Nov 29th 2016

Conspiracy Theorist in Chief: Trump’s falsehood about 2 mn. illegal votes only tip of Melting Iceberg

by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Commentwebsite.

Americans have given the nuclear codes to that crazy uncle you have to sit through Thanksgiving with who watches nut cases like Alex Jones and red-facedly proclaims that FEMA is keeping Americans in concentration camps.

Donald Trump still has his Twitter account and obsessed over the weekend about Jill Stein’s request for a recount in Minnesota and some other states. Then the last of the series came, saying that he would have won the popular vote if several million undocumented aliens had not voted.

As Politifact points out, though way too cautiously and politely, this meme comes from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. It is based on discredited studies, whether academic or the Florida GOP attempt at a purge of voter rolls (which ended up affecting like 80 people and one of those was a WW II vet).

No one can understand why exactly Trump says these things. Some think he is trying to divert attention from his scandals and legal problems. Some think he is preparing the way for further voter suppression laws.

This issue was raised when he told people in Pennsylvania that wind turbines were killing “all the birds.” Was he playing to the coal lobby? Was he trying to confuse Bernie voters? (The assertion about birds was of course phony.)

But all this theorizing is too clever by half. I think he’s just like that. He’s a conspiracy nut. (For more on this see Tim Murphy at Mother Jones). Maybe the reason liberals keep trying to discover the real strategy behind these unbalanced rants is that they don’t want to face the explosive truth in the first paragraph of this piece. The most powerful man in the world is the sort who cuts out articles from the newspaper on obscure subjects and papers the walls with them, trying to track down the FBI cover-up of Area 51.

Of course, it may well be that he favors conspiracy theories which also, if they were widely believed, would give him the power to do things he wants to do. Goethe and Weber had a theory of “elective affinity,” that sometimes differing ideas just go together.

Social psychiatrists have investigated conspiracy theorists, so we do know something about them. There are, for instance lots of conspiracy theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the pilot who disappeared in 1932 in the Pacific.

The Scientific American notes,

"In a study of 914 adults in London, University of Westminster’s Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham of University College London found that 4.5 percent of respondents espoused an alien abduction theory, 5.5 percent believed the two were spies taken down by the Japanese, and only 32 percent endorsed a relatively undramatic account that the plane crashed into the Pacific after running out of gas. Further, researchers found that respondents who believed in Earhart conspiracy theories had lower self-esteem, were more likely to be cynical toward politics, were less agreeable and gave themselves lower ratings of intelligence.” 

The correlation of belief in conspiracy theories with maladaptive personality traits is supported by a number of studies. That is, proneness to belief in conspiracy theories goes along with having some psychiatric problems of the sort detailed in DSM-4. Although on the surface no one would think that Trump’s problem is low self-esteem, in fact Adlerian theory would suggest that he is a bully precisely for this reason. The big hulking guy at the beach who kicks sand in the face of the 98-pound weakling does so because he is insecure inside. You could imagine that Der Donald was never good enough for old man Trump and is still working out daddy issues.

Having a conspiracy theorist in the White House is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.

People who have this tendency don’t look at assertions as falsifiable. They don’t have the sort of mindset that allows them to look at a fact-checking piece that disputes a deeply held belief and decide that they’ll have to give it up because the evidence tells against.

You wouldn’t want a president who, for instance, was convinced that another country was a threat to the US, and who could not be convinced by any evidence that the other country was not plotting to nuke Washington, DC.

Conspiracy theorists also have a tendency to what the Scientific American calls “a ‘monological belief system,’ in which any and all events can be explained by a web of interconnected conspiracies.”

Trump, for instance blames immigrants for a whole host of problems. He sees them as the explanation for rising crime (crime is not rising and immigrants are unusually law-abiding). For unemployment (they don’t generally compete for jobs with the native-born– they’re in a different labor niche). Now he sees them as the reason for which Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote. He just needs one scapegoat and can apply it to all his problems. The immigrants are in his web of interconnected conspiracies, at the center of his monology.

Conspiracy theorists are contrarians and capable of holding two diametrically opposed beliefs at the same time. Princess Diana is still alive. Princess Diana was deliberately murdered. They so distrust the government and authority that they prefer to hold more than one contradictory belief than to accept the mainstream view.

These ways of thinking may explain why Trump is uninterested in US intelligence briefings. His beliefs about the world are not falsifiable, so he finds the presentation of alternative evidence unbearably tedious. And since good intelligence reports are atomistic, disparate, and ambiguous, they would offend his quest for a monological set of beliefs. Moreover, the intelligence briefing will inevitably give him the mainstream view, whereas he prefers to go off chasing thought-butterflies.

The last time we had a president this paranoid, Richard Nixon, he got himself impeached because he thought the Democratic Party was planning dirty tricks against him of the sort he planned against them. Hence he had to have the party offices at the Watergate broken into. Twice. (Yes.) Nixon, like Trump, claimed executive privilege to cover his legal irregularities. The courts didn’t accept it.

But we can’t be sure Trump will go too far. And his conspiracy theories were so attractive that they won him the election. They could even win him a second. Assuming the level of radioactivity isn’t too high to prevent any more elections.




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