As we head into the final months of the election season, it has become increasingly clear that President Trump has chosen to reanimate his 2016 campaign strategy of stoking fears about an existential threat to America, or at least white America, as we have known it. Capitalizing upon this summer’s protests and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder under the knee of police, the demonizing Trump narrative has shifted from outside threats in form of immigrant hordes, thugs, rapists, and animals, to threats from within in the form of home-grown rioters, looters, and radical-left anarchists. But the core message remains unchanged — that the only solution to “American carnage” is a strongman in the form of Donald J. Trump.
Throughout his presidency and long before, Trump has relied on unsubstantiated rumor and conspiracy theories to contrive threats and cast doubt on facts and the very concept of truth itself. Unfortunately, this has proved an all-too-effective political propaganda tool not only for President Trump, but countless other demagogues, populists, and authoritarian leaders in history who have come to power through the weaponization of illusory truths and lies.
Recently, Paul Krugman characterized the fabrication of “invisible anarchists” in this vein as a desperation strategy reflecting Trump’s inability to “run on his own record nor effectively attack Joe Biden.” But as my psychiatry colleague Jonathan Metzl pointed out, Trump’s advertisement of himself as the “law and order” candidate may very well prove an effective strategy — no matter if the need for ham-fisted authoritarianism is a fiction — if not properly countered. After all, the same strategy got Trump elected in the first place and it’s clear that now he’s doubling down, going “all in” with the wager that it will again.
The psychological underpinnings of such political tactics are well understood. In 2010, researchers at the University of Kansas published a study demonstrating that people who feel threatened tend to attribute exaggerated influence and power onto perceived enemies in order to regain a sense of control. Subsequent research over the past decade has shown that political conspiracy theories arise from these same motivations played out at the intergroup level, with ideological opposites falsely imbued with malevolent intentions, dangerousness, and unchecked power. But while conspiracy theories have often been thought of as the narratives of “losers” in response to those in power, that’s not always the case. During times of societal crisis, conspiracy theories can also serve to protect the narcissism of national identity and existing power structures by displacing blame onto other groups that are scapegoated, often based on longstanding racial prejudices.
Back in 2013, Trump tweeted in reference to President Obama, “Leadership: whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.” But rather than taking any responsibility for the state of America at the end of his 4 years as President, Trump continues to fall back on the demagogue’s playbook by invoking the convoluted logic of conspiracy theories to deflect blame elsewhere. The mismanagement of COVID-19 here in the US — despite other countries’ success — isn’t his fault; it’s China’s. The economic distress that people are experiencing due to the pandemic isn’t his fault; it’s the Democrats’. And the civil unrest within the Divided States of America isn’t his fault (or Vladimir Putin’s openly-stated plan); it’s the fault of radical-left anarchists trying to destroy the country from within.
In psychiatry, the displacement of unwanted aspects of ourselves onto others as an unconscious defense mechanism is called “projection.” When conspiracy theories are deployed by politicians as propaganda, they can be understood as conscious acts of projection designed to manipulate the public. Of course, real-life conspiracies do exist, which is one reason so many people believe them, but the irony of conspiracy theories is that those who embrace them rarely see the real one right under their noses — that someone is peddling a false narrative for their own selfish interests.
When we hear politicians stoking fear and using conspiracy theories to point the finger of blame — like claiming that America is under a coordinated attack from Americans — we should consider that the opposite might be true. Americans aren’t trying to destroy America, they’re trying to prod our leaders to fix it. Civil unrest isn’t the problem per se; the conditions that give rise to it are. American didn’t emerge from the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement as a better country by triumph of “law and order”; we did it through progressive social change. Just so, a President with authoritarian aspirations isn’t the remedy for a divided America now; he’s its cause.
Trump has one thing right, or at least he did in 2013 — whatever happens, leaders should take responsibility, not project blame and double down on the same divisive rhetoric and conspiracy theories that got America where it is today.