University of Miami Professor Joe Uscinski is an expert on conspiracy theories, having published American Conspiracy Theories in 2014 with co-author Professor Joseph Parent. The book’s less about outlining every single wild speculation out there and more of an examination of why people buy into these suspicions.
Today, Uscinski’s work couldn’t be more relevant. The 2016 Election was marred by the rampant presence of fake news and conspiratorial allegations about election rigging from Donald Trump. Even after the election, the new era of untruths has continued with Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre”, President Trump’s insistence that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote, and claims that liberal billionaire George Soros is secretly funding anti-Trump protests.
Inverse caught up with Professor Uscinski to chat about the prevalence of these wild theories all across American politics, the reasons Trump can’t seem to let go of even his more ridiculous claims, and why theories of conspiracy are ultimately for the losers.
There are a lot of allegations that George Soros has been funding anti-Trump movements. What’s going on with these theories?
These ideas have been around for a while and exist on both sides. You have this fascination on the right with Soros. Anytime anything happens, they blame it on him and say he’s secretly funding protests or riots or whatnot. You have the same thing on the left with the Koch brothers. Both sides think that the other party is a puppet of someone with nefarious intent and it’s nothing new. We saw this play out with the protests at Berkeley about Milo Yiannopoulos’s appearance. People on the left, like Robert Reich, went on CNN and said that Milo was behind the protests just to bring attention to himself and make the left look bad.
In the book you wrote with Professor Joseph Parent, one of the things you touched on was how conspiracists are outsiders and often people not in a position of power. Obviously, Trump is in a position of power but we’re seeing him doing things like accusing the media of not covering terrorist attacks — is this something new to America?
Well, beating up on the press is nothing new, and it has a long history. You could go back to Spiro Agnew’s attack on the media during the Vietnam War where he called them a bunch of “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Normally, conspiracy theories are for losers. They resonate most when they are lobbed by the people out of power towards the people in power. But it is strange to have a president who tries to use conspiracy theories as much as Trump does.
But what’s important to recognize is that his conspiracy theories are getting a ton of pushback. It’s not like the media says, “Oh my god, we need to investigate this, he might be right.” It’s, “This is ridiculous. He’s a crazy conspiracy theorist.” This conversation that you and I are having is proof of that. No one’s taking his rhetoric seriously. We’re all trying to understand why he’s saying conspiracy things.
I’ll give you a good example: right after the election, two conspiracy theories were floated about the result. One was by Trump, which was put out in a tweet that said he would have won the popular vote if not for 3 million illegal voters.
The other one was by Jill Stein where she raised more than $8 million to do a recount on the premise that Russians hacked the voting machines, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign supported these efforts. One flew under the radar and was considered completely okay. The other was considered an awful attack on our democracy and our electoral process.
So what’s the difference?
It’s okay when you’re a loser to say that the election was rigged. But when you’re a winner it’s heresy, it’s anti-democratic. That’s because conspiracy theories are for the losers, not for the winners. We’ve seen examples of this in the past. When Bill Clinton got in trouble in 1998, Hillary Clinton went on television and said his troubles were due to a vast, right wing conspiracy that was out to get him. I mean, that became a joke. In 2012, Barack Obama opened up his election campaign with a commercial that said that “secret oil billionaires” were out to get him.
That commercial hit the ground with a thud. Nobody thinks that the most powerful person on the planet is the victim of a shadowy conspiracy. The fact that the media is pushing back against Trump’s conspiracy theories — and recognizing them as such — tells you that conspiracy theories are for the losers.
A recent Public Policy Polling poll found that about one-third of Trump supports really do believe that Soros is funding protests. Do you think Trump has awakened something or tapped into something that other presidents haven’t when they’ve tried to do these things?
He may have. Here’s the thing: Trump only got 40 percent of his party’s vote in the primary. That’s the same amount Bernie Sanders got. They were both running their campaigns based on a conspiracy theory. For Trump, it was that political elites did not have the best interests of regular Americans at heart, and they were selling out the country to global interests and foreigners. For Sanders, his was that the 1 percent has taken over everything. Trump was only able to win because he was running against 22 candidates rather than one. That’s why we are where we are. There’s no reason to think that conspiracy theories have more staying power. I like the results of the PPP polls because they’re so interesting, but I do think that they overestimate. They asked a question a few years ago where they said, “Do you believe that reptilian overlords control the planet?” And 4 percent said yes. That would mean that there are millions and millions of people who buy into this reptilian thing. I think that’s an overestimation. But to be honest you’re going to have 40 to 50 percent of each party say yes to pretty much any conspiracy theory that demonizes the other side.
Do think that Trump’s engaging so much in this sort of thing is because he’s insecure about having lost the popular vote?
Oh, I’m sure. I don’t think he’d be talking about the popular vote if he had won it. So in this way the conspiracy is still for losers. He won the presidency. He lost the popular vote. He’s not saying the electoral college is rigged, he’s saying the popular vote was rigged. He’s picking and choosing what is and what isn’t.
Although, before the election, he did say that the electoral college was potentially rigged.
Assuming he lost, yeah. Him and Sanders both. Anytime they won it was fair and just and anytime they lost it was rigged. That’s just human nature. When we polled people in 2012, we asked partisans “If your candidate doesn’t win, do you think the outcome would have been due to fraud?” 65 percent said yes. When we asked people after the election, “Do you think the outcome was due to fraud?” the outcome was almost cut in half. Only Republicans believed that the result was fraudulent because they were the ones who lost. And we’re seeing the same thing now. You ask Republicans and Democrats “Did the Russians hack the voting?” 50 percent of Democrats said yes in a recent YouGov poll. Very few Republicans said yes. Both winners and losers try to write history to their advantage. When they’ve won they say it’s because the outcome was correct, fair, and just, and losers lost because they were cheated.Photos via Getty Images / Pool, Getty Images / Scott Olson