Donald Trump has now asserted that because the Presidential election is “rigged” he may not accept its results as legitimate. Trump’s threat to the legitimacy of the peaceful transfer of power in American democracy is a fitting ending to his rise to national political attention. His newfound political prominence began with “birtherism”—another conspiracy theory claiming that President Obama was not born in the United States and thus was not a legitimate candidate for the presidency, and that the “mainstream media” conspired with Obama to suppress the truth of his place of birth. Though it sounds odd to dignify Trump’s utterances as any kind of “theory,” they in fact fit into a familiar pattern, one that Republican leaders should have recognized and publicized long ago
Conspiracy theories in modern history have been the stock-in-trade of Nazis, Communists, and Islamists and, in general, totalitarian, extremist movements seeking to destroy liberal democracies. From the earliest moments of his ascendency, Trump’s accusations, falsehoods and explanations have been mimicking the dangerous logic of these previous peddlers of conspiracy thinking. These ideas not only express hatred against imagined enemies but also serve as an interpretive framework, and hence a theory of sorts, that claims to offer a causal explanation of events. The common elements of these conspiracy theories include the following:
1. A conspiracy theory is a paranoid construct that replaces complexity and contingency with simplicity and apparent iron-clad logic. It imagines dangers that do not exist, focuses those fears on a visible, usually actually existing person or persons, vastly exaggerates their power and influence, fans resulting fears into hatred toward that person or persons, and leads to action—often violent—based on this fictional reality. A conspiracy theory transforms large social and economic trends and dislocations into events brought about by a visible enemy or enemies who have intentionally brought about political and economic crises. The simplicity of conspiracy theories has been a vital source of their appeal. Conspiracy theorists insist that the blur of public events in democracies constitute a façade of lies that obscures the real sources of power, which are hidden from public view. The conspiracy theorist thus “enlightens” the people about dangerous individuals and groups operating behind the scenes whose first loyalties belong to international institutions and passions which conflict with the interest of the nation, the race or the nation’s working class. Conspiracy theories claim to offer answers to why previously inexplicable events are taking place.
Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic interpretation of World War II was such a conspiracy theory. Hitler and others claimed that “international Jewry” was the cause of World Wars I and II, that it was an actually existing political actor responsible for forming the alliance between the United States and Great Britain with the Soviet Union. Its goal, Hitler said, was to exterminate the German people. Therefore, the German government in an act of self-defense had to kill the Jews before the Jews were able to kill the Germans. The proof of the conspiracy lay in the existence of the anti-Hitler alliance. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theory presumed to answer the riddle of why the Western democracies had allied with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany. The Nazis called Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin puppets of a Jewish conspiracy operating behind the scenes. Though the powerlessness of the Jews was blatantly obvious in the Holocaust, for Hitler and his followers the outcome of the war, Allied victory, demonstrated the truth of the conspiracy theory.
2. Conspiracy theories are Manichean—that is, they present politics as a battle of good versus evil, the children of light versus the Devil or devils incarnate. In this apocalyptic battle, there can be no compromise or shrinking from extreme measures. Because liberal democracy requires that governments adhere to the rule of law, it must be replaced by a dictatorship willing to use any means necessary to defend the nation, the race or the revolution faced with a powerful and vicious enemy. Such themes were apparent in Nazi Germany but also in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s as well as in the Soviet bloc “anti-cosmopolitan” purges after World War II. In the famous Slansky trial in Prague in 1952 and the less well-known case of Paul Merker in East Berlin, veteran Communists were accused of being agents of Zionism and American imperialism because they supported the foundation of the state of Israel. These Communists thought Israel’s establishment was the logical outcome of wartime anti-fascism and the fight against antisemitism. Though the Soviet Union itself had taken an identical view up to 1947, Stalin then concluded that only an international conspiracy that used money to buy off veteran Communist leaders could account for the existence of Communists who supported Zionism and Israel. Their disagreement was a sign of disloyalty that merited executions and jail in the purges.
3. Conspiracy theories presume that large numbers of people do not have independent political judgment. Those who participate in the conspiracy are dupes, marionettes, and puppets who are corrupted to abandon any independent judgment about public matters. Elected democratic leaders, journalists, bankers, intellectuals, and scholars seek to bestow credibility to the lies of the conspiracy and work actively to suppress the truth about it. These elites use their way with words to spread lies ever more effectively. In so doing, they abandon any shred of integrity in order to foster the goal of the conspiracy center.
