Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Politics of Extreme Distrust: Conspiracy Theories, Brexit, and Trump

One of the curious (others might say alarming) features about the Brexit vote--wherein the majority of UK electorate voted in a referendum to leave the European Union--is how unmoored so many voters in the Leave camp appeared to be from reality, lacking even a basic understanding the ramifications of their vote. Just hours after the results came in, Google Trends revealed that one of the most common search requests in the UK was “what is the EU?"

What received less attention is that nearly half of all Leave voters brought their own pens to vote, believing that the MI5 would otherwise tamper with their votes.

An even more shocking (admittedly fringe) conspiracy circulated by some within the pro-Leave camp is that the murder of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox was a “false flag” operation by “globalists” seeking to achieve a victory for Remain.

In the United States as well, those on the right appear more likely than those on the left to believe in government-directed conspiracies, particularly during periods of a Democratic presidency. According to a 2013 Public Policy Poll (PPP):

Overall, 36% of Americans and 62% of Republicans believe that the Obama Administration is secretly trying to take everyone’s guns away; just 14% of Democrats believe the same. One in four Americans say that President Obama is secretly trying to figure out a way to stay in office beyond 2017 – including almost half of Republicans (44%). And 26% of Americans think that Muslims are covertly implementing Sharia Law in American court systems, while 55% don’t think so and another 19% aren’t sure. There’s a huge partisan breakdown on this one as well – 42% of Republicans fear Sharia Law making its way into America’s courts while just 12% of Democrats agree.

Much of the “unmooring” is due to the political, economic and cultural marginalization of those who long enjoyed the best that industrialized democracies have to offer. Many are “losers” of economic changes wrought by globalization. Others resent the fact that their culture and values are increasingly derided as backward and irrelevant. Overwhelmingly, these groups belong to the shrinking white majority of the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. 

They are the electoral base of Donald Trump—a political neophyte who is by his own reckoning not a politician and who is unapologetically ignorant of the basics of American policy-making and foreign policy. His ignorance bothers neither Trump nor his supporters. In the same way, Sarah Palin’s ignorance of politics and foreign affairs, not to mention the basic features of the American system of government, made her not one whit less qualified for the vice presidency to her supporters during the 2008 campaign.

Conspiracy theories are critical to the fortunes of insurgents like Trump. What Hofstadter called “movements of suspicious discontent” are the fuel that drives the campaigns of reactionary outsiders; they serve as the defensive armour of those on the reactionary fringe. Although conspiracy theories have always enjoyed traction in society (only consider the JFK assassination, the "faked" moon landing, and the 9/11 Truth Movement), they are now widely trafficked in the rightwing blogosphere. What is more, mainstream GOP politicians now openly articulate unhinged beliefs--not accidentally, but purposely, as a means of popular mobilization. (Don't forget Ted Cruz's fear-mongering over Agenda 21, the belief that the UN was angling to take away US sovereignty, among other things to force American citizens to live in energy efficient "hobbit homes").

Ordinarily, science, empiricism, and trust in the mainstream institutions of secular society serve to inoculate against the spread of conspiracy theories. These institutions, however, have taken a beating over the decades, giving greater political power to beliefs on the fringe.

Beyond cyclical dips and peak, the chart shows a long-term secular decline in public faith in the government. Over the last couple decades, one can also see divergence between Republicans and Democrats: who have greater faith in government when a Republican and Democrat, respectively, occupies the White House. This reflects an ever-widening polarization of the political landscape.

At the same time, public trust in mainstream media has dropped decade after decade. This, combined with the proliferation of partisan media in the internet age, is the other source of the problem, as highly motivated partisan individuals seek evidentiary confirmation of their views from similarly partisan sources of information.

The importance of this for the political landscape today cannot be underestimated. Fewer people trust the government than at any time in the past fifty-odd years, particularly on the right. Recent research suggests that conspiracy theories tend to hold sway among those with low trust in government institutions--and, on the right, for those with “high information” (or what passes as information on highly partisan websites).  

This provides fertile ground for the successful candidacy of  fringe figure such as Trump. According to a recent poll by RAND, the belief that “people like me don't have any say about what the government does” is a better predictor for Trump support than “age, race/ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, household income, attitudes towards Muslims, attitudes towards illegal immigrants, or attitudes towards Hispanics.”

If we accept that distrust is related to conspiracy theories, it makes sense that Trump supporters were more likely than the supporters of other GOP contenders to believe that global warming isn’t happening, that vaccines cause autism, that Obama “is hiding something,” that the Newtown massacre “was faked,” and that Clinton knew about and “chose not to attack in Benghazi.” 

In fact, the last two elections have given rise to a new mobilizational cleavage in Republican politics—from yesteryear's religious/social issues (think George W. Bush back to Jimmy Carter, who consistently courted key religious groups and leaders) to today's open appeals to white identity politics. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has spent very little time on religious issues--instead focusing on building a wall to block incoming undocumented Mexicans, deporting said undocumented Mexicans, and banning the travel of Muslims seeking to enter to the US. One can already see the effects this in the virulent crowds that turned up at Trump’s campaign appearances. Trump's crowds, and the opposition they attract, are violent and dangerous.

Trump is knowingly courting the fringe vote, touting scores of conspiracy theories of his own. It is also noteworthy that one of Trump’s top campaign advisors--the immensely creepy Roger Stone pictured below—has made multiple lengthy appearances on New World Order Conspiracist Alex Jone’s youtube channel, Infowars.

Alex Jones (along with other right-wing opinion leaders) have played a key role in circulating the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama ordered a hit on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia so he could appoint a communist to the court, that Michelle Obama is actually a man in disguise (because Barack is secretly a gay man). and that s/he may have murdered Joan Rivers. Among his many other conspiracy theories, Jones contends that the government may be tampering with school juice boxes in order to reduce testosterone in boys in order to "turn them gay." Following a glowing endorsement, Jones scored a lengthy interview with Trump for Infowars via phone.

Beginning with his Birtherism, Trump has effectively tapped into the mindset of an extreme set of ultra-conservative beliefs that have been circulating in the rightwing blogosphere and talk radio for years. He has now firmly planted his flag in conservative crazy town and is inviting all comers. Because that is plainly where the plurality of today's Republican voters are at.

If true, this should be alarming to us all. Faith in mainstream institutions in the United States is at an all-time low among ordinary people, particularly on the right. Together with the new media landscape, marginalized folk--already motivated to seek out explanations for their declining status--will continue to imbibe increasingly extreme conspiracy theories. This cannot end well, even (or especially) if a Democrat (Hillary Clinton, no less!) wins the presidency in November. We can then look forward to another wave of militia movements, hate crimes, record-setting gun sales (with an attendant increase in gun violence)--general insurgent conditions along the lines of what we saw in the 1990s.

These disruptions may be an avoidable feature of large-scale demographic shifts and/or economic transformation that we simply have to get through.  If there is any kind of remedy, though, it surely lies in repairing tattered social welfare programs that gives rise to social anomie in the first place.

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