It’s everyday wisdom that we’ve entered into a scorched-earth general election campaign. In fact, we’re in for something worse than the usual negativity of personal and partisan attacks. Conspiratorial thinking has become common currency.
Take, for example, Donald Trump’s latest accusation: After the Iranian government executed a nuclear scientist, Trump tweeted: “The Iranian government killed him because of Hillary Clinton’s ‘hacked’ e-mails.” His source: “Many people are saying” it.
This is hardly an isolated comment. It’s one of many such conspiracy-theory contentions from Trump. More ominously, it is just one illustration of the way in which toxic conspiracism has gone mainstream.
Charges of plots against America are nothing new. Conspiratorial mindsets are partly expressions of impotence — the painful inability to understand, much less control, the opaque forces that govern the political and economic systems that govern us. At times, government secrecy, lies, and obfuscations fuel conspiracist thinking.
Two things are new, however.
For one, conspiracism is now out in the open, having moved from the political fringe of survivalists and paranoics to the center of the Republican Party.
It is not only that Trump, for whom conspiratorial thinking is an instinctive way of making sense of the world, is the Republican nominee for president. We saw conspiracism’s firm foothold in the spring of 2015, when Governor Greg Abbott of Texas lent credence to those who believed that a US military exercise was a plot by the federal government to put Texas under martial law. He tasked the State Guard with monitoring the exercise in order to secure Texans’ “safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties.”
We saw conspiratorial thinking mainstreamed again on the campaign trail when Senator Marco Rubio insisted that America was being systematically weakened, humbled, diminished, and made more like the rest of the world — and claimed that was Obama’s covert intent: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Why is conspiracism so corrosive to democracy? Because it signals rejection of the elementary norms of a party system – the norms that allow citizens to differentiate between opponents and enemies.
Many Republican partisans harbor beliefs about Democrats that deny their status as a legitimate party in government (when it wins elections) and a loyal opposition (when it loses). Instead, they see their political opponents as a danger to the nation who must not only be defeated electorally but neutralized, disenfranchised, impeached, or criminalized.
In the past conspiracism was fringe, and officials countered accusations with extensive bipartisan investigations, as they did for example when faced with allegations that the federal government had colluded in the terrorist attack on World Trade Center in 2001.
Such a bipartisan response now seems out of reach. The new conspiracism has become an everyday instrument of political opposition and delegitimization.
Trump signature accusations, like “Many people are saying it” and “There’s something going on,” point to a second change in the modes of conspiracism. Past conspiracy theories offered elaborate “explanations” of events, connecting often coincidental dots, laying out the alleged evidence of intricate and devious plots.
But Trump and his enablers do not take the trouble to spell out the details or spin out a detailed narrative. Conspiracism has become a matter of inference, innuendo, and insinuation. Vagueness surrounds categorical claims like the assertion that Hillary Clinton has a plan to take away our guns so that Americans will be defenseless against slaughter by terrorists.
This is conspiracy without the theory.
From the reality that people disagree, conspiracism creates the illusion of an existential threat — destroying the possibility of peaceful disagreement, delegitimizing opposition, and endangering democracy itself.
Without the silence or even tacit support of Republican politicians, conspiracism would not be an everyday feature of politics. Only ceaseless exposure and challenge by responsible Republicans, Democrats, the media, and informed citizens can curb conspiracism. That means naming conspiratorial claims when they are overt and calling them out when they are coded insinuations — and doing so in every political venue and social setting.
Speaking truth to conspiracy is our best defense.
Russell Muirhead is professor of government at Dartmouth College. Nancy L. Rosenblum is professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University.