Holocaust denial, one of the most important conspiracy theories in world politics after World War II, claimed that vast moral and financial corruption were responsible for lending credibility to the “hoax” or “myth” that Nazi Germany actually murdered six million Jews in Europe during the war. Holocaust deniers argued that the Holocaust “hoax” first emerged when the Allied victors in World War II used the Nuremberg trials to justify their own war crimes. The myth was, they claim, subsequently spread by the state of Israel and its supporters, whose goal was to extort financial payments from an unjustly guilt-laden Germany. Holocaust deniers dismissed the massive evidence gathered and presented in the Nuremberg trials. Instead, they claimed that the distinguished jurists such as Robert Jackson, Telford Taylor, and Hartley Shawcross participated in spreading these lies. So too did all of the journalists who had covered the trials, as did those who reported on the death camps as they were liberated in the spring of 1945. The deniers dismissed Hitler’s repeated public threats to murder the Jews of Europe and Goebbels’ boasting that the Jews were meeting the dire fate they had intended for the Germans as typical politician’s hot air. They dismissed the massive evidence in the Nazi regime’s own documents and denounced historians for lending scholarly prestige to the hoax.
4. Believing that elites participate in spreading lies, conspiracy theories draw energy from resentment and envy. Conspiracy theories always include hatred of intellectuals, educated strata, and, frequently, Jews. Holocaust denial, the Nazi vision of an international Jewish conspiracy, Stalin’s nightmare about an anti-communist Zionist-capitalist-American imperialist conspiracy working through Communist leaders in the Soviet bloc, Joseph McCarthy’s “twenty years of treason” about who “lost Eastern Europe,” Lenin’s assertion that imperialists caused World War I, the Communist claim that the poverty of most of humanity was due to exploitation and greed on the part of the imperialist powers of Europe and the United States, Mao’s attack on much of the Chinese Communist Party, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge’s murders of citizens wearing glasses—all fostered this hatred of elites and the well-educated. Tenured professors, distinguished judges, experienced journalists, sympathetic politicians had all prostituted themselves in the service of the Jews, the Americans, the Communists, or the capitalists. Amazingly, though each conspiracy was said to grow to gigantic proportions, none of its participants was willing to expose the hoax, presumably out of fear of retribution for revealing the awful truth.
5. Conspiracy theorists are always a threat to liberal democratic institutions and norms. They view the peaceful exchange of ideas in representative democracy as a waste of everyone’s time because those who disagree are part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth. Participation in representative democracy assumes that it is possible for people with different opinions to agree on some minimum base of shared fact and evidence. That is one reason why it is essential that people listen to and talk with one another. Believers in conspiracy theories dismiss this public exchange of ideas because anyone who refutes the favored theory is a participant in the conspiracy. Of course all political disagreements have elements of skepticism about evidence when presented by opponents. But conspiracy theorists take this understandable skepticism to the level of political fanaticism. The opponent is not merely mistaken but is evil and dangerous. Compromise with the enemy is out of the question; discussion among people who have a diversity of political views is pointless and in fact should be suppressed. Violence and repression are the logical outcome of a conspiracy theory.
6. Conspiracy theories always foster political irresponsibility and blame the hated conspirators for theirs, and the world’s problems. The classic case is Hitler at the end of World War II, when he claimed that Nazi Germany was defeated by international Jewry. Joseph McCarthy (whose aide Roy Cohn taught Donald Trump lessons about politics) thought a Communist conspiracy in Washington that had engaged in “twenty years of treason” was responsible for the presence of the Red Army in Germany and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The fact that there was Communist espionage in the United States and that the Red Army was in Berlin seemed to close the case. But correlation was not causation. McCarthy ignored other facts—about timing and geography in World War II, such as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the inability of the United States and Britain to invade Europe from the West until 1944. He ignored these factors while obscuring memories of opposition to American intervention in the war from “America First” organizations in the late 1930s. (That Donald Trump would use “America First” as a badge of honor in 2016 reflects at best historical ignorance and at worst the penetration into Republican politics of the indifference to Nazi aggression that was made famous by the first iteration of America First advocates.)
The conspiracy theories of Arab nationalism and then of radical Islam offer similar examples of avoidance of responsibility. For Arab and Palestinian leaders, it was inconceivable that Jews could wage and win the wars of 1948 and 1967. Their explanation was that an international conspiracy of Zionists and imperialists was determined to thwart Arab aspirations. Why the United States, which had close ties to Arab oil exporters, would seek to harm Arabs or Palestinians, or why the British, who had fought Zionist terrorist organizations, would want to defeat Arab goals was never clear. Explanations about the greater mobilization capacity of the pre-state Jews in Palestine combined with the fragmentation of Palestinian society were painful truths that became too difficult to acknowledge. The avoidance of responsibility continued in the repetition of classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the Hamas Charter of 1988. Republicans in recent years have rightly chastised President Obama for refusing to speak frankly about radical Islam and the conspiracy theories that it has fostered. Yet when a conspiratorial mentality emerged in their own midst, they were at a loss for words.
