The rise of Donald Trump, his popularity and preeminence in the 2016 Presidential Race, has confounded all who try to interpret it. Is it simply a case of ‘cult of personality’? Is this proof of a latent desire for totalitarianism? Could his fame really describe such a fantastic and unprecedented take-over of the American Political environment?
Though there is little doubt that all the above play a part. From a sociological point of view, he fits the Weberian model of the Charismatic Leader. Political scientists quickly point out the Nativism, Protectionism, Demagogy, and Right-Wing Populism apparent in Trump’s speeches, regularly attended by thousands of fans-turned-voters in large auditoriums across the country.
Simultaneously, several articles have been written about the wild conspiracy theories that Donald Trump has floated, either before or as a part of his Presidential bid. An original anti-Obama birther, his adoption of conspiracy theory conjecture and rhetoric is long established. Once an apparent death knell to any campaign, Donald Trump’s adoption of various conspiracy theories only seems to strengthen him and increase his supporters’ resolve.
From my perspective, this makes perfect sense.
Since 2014, I have studied conspiracy theories and the people that entertain them. Though many people may see each individual theory as both irrelevant and the population that either promotes or is interested in them as being scattered and inconsequential, this just is not the case. Not only do they largely adhere to the same general worldview, though the details of that worldview may change slightly from one individual to another, they could easily comprise a significant voting bloc when considered as an ideological whole.
It has recently been coming into clearer focus, the role social network algorithms and search engine algorithms play in promoting conspiracy theories. If one were to believe the concept of the zeitgeist (not to be confused with the conspiracy theory ‘documentary‘ series of the same name), one may believe that conspiracy theories are just part of the mindset that our age embodies. I, however, see things differently.
I started a new Facebook page with a fake name and fake information in late 2013. I included on my profile certain things that I ‘liked’ (i.e. X-Files, The Bible, and the television show Ancient Aliens). Along with keeping my own Facebook profile. The fake profile was soon invited to like the latest installment of the rapture-film series Left Behind, I clicked ‘like’. I was soon after invited to join a few Facebook fan groups for the television show Ancient Aliens, I joined. Soon after, I was invited to join a Facebook group that propagated the theory that aliens were demons, that said demons would reveal themselves to the earth as aliens, thus tricking Humanity away from Christianity; I joined this group. I have since been suggested to join groups promoting conspiracy theory movies (the unreleased movie Gray State, and yet to be released movie AmeriGEDDON) as well as several groups suggesting that President Obama planned to take total executive control a la martial law through the 2015 Strategic Ops Military drill, Jade Helm 15. All of these groups fill my Facebook ‘feed’ every day, with stories of alien abductions, Right-Wing Conspiracies; following so many extreme stories, it can be daunting, scary, disheartening, and not too great for my overall opinion on Humanity in general.
My real Facebook ‘feed’ is mostly baby photos, with the occasional political rant.
Consider the impact Facebook has on people’s perceptions of reality. In my very extreme example, were I just a tad more susceptible to paranoia, I would be very much fearful of the Illuminati (which people openly discuss as fact on my Facebook ‘feed’) and convinced that their plot to promote ‘Chrislam‘ through the current Pope is in full swing. One thing I can tell you for certain, almost everyone in all of these Facebook groups are strong supporters of Donald J. Trump.
What does all this mean?
Donald Trump has positioned himself as a populist in the era of Social Media. Trump is Right-Wing anti-elitist (disregard his elite upbringing and his wealth) after years of anti-Obama Tea Party rhetoric, some of which he stoked early on with his own ‘birther’ contributions. He’s stoked nativist and protectionist ire in the era of increasing Globalism. He has harnessed an evermore potent conspirative paranoia, stoked for him through years of algorithmic gerrymandering on behalf of conspiracy theories.
Keep in mind, after years of being mocked in media and even in person by others as ‘conspiritards’ that a person who adheres to or entertains such conspiracy theories would see things very differently. Belief in any specific conspiracy theory is essentially an acknowledgement of a larger worldview; one that says that the ‘Powers that be’ covertly maintain control through lies, deceit, subversion, and manipulation of an unknown variety. To them, the real fools are the ‘sheeple’ who believe the ‘official story’ of the Establishment.
Each individual conspiracy theory is not an individual worldview, but a smaller subset of a larger Conspiracy Worldview. That Conspiracy Worldview treats the ‘Establishment’ as the enemy and anyone who fights against that established status quo as an ally.
To many, that ally is Donald Trump.
Trump is not the only candidate with a populist campaign and correlative movement, Bernie Sanders’ campaign is undoubtedly a Left-Wing Populist movement. The common use of such phrases as ‘establishment politics’ and ‘establishment economics’ that Sanders himself has used speak to the same anti-establishment mentality of populists immemorial. The question, does Bernie Sanders’ campaign also comprise a Conspirative Populism?
Well, perhaps it does.
From the extreme conspirative rantings and outright harassment of Hillary Clinton supporters on Twitter and Reddit, first from Sanders’ supporters in the main and, then, from former movie star Tim Robbins; a regular series of accusations of stolen Primary Elections, rigged systems (i.e. the Democratic primary system), and all things ‘established‘ held in either suspicion, or contempt.
It is not exactly the same as Donald Trump suggesting Ted Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald before the JFK assassination, but in every debate and in nearly every speech made by Senator Sanders an anti-establishment rhetoric is readily apparent. Anti-establishment rhetoric is not always conspirative or paranoid, but rhetoric has attracted some non-to-savory (and not really all-that-left-of-center) supporters.
The angry rural voter for Sanders runs counter the narrative that his campaign appeals only to young people hoping for free college. Still, if the West Virginia primary shows anything, it is that there is not such a clear narrative everywhere. The conspirative element of the Sanders campaign seems to be largely the work of his supporters and not, necessarily, the work of his campaign staff per se. Stories of the various ‘Bernie Bro‘ conspiracy theories are less prevalent as those of Trump’s various statements, but still exhibit the conspiracist views of some Sanders’ supporters. Unlike his more rabid supporters, Sanders’ anti-establishment rhetoric regularly approaches, but rarely if ever espouses, conspiracy theories. Sanders’ entire campaign, however, is hinged upon the myth of a rigged political system; a conspiracy theory of an order as pernicious as Trump’s paradoxical anti-elitism.
To be sure, Bernie Sanders’ appeal is not all inclusive within the Bernie Bro phenomenon, nor is it just a matter of conspiracism, as this pro-Sanders op-ed should illustrate.
The same should be said about Trump.
Some people really think America is ready to be dragged, kicking and screaming for some reason, into Single-Payer Healthcare. Some people, it should seem on the opposite side of the political spectrum, want the Affordable Care Act overturned and replaced with, well, we’ll figure that out eventually, “believe me!” That is an issues-based understanding of the 2016 election and, perhaps it could cover the vast majority of the decision-making process for most voters. Unfortunately, this election cycle has been based more on populism than on the issues. This current type of populism at work comes from an increasingly active paranoid style of American politics. Though it is nothing new, Richard Hofstadter wrote about the long history of the paranoid style in American politics back in 1964, this current political moment seems to confound all attempts at comprehension. It is only through understanding that ‘paranoid style’ and the role social media algorithms play in maintaining the paranoia that we can understand how any of this can begin to make sense.