercial advertisers. But they still possess enough agency to bear some of the responsibility. There are good reasons for their resentment – neoconservatism and neoliberalism have been disasters for many Americans – but that is no excuse for their self-indulgence.
The conspiracist infection is still raging. Some have convinced themselves or merely profess that the post-election demonstrations against Trump are financed by George Soros, who is painted as an evil mastermind. Even more worryingly, Trump has continued to feed the beast. Although on his best behavior at a meeting with President Obama at the White House, he quickly resumed tweeting his antipathy toward the press. Unless America’s id learns some impulse control or his staff control him, the feedback between a conspiracist-in-chief and his self-indulgent supporters seems likely to accelerate the decomposition of civil society in America. Not that they’ll understand their parts in the tragedy. Bad news will always be someone else’s fault, someone or something hidden and malign.