The failure of trickle-down economics has been characterized by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income. Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. The most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Apologists explain away the failure of neoliberalism by the existence of a vast left-wing conspiracy.
In the early stages of the French Revolution, the Jacobins imagined that the beacon of a democratic France would shine across the world and tyrannical kings would topple before its luminescence. The Jacobin imagination was polluted by utopian idealism, the ideology that causes people to see the world how they wish it to be rather than how it is. When the luminescence of France began to fade and the revolutionary army began to falter, the Jacobins felt there could only be one explanation: conspiracy. Only a deep-seated plot could be preventing France the Savior from vanquishing retrograde monarchs. From the beginning, the virtuous Jacobins saw themselves as fighting a conspiracy against the rights of humanity. Hence the Reign of Terror, with the guillotine deployed against intellectuals, priests and nobles who were seen as forming the core opposition to a better world.
One reason for the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories is that they serve an important psychological function for people trying to cope with large, stressful events like a terrorist attack. People “need to blame the anxiety that they feel on different groups and the result is frequently conspiracy theories,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen said, defining the term as a belief that “a group of actors is colluding in secret in order to reach goals that are considered evil or malevolent. People don’t like it when things are really random. Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy. You can prepare for an enemy, you can’t prepare for coincidences.” Conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s need to feel special and unique (a form of agency detection) because it gives them a sense of possessing secret knowledge. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.1
Agency detection refers to humans’ evolved capacity to recognize the motives and intentions behind others’ actions. Although agency detection evolved mainly to regulate the social life of humans, sometimes people detect agency where none exists. It takes denial to keep conspiracy theories alive. And sure enough, specific studies sum up the research this way: Current scientific thinking suggests [conspiracy] beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media – which only perpetuates the problem. Conspiracy theories are one sign of that competition for more information. For the most part we are not rational doers: the view that we choose our actions from a standpoint of deliberative detachment seems to be a Kantian myth. There appears to be no general accordance between our attitudes and beliefs, and our actions – in effect, we say one thing, but do another. Rather than acting for reasons, we tend to act, and invent reasons afterwards.
Official conspiracy theories generate values such as heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism. And they can be profitable. Even as the Red Menace story triggered slaughter in Vietnam, it was creating jobs, pensions, and profits for the American military industry. Now conspiracy prospers as a theory about global Islamic terrorism. Officials theorized that the gaggle of fanatics in the September 11th attacks were a vast network that included Saddam Hussein, and that has created fabulously futile wars and an expensive, quasi-legal surveillance empire. Donald Trump used the birther conspiracy theory to gain national recognition. Pro-Trump conspiracy theorists QAnon are now out in full force at Trump rallies. QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory detailing a supposed secret plot by an alleged “deep state” against President Donald Trump and his supporters. QAnon does have a goal. They want you divided: by race, by religion, by culture, by class, by political affiliation. Divided you are weak.
Van Prooijen believes such conspiratorial thinking can undermine democracy because it sows distrust and leads to groups perceiving each other as enemies. Oliver does not believe conspiracy theories have a major impact on politics as much as they are symptomatic of problems with the political system. “It’s less about the conspiracy theories themselves and it’s more about kind of the flight from reason in political discourse,” he said. “American democracy is a product of the Enlightenment, it’s a very explicitly rationalist enterprise.” And if people reject rationality to embrace what they believe over what they can prove, that Democratic enterprise could begin to unravel. Psychologist Viren Swami finds that believers in conspiracies “are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular.” Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. People are drawn to conspiracy theories as a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.2
President Donald Trump personally asked the publisher of the National Enquirer, his longtime friend David Pecker, to help his presidential campaign: the magazine has paid out hush money and refused to run certain stories to avoid portraying Trump in a bad light. The National Enquirer brought conspiracy theories to grocery store checkout counters. When Trump began promoting the birther conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama, the Enquirer began pushing the racist hoax as well. Starting in 2010, Pecker began running articles that encouraged Trump to run for president and depicted him as a potentially positive force for America, a practice AMI previously denied. With its online cohorts, American Media Inc. helped build a distortion machine that so polluted election news cycles that, for its more receptive audiences, circulate and amplify negative stories and conspiracy theories about the candidate’s political opponents, including Mrs. Clinton not only deserved to lose the White House – she deserved time in the big house.
Breitbart News has a history of thriving off of misogynist and racist conspiracy theories. As executive chairman of the conservative news and opinion site – which, under his tutelage, grew into a de facto Trump propaganda machine – Steve Bannon helped to craft and spread some of the most outrageous (and patently false) stories and conspiracy theories of the current political cycle. With Trump having successfully branded virtually every legitimate news organization in the country “fake news,” about 40-odd percent of Americans now operate almost solely upon “Trump truth,” one which is so immediately absorbed it need not even offer pretense of reason or fact and is no more or less than the lie told over and over until it becomes real. It is propaganda at its zenith – creation of a “reality” in which lies are no longer needed as means to an end because the atmosphere exists in which lies no longer matter at all.
As people encounter new information, the ideology they already have shapes how they react, either incorporating it as corroborating evidence or discarding it as worthless propaganda put out by their enemies. Unfortunately, this makes conspiracies difficult to disprove. But it is true that conspiracy theories are a natural outcome of having power imbalances. Joseph Uscinski and his team from the University of Miami found that “conspiracy thinking is higher among people with less education and less wealth”. Uscinski notes, “Conspiracy theories at their core are about power – who has it and what do they do with it when we’re not looking.” Unfortunately, the mainstream media often contribute to the spread of unsubstantiated myths because of a focus on “balanced” coverage. However, the “two sides of a story” don’t always deserve equal space because of an imbalance in evidence – balance is somewhere the middle, not at the extremes .3
The economic elite use social media to create confusion and advance a neoliberal agenda. We are indebted to Donald Trump for bursting the informational neoliberal bubble. Trump has focused us on the real issue of the day – increasing economic inequality. He is teaching us all about the power of dissemination of (mis)information. Trump and his surrogates have signaled that they intend to counter the media’s version of truth with their own alternative facts, the “truth” from their perspective. The purpose of neoliberal dogma is to protect the rich from the poor. Trump’s election unmasked that the real game – cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy, then use the resulting deficits as a pretext to cut social programs that benefit the poor and the middle class. The purpose of a democratic government is to protect the poor from the rich, while today the economic elite hide behind conspiracy theories and the rhetoric of class war.
1 William Cummings. Conspiracy theories: Here’s what drives people to them, no matter how wacky (23 Dec 2017) https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/12/23/conspiracy-theory-psychology/815121001/
2 Kirby Farrell. Conspiracy Theories and You: They’re in bed, in church, and in your ear. (28 May 2016) https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/swim-in-denial/201605/conspiracy-theories-and-you
3 Jeff Glorfeld. (15 Aug 2018) Faking reality: why people embrace conspiracy theories https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/faking-reality-why-people-embrace-conspiracy-theories