It has been suggested, by sociologists and data-crunchers alike, that most Americans believe in at least one conspiracy, whether it’s that elite lizards run the world or the government is lying about what will happen if you vaccinate your kids. In some cases, belief correlates most clearly with knowledge of past conspiracies later proven to be true. The sociologist Rob Brotherton has found that black Americans who have heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment—the one in which the government, for 40 years, told men of color they were being treated for “bad blood,” but infected them in order to study to disease instead—are more likely to believe the government invented AIDS.
For anyone predisposed to think there’s more to a story than there seems, there are ample reason to believe. A former aide to Richard Nixon admitted last year that the War on Drugs was invented more than four decades ago specifically to target black people and hippies, at the time (and probably still) No. 1 enemies of the state. Facebook actually is censoring your news. The NSA is listening to you. And yet, when conspiratorial thinking takes the stage and stumps for the presidency we wonder why anyone takes it seriously at all.
Thanks to Donald Trump, this is the conspiracy election. The man believes (or pretends to believe) in no particular order, that President Obama wears an Arabic ring, Scalia was murdered, Syrian refugees are intentionally only sent to GOP-majority states, and Mexico deliberately sends criminals to the United States. His followers have popularized the idea that Hillary’s health is fading, pointing Reddit-style shaky red arrows at her face, taking bouts of laughter or unscripted moments as proof of parkinson’s or brain damage. And last week, Obama smelled his hands dramatically for traces of sulfur. “There’s this guy on the radio,” he joked to a crowd in Greensboro, “who thinks me and Hillary are demons.”
As Election Day nears, Trump has taken shelter under such paranoid thinking, one of the only things he has left. In a speech in Florida last week, the anti-heroes he describes—”the global special interest”; “those who don’t have your good in mind”—could have actually been lizards dressed in people suits. “This is a conspiracy against you, the American people,” Trump roared to the crowd. His foreshadowing of a “rigged” election is, by now, as he begins to tank in the polls, probably his smartest move to date—a guarantee his most hard-core supporters will maintain their sense of rage and persecution long past Election Day. The rhetoric is shocking and faintly ridiculous, if familiar; from Alex Jones to the birther myth, we’ve become accustomed to the reality-adjacent mentality of the far right.
During the election cycle, ridiculing Trump’s conspiracy theories has long been a favorite pastime of the press. Media outlets list Trump’s unhinged beliefs endlessly, hoping to unmask the orange man for the fringe hoodlum he is, only to find that the criticism further inflates him into a caricature of himself. Such myth-busting also seems to bolster his core supporters. And so we get the image of every Trump voter as a crazed fringe theorist, tinfoil hat in hand. It’s comforting to the left, if probably false, to believe in that kind of Republican: too stupid, too white, too poor to have ever heard the facts, never mind take them into account. But that kind of thinking gets in the way of the far nastier implications of believing, say, our first black president isn’t American or our first potential female practically on her deathbed.
It’s comforting to only believe in tinfoil hat-wearing Republicans
And it erases all the reasons everyone else—regardless of race or income of political affiliation—tends to think there are diabolical plots at work, too. I have family who think there are ISIS training camps in Brooklyn, and it isn’t a pure love of conspiracy theory that propels them to believe. Sociologists call it confirmation bias—the tendency to only see the evidence that supports your own beliefs—and it’s the same trigger inspiring anti-vaxxer moms in yoga pants, no matter how many times that one study is debunked.
One wonders whether Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who heard their favored candidate refer to the banks, the economy, and the superdelegate rules as “rigged” recognize the sentiment at all. After all, it’s complicated. Coming from the mouth of nearly anyone else, Trump’s statements about disinterested global powers, defanged of his racist undertones, would ring just a little true. When Bernie supporters accused the DNC of favoring the Clinton campaign, the theory was referred to as “embarrassing garbage.” Months later, in a batch of leaked emails, a communications officer for the DNC wonders if reporters might be interested in a story that portrayed the then-candidate as “a mess.”
Before this election, studies suggested that conspiratorial thinking incubated equally in Democrats and Republicans. Often, the only difference was what kind of conspiracy they preferred, an indication that questioning the way the world appears is a bipartisan habit in an uncertain world. In 2013, a far more innocent time, Public Policy Polling released a national study showing just how clearly conspiracy theories broke down along party lines.
Depending on where you stand politically, everything can be hoax.
At the time, more than half of Americans believed there was something fishy about the assassination of J.F.K.; 15 percent that the government controls minds with TV. Twelve million Americans were open to considering that lizards lived among us. Nearly a third of Republicans favored the New World Order theory, in which the global elite controls the strings. Democrats were far more likely to believe the whole Bush administration knew, without a doubt, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Depending on where you stand politically, nearly everything can be a hoax.
Such findings are corroborated by the sociologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, who has studied the link between a perceived lack of control (see: the electoral process) and belief in fringe theories, as well as the relationship between politics and conspiracy. Recently, van Prooijen analyzed pools of voters in the United States and the Netherlands and found that the more intense your ideology is the more likely you are to believe there are unseen forces at work, whether you swing left or right.
But one of the best indicators of what leads people down conspiracy holes may be proportionality bias—the perceived importance of the event that needs to be explained. It’s part of why J.F.K.’s death still ranks so high. We look for sweeping, top-down theories to explain the earth-shattering events in our lives. Proportionally, who wins the presidency is a big deal. It certainly won’t make the conspiracy theories go away.