Conspiracy Theorist in Chief: Trump’s falsehood about 2 mn. illegal votes only tip of Melting Iceberg

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Americans have given the nuclear codes to that crazy uncle you have to sit through Thanksgiving with who watches nut cases like Alex Jones and red-facedly proclaims that FEMA is keeping Americans in concentration camps.

Donald Trump still has his Twitter account and obsessed over the weekend about Jill Stein’s request for a recount in Minnesota and some other states. Then the last of the series came, saying that he would have won the popular vote if several million undocumented aliens had not voted.


As Politifact points out, though way too cautiously and politely, this meme comes from conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. It is based on discredited studies, whether academic or the Florida GOP attempt at a purge of voter rolls (which ended up affecting like 80 people and one of those was a WW II vet).

No one can understand why exactly Trump says these things. Some think he is trying to divert attention from his scandals and legal problems. Some think he is preparing the way for further voter suppression laws.

This issue was raised when he told people in Pennsylvania that wind turbines were killing “all the birds.” Was he playing to the coal lobby? Was he trying to confuse Bernie voters? (The assertion about birds was of course phony.)

But all this theorizing is too clever by half. I think he’s just like that. He’s a conspiracy nut. (For more on this see Tim Murphy at Mother Jones). Maybe the reason liberals keep trying to discover the real strategy behind these unbalanced rants is that they don’t want to face the explosive truth in the first paragraph of this piece. The most powerful man in the world is the sort who cuts out articles from the newspaper on obscure subjects and papers the walls with them, trying to track down the FBI cover-up of Area 51.

Of course, it may well be that he favors conspiracy theories which also, if they were widely believed, would give him the power to do things he wants to do. Goethe and Weber had a theory of “elective affinity,” that sometimes differing ideas just go together.

Social psychiatrists have investigated conspiracy theorists, so we do know something about them. There are, for instance lots of conspiracy theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the pilot who disappeared in 1932 in the Pacific.

The Scientific American notes,

In a study of 914 adults in London, University of Westminster’s Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham of University College London found that 4.5 percent of respondents espoused an alien abduction theory, 5.5 percent believed the two were spies taken down by the Japanese, and only 32 percent endorsed a relatively undramatic account that the plane crashed into the Pacific after running out of gas. Further, researchers found that respondents who believed in Earhart conspiracy theories had lower self-esteem, were more likely to be cynical toward politics, were less agreeable and gave themselves lower ratings of intelligence.”

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The correlation of belief in conspiracy theories with maladaptive personality traits is supported by a number of studies. That is, proneness to belief in conspiracy theories goes along with having some psychiatric problems of the sort detailed in DSM-4. Although on the surface no one would think that Trump’s problem is low self-esteem, in fact Adlerian theory would suggest that he is a bully precisely for this reason. The big hulking guy at the beach who kicks sand in the face of the 98-pound weakling does so because he is insecure inside. You could imagine that Der Donald was never good enough for old man Trump and is still working out daddy issues.

Having a conspiracy theorist in the White House is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.

People who have this tendency don’t look at assertions as falsifiable. They don’t have the sort of mindset that allows them to look at a fact-checking piece that disputes a deeply held belief and decide that they’ll have to give it up because the evidence tells against.

You wouldn’t want a president who, for instance, was convinced that another country was a threat to the US, and who could not be convinced by any evidence that the other country was not plotting to nuke Washington, DC.

Conspiracy theorists also have a tendency to what the Scientific American calls “a ‘monological belief system,’ in which any and all events can be explained by a web of interconnected conspiracies.”

Trump, for instance blames immigrants for a whole host of problems. He sees them as the explanation for rising crime (crime is not rising and immigrants are unusually law-abiding). For unemployment (they don’t generally compete for jobs with the native-born– they’re in a different labor niche). Now he sees them as the reason for which Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote. He just needs one scapegoat and can apply it to all his problems. The immigrants are in his web of interconnected conspiracies, at the center of his monology.

Conspiracy theorists are contrarians and capable of holding two diametrically opposed beliefs at the same time. Princess Diana is still alive. Princess Diana was deliberately murdered. They so distrust the government and authority that they prefer to hold more than one contradictory belief than to accept the mainstream view.

These ways of thinking may explain why Trump is uninterested in US intelligence briefings. His beliefs about the world are not falsifiable, so he finds the presentation of alternative evidence unbearably tedious. And since good intelligence reports are atomistic, disparate, and ambiguous, they would offend his quest for a monological set of beliefs. Moreover, the intelligence briefing will inevitably give him the mainstream view, whereas he prefers to go off chasing thought-butterflies.

