Donald Trump and his lawyers (led by Rudy Giuliani) are promoting far-fetched conspiracy theories about supposed voter fraud in the presidential election. They claim large-scale voter fraud instigated by a massive international cabal including Democratic Party leaders, tech companies, George Soros, and even Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez (who died in 2013). State and federal courts have almost uniformly rejected Trump’s and the GOP’s claims; their few wins are on matters unrelated to voter fraud, and have no chance of shifting enough votes to change the outcome of the election. As co-blogger Keith Whittington explains, Trump’s efforts to get GOP-controlled state legislators to appoint pro-Trump electors in states where Joe Biden won the popular vote are also nearly certain to fail.
But while Trump’s conspiracy-mongering is unlikely to succeed in reversing the outcome of the election, it can potentially cause harm in other, less immediate ways. Already, a recent Monmouth survey shows that 32% of Americans and 77% of Trump supporters believe that Biden won because of voter fraud. If it persists, this widespread belief that the soon-to-be president won office illegally is likely to exacerbate already severe social conflict and distrust. The focus on fraud can also divert public and elite attention from genuine political and social issues.
Perhaps even worse, the perception that democratic elections are “rigged” is one that future authoritarian politicians can exploit to further erode liberal democratic institutions. As Benjamin Wittes famously put it, Trump’s “malevolence” is tempered by his “incompetence.” Trump lacks the skill to lead a coup or systematically subvert our institutions. His constant scandals and obnoxious behavior further limit his appeal, and make it hard for him to lead effectively.
The next authoritarian-minded president (whether of the right or the left) could turn out to be more competent, less scandal-prone, and capable of exercising greater self-control. He could potentially build on the suspicions sowed by Trump and use them to undermine liberal democracy far more effectively than Trump himself.
It would be a mistake to say that widespread belief in conspiracy theories began with Trump’s presidency, or that it is confined to the political right. Far from it. In my book Democracy and Public Ignorance (published before Trump won in 2016), I noted how surveys taken more than a decade ago showed that some 25 percent of Americans endorsed “birther” claims that President Barack Obama was not a “natural born” citizen eligible for the presidency, and a similar percentage believed “truther” claims that President George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, but deliberately chose to let them happen anyway, because he and his allies hoped to benefit in some way. A 2009 study found that about 25% Americans believed that “the Jews” deserved at least “a moderate” amount of blame for the 2008 financial crisis—a belief more prevalent among Democrats (32%) than Republicans (18%) and independents.
More recently, Pew found that some 25% of Americans believe that it is “definitely” or “probably” true that the Covid-19 crisis was intentionally planned by powerful people. Republicans (34%), blacks (34%), and Hispanics (33%), were especially likely to hold such views. But the idea was also endorsed by 18% of Democrats.
In Democracy and Political Ignorance, I described how belief in conspiracy theories is partly fueled by general public ignorance about government and public policy. Most of the public has little understanding of government and political institutions. They thus underestimate the extreme difficulty of planning, coordinating, and covering up large-scale conspiracies. Birtherism, trutherism, and Covid conspiracy theories are all more prevalent among people with relatively low levels of education and political knowledge. The less you know about government, the easier it is to believe that events are controlled by a shadowy cabal of ultra-competent evil-doers who can skillfully cover up their misdeeds.
But the popularity of conspiracy theories is also boosted by partisan and ideological bias. In assessing political information, most people act not as objective truth-seekers, but as “political fans” who tend to overvalue any claims that cohere with their preexisting views, and downplay or ignore any that cut against them. Much like sports fans, who tend to be biased in favor of their preferred team and against its rivals, political fans are highly biased in favor of their preferred party and ideology, and against its opponents.
Thus, it is not surprising that trutherism was especially popular among Democrats (many of whom hated George W. Bush), birtherism appealed primarily to Republicans (many of whom hated Obama), and Trump’s election conspiracy theories appeal almost exclusively to his own supporters. Particularly in an era of severe polarization, partisan bias has a big impact on voters, leading many to believe ludicrous claims they might otherwise reject.
The role of bias and partisanship is one of the factors that make Trump’s conspiracy-mongering especially dangerous. Partisan Republicans are more likely to accept conspiracy theories when such ideas are promoted by the leader of their party, who still enjoys sky-high approval ratings among Republican voters, despite his unpopularity with general public opinion. Endorsement of his ideas is seen by many party members as a kind of test of partisan loyalty.
Such beliefs might be undermined if other prominent Republican leaders spoke out against them. But most are reluctant to do so, for fear of attracting Trump’s wrath.
The combination of ignorance and partisan bias make it difficult to combat conspiracy-mongering, and are likely to ensure that it will remain a problem even after Trump leaves the White House. Trump has been a particularly egregious exploiter of ignorance and partisan bias. But these problems did not start with him. There is no easy solution, though we should consider a range of possible options.
There is much that individual citizens can do to make themselves better voters and more enlightened consumers of political information. But I am not optimistic that any significant number of people will actually do so. Most individual voters have strong incentives to remain “rationally ignorant” and to avoid confronting their biases, even though such behavior leads to harmful collective outcomes.
In the long run, I believe that the best solution is to limit and decentralize government power, so that people can make more decisions by “voting with their feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Foot voters have stronger incentives to become well-informed and work to constrain their biases.
But such a transformation cannot be achieved quickly. In the meantime, we can at least recognize 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 be accorded the deference, honors, and social perks customarily given to current and former officeholders.
Such social sanctions are unlikely to be fully effective. Among other things, prominent partisan leaders may remain popular among their own supporters, even if others shun them. But it might at least be possible to improve incentives at the margin. And marginal improvement is still a lot better than nothing.