Our new president-elect, Donald Trump, is a thin-skinned bully, a liar, a grifter, a crappy businessman and a misogynist. He mainstreams white supremacist ideas and his initial White House hires suggest that white nationalism will be his administration's guiding ideology. He's far too ill-tempered and narcissistic to be in charge of the nuclear codes and he's openly hostile to the free press protections necessary to keep our government accountable.
Because of all this, the fact that Trump is an avid conspiracy theorist understandably falls by the wayside. Just resisting his racism and misogyny and corruption is enough to trigger outrage overload, leaving someone no energy left to be angry that Trump relentlessly lobs false accusations of dark conspiracies. But according to conspiracy theory expert Mark Hoofnagle, people need to carefully track of Trump's conspiracist tendencies as well.
“Donald Trump has shown himself not to be just someone who is susceptible to conspiracy theories, which is really common — almost everyone believes in at least one ludicrous conspiracy theory — but someone who believes in them promiscuously and is really close to people who generate conspiracy theories," said Hoofnagle, a doctor who runs the Denialism Blog, devoted to chronicling conspiracy theories and part of the Science Blogs network.
Hoofnagle mostly steered away from blogging about the presidential campaign, but the election of Trump alarmed him, and he wrote a blog post laying out what he knows about conspiracy theorists like Trump and how to anticipate their behavior. I phoned Hoofnagle to hear more about why he thinks Trump's conspiracist mindset is such a major concern.
The first problem, he explained, is that conspiracy theorists who are as deep in the muck as Trump have no real interest in making decisions or forming beliefs based on evidence. "This is the way the conspiracist thinks: The desire for a fact to be true precedes the research or the evidentiary basis," Hoofnagle said. "They think in reverse. They start with the conclusion and assemble the facts to fit that conclusion and reject everything that doesn’t. It’s the opposite of logical reasoning."
Most people engage in what psychologists call "motivated reasoning," whereby they prefer facts and theories that conform to their prejudices over facts and theories that counter them. But conspiracists take this to the next level, often completely disregarding any information that they don't want to hear and avidly embracing any assertions, no matter how shaky, that fit in with preexisting beliefs.
Trump's behavior fits neatly into Hoofnagle's description of the way conspiracists think. The actors in "Hamilton" say something he disagrees with? Well, their play must suck! The New York Times prints articles critical of him? Well, it must be a failing newspaper! Wishful thinking crowds out any relationship to facts or reality.
The president-elect is so guided by wishful thinking that he coughs up fully formed conspiracy theories at the drop of a hat. The protesters outside of Trump Tower after the election irritated the real estate magnate, and so he produced a conspiracy theory that claimed they were being paid to protest him. Every time he slipped in the polls during the campaign or it looked like he wouldn't win the election, he shot off accusations that a shadowy conspiracy between the mainstream media and the Democratic Party was somehow "rigging" the election against him.
Then there's my favorite:
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Nov. 6, 2012
This stuff is fun to laugh at, no doubt, but there are very real reasons to be concerned.
“That’s the danger of having a conspiracist in power — that there’s no rational limit on their actions because of the extremity of belief," Hoofnagle warned, pointing out that the Nazis, for example, justified the oppression and eventual genocide of Jewish people by citing conspiracy theories that accused them of working against the Germans.
As Hoofnagle explained, most conspiracy theorists organize themselves around an ideology, and they tend to be forgiving of any crank idea so long as it justifies that ideology. Maybe they believe Big Pharma is out to get them, and so they will eagerly lap up even the silliest accusations about the supposed dangers of vaccinations or other modern medicine. Or perhaps they are avid gun enthusiasts, so they will sign off on ridiculous claims that mass shootings, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, didn't really happen but rather were created by a mass conspiracy involving thousands of actors faking it all.
With Trump, however, the organizing ideology seems to be "a kind of self-aggrandizement," Hoofnagle mused.
“He’s clearly very vindictive. I don’t think the central ideology here is political," Hoofnagle said. "His central ideology is that he’s great. If you tell him that, he’ll believe anything else you say."
He pointed out how both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Breitbart head Steve Bannon were able to flatter Trump and get in his good graces, and this helped them shape his views to be more avidly pro-Russia and overtly white nationalist than he was even at the beginning of his campaign.
That's terrifying in and of itself, but even more alarming is the swiftness with which Trump writes off any criticism or fact that doesn't appeal to his ego, denouncing the messengers as purveyors of a dark conspiracy against him. What will happen the first time a world leader fails to kiss his ass? What if some other nation takes actions that displease him?
There's strong evidence that Trump's hostility to Mexican immigrants formed after some business dealings in Mexico went south, causing him to write the entire country and its people as subhuman. That's the man who now has access to our nuclear codes — and an unlimited ability to believe the absolute worst of anyone who annoys or angers him.
And there's no real reason to think that being president will cause Trump to wise up and start acting more responsibly. After all, Trump pumped the mother of all modern conspiracy theories: the claim that President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States.
“Power generally aggravates people’s personality flaws," Hoofnagle said. "When you have fewer people to say no to you, your worst traits come out.”
Many presidents try to check their own tendencies by hiring people willing to criticize them. But it's safe to say that this won't be the case with Trump. On the contrary, his habit of surrounding himself with sycophants and yes-men means that there will be even fewer checks on his conspiracist tendencies. If he decides the entire nation of China is out to get him, his advisers had better agree if they want to keep their jobs, and they'll know it. We're now led by a man who will believe anything, if it flatters him, and who will not tolerate hearing a word from those who dissent.