It would probably be incorrect to say that today we are witnessing some unprecedented interest in conspiracy theories. Studies have shown that in the USA, for example, people have been searching for the mysterious and dangerous “Other” and panicking about it for centuries. The “Conspiratorial Other” evolves along with society, and so it takes different shapes in different historical periods. Belief in conspiracy theories fluctuates alongside other social and political changes. Right now we are seeing a new kind of political struggle unfold in the USA, and so conspiracy theories are also seeping through the cracks.
Studies of conspiracy theories show that conspiracy theories are not a marginal phenomenon, but rