American politics has long been humid with conspiracy theories — so much so that, in the internet age, political argumentation sometimes resembles a tornado roaring through the town dump, with dreck, debris, and dross flying everywhere. Now we are commencing on a presidential primary campaign characterized by a chaotic kaleidoscope of conspiratorialism.
On the Republican side, former president and current GOP front-runner Donald Trump is basing his comeback candidacy on the massive, conspiracy theory-rooted lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
On the Democratic side, challenger Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has made his father’s idealistic epigram an all too literal guide. Whereas RFK dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?” RFK Jr. gleans things that simply aren’t and gets caught.
The conspiracism conditions on the two sides aren’t precisely the same.
Kennedy is seemingly trying to downplay his unhinged views, but so packed is his cranium with ill-ordered notions that, like a horde of unhinged Houdinis yearning to be free, one or two are forever escaping his poorly guarded pie hole. Witness last week’s suggestion that “COVID-19 is targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people,” while “the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
Trump, by contrast, has leaned ever harder into his lies-cum-conspiracy theories. His ability to get his cooperatively credulous supporters to buy into them is the fuel that powers his candidacy. At this point, if Trump were to acknowledge the obvious — to wit, that Biden scored a legitimate victory in 2020 — it would be the same as admitting that he himself is a merchant of mendacity.
In other ways, however, the situations are remarkably similar. An array of Trump’s high-level former appointees, from erstwhile attorney general Bill Barr on down, have dismissed his stolen-election claims as nonsense. Kennedy’s own relatives have not just disavowed his candidacy, they have also made it clear they regard him the way one would a nutty uncle who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt perpetually charging up San Juan Hill.
As a rough rule of thumb, between 25 percent and 45 percent of the population is prone to conspiratorialist thinking, with an estimated 1 in 4 people strongly in the grip of conspiracy theories, said Geoff Dancy, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. The tendency is most concentrated in the ideological and populist extremes of both parties. “As the ideological extremes in any population grow, conspiratorial thinking grows with it,” he said.
So though the 20 percent of Democratic voters Kennedy garnered in several early polls caught people’s attention, it really wasn’t that extraordinary, particularly given the benefit imparted by sharing his famous father’s full name. Kennedy is now polling in the mid-teens, which suggests he is underperforming.
Trump, by contrast, is over-performing. He regularly corrals some 50 percent of the vote in Republican presidential primary polls.
At first blush, that level of support is odd. As his formerly loyal vice president turned GOP rival Mike Pence has accurately observed, in trying to overturn the 2020 election results, Trump put himself above the US Constitution. But though his supporters consider themselves the epitome of true American patriotism, they are unfazed by their champion’s attempt to subvert our democracy.
Here’s one major reason why: Trump’s conspiracy theories provide MAGA members with a mental trapdoor that lets them escape that conflict between their avowed patriotism and their support for an antidemocratic marauder. By ignoring the dozens of failed Trump team lawsuits and the ballot recounts and audits, and insisting to themselves that Democrats stole the election, Trump backers can rationalize supporting an authoritarian who schemed to subvert democracy. And by training his movement to reject as a denizen of the deep state or an anti-Trump RINO anyone who speaks the truth about him, the master of MAGA manipulation has created a formidable buttress for his tower of bunkum.
Kennedy’s conspiratorialism lacks that power, since it isn’t as central to the idea of his candidacy or as enabling of the delusions of his supporters. That’s one big reason why, despite Democratic unease about Joe Biden’s candidacy, RFK Jr.’s primary challenge is ultimately a train to nowhere.
But on the Republican side, if the field of challengers doesn’t narrow quickly after the first few primary contests, it’s entirely possible that Trump could win the GOP nomination for a third time.
That would be good news for Biden, who might be vulnerable to a Republican nominee with an ability to increase their support in the center. But it would be a depressing commentary on how much truth has been devalued with today’s conspiratorially inclined Republican electorate.