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US election: Most Americans don’t care about conspiracies, so how did ‘Stop the Steal’ fuel a riot?

OPINION:

The 2020 US election, which delivered a resounding victory to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, was free and fair. The results of the election were scrutinised by officials, challenged legally, and eventually certified state-by-state. The head of the Department of Justice (appointed by outgoing President Donald J. Trump) said there was no evidence of widespread electoral fraud.

January 6, then, was when the Senate would ceremonially confirm the results, checking off another item on the list of things needed to proceed with Joe Biden’s inauguration.

It was not to be.

Fed on a diet of mis- and disinformation by his allies and members of his Cabinet, Trump accused the Democrats of rigging the election. Whether the President was misinformed or being insincere is a question best left to the history books. Whatever the case, Trump and his allies launched the “Stop the Steal” campaign to fundraise legal challenges and rally people to his cause.

Stop the Steal rests upon a false conspiracy theory: elements within the “Deep State” (the unelected bureaucrats who allegedly run the country), along with Democrats, rigged the election. Trump and his supporters tried to persuade Republican-appointed judges and legislatures that the election was stolen, but produced no hard evidence (which was then taken as proof that even the Republican Party was in on it).

What, then, are we to make of the Stop the Steal conspiracy theory?

It owes a lot to the earlier QAnon conspiracy theory, which owes itself to the pre-eminent and false conspiracy theory of the 2016 election: Pizzagate. Born from the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Pizzagate claimed a fictitious, elite group of paedophiles operated at the highest echelons of the Democratic establishment. The evidence? An email chain about pizza toppings which was improbably taken to be about child sex trafficking. It was laughable … until Edgar Maddison Welch brandished a gun in a pizzeria, demanding to see where the children were being kept.

Pizzagate morphed into the equally vapid QAnon hypothesis that Trump (and somehow only Trump) was invested in ending sex trafficking and its enablers, the Deep State.

Now, Americans do not live in a world suffused with conspiracy theories. The Pew Research Centre has consistently shown in polls that conspiracy theories like QAnon are only vaguely known to about a quarter of Americans, with less than 5 per cent knowing about them in any detail.

This seemingly goes against what we have seen over the last week. The storming of the Capitol Building in Washington DC indicates that a great many people believe the election was stolen. But if the polling is to be believed, this march represented a sizeable proportion of those who believe the Stop the Steal conspiracy theory.

Now, it does not matter how many people believe the conspiracy theory. Rather, how many of them are willing to act upon it? It is one thing to think Democrats are out to get you; you might support Stop the Steal with a couple of retweets, or attend a town hall meeting. It is another thing to be so strongly committed to it that you are willing to storm the Capitol, or chant “Hang Mike Pence”.

The thing is, there was a conspiracy against Trump … in 2016. It was not run by the Deep State, or orchestrated by the Obama Administration. It was made up of people like Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, who publicly tried to prevent Trump from becoming their party’s presidential candidate while their colleagues worked behind closed doors to get rival candidates on the ballot.

Trump, at the time, had reason to feel persecuted; he positioned himself as an outsider to the political system because he did not come up through the Republican ranks. But the conspiracy against Trump in 2016 was orchestrated by forces who saw a danger to their own party if he ever became president.

This is important because knowing people do not like you and are willing to try to stop you from gaining power is evidence that people can and will conspire against you. But there is a salient difference between a plot orchestrated by your own party and one run by a mysterious group of shadowy figures. The former is a claim rooted in evidence; the latter claim assumes the existence of the very conspiracy you are trying to prove.

Evidence is crucial here. Despite what we sometimes think, it is not obvious to everyone what counts as evidence versus what is just speculation. Facts do not come pre-packaged as “true”. Working out whether a claim is evidence-based requires deliberation, and when people disagree, you need to appeal to some independent standard which allows you to explain why some claims are false.

Much of the disagreement, at least on Trump’s side, is the product of motivated reasoning, where a desire for something to be true trumps (excuse the pun) the evidence. Trump and his allies are motivated to believe whatever arguments and information which says he won the election. His choice of legal experts, for example, is people who already agree with him, rather than lawyers willing to examine the issue with a neutral eye.

Russiagate is another good example. To Democrats, the Mueller Report clearly showed that the President and his allies had worked with Russia to win the 2016 election. To Republicans, it was a politically motivated hit. This is not to say that the contents of the report are up for debate. Rather, party operators were motivated to portray the conclusions as confirming what they already believed.

What motivates this? Part of what causes someone to suspect the existence of a conspiracy is their view as to just how conspired they think the world is. If you think conspiracies are commonplace, then you likely suspect that a lot of things in the world can be explained with reference to them. Conversely, if you think conspiracies are rare, you will be inclined to consider other explanations.

In politics, conspiracies happen. From cover-ups of what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964 and, of course, Watergate, to backroom deals when it comes to selecting candidates: politics is infused with conspiracies big and small. It is not unreasonable to suspect conspiracies, then, in the political realm. This is why most Western nations have checks and balances to try to ensure that malevolent conspiracies will fail.

This is the problem when it comes to the Stop the Steal campaign: it rests upon a baseless conspiracy theory. There is no evidence of the kind of widespread electoral fraud which would substantiate the claim conspirators sought to deny Trump a second term. There is no evidence of the Deep State. But unless we hold accountable the people who enabled Trump to spout these views, then these particular conspiracy theories will still be a problem in four years’ time.

• M R. X. Dentith is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing Normal University (Zhuhai Campus).

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