Column: Conspiracy theories are sad but normal in American politics

It’s too easy to believe everything is carefully orchestrated against your preferred candidate in an election.

Tess Vrbin is a sophomore journalism student at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about national politics for The Maneater.

Donald Trump wants America to believe the 2016 presidential election is rigged. He claims Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and the mass media are behind it. He claims the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct are liars. He claims that unless people keep an eye on the polling booths on Nov. 8, undocumented immigrants will vote illegally and swing the election in Clinton’s favor.

The Republican candidate’s die-hard followers wholeheartedly believe all these things, whether or not they are true. A Boston Globe article from Saturday details the outrageous thoughts of some paranoid Trump supporters at a rally in Cincinnati. One person said he would use racial profiling to identify suspected illegal voters and “make them a little bit nervous.” Another person talked about starting a revolution with “a lot of bloodshed” if Clinton wins.

As sad, scary and outlandish as their views are, paranoia and conspiracy theories in American politics are nothing new. In fact, historian Richard Hofstader’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is amazingly relevant more than half a century later. Hofstader traces the history of political paranoia from his time, soon after Sen. Joseph McCarthy promoted the nationwide fear of communism, all the way back to the late 18th century when the U.S. was just beginning. For anyone who knows this history, says Hofstader, “the real mystery … is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.”

Here are just a few quotes from the essay that ring true for the Trump camp.

“The modern right wing . . . feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it.”

Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” suggests the nation is in worse shape than it used to be. Actually, America has improved a lot in recent decades. Historically marginalized groups including women, African-Americans and the LGBTQ community have more rights and opportunities now than ever before. Straight white men haven’t experienced such growth because they already had all the social and economic advantages they needed. But non-college-educated whites — Trump’s most important demographic — might be unaware of that because they don’t have the education.

“If for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.”

Trump supporters believe Clinton’s use of a private email server to handle classified information was an unforgivable crime, even though the FBI didn’t recommend charges against her. Clinton has admitted multiple times that it was a mistake, but “Lock her up!” is a regular chant at Trump rallies, which brings me to my next point.

Hofstader says paranoid minds see their opponents in “apocalyptic terms” and want them “totally eliminated.” There’s evidence of that all over this election, from “Lock her up!” to Trump’s suggestion in August that the “Second Amendment people” take action against Clinton. Trump literally called Clinton “the devil” and said she “has tremendous hate in her heart” during their debate on Oct. 9. His supporters see Clinton’s email mistake as more serious than Trump’s litany of transgressions, which I won’t even bother to list.

In the Boston Globe article, one woman said that if Clinton beats Trump, “our country is not going to be a country anymore.” You can’t get much more apocalyptic than that.

“The paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.”

The real world is messy and complex. It’s much harder to acknowledge that than it is to think everything is carefully orchestrated a certain way, such as against your preferred candidate in an election.

Paranoia and fear do wild things to the human imagination. I feel sorry for those who believe Trump’s far-fetched claims, because according to Hofstader, "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

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