In particular, two camps of very different political persuasions have suggested that the Iowa implosion was the result of a conspiracy against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The left-wing standard-bearer had been leading in the latest polls and would seem to be the most hurt by the lack of a conclusive winner. Unsurprisingly, his supporters were frustrated, and some channeled that frustration into elaborate theories about an establishment Democratic plot to stifle the senator. Some claimed that the failed app used to report votes was developed by Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager. (It wasn’t.) Others joked or earnestly argued that the Democratic National Committee had shut down the process to avoid declaring Sanders the winner. (The Iowa Democratic Party, not the DNC, is responsible for the caucus and tabulating the votes.) Some elected officials also got in on the act:
But it wasn’t just Sanders supporters who cried foul citing dubious or spurious evidence. It was also the entire organized Trump campaign and its satellites. “Still no results,” tweeted Trump 2020 national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “Dems rigging it at the Iowa caucuses!” The claim was echoed by President Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale, who wrote, “Quality control = rigged?” Both of Trump’s elder sons joined in. “Mark my words, they are rigging this thing,” declared Eric Trump. “The fix is in … AGAIN,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., “And we get to watch it play out on live TV.” He also retweeted the pro-Trump commentator and co-founder of the Federalist, Sean Davis, who proclaimed, “They stole Iowa from Bernie Sanders in 2016 and they’re going to try and do it again in 2020.” Some of Trump’s most fervent elected backers also entered the fray (sometimes broadening the alleged conspiracy to include the editors of the Des Moines Register, which had spiked its heavily anticipated final pre-caucus poll on Saturday night because of methodological errors):
In reality, nothing of the sort transpired. Having covered the past three presidential elections, I can tell you that the Democratic Party is neither monolithic enough nor competent enough to rig a Little League game, let alone a primary. (Ironically, on the very day that the party was being painted as a ruthless rigger of elections, it was actually placing two of its top convention officials on leave for allegedly fostering a toxic work environment.) Moreover, as BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith noted, the Iowa caucuses are pretty impossible to rig, because unlike secret-ballot primaries, they are done in public, before TV and Twitter cameras, and on paper.
But there is a dark logic to Team Trump’s instant amplification of conspiracy theories surrounding the Iowa caucuses, and it’s one that should give pause to any supporters of the Democratic candidates. Simply put, Trumpworld is pushing the “rigged Democratic primary” narrative with no evidence because conspiracy theories disempower those who believe them. And Trump’s team wants to disempower its opposition and erode their trust in the process so that they don't participate.
This is precisely how conspiracy theories debilitate those who accept them: They offload blame for problems onto shadowy cabals and thus prevent people from rationally overcoming those problems. As one more intellectually honest pundit on the right noted, “I don’t think Iowa sabotaged the caucus to hurt Bernie Sanders. But I really hope a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters think that.”
I’ve spent a lot of time covering conspiracy theories and their effect on those who buy into them, because I’ve spent a lot of time reporting on anti-Semitism. At root, much of anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory that Jews control the world and are responsible for its problems. This prejudicial worldview is meant to disempower Jews, but ironically, it ultimately ends up disempowering those non-Jewish societies that adopt it. After all, people who think “the Jews” control the economy become incapable of making rational financial decisions. People who believe “the Jews” control global politics become unable to formulate effective reality-based strategies for achieving political change. By constantly chasing after phantom Jews instead of tackling the real sources of their concerns, anti-Semites sabotage themselves and their ability to solve problems. To give just one example, researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that German families living in counties with a history of anti-Semitism were less likely to invest in the stock market, and thus more likely to be poorer, than other Germans.
This cautionary tale about the debilitating effect of conspiracy theories is one that Democratic partisans should take to heart — particularly those who support Sanders. The Vermont progressive’s campaign has staked its success on turning out non-voters to the polls. However, these are precisely the people who are most alienated from the political process, and many of them already do not believe that their vote matters. It’s hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy than to tell them that they are right, and that no matter what they do, the big bad Democratic establishment will dictate the outcome.
As the Trump reaction to Iowa shows, no matter who wins the nomination to take him on, the president and his allies will do their best to undermine Democratic faith in the democratic process and suppress turnout for the opposition. It would be a historic error for those opponents to propagate the very conspiracy theories that make the case for him.