It’s American Dream Week at the White House. Some would argue it’s been American Dream Week ever since President Trump was elected. But let’s assume we’re all awake and the President’s attempt to ban ‘climate change’ this week is very real.
During his weekly address on Friday the President cut a familiar tone to the one that helped get him elected. He said: “Yet for too long, the dreams of many Americans have been put out of reach by Washington. Washington funded one global project after another while allowing other countries to drain our jobs and drain the wealth of the United States of America. Then Washington taxed and regulated our own workers and industries, taking away their ability to earn a living.”
With the investigation into Russian collusion during the election campaign closing in, the embattled President seems to be preparing his fan-base for the outcome. The election hacking conspiracy is an establishment fabrication invented only to deprive them of their leader. Any reporting on the topic is dismissed as fake news.
It’s within this conspiratorial dream-like state that I spoke with Joe Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami. Joe has a background in political science and was in London with a class from the university. He also took some time out to give a few talks on a book he co-authored in 2014 called American Conspiracy Theories.
His research analysed more than a hundred years of data taken from newspapers, surveys, and the internet. It found that conspiracy theories follow the same strategic logic: they are tools used by the powerless to attack and defend against the powerful. Conspiracy theories must follow this logic or they will not be successful.
Power and Politics
Joe began: “If you read a lot of the news coverage of conspiracy theories and the people that believe them they always put forward a bunch of different explanations. One is that they are crazy or paranoid or that they are political extremists. However, these sorts of explanations don’t hold water because polls suggest most people believe in one or more than one.”
Joe said the first big conspiracy theory he remembers was JFK and everybody talking about Oliver Stone’s movie in high school. “It was really slick, but now that I’ve watched it about 50 times I realise that it’s all bullshit. At the end of the movie you find out that everyone is in on it and that everyone did it and that just can’t be true.” His research revealed that over time the conspiracies people care about change in response to who is in power. In the US, when a Republican is in power they focus on wealth and corporations, when a Democrat is in power the focus is on communists and socialists.
“When Bush was President it was all about the war for oil and Halliburton, with Obama it was the birth certificate – and now Trump is President he’s working with Russia. But they’re all about power, who has it and what they do with it, so it makes sense really. Last night I was talking to a guy after a talk I had given and he said he believes the wealthy one percent controls everything, and that all these wealthy people are Jews. And that’s where it goes downhill; he says you’re not Jewish, are you?”
Joe isn’t Jewish, but Jewishness and financial elitism is a popular conspiracy. And one of a number of unusual responses and questions Joe gets as a result of his work. “About a month ago, someone put something online that said if you turn the letters of my last name into numbers then add them up it comes to 30, which I guess is a secret Freemason number.” Joe isn’t a Freemason either. “People often say there is a simple explanation for complex things. I think the answer to that is no because the conspiracy theories people come up with are often far more complicated than reality.”
We talked about Watergate and the clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration. Without two sceptical journalists at the Washington Post the story would never have broken.
Joe added: “We need a healthy amount of scepticism, but some people don’t know where the line is.”
In the 2016 US election both campaigns flogged conspiracy theories to win votes. Bernie Sanders ran a campaign railing against the one percent while Donald Trump said US elites have sold out to foreign interests, “They both can’t be true”, said Joe, “The press didn’t really pick up on Bernie. They said his rhetoric was just economic criticism but it really wasn’t. I mean he said things about the one percent that Hitler said about the Jews. He was saying the one percent has a greed that knows no end, and they’re making it hard for others to survive. When you’re using that demeaning rhetoric you’re out of economic criticism.”
The irony of the powerless not voting was not lost on Joe. However, he said the 2016 election was different because candidates targeted conspiracy theorists in an attempt to mobilise this group and because they used the right terminology they did manage to get a lot of people to vote who hadn’t before. “The thing is for every 50 conspiracy theories that turn out to be true, there are a million that aren’t, and that’s just on twitter today.”
Joe found that conspiracy theories are for losers, but it’s not an insult. “It’s a descriptive term, people who are out of power or on the outside, they are the ones that can use conspiracy theories the most and the best. In the US now it’s the Democrats who are benefiting from conspiracy theories because they are under threat from President Trump – so they serve a purpose. It doesn’t work so well when you’re in power because people wonder why those people are being targeted.”
It you’re the most powerful man on the planet I guess that makes it a pretty threatening place. Worryingly the President doesn’t believe in that either. “I fly a lot, and I mean a lot. No one flies more than me. Listen, I own a jet. I own a 757, beautiful plane, it’s the best plane. If the world were round, believe me, I would know. The round earth people, and you know who they are, these people have an agenda. There are people out there, many people, and I mean missile experts, sailors, you name it, folks, and this is what they’re saying. It’s all on the internet, it’s there.”