Believing that a secretive cabal is conspiring to control the government and delude the public might not hurt you, if you're an ordinary citizen. For politicians seeking election to high office, though, espousing conspiracy theories can be risky if voters don't see things the same way.
That apparently didn't concern Donald Trump, who alluded to one of his favorite conspiracy theories when he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition Thursday. "There's something going on with him that we don't know about," Trump said, referring to President Obama. We don't know exactly what he means by that, but Trump used to focus on his allegation that the president was not born in the United States.
Trump has other theories, too -- for example, that Arab immigrants in New Jersey cheered in the streets when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. If these theories were true, they would imply a widespread deceit. The believer has to imagine a conspiracy among a potentially vast number of people in state, federal and local government, law enforcement and the press, all acting in concert to manipulate the public and conceal the truth.
By espousing these modern-day myths, politicians might expose themselves to criticism, but psychologists suggest there is also a large group of voters to whom these theories appeal, especially on the conservative side of the aisle. A new study suggests that these voters are not ill-informed. On the contrary, conspiracy theories are most persuasive to more knowledgeable and politically engaged voters -- just the group that politicians might want to reach. By endorsing these theories, or at least not rebutting them, politicians can address some of those voters' fundamental psychological needs.
What Americans really think
Social scientists and psychologists believe that people subscribe to conspiracy theories for the simple reason that these theories often tend to validate their views of the world. Republicans believe all kinds of things about President Obama, and many liberals believe similar theories about President George W. Bush.
"For both liberals and conservatives, for everybody, there's just this tendency to want to believe things that fit our worldview as we believe it," said Joanne Miller, a political scientist the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the new study. "Both liberals and conservatives are subject to that. It's a human tendency to want to believe what we believe."
In particular, conspiracy theories offer a simple explanation, with an identifiable villain, for the complicated reality of modern politics. That simplicity is appealing.
Miller and her collaborators -- Christina Farhart and Colorado State University's Kyle Saunders -- used data from surveys of Americans who were asked whether they thought statements about politicians and public figures were true.
A few conspiracy theories were on the list. Four were designed to suss out conservative respondents:
- that Obama was born outside the United States;
- that his health-care reform established "death panels;"
- that global warming was a hoax
- and that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There were four more theories for the other side:
- that the Bush administration knew about that terrorist plot before it happened;
- that the administration misled the public about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (although it's worth noting that reasonable people, not just conspiracy theorists, also disagree about whether Bush and his deputies misrepresented the conclusions of the intelligence establishment, so perhaps this item doesn't belong on the list);
- that Republicans committed voter fraud in Ohio in 2004, stealing the presidential election from Secretary of State John Kerry
- and that the government purposefully breached levees in New Orleans to channel floodwaters away from middle-class homes during Hurricane Katrina.
In many cases, large percentages of Americans overall believe the conspiracy theories were true.
The respondents also had to take a short quiz to test their general knowledge about politics. Conservatives who were well-informed about politics in general were more, not less, likely to hold conspiracy theories.
While it might be surprising to most people, that pattern wasn't surprising for the scholars of conspiracy theories who wrote the paper. People who know more about politics and their parties often have more strongly held opinions. They're also better able to see how a conspiracy theory would support their worldview, which gives them more of a reason to believe the theory.
The real surprise for Miller, Saunders and Farhart was that liberal respondents who were better informed were less likely to endorse the conspiracy theories. The authors offered a couple of reasons for why the data about liberal conspiracy theories contradicted their assumption that there would be more believers among more knowledgeable voters.
One possibility is simply that when your own party is in the White House, you don't have as much of a reason to support conspiracy theories. These theories seem to be particularly attractive to those who feel as though their party is losing power.
For instance, another recent study examined letters to the editor of The New York Times since 1890. The authors found that during Republican administrations, the villains in the most frequently cited conspiracy theories were Republican politicians or corporations, and during Democratic administrations, they were Democrats or Communists. Perhaps it's that these theories explain why tens of millions of Americans could vote for the other side, without forcing believers to think carefully about whether those voters have legitimate reasons for supporting the party that they do.
Another possibility is that conspiracy theories are simply more persuasive to conservatives because of their psychological make-up. The fact that the world is an uncertain, complex place makes some people profoundly uncomfortable. As Wonkblog has reported previously, psychologists have found that one characteristic of conservatives around the world is that they are particularly averse to this uncertainty.
And the appeal of conspiracy theories is that they eliminate the complexity of the political system, giving believers a simple and elegant way to make sense of it all: There are a group of villains who control everything. Any contradictory facts are simply misinformation, the machinations of the cabal.
It's possible that conspiracy theories "resonate in general better for Republicans than they do for Democrats or liberals," Miller said. "What people are attracted to are the simple explanations."
Just the facts
The study also suggests an explanation for why Trump is breaking all the rules, refusing to back down when he's caught in a lie.
Trump's appeals reflect a deep-seated desire among conservatives voters -- as demonstrated by research -- for relatively simple explanations for what's going on.
With Trump's statements, Miller conjectures, he's revealing that he has a type of personality with which they can identify.
"By conveying either conspiracy theories or these types of misinformation, what you're doing is that you're conveying to the public that you're that type of person," she said. "There's no nuance. There's no 'Yes, but...' "
It's not just Trump, of course. Earlier this year, rumors circulated that the U.S. military was secretly planning to invade Texas. In fact, the military was simply planning a training exercise, and since Texas is already within the jurisdiction of the federal government, the theory made little sense. All the same, Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas and a rival of Trump's for the GOP presidential nod, did not unequivocally rebut the rumors.
"My office has reached out to the Pentagon," Cruz said. "We are assured it is a military training exercise. I have no reason to doubt those assurances, but I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty."
Things are getting weird in American politics.