Rudy Giuliani and other Trump campaign lawyers advocating conspiracy theories at a press conference on November 19, 2020.
Donald Trump and his lawyers (led by Rudy Giuliani) promote far-fetched conspiracy theories about alleged election fraud in the presidential election. They claim that a massive international cabal including Democratic Party leaders, tech companies, George Soros and even the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, instigated large-scale electoral fraud. State and federal courts have almost unanimously rejected Trump and the GOP’s claims; Your few victories relate to non-election fraud issues and have no chance of postponing enough votes to change the election result. As co-blogger Keith Whittington explains, Trump’s efforts to get GOP-controlled lawmakers to appoint pro-Trump voters in states where Joe Biden won the referendum will almost certainly fail.
While Trump’s conspiracy drive is unlikely to reverse the election result, it can potentially cause harm in other, less immediate, ways. A recent poll in Monmouth already shows that 32% of Americans and 77% of Trump supporters believe that Biden won because of election fraud. If it stays that way, this widespread belief that the soon-to-be president has been illegally taken office is likely to exacerbate already grave social conflict and distrust. The focus on fraud can also divert the attention of the public and the elite from real political and social issues.
Perhaps even worse, future authoritarian politicians can use the perception that democratic elections are “rigged” to further undermine liberal democratic institutions. As Benjamin Wittes famously put it, Trump’s “malevolence” is tempered by his “incompetence”. Trump lacks the ability to conduct a coup or systematically undermine our institutions. His constant scandals and obnoxious behavior further limit his appeal and make it difficult for him to lead effectively.
The next authoritarian president (right or left) could prove to be more competent, less prone to scandal and able to exercise greater self-control. He could potentially build on the suspicion sown by Trump and use it to undermine liberal democracy far more effectively than Trump himself.
It would be a mistake to say that the widespread belief in conspiracy theories began with Trump’s presidency or that it is limited to political law. Far from it. In my book, Democracy and Public Ignorance (published before Trump’s 2016 victory), I found that polls conducted more than a decade ago showed that about 25 percent of Americans supported “birther” claims President Barack Obama is not a “naturally born” citizen A similar percentage believed “truther” claim that President George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance but deliberately allowed them in anyway, in the hope that he and his allies were hoping to benefit from it in some way. A 2009 study found that about 25% of Americans believed that “the Jews” deserved at least “moderate” debt for the 2008 financial crisis – a belief that is more common among Democrats (32%) than among Republicans (18%) and Independents.
More recently, Pew found that about 25% of Americans believe it is “definitely” or “likely” true that the Covid-19 crisis was deliberately planned by powerful people. Republicans (34%), Blacks (34%), and Hispanics (33%) were particularly likely to hold such views. But the idea was also supported by 18% of Democrats.
In Democracy and Political Ignorance, I’ve described how belief in conspiracy theories is fueled in part by the general public’s ignorance of government and public order. Most citizens have little understanding of government and political institutions. They therefore underestimate the extreme difficulty of planning, coordinating and covering up large-scale conspiracies. Birth, Trutherism, and Covid conspiracy theories are widespread among people with a relatively low level of education and political knowledge. The less you know about the government, the easier it is to believe that events are controlled by a shadowy cabal of ultra-competent malefactors who can skillfully cover up their misdeeds.
The popularity of conspiracy theories is also increased by party-political and ideological prejudices. In evaluating political information, most people act not as objective seekers of truth but as “political fans” who tend to overestimate and to downplay or ignore claims made against their pre-existing views. Much like sports fans who tend to be biased in favor of their preferred team and against their rivals, political fans are heavily biased towards their preferred party and ideology and towards their opponents.
It is therefore not surprising that Democrats (many of whom hated George W. Bush) particularly liked Trutherism, that Birtherism was mostly Republican (many of whom hated Obama), and that Trump’s electoral conspiracy theories addressed almost exclusively his own supporters. Especially at a time of high polarization, party political bias has a huge impact on voters, leading many to believe ridiculous claims that they might otherwise reject.
The role of bias and partisanship is one of the factors that make Trump’s conspiracy particularly dangerous. Partisan Republicans are more likely to accept conspiracy theories when such ideas are advocated by the party leader, who, despite his unpopularity with general public opinion, still enjoys sky-high approval among Republican voters. The approval of his ideas is seen by many party members as a kind of test of partisan loyalty.
Such beliefs could be undermined if other prominent Republican leaders speak out against them. But most are reluctant to do so for fear of attracting Trump’s wrath.
The combination of ignorance and partisan bias makes it difficult to combat conspiracies and will likely ensure that it remains a problem after you leave the White House. Trump was a particularly outrageous exploiter of ignorance and party political bias. But these problems didn’t start with him. There is no easy solution, although we should consider a number of possible options.
There is much that individual citizens can do to help make themselves better voters and enlightened consumers of political information. However, I am not optimistic that a significant number of people will actually do this. Most individual voters have strong incentives to remain “rationally ignorant” and not to confront their prejudices, even though such behavior leads to harmful collective outcomes.
In the long run, I believe the best solution is to limit and decentralize government power so that people can make more decisions by “voting with their feet” rather than at the ballot box. Foot voters have stronger incentives to get well informed and to limit their prejudices.
However, such a transformation cannot be achieved quickly. In the meantime, we can at least see the nature of the problem. And we should also try to ensure that Trump and other political elites who promote dangerous conspiracy theories pay a price for their misdeeds. To take just one example, politicians who engage in such behavior should not enjoy the respect, honor, and social benefit that current and former public officials enjoy.
Such social sanctions are unlikely to be fully effective. Among other things, prominent partisan leaders can remain popular with their own supporters even if others avoid them. However, it might at least be possible to improve the incentives on the margins. And a marginal improvement is still much better than nothing.