opinion | Why conspiracy theories are thriving in Trump’s America

“Trump, as a troublesome candidate, could not compete on the party establishment’s playing field,” they wrote in the 2016 primaries. Trump’s solution is what we call the politics of conspiracy theory.

Carry on with Trump’s conspiratorial rhetoric,

summed up in one unifying claim: 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. Then it came after that the only cause that can stop corruption.

A recent paper, “Authoritarian Leaders Share Conspiracy Theories to Attack Opponents, Motivate Followers, Shift Blame and Undermine Democratic Institutions,” by Ziying (Bella) Ren, Andrew Carton, Eugene Demann, and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the political methods leaders use to gain power by leveraging conspiracy theories. : “Leaders share conspiracy theories in the service of four primary goals that serve their self-interest: attack opponents, motivate followers, shift blame and responsibility, and undermine institutions that threaten their power.”

The four authors, these leaders write,

Conspiracy theories are often propagated to direct the attention, affection, and energy of followers toward a common enemy that threatens their interests, thus motivating followers. To this end, many conspiracy theories depict a vicious perpetrator engaging in clandestine activities to harm the welfare of followers.


Systems such as open elections and a free press can protect democracy by highlighting corrupt behavior and ensuring a peaceful transfer of power. Leaders may use conspiracy theories to undermine the credibility, legitimacy, and authority of these institutions, however, if they threaten their authority.

Ren and fellow politicians who espouse conspiratorial strategies write,

They find this a particularly effective tactic if their claim to power is illegitimate or controversial. Moreover, because exposure to conspiracy theories reduces followers’ trust in democratic institutions, leaders may even mobilize their followers to engage in violence that further undermines these institutions (for example, challenging an election defeat by initiating riots or mobilizing military forces). ).

In a paper published in September 2021 titled “Social Motives for Sharing Conspiracy Theories,” Ren, Demant and Schweizer argue that when conspiracy theories are posted on social media, many people “intentionally share misinformation to enhance social motivations.”

When deliberately spreading misinformation, the authors write,

People make calculated tradeoffs between sharing accurate information and sharing information that generates more social engagement. Although people know factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories, they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social commentary (i.e. comments and “likes”) rather than sharing real news.

Ren, Demant, and Schweizer add that “more positive social reactions to sharing conspiracy theories significantly increase the tendency for people to share those conspiracy theories they do not believe in.”

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has pointed out that spreading a lie can act as a chibuleth – something like a password used by one group of people to identify other people as members of a particular group – providing an effective means of referring to Strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologists:

Many who study religion have noted that it is the extreme impossibility of a claim that makes it a good indication of one’s commitment to one’s religion. You don’t need faith to believe the obvious. The announcement of election theft surely plays a role in declaring identity in America today.

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 titled “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.”

One contributing factor to Republicans’ continued embrace of conspiracy thinking, Miller said, is that in 2020 Trump loyalists – who are suddenly political losers – suddenly realize they are on a “downward trajectory.” Miller wrote that “one’s perception of oneself as a ‘loser’ (culturally, politically, economically, etc.) is probably one of the reasons people are prone to believing in conspiracy theories.”

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