During five years of research in southwest Louisiana for my book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” I came to know many white, older tea party enthusiasts. Nearly all now support Donald Trump.
It was because of his penchant for conspiracies, not in spite of it. – Arlie Russell Hochschild, Washington Post, 11/7/16
In mid-October Alex Jones, host of Infowars, infamous breeding ground of conspiracy theories, announced that “high-level sources” connected to Hillary Clinton had informed him that both Clinton and President Obama were demons. As proof of the impact that conspiracy theories are having on this election cycle, President Obama humorously responded to Jones’ allegation at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina sniffing for the sulfur he was said to exude.
Conspiracy theories, normally relegated to social media memes and uncomfortable conversations at family gatherings, have become a focus of the 2016 Presidential election. The catalyst to this mainstream attention is the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
For years, Trump has promoted conspiracy theories via his Twitter account, interviews on various news channels, and on Infowars itself. Trump gained a great deal of attention with his Birtherism (the theory that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen), his assertion that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese government to damage the American economy, and claims that Muslims gathered to celebrate 9/11 in New Jersey, all before deciding to run for office. Unlike most conspiracy theorists who spend endless hours looking for “proof” or evidence to support their theories, prior to his campaign Trump seemed to dispose of these theories as quickly as the spotlight dimmed, focusing on the next outrageous claim that would bring the attention back his way. As Election Day looms, this pattern has evolved.
Throughout the campaign Trump has linked various conspiracy theories together. This has served as both a rationale for the doom and gloom of his prospects on election night, and reinforced many of the beliefs his supporters held before Trump announced his candidacy. This winding tale of interconnected conspiracies came to a climax at a Trump rally held in West Palm Beach, Florida, in mid-October.
In that speech, which gained even greater notoriety over the weekend as the audio used in his controversial final ad, Trump brought the specter of a controlling “global power structure” into the public spotlight. Media outlets and social media instantly reacted with accusations of Trump evoking classic/historical anti-Semitic themes, and in doing so, tacitly supporting the white supremacists who are amongst the “basket of deplorables.”
News sources began to fixate on the conspiracy theories by creating lists of Trump’s conspiracy laden pronouncements and providing air time to theories on Hillary Clinton’s various health ailments, rigged election possibilities, Clinton’s emails, Christians not being welcomed as immigrants into America, and Clinton and Obama being the masterminds and creators of ISIL/ISIS. Separate from these reports on the conspiracy theories are statistics and polls on Christian support for Trump in the election cycle. Yet very few, if any, have asked how Christian Trump supporters reconcile the conspiracy theories with their religious beliefs.
Overlapping beliefs of Christianity and conspiracy are not new. Scholar Michael Barkun has studied Christian apocalyptic thought and conspiracy, and Mark Fenster has researched the important role conspiracy plays in American democracy. In the 1990s Pat Robertson published a book on the “New World Order,” linking the Illuminati with Satan working to fulfill premillennial Christian eschatology. Left Behind author Tim LaHaye in his book Rapture Under Attack (1998), described himself as
[A] forty-five-year student of the satanically-inspired, centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education, and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order. (p. 138)
In the same book LaHaye states that the Christian Right slowed the Illuminati attack on America by electing Ronald Reagan. Both LaHaye and Robertson link the Illuminati control of American democracy with culture war issues such as abortion, women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, and the control of liberalism through over-taxation and exorbitant government spending. Both religious leaders also link the Illuminati with the demise of Christianity in America and call to their followers to stop this movement by voting for conservatives who support Christianity and their stance on culture war issues.
Just as the demise of Christianity within America is linked to government policy, so too are conspiratorial controls over the democratic system in the country. Government policy in support of culture war issues are signs of the progression of a “global power structure” that will end Christianity in America, and through the lens of millennialism bring forth the ultimate battle between good and evil.
The mainstreaming of the idea that we’re on the precipice of the ultimate battle between good and evil came with Wikileaks’ “Spirit Dinner” tweet alleging that Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta was invited to a satanic “Spirit Dinner” where human blood, breast milk and semen would be included in the meal. Wikileaks, and the media response to this accusation, brought forward the conspiratorial link to Hillary Clinton working for Evil, and Donald Trump as the hero for Good.
The linking of conspiracies, faith, and radical political views provides a form of cognitive mapping for those who have long battled against culture war issues and a have a feeling of being the victim of religious persecution or disenfranchisement through the changing public sphere and democratic rule. For many, the signs of Illuminati progress are equal to the signs of a coming end times scenario.
There is a bridging of sorts that occurs between religion and conspiracy. When prayer and belief are “not enough” to stop the wave of “liberalism” in society, there needs to be another rationale for the continued persecution of conservative religious culture issues such as reproductive rights and LGBT rights. For many, conspiracy provides an antidote to the sensation that their worldview, including values and morals, is collapsing around them.
The world is challenging and changing its value systems, making the world seem unpredictable and meaningless. Creating a “global power structure,” no matter what form this may take, provides a way to cope with the situation by providing hope in the form of a clear and discrete target. The oppressors will be defeated, there will be peace for those who have suffered, and punishment for those responsible. These are the emotions and fears that Trump plays upon with his supporters.
The presentation of conspiracies at the rallies, through social media and mainstream news, give voice to what his supporters have long believed. Trump brings their fears and their beliefs to the mainstream. Often dismissed and mocked, those who hold conspiracy theories now have a champion who not only delivers their warnings and fears to the general public, but also helps to sustain those fears through the introduction of new conspiracy theories easily linked to those already held. Trump provides legitimacy and he’s a conduit to the “truth” for unbelievers.
Fundamental to these theories is the concept of social heroism. Those who have felt disenfranchised for their religious and/or conspiratorial beliefs are often dismissed outside of their own social groups. When Clinton referred to them as a “basket of deplorables” she reinforced their isolation and many have chosen to celebrate their new identity. These individuals are warriors for God, country and family against values that do not reflect their religious beliefs and their understanding of American society.
The democratic laws of America are created by human minds, the powers, who oppose all they stand for. Fundamentally it’s easier to understand this controlling entity as being comprised of humans bent on the destruction of all that is good and right. As Roger O. Friedland wrote recently on RD “Trump may not be a Christian warrior [but] he is a warrior for Christ,” Trump too is a warrior for those social heroes who are fighting against the “global power structure” to save God, country and family through the ballot box.