The last time we had a president this paranoid, Richard Nixon, he got himself impeached because he thought the Democratic Party was planning dirty tricks against him of the sort he planned against them. Hence he had to have the party offices at the Watergate broken into. Twice. (Yes.) Nixon, like Trump, claimed executive privilege to cover his legal irregularities. The courts didn’t accept it.

But we can’t be sure Trump will go too far. And his conspiracy theories were so attractive that they won him the election. They could even win him a second. Assuming the level of radioactivity isn’t too high to prevent any more elections.

50 Responses

  1. Juan, you do appreciate of course that most of what you said about falsifiability equally applies to the neocons. Along with the paranoia – Cheney running around with his gas mask & shooting random friends!
    Much as I think he’s an obnoxious person, I’ll give Trump the benefit of the doubt over the briefings. Equal on each whether anything the CIA says is true vs. Trump’s personal opinion. Under Bush they were either wrong or weren’t believed so what is the point?
    At least Trump’s not subject to Groupthink – read Daneil Goleman’s “Vital Lies, Simple Truths” using the Kennedy Admin., Bay of Pigs etc as a classic example.
    I think Trump’s a lot more sound on Putin that Clinton. Give the man credit for all his own ego & autocratic ways – he’s dragged Russia a long way out of the mess it became with US financial co-operation!
    Interferring in the US elections? Snort! If so, mere blowback.
    So far Trump seems most dangerous in the people he SAYS he is going to appoint. But he’s got to keep his fan club happy for a few more months… Already backing off on Climate Change, thank goodness.
    Inpeachment – well, Trump is SUCH a liar that if all it takes is a lie to Congress he should be out in 2 weeks! Can’t help himself. Unless of course Congress likes to be lied to – as it certainly seems from afar.

    • He’s part of the groupthink of a different group. If you’re not familiar with American right-wing extremism there’s really nothing I can tell you. But it is large, powerful and as we’ve discovered it’s quite cohesive. The lies it told 20 years ago became the mainstream conservative truths of 10 years ago and the centrist consensus of today. That was accomplished by repetition, not evidence.

      And I’ve been watching this whole horrible process underway since I was young, going to a Southern Baptist church that taught contempt for other religions even though we were all stationed together in the Philippines. They seemed harmless then.

      • Yes, I’m pretty well onto that super!
        Came across Goleman when doing a thesis on right-wingers (with religious bent), checking out a (Iranian expat’s) theory that followers under Khomeini were like those under Hitler. (1998)
        & then along came 9/11 & proved that US right-wingers had the very same mindset!

  2. Really professor, are you suggesting that we Brits are all conspiracy nut jobs? Surely the worlds largest collection of alien abduction nut cases are American. As for Trumps election I think he has the Media, press and Washington disinformation insiders to thank for his election win. The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” holds good in the case of the election of Trump. He was given enormous exposure to the public which was always critical, mocking and full of downright mirth and nastiness. I don’t say some of it or even lots of it wasn’t justified, but the endless carping eventually had the affect of making Trump seem like the underdog. People are always sorry for the underdog and suspicious of those who are doing the bullying. The press, media etc handed Trump the presidency on a plate so trying g to pick any more holes in him is just stupid. The campaign against Trump back fired spectacularly so America has got what it deserves. Many didn’t want Trump but just as many didn’t want Clinton either. Perhaps next time round lessons will be learned and candidates of a higher caliber will be on the hustings and give the American people a real choice.

    • Tump got the standard Republican 61 mn votes like McCain & Romney. The outcome of the election was determined by Clinton’s inability to enthuse the Democrats, falling from Obama’s 68 mn to 63 mn.

      • If Clinton was unable to “enthuse”[sic] Democrats, then, how is it she got more votes than anyone but Obama?

        • Losing 3 million votes off of Obama is not making party faithful sufficiently enthusiastic to win. Which is why she lost.

      • Yeah, still 2 million more votes than Trump. Only for the President can you win more votes and lose. We need to get rid of the Electoral College. Clinton lost because of the distribution of the votes more than because of Trump’s popularity.

        • But the Electoral College will be defended to the point of civil war for just that reason. There are large numbers of Americans who refuse to accept that people different than themselves are truly American and should truly have equal votes. Whether they’ve committed the crime of being Black or being Californian.

