In the 2016 primaries, “Trump, as a disruptive candidate, could not compete on the playing field of the party establishment,” they write. “Trump’s solution is what we call ‘conspiracy theory politics’.”
Trump’s conspiratorial rhetoric, they continue,
boiled down to a single unifying demand: political elites have abandoned the interests of ordinary Americans in favor of foreign interests. For Trump, the political system was corrupt and the establishment could not be trusted. It followed then that only a troublemaker could stop the corruption.
A recent article, “Authoritarian Leaders Share Conspiracy Theories to Attack Opponents, Galvanize Followers, Shift Blame, and Undermine Democratic Institutions” by Zhiying (Bella) Ren, Andrew Carton, Eugen Dimant, and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania, describes methods political leaders use to gain power by capitalizing on conspiracy theories: “Leaders share conspiracy theories in service of four primary and selfish purposes: to attack adversaries, galvanize supporters, deflect blame and responsibility, and undermine institutions that threaten their power. »
Such leaders, write the four authors,
often spread conspiracy theories to direct followers’ attention, emotion, and energy towards a common enemy that threatens their interests, thereby galvanizing followers. To this end, many conspiracy theories depict an infamous perpetrator engaging in covert activities to harm the well-being of followers.
Systems such as open elections and freedom of the press can safeguard democracy by exposing corrupt behavior and ensuring a peaceful transition of power. However, leaders can use conspiracy theories to undermine the credibility, legitimacy and authority of these institutions if they threaten their power.
Politicians who adopt conspiratorial strategies, write Ren and his colleagues,
find it a particularly effective tactic if their own claim to power is illegitimate or controversial. Moreover, since exposure to conspiracy theories reduces supporters’ trust in democratic institutions, leaders may even mobilize their followers to engage in violent actions that further undermine these institutions (e.g., contest an electoral defeat by instigating riots or mobilizing military forces).
In a September 2021 article, “Social Motives for Sharing Conspiracy Theories,” Ren, Dimant, and Schweitzer argue that by promoting conspiracy theories on social media, many people “knowingly share misinformation to advance social motives. “.
By deliberately spreading misinformation, the authors write,
people make calculated trade-offs between sharing accurate information and sharing information that generates more social engagement. Even though people know that factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories, they expect that sharing conspiracy theories will generate more social commentary (i.e. comments and “j ‘likes’) than sharing factual news.
Ren, Dimant, and Schweitzer add that “more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories greatly increases people’s tendency to share those conspiracy theories they don’t believe in.”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business, noted that spreading a lie can serve as a shibboleth – something like a password used by a group of people to identify other people as members of a particular group – providing an effective means of signaling the strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologues:
Many who study religion have noted that it is the very impossibility of an affirmation that makes it a good signal of one’s commitment to the faith. You don’t need faith to believe obvious things. Proclaiming that the election was stolen surely plays a role in identity publicity in today’s America.
Joanne Miller, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, wrote via email that she and two colleagues, Christina Farhart and Kyle Saunders, are about to publish a research paper, “Losers’ Conspiracy: Elections and Conspiratorial Thinking “. They found that “Democrats scored higher on conspiratorial thinking than Republicans after the 2016 election, and Republicans scored higher on conspiratorial thinking after the 2020 election.”
A contributing factor to Republicans’ continued embrace of conspiracy thinking, Miller continued, is that Trump loyalists in 2020 — who had suddenly become political losers — suddenly understood themselves to be on “a downward trajectory.” Miller writes that “perceiving oneself as a ‘loser’ (culturally, politically, economically, etc.) is probably one of the reasons why people are likely to believe in conspiracy theories”.