7. Every conspiracy theorist takes a fact, distorts the context and draws false conclusions. Some of the Bolsheviks disagreed with Joseph Stalin about Soviet economic policy. They were not, as Stalin’s prosecutor alleged, therefore, part of a Nazi conspiracy to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. It was true that Israel won the war of 1948. The Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini was wrong to think that this proved the power of “international Jewry.” The Soviet Union reneged on its Yalta promises to allow free elections in Eastern Europe, and, yes, there were Soviet spies in the United States government. That did not mean that Senator McCarthy was right to claim that the Soviet spies caused the “loss of Eastern Europe.” Yes, the West German government sought to alleviate the suffering of Jews who survived the Holocaust and help the new Jewish state. It did not do so because of extortion but because the Holocaust actually did take place, was perpetrated by the German dictatorship, and Konrad Adenauer and other West German leaders believed that their government had a moral responsibility to do what they could to help survivors and the new Jewish state of Israel. Millions of American workers have been displaced by the shifts in the global economy, but American political and economic elites did not conspire to make their lives miserable. In each case, conspiracy theorists dismissed the actual historical context in which events took place, neglected the elementary temporal sequence of cause and effect, conflated approximate correlation in time with causation and then found the cause of the problem in a visible, and vile enemy or enemies.
What the Republican Party Failed to Stop
The paranoid and conspiratorial aspects of the Trump campaign should have been obvious to anyone in public life who understood at least some of these basic events in modern history. Trump persisted with the birther hoax for five years, even though no reputable journalists could find any evidence to support the claim. As with previous conspiracy theories, perpetuating the birther hoax amounted to a massive assault on the integrity not only of the President of the United States but also of hundreds of journalists who found no evidence at all to support the claim. Trump’s claim that “thousands of Muslims” celebrated the attack on the World Trade Center also reflected a conspiratorial mentality because it assumed that such a horrific event went unnoticed by thousands of eyewitnesses on the densely populated shores of the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York, the massive presence of the print and electronic New York media, and the huge police presence in the area. To perpetuate the cover-up was possible only if, as conspiracy theorists had claimed in the past, all of the press and media, all of the eyewitnesses, and all of the police were involved in a massive conspiracy to suppress the truth. Donald Trump apparently had access to secret information that had somehow eluded all of these thousands of eyewitnesses. After denying that he ever acted toward women in the way he boasted he did in 2005, more than ten women independently came forward to say that is exactly what he did to them. Though none of them had anything to gain by revealing these humiliations to a national public, Trump called them all liars. He and his wife claimed, without evidence that the Clinton campaign and the media had conspired to invent and publicize these stories.
Everyone recognizes that the entry of hundreds of millions of low-wage workers into the global work force has led to large reductions in the bargaining power and in many cases losses of the jobs of the industrial working class in the United States. Trump was not the first to raise the issue of the “losers” of globalization and free trade. Trump’s regrettable contribution to the discussion was his assertion that “elites” were intentionally emptying out the American industrial base by signing “stupid trade deals.” Like conspiracy theorists of the past, he transformed large social and economic trends into policies willed by particular groups of individuals. The charge that government officials with years of experience in international economic issues were “stupid” compared to the “very smart” Trump was of a piece with familiar attacks on elites and intellectuals. It was only a matter of time before he resorted to saying that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” thereby repeating a common slander of modern antisemitism.
Trump’s threat to reject the results of the election “unless I win” illustrates the danger of his conspiracy theories. This effort to delegitimize the electoral process threatens American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. It is also illogical, for if it is known in advance that the election is “rigged,” why would his victory be any more legitimate than his defeat? Election experts inform us that rigging an election would require the collaboration of large numbers of people working simultaneously and clandestinely in many different states and locations, all of whom had abandoned their integrity, belief in the rule of law and the value of free and fair elections. Only someone accustomed to thinking in conspiratorial terms would make such accusations and thus suggest that an American presidential election would be rigged or that “voter fraud” existed and was so widespread that it could tip a national vote.
The Republican Party leadership has failed our democracy in the past year and a half by refusing to recognize and announce long ago that a promoter of the birther lie falls squarely in the tradition of conspiracy theorists and poses a danger to American democracy. The Republican Party has thereby lent respectability to the conspiracy thinking of the far right and with it the racism, misogyny, and antisemitism that have been its key themes. One lesson from this sobering election should be that anyone involved in politics in this country needs to prevent the return of the conspiratorial mind-set again. To do so, American voters should recognize the above mentioned defining features of conspiracy theories. Hopefully, what we historians have written about the conspiratorial mentality and its terrible consequences in the past can contribute to defending our liberal democracy in the future.