        • The electoral collage is there for a reason. People without any knowledge who don’t like the result can’t just along and say get rid of it. The U.S has a geographical area. You can’t just have everybody move to New York / high population areas and vote out the rest of the country.

        • ed–that reason applied to 13 states with a total population of 3 million 230 years ago. The country was totally different then and the states at the time of the Constitutional Convention were like separate countries, with little in common between New York and Georgia, for example, or between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, for another example. Also, communications and travel between the states were totally different then. For example, news of Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 took two weeks to reach Washington D.C. The Electoral College was part of the big states/small states compromise. It also was in response to what many Founders/Framers feared about democracy, based on their conception of democracy found in ancient Greece. What made sense 230 years ago has no relevance to the modern US of A.

        • The spirit of the Great Compromise was for states to retain their individuality and power as opposed to granting each citizen in every corner of America equal weight – that’s why the State of Wyoming and State of California each have two U.S. Senate seats and the District of Columbia has none.

          The winner-take-all nature of state elections and the procedure upon which the Electoral College operates is transparent and part of the U.S. Constitution for centuries.

          I was involved in the process of choosing a Presidential Elector in two prior presidential elections as a state convention delegate. A congressional district party committee caucus at a state party convention has the chairperson accept nominations and have a vote of state convention delegates on the nominees. The winner becomes that party’s Presidential Elector from that U.S. Congressional District and votes in the state capital for the party’s nominee on a date in December of that election cycle.

          Presidential Electors are usually party insiders who get elected by the district committee delegation due recognition of many years of party service; its is more of an honor than an influential position.

          I see nothing inherently unfair about the Electoral College – which has been a constitutionally-imposed tradition of the presidential electoral process since this nation was founded.

      • Trump ran his campaign specifically to win the electoral college, which is exactly what he needed to do. That’s how you win the American presidential election. If the popular vote is how you win, he would have campaigned accordingly and perhaps would have beaten Clinton in the popular vote. He would have visited Illinois and California and New York more.

        An example would be the baseball world series. It is based on the best of 7 format. If the New York Mets score more runs throughout the series than the Sand Deigo Padres, but the Padres win more games, the Mets still lose the series. The padres COULD have played in such a way that they scored more runs (for example, not bunting at all and going for more home runs) but that won’t win them the series.

      • ” Trump got the standard 61 mn votes like McCain & Romney…”

        This is not an accurate analysis since Gary Johnson collected an unheard of Libertarian Party presidential electoral total of 4.4 million nationally – compared to his 2012 presidential total of 1.27 million votes. The overall Johnson percentage of the total presidential popular vote shot up from .99% to 3.25 %. Only in 1980 did the Libertarian Party nominee (Ed Clark) ever break one per cent (1.07%)

        Johnson’s candidacy and limited government platform likely siphoned off at least two million votes that would otherwise gone to Trump.

    • Will 100,000,000 non-White Americans (including a majority of our current young children) “deserve” what’s coming? Provoked by a monster and his vengeful followers and all the state and local authorities with their version of “Making America Great Again,” meaning the restoration of the worst practices of their forefathers. When their victims can’t take it anymore and uprisings occur, martial law will follow. From there escalation is simply a matter of will.

      You don’t know the South. You don’t know how obsessed Southerners are with making excuses for their past, endlessly lying their asses off about how the good things about it were completely unrelated to White supremacy, Jim Crow, lynch law, prison labor, and slavery. I expect a good many Northerners over the years have come to see that the arrival of peoples of color in their own turf as reason to steal as much of that Southern past as they can get away with.

      The conspiracy theories are crucial to that, since the original White supremacist order was built on myths as well.

      That’s what no one dares studies – the number of White people who feel that they’re the underdog when they’re denied the position of Master Race and need an excuse to seize it.

      Mr. Wilson, you should know that Master Races resurgent at home eventually threaten their neighbors.

  3. No doubt Trump believes Area 51 is the secret base where the Air Force keeps captured aliens preserved in vats of formaldehyde; that the 1969 moon landing was a US Government hoax actually filmed at the Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona; that contrails from jet aircraft are actually “chemtrails,” in order to destroy crops and thus reduce the world’s population, and on and on.

    Interestingly, if Trump actually thinks that Clinton’s 2 million vote lead is the result of illegal voting, it calls into question the margin of votes he won in the states that gave him the Electoral College and makes Jill Stein’s request for a recount sound rational.

