This Is Why Trump's Conspiracy Theories Are So Popular In America

A person who can’t tell the difference between the plausible and the implausible is easily deceived.

“I’ll take the admirals and I’ll take the generals any day over the political hacks that I see that have led our country so brilliantly over the last 10 years with their knowledge.”

Donald Trump, first presidential debate, September 26, 2016

One thing that drives liberals up the wall about Donald Trump’s supporters is how impervious they seem to be to evidence that their candidate is wrong about anything — even when he is wildly wrong. Barack Obama was born outside the United States? Forty-two percent of Americans, and 58 percent of African Americans, are unemployed? Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination? These are ridiculous claims, rated “Pants on Fire” lies by Politifact, along with about one in five of the other things Trump has said.

Yet even in the latest polls, Trump is considered more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton; in fact, he has a 10 point lead over her in that regard. And nothing that journalists and other experts say to correct Trump — the New York Times has taken lately to openly calling Trump a liar, even in its news coverage — seems to make the slightest dent in that lead. Trump is the most obviously dishonest candidate ever to run for president. Yet he is perceived as a beacon of truth-telling.

What’s going on here? Here’s what I suggest: for a large number of Americans, Trump represents a heroic rebel against what they see as a massive conspiracy — among scientists, historians, journalists and policy experts — that governs what is taken as ‘fact’ in America. And every attempt by these experts to discredit him only reinforces the impression that they are agents of this conspiracy.

Trump represents a heroic rebel against what a large number of Americans see as a massive conspiracy.

Belief in such massive cognitive conspiracies is widespread on both right and left. A small sample: Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy led by top-level government officials, perhaps including Lyndon Johnson. Climate change is a hoax, drummed up by left-wing scientists. AIDS was spread deliberately, to destroy minorities, gay people, and drug abusers. Obamacare was designed to destroy American freedom. 9/11 was an inside job, or a “false flag” operation run by Israel. Scientists have tried to cover up the fact that immunization causes autism.

Experts on each of the topics I’ve listed regard these theories as not just false but obviously false. That means that they can be true only if enormous swathes of our cognitive establishment — our universities, think tanks, research labs and respected media outlets — are either in on a massive attempt to deceive us all or taken in by such a conspiracy. That’s extremely hard to believe. And if it is true, we have no reason to believe the rebels who defying this establishment either. Where are they getting their facts from, after all? How can they possibly know more about medicine than our doctors, about crime and security than the people whose job it is to investigate crime and breaches of security?

It’s worth stressing that the Left is just as prone as the right to this sort of nonsense. Left-wing professors who attack “the mainstream media” and commentators on “alternative” news outlets who pronounce in dark tones that only they are telling the truth about what goes in corporate headquarters are every bit as responsible for the spread of conspiracy theories about what we know as those who scoff at climate change, or insist that Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons.

Why are Americans so drawn to conspiracy stories about fact-gathering, so quick to believe that established scholars and journalists don’t get even the basic facts right? 

Americans, from the beginning of our country, have been very unwilling to listen to experts.

There are many answers to that. Religious people, terrified or infuriated by scientific criticism of the Bible, sometimes respond by regarding all modern science as deceptive or deluded. Once one throws out evolution, it’s easy to believe that climate change too is a hoax or that the experts claiming that Barack Obama was born in the U.S. are in on a massive lie.

Then there are minorities who are frustrated by the lack of attention that the mainstream media pays to their problems, and who have been victims of real cover-ups (the year-long refusal of the city of Chicago to release the incriminating video of Laquan McDonald; the silence of the EPA about lead in Detroit’s water). They have good reason to be suspicious of news coverage.

But there is something else that makes Americans, in general, prone to conspiracies about scholarly experts: our passionate attachment to individual freedom. We have, from the beginning of our country, been very unwilling to listen to experts. We would rather find out everything for ourselves. Defying experts strikes Americans as a form of rebellion very much of a piece with our rejection of the British; we don’t want anyone to tell us what to think any more than we want anyone to tell us what to do.

We don’t want anyone to tell us what to think any more than we want anyone to tell us what to do.

The great historian Gordon Wood has pointed out that America went through “an epistemological crisis” in the aftermath of its revolt against the British. Everywhere — even in medicine — there were “assaults on elite opinion and celebrations of … ordinary judgment.” Ordinary people were told that their views on everything were as good as those of scholars, and that they had to judge everything for themselves.

The result, says Wood, was that Americans became prey to “hoaxers, confidence men, and tricksters,” like P.T. Barnum. “Confident of their ability to determine all by themselves the truth or validity of any idea or thing presented to them,” and mistrustful of experts who claimed superior judgment on anything, Americans were easy targets for people with snake oil to sell.

That’s especially true for snake oil packaged under a conspiracy theory about experts: the idea that established scholars and journalists are elitist snobs who band together to push their own, atheist or corporatist agendas fit perfectly with America’s revolutionary narrative about itself. 

A society in which experts are constantly dismissed and derided also makes for foolishness.

Of course, suspicion of established experts can be a very good thing. Modern science and philosophy got their start when figures like Descartes and Galileo defied the accepted wisdom pressed on people by the Catholic church of their day, and insisted on working things out for themselves. And a society in which everyone making claims to knowledge can expect to be scrutinized is a vibrant society, in which dogma and prejudice can be readily undermined.

But a society in which experts are constantly dismissed and derided also makes for foolishness. All of us depend on authorities for most of what we know. We also depend on authorities to learn how to question claims to knowledge incisively, to scrutinize ideas with an understanding of the evidence needed to support them. If we refuse to take any authority seriously, we will skip the step of learning how to question thoughtfully. Then we will lose the ability to distinguish between plausible and implausible claims altogether. Ironically, at this point our skepticism turns into gullibility. A person who can’t tell the difference between the plausible and the implausible is easily deceived.

Many people used to run around with a button on their jackets saying “Question Authority” on their jackets. That’s also what those of us in the education business are told we are supposed to teach our students; it’s supposed to be central to “critical thinking.” But, alone, “Question Authority” is not a good slogan. It needs to be accompanied with something like “Respect Expertise.” Unless we respect expertise, we can’t even formulate good questions. We turn into people incapable of sifting thoughtfully through information.

Gathering knowledge is a social process, with a division of labor that gives some people, in each area of inquiry, a legitimate claim to be in a better position to pronounce on that area than everyone else. Of course, they too can be wrong, but we, lacking their expertise, are far more likely to be wrong. If we don’t respect that expertise, we are not strong and clever individualists, seeing through the conspiracies trying to fool us. We are instead ourselves fools, who can be taken in by a P.T. Barnum.

Or a Donald Trump.

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