Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories are making his supporters paranoid—and dangerous

Waiting game.
Waiting game.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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At an Oct. 11 rally in Newton, Iowa, Mike Pence was confronted by a call for revolution.

“I’m on social media all day, every day, non-stop since last June pushing Trump and one of the biggest things I can tell you that a lot of us are scared of is this voter fraud,” a Trump fan named Rhonda told him. “I’ll tell you just for me, and I don’t want this to happen, but for me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I’m ready for a revolution because we can’t have her in.”

“Don’t say that,” Pence said quickly, his hand wavering, his eyes on the floor.

“But I’m saying it. I’m like Trump!” Rhonda replied.

This is not the first time Trump fans have threatened to take action if their candidate loses in November. Such threats date back to the primaries, when some Trump supporters began telling reporters that they would take up arms and form militias should their racist, sexist hero face defeat. The calls continued into the general election, when they were echoed by Trump advisors like Roger Stone, who proclaimed that there would be a “bloodbath” if Trump loses. On August 1, following a crash in the polls, Trump himself proclaimed that the election was rigged, a claim he has repeated constantly since.

In Trump’s universe, it is very easy to tell if an election is rigged, no proof required. An election is rigged if Trump loses. An election is fair if Trump wins. This is the same logic that propels Trump’s selective embrace of polls, as he touts the right-wing sources which say he is winning as legitimate while deeming any poll showing he is losing to be invalid. Those other polls, he implies, are part of the conspiracy.

Scholars of authoritarian states have seen this pattern before. Paranoia is not only a trademark of an authoritarian leader, it is a method of movement building—one that is playing out at Trump rallies across the nation. As scholar Jonathan Bach writes, “The more paranoid a ruler becomes, the more essential it is that others share the ruler’s system of delusions and conspiracies … The successful paranoid ruler will make the people share his paranoia, and they will feed on it together.”

This phenomenon is hardly limited to authoritarian states, unfortunately. It has a long history in the US as well. Richard Hofstadter’s excellent 1964 Harper’s Magazine article “The Paranoid Style in in American Politics” tracks its emergence in everything from the 19th century populist movement to 1950s McCarthyism.

What distinguishes Trump from his similarly paranoid predecessors, however, is the changing demography of the United States. As the country becomes less white, an incredible demographic gap has opened up between Trump supporters and everyone else in the US. White men are the only demographic category in which Trump still leads. Non-whites have largely rejected him, and women, especially after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, have largely turned on him as well. In Trump’s view, this is not a natural outcome of a campaign that has consistently insulted non-whites, non-Christians, and women, but a conspiratorial plot.

And as shown by the Iowa rally’s “call for revolution,” this is a plot his fans believe in. Trump launched his campaign by proclaiming that Americans are losing and he would make the country great again. With that off the table, he now proclaims his base will lose because Hillary Clinton stole victory from them. Trump sometimes bolsters this claim by citing “evidence” from Wikileaks, but often vaguely alludes to “bad things” about which only Trump knows. The Trump fan’s unabashed victimhood is has been repackaged as a deferred victory, a looming promise of redemption after what Trump has defined as illegitimate loss.

Let’s be clear, there is no widespread attempt to keep America’s white men down. Trump talks of lost jobs and lost opportunities, but these economic losses are shared with the non-white citizens whom he denigrates. The only thing Trump’s white male base has uniquely lost is their demographic advantage. This is a bitter pill his fans simply refuse to swallow. And if the election is rigged, then there is nothing for hardcore Trump supporters to do but fight—not only the law, but potentially other citizens whom they perceive as enemies.

This is an ominous sign for November 8. Voter fraud, a GOP talking point which Trump fans have embraced, is extremely rare. In 2007, an investigation by the Bush administration “turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections,” but that has not stopped conservative pundits from insisting—for years—that it is real, with the result that far more Republicans believe it than other political groups.

But while voter fraud is rare, fear of voter intimidation is not. Trump’s proclamations and his fans’ declarations of militancy have caused an increase in calls to elected officials from citizens scared about voting. On Oct. 1, Trump told Pennsylvania voters to “go and vote and then go check out areas because a lot of bad things happen, and we don’t want to lose for that reason.” This prompted Pennsylvania officials like state representative Eddie Day Pashinski to remind citizens that voter intimidation is in fact a crime punishable by two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Such efforts are well-intentioned, but does the threat of a fine matter to the contingent of Trump voters who openly align with militant groups and the KKK, who threaten perceived enemies online and assault them in real life? Does it matter to racists who see non-white voters as inferior, to misogynists who see female candidates as a threat, or to angry, armed citizens who believe their rights are being stolen? If Rhonda from Iowa’s “revolution” fails to be accomplished through ballots, will she or other Trump supporters turn to bullets?

We can’t tell for sure, of course. But it doesn’t help that should violence break out on Election Day, it’s quite possible Trump will not do much to discourage it. Threats of violence from his base have never bothered him much. He has encouraged violence at his rallies—even offering to pay the legal fees of offenders—and proclaimed as early as February 2014 that American needs “riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

Some GOP officials have taken practical steps to rein in their party’s Frankenstein and his followers, asking Trump to show proof of rigging or shut up, and debunking fake internet reports of stuffed ballot boxes. But other Republicans are attempting a more dangerous strategy: asking Trump to drop out.

“Enough! Donald Trump should not be President,” wrote former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice on October 8. “He should withdraw.”

Rice was joined by other GOP officials, most of whom seem to be trying to salvage their down-ballot candidates from creeping Trumpism. This is an irresponsible approach. Putting aside the hypocrisy of a party that largely ignored Trump’s misogyny until the Access Hollywood video emerged, a call for withdrawal from Republican leaders is a slap in the face to Trump’s supporters. Trump won the primary fair and square. He has assembled a large base of support, which, horrifying as the repercussions may be, is comprised of US citizens who exercised their legal right to back the candidate of their choosing.

Trump’s base already believes that a cadre of elites—not only Democrats, but GOP “traitors” as well – is out to get them. Calling for Trump to step down weeks before the election does nothing to counteract that suspicion. Trump dropping out would likely cause more chaos than him staying in (which means, of course, that he may do it.)

To salvage the election, Americans must find a balance between trust and vigilance. Election monitors should counter threats and intimidation at the polls, should they occur; and officials must allow the election to proceed with Trump as the nominee, even if that risks a victory. Should Trump lose, he will likely say the election was rigged anyway. Officials do not need to give him or his fans ammunition for that claim—particularly when there’s a chance that they’ll use a very different form of ammunition to make it.