    • “Interestingly, if Trump actually thinks that Clinton’s 2 million vote lead is the result of illegal voting, it calls into question the margin of votes he won in the states that gave him the Electoral College and makes Jill Stein’s request for a recount sound rational.”

      That is, indeed, worth investigating.

    • Trump’s messages about voting fraud, as we keep ignoring, continually dogwhistled Blacks and Mexicans as being the only criminals in America. So of course his voters are above reproach.

      And believe me, that will continue to be the message going forward.

  4. I think his ego is taking a big hit from the huge Clinton lead in the popular vote. Someone with an ego the size of Trump’s cannot cope with the notion that many more people voted for his opponent that for him.

    From this time forth US history will note that he is one of the very few presidents that won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote (and by the largest margin ever). The only way he can cope with this is to make up lies like the millions of illegals voting, and claiming he could easily have won the popular vote if just concentrated his campaign on the East and West coasts, which contradicts the illegals story. Professor Cole is so right, Trump can’t handle the truth.

    • Interestingly enough, a Gallup poll taken the day AFTER the election showed that Trump’s favorability rating was at 42% and his unfavorability rating was at 55%. He will be, by far and away, the most unpopular person to ever take the oath of office for President. With all the analysis and dissection of the vote, too often people have overlooked the obvious explanation–the ignorance and foolishness of large swaths of the electorate. In the last days of the campaign fake news got wider distribution on social media than did real news. Few people bother to fact check. I think it’s pretty disturbing, really, how so many people can be so easily conned.

      • He will be, by far and away, the most unpopular person to ever take the oath of office for President.

        And, like many, if not most, presidents before him that oath will be meaningless.

      • Unfortunately, Trump’s unpopularity (and that of Republicans generally) only makes him and them more dangerous. They know they have to act quickly, before opposition can mobilize, and they will. I predict Democrats will respond by whining loudly.

  5. There is no recount in Minnesota; it’s in Wisconsin. I realize that both are fly-over country, but still …

  6. Some of the most ardent conspiracy theorists are already a major part of the govt., like the authorities charging reporters in N. Dakota covering protests with conspiracy to shut down the Keystone Pipeline.

  7. We are just going to have to adjust ourselves to living with this kind of thing. It’s designed to orchestrate emotions not feed minds. These are not facts and I don’t suppose Trump expects them to be taken as such, they are mood adjusters. I imagine he was provoked to these excesses in reaction to the Jill Stein’s few days in the sun and her genuflections to ‘people’s rights to be assured’ and alleviated from doubt, doubt that she had largely sown herself. By her self she might not have triggered the shower of tweets, but Clinton struggling on board, dripping with social conscience, invited the response, ‘OK, you piss on me, I’ll piss on you. We’ll see who has the bigger bladder’. When politics comes through the door, truth, delicacy and refinement fly out the window.

  8. FACT: It is glaringly apparent the Electoral College did in no way reflect the actual will of the majority of voters asserted in this election.

  9. We can be thankful that publication of the Weekly World News ceased publication a couple of years ago and is no longer available at supermarkets. it is on line,however. In fact the most recent issue has a picture of Donald with an Alien who apparently endorsed him. Read it here: Don’t breathe a word of this to the Donald.

    • Apparently one of Trump’s biggest backers is the publisher of The National Enquirer and Trump has used that publication as a cited source for some of his claims. That’s only a small step up from the Weekly World News. Heaven help us all.

  10. Welcome to the “Post-Truth Age.”
    Although this is not necessarily something new, especially when it comes to the US. The Vietnam war was based on a now discredited conspiracy theory – the Domino Theory.

    And the real danger here is how the actual truth is obscured by these dangerous theories. They act to suck the oxygen out of the room, as people devote so much time and effort supporting or debunking them.

    9/11 is the perfect example.
    The Truthers believe it was an inside job, or, at the very least, the US government knew of the plot, but did nothing to stop it. The real conspiracy – something that existed, for the most part, in the open for all to see – was the decades long “conspiracy” by the West to control the Middle East supply of energy. This included overthrowing unsympathetic governments and installing pro-US dictators, along with the hot wars of recent years. Add to that the US support for Israel’s policy to deny the Palestinians their rightful homeland, the military and economic support of the brutal Saudi regime and you end up with the hatred that resulted in the attacks of 9/11.

    And the same can be seen with this latest election.
    Conspiracies about hacked voting machines and millions of undocumented voters obscure the fact that the Republicans have “conspired” to deny minority, mostly African American voters, the right to vote in many GOP-controlled states. They do this through gerrymandering, by denying former felons the right to vote, even though they’ve served their sentences, or by purging the voter rolls by making purge lists of people – again, mostly black – who share the same name, and who they claim voted more than once in different states. This is what happened in Ohio.

    And once again, these facts are lost or obscured as the media focuses on the ridiculous conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

    Only time will tell whether or not more serious events occur because of this post-truth world we find ourselves in. I don’t know how we’re going to extricate ourselves from this collective, mass-induced brain fog of propaganda,disinformation, and outright lies…


  11. For Christ’s sake, doesn’t anyone know that The National Enquirer is Trump’s Pravda? Right now it’s running a cover story demanding that Trump “BUILD THE WALL NOW!”, with the subheading about “Mexico’s Revenge – Flooding America With Drug Gangs.” This is the sort of incitement that leads to wars.

    The National Enquirer makes British tabloids look like, well, news sources. It is deplorable trash that lives off of popular conspiracy theories. There is no science or history to be found there. Now its owner uses his relationship with Trump to become a shaper of our national will.

  12. The ignorant and low-information voter is the biggest threat to democracy. Unfortunately, our newly discovered WHITE working class voters in the fly-over states who vote for Republican governors and Republican state houses are mad at the Washington Elite but never understand the connection between their state governments and their economic situation. Additionally, they send their States’ Representatives back to Washington who had blocked anything and everything Obama proposed to improve their lives. And now they put their trust in a know-nothing, authoritarian, insecure, revengeful ” Great Leader” who can fix everything by himself – what could possibly go wrong?

  13. Attempting to analyze this fool would drive one unstable. I look forward to a new book entitled “Trump on the Couch” similar to the one authored on GWB when he was in office. Whew!

  14. A little off topic, but it would be just like history to play a trick on the popular vote when the electoral college is scrapped. The joke would be a vote so close that the entire nation would have a recount. Perhaps with nonpartisan redistricting we could have 1 vote per district and 2 votes per state. Dividing the country into about 500 units would come closer to the popular vote then the electoral college.

  15. An article in the New York Times about Steven Bannon:

    “Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

    “I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

    Have we reached the point where this can become the normal conversation of half of America with no real resistance?

  16. He will always blame others or other issues for his losses. The 2m illegals voting for HRC. HE IS A BULLY and it would not surprise me emotionally abusivo of his wife. He acts the part of a weak person: seems happy at times, honeymoon and angry at others, abusive. I hope he uses the red phone instead of pushing the red button when he thinks there’s a conspiracy between Russia and China to nuke the US.

    • Yes, definitely has a personality disorder!
      Re Melania, you might be right. She is supposed to be intelligent but her dealings with the media have been extremely naive – or possibly that she just says what Trump wants her to say.
      Putin is smart (& probably Xi also) & will likely know how to slime Trump sufficiently – diplomacy it’s called, LOL.
      Neither want war. The idea is just STUPID – surely Trump has enough to contend with without getting Russia/China all fired up. (Might save Iran too.)
      Bullies project their own aggression onto others. As seen from outside the US I don’t think Putin does. He does what he sees as a necessary for the protection of Russia (& friends) without undue bluster. It’s the US which has hegemony as the long term project! (American Century, yeah right!)
      Trumps foreign policy doesn’t – as yet (except for admiring Putin) TAKE INTO ACCOUNT what other nations might DO.
      He should have had his run before Bush put the rest of the world against US policy almost by default.
      Many countries hung in cos of trade. If he’s wiping that…

  17. Might Occam’s Razor suggest this is just pandering to a large contingent of his base and concurrently inviting media coverage?

    • Why does he deserve the benefit of a doubt when he’s inciting his followers to dust off all the old prejudices that made grass-roots racism dominate America for so long?

      All he has to do is look the other way while our states and our bosses do what they do best: enforce White supremacy. No enforcement of discrimination laws. No enforcement of civil rights laws. No enforcement of laws against violence upon women. No punishment of any police no matter how grotesque their assaults become.

      Why not? Why should I believe that Trump is not a committed White supremacist in the American tradition?

      • super390 – “he’s inciting his followers to dust off all the old prejudices that made grass-roots racism dominate America for so long?”

        Too late, it’s done and dusted with Trump.

    • C. “pandering to a large contingent of his base”

      The election’s over. They are preoccupied with black Friday, Xmas and New Year. When the hangovers wear off and the bills arrive they will be impatient for “You will all be so rich”.

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