Donald Trump was to the point last week: “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.” Trump has for years now appealed to such conspiracy theories to explain America’s perceived problems. Did you hear, for instance, that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese in order to weaken U.S. manufacturing? That the media refuses to report the tens of thousands of people attending his rallies, just as it “orchestrated”—in coordination with the Clintons—the sexual assault allegations against him? That, as he repeated at the third presidential debate this week, the election has been “rigged” by these very same forces?
Why does Trump spout such theories, and, more importantly, why do they resonate in some corners of American society? He and his followers see a country in decline, which raises this paradox: How come America, the greatest country in the world, isn’t great anymore? Conspiracy theories provide a satisfying explanation: Someone must be sabotaging us, from within or without.
In his oft-cited 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter connected Joseph McCarthy’s paranoia about Communists in the 1950s to the anti-Freemasons and anti-Jesuits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, among other movements. Samuel Morse, the celebrated portraitist and inventor of the telegraph, was a leading anti-Jesuit. “Austria is now acting in this country,” he wrote in his Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States from 1835. “She has devised a grand scheme… She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money.” “Popery is now, what it has ever been,” Morse concluded, “a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion.”
This long history of conspiracy theorizing is grounded in America’s self-conception as a chosen people. Since the first settlers arrived America has conceived of itself as unique in its moral purity and possibility, as the “City on a Hill” in the Puritan leader John Winthrop’s grand vision. Somewhere along the way, though, America has augmented this moral self-conception to incorporate the ideal that the nation is also destined for—and indeed deserving of—greatness and power on Earth, down in the valley below the Hill. Consider that after World War II the U.S. produced half of the world’s economic output, by some estimates.
It is in the context of such civilizational chosenness that periods of perceived decline can generate a disturbing cognitive dissonance: How could we, the necessarily greatest community, be weak or even non-dominant? Many Americans sense that we are now experiencing such a moment, as the nation descends from Cold War colossus to a post-recession “leader from behind” that’s no longer capable of imposing its will upon the globe or of guaranteeing long-term economic growth at home. They may also implicitly connect America to “white America” (now inclusive of Catholics, Morse’s protestations notwithstanding) and view the increasing political and cultural influence of minority communities as further evidence of decline. In his book Time to Get Tough! Making America #1 Again, Trump captures the mood succinctly: “The country I love is a total economic disaster right now. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect. You see and feel it all around you, and so do I.” Greatness is relative, and, by comparison with the ascending Soviets, McCarthy perceived a similar moment of American decline from the end of World War II to the early 1950s. The period was marked, in particular, by the Communist Party’s unexpected victory over the American-backed Nationalists in China, and by President Harry Truman’s announcement that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb.
Conspiracy theories enter the frame as a method of resolving such dissonance. If there is a necessary connection between American-ness and American greatness, then furtive, evil, abnormal, foreign forces must have intervened to block this connection. Something unnatural is happening. In this way, the community is not responsible for any of its perceived failures, and there is no need to downgrade its self-conception. Greatness will blossom again, almost as a matter of logical or scientific necessity, once the community exposes and preempts all of the conspiracies.
This is Trump’s prescription for America, and also for his campaign. Only if we deport, keep out, disempower, or imprison those people actively conspiring to keep America down—Muslims, Hispanics, the Clintons, free traders, cosmopolitans, etc.—only then will everything be great again. Conspiracy theories, in this way, are a means of explaining and rationalizing failure without having to conclude that one has, in fact, failed. They are the satisfying, easy answers, the balm to a wounded pride, and it is for this reason that many find them attractive. McCarthy, in parallel to Trump, insisted that America’s decline in relation to the Soviets did not “just happen”; rather, it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention” by covert traitors, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson and General George C. Marshall, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
This is not a uniquely American story. The Nazis, for instance, endorsed the “stab-in-the-back” myth (dolchstoßlegende) as the explanation for Germany’s loss in World War I. The theory, which the Nazis raised to official history, was that Germany would have won were it not for the machinations of “the November criminals”—scheming civilian politicians, communists, and especially Jews, who, among other alleged crimes, organized strikes at armament factories at key junctures in the conflict. Provisional President Friedrich Ebert, who died before Hitler’s rise, contributed to the myth when he welcomed returning soldiers on November 10, 1918, with statements such as “no enemy has vanquished you” and “they returned undefeated from the battlefield.” The idea of Germany’s losing the war was impossible from the perspective of German greatness. Unnatural forces must have intervened. There is a similar narrative vein in the Muslim world. There is a perceived necessary connection between Islamic religiosity and earthly success, given that Muhammad founded both a faith and an empire within a generation. Radical Islamists—and many mainstream Muslims, too—appeal to a “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy theory, among other such theories, to explain the centuries-long downfall of Muslim polities.
Conspiracy theories, and their role in rationalizing failure, will not always be so bizarre or nefarious. Nearly every political culture has some sense of chosenness that makes failure in at least some spheres difficult to process. And what’s more, we use such theories in our everyday lives. “The refs were totally biased against us!” is nothing if not a conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, it is not surprising that misrule and despotism, if not savagery, trail political movements that foreground conspiracy theories. At a basic level, such movements misperceive political and moral reality. They perceive casual forces that do not exist, and so will champion policies, like building a wall or banning Muslims, that will not work. And they so exoticize those people they imagine to be pulling the levers behind the scenes that they strip away those people’s claims to citizenship and perhaps also to humanity, raising the specter of due process violations if not grave atrocities.
What to do, then? It is not as if you can argue a conspiracy theorist out of his emotionally based beliefs. Indeed, in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger showed how direct disconfirmation of a conspiratorial belief can cause adherents to hold it even more fervently. While support for conspiracy theories does ebb and flow in America, there is no time to wait and hope for Trump and his supporters to uncoil their views. The solution is rather straightforward. It is to understand the dangerousness of Trump’s movement and to prevent it from accessing political power. This is likely what will happen on November 8. And while Trump will insist again, when he loses, that the election was rigged, we can rest safely with the knowledge that his theory is, in reality, wrong.
This article has been updated.