The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s actually only one conspiracy theory: Democrats are evil

Supporters of President Donald Trump hold signs as they stand outside the Clark County Elections Department in North Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 7, 2020. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
6 min

There was one predictable, though certainly not universal, response to the release of footage showing the assault on the husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): that the gruesome snippet of police body-cam video bolstered ongoing, baseless conspiracy theories about that event rather than quite obviously dismantling them.

This is the nature of conspiracy theories, after all. Like a stream of water encountering an obstacle, they reroute, using whatever happens to be available to keep pressing forward. After all, it’s that movement that’s the point. It’s not the water itself or the route that matters. It’s the ability to point to it as a flowing, living stream because that stream invariably is used as evidence for something else. The conspiracy theory isn’t about the incident, it’s about how the incident bolsters some larger viewpoint or concept.

And for those making baseless claims about the Pelosi attack, that larger viewpoint is the same as the one that so many recent conspiracy theories have been crafted to serve: that Democrats are evil.

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Polling suggests that this idea is widely held in American politics, that the opposing party is made up of evil people.

SurveyMonkey polling conducted for Axios in 2018 found that just under a quarter of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents viewed Democrats as “evil,” while about the same percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the same of Republicans.

Before the 2016 election, 70 percent of Republicans said they viewed Hillary Clinton as “evil” in a YouGov poll; 63 percent of Democrats said the same of Donald Trump. Last year, Pew Research Center found that 1 in 8 Republicans liked it a lot when their leaders called Democratic leaders “evil.” Another 16 percent said they liked it a little.

This idea remains at the center of right-wing politics, of course. Trump’s appeal in 2016 was intertwined with the idea that the establishment — including both Republicans and Democrats — were failing the country. But he deployed the term “evil” primarily for groups like terrorists, the media and Democrats. When Sarah Palin began casting the 2022 election as good (Republicans) vs. evil (Democrats), I noted how that reflected an obvious sentiment within her party, one stoked for years by Trump’s rhetoric.

Now consider the conspiracy theories that have emerged since Trump first ran for office. Each, in its own way, exists in service to this broader idea that’s accepted by a large portion of the Republican base.

There’s the false idea that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. That theory has taken many forms over the past two years, reshaping and rerouting to flow past the most obvious blockades (like the complete lack of evidence of fraud). But it all comes back to the same thesis: Democrats are dishonest and will do anything to retain power.

There’s Trump’s insistence that the “deep state” is out to get him. This has him casting aspersions against FBI and CIA officials not only as denizens of his hated swamp but, more specifically, as liberals out to get him. In recent posts at Truth Social, he’s even claimed that the National Archives and Records Administration — the nerdy group that asked multiple times for him to return presidential records — was riddled with left-wing agitators.

The Pelosi attack conspiracy theories similarly comport with this theme. It’s not worth getting into the specifics of the claims that quickly emerged following news of the assault, much less adjudicating them. The release of the body-cam footage makes very clear that what was described as happening is what actually happened. But even in the first minutes after it came out, there was an effort to identify anomalies in the video that might allow observers to cast suspicion on Pelosi and not his attacker — since Pelosi, by virtue of being a Pelosi, should be assumed by these parties to have been acting nefariously. That the attacker espoused right-wing rhetoric no doubt contributed to the effort to instead center questions on Pelosi.

The most extreme version of this idea is the most explicit: QAnon. It holds, in most formulations, that there is a devious cabal of evil actors — Democratic leaders, Hollywood elites (a.k.a. liberal Democrats) and the media (a.k.a. liberal Democrats) — that are conspiring together, perhaps to abuse children. It is the purest distillation of a movement centered on theoretical left-wing evil, one that’s been constructed from various and varying elements in service of that narrative. Even the child-abuse aspect of it is downstream from willful misreadings of emails stolen from a Clinton campaign staffer that were published by WikiLeaks in 2016. Democrats are evil, therefore their seemingly anodyne words must somehow be hiding secret evil messages.

Democrats are evil, therefore even when a Democrat appears to be a victim of assault, that Democrat must actually be the one at fault. Democrats are evil, therefore the unsurprising loss of an unpopular president in an election must come down to Democrats stealing votes or sneakily boosting turnout or controlling social media sites to influence the outcome.

This approach has obvious rewards. Right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza hoovered up money with the release of his film “2000 Mules” last year, a film utterly bereft of any evidence of wrongdoing. Fox News recognizes that just asking questions about things like the Pelosi attack is, one, what much of its audience wants to hear and, two, bolsters their long-standing Republicans-good-Democrats-bad theme. And, of course, there are myriad right-wing voices jockeying for the lucrative benefits of grabbing the right’s attention.

Even when a conspiracy theory is entirely uprooted, you see how the broader conspiracy theory — that Democrats are bad — simply redirects around it.

Again, if you are a Republican, these situations offer you a choice. Either the guy you think was a great president was far more unpopular than you believed — or the evil Democrats somehow rigged the election. Either Trump actually acted in ways that triggered alarms from national security officials — or the FBI is under the spell of Democratic sickos. Either Paul Pelosi was attacked by a guy who espoused right-wing rhetoric — or the Democrat was somehow in on being bashed with a hammer.

Particularly when everyone you see on social media or everyone on your favorite cable news channel are suggesting that the latter options are viable, it’s not hard to see why that main conspiracy theory continues to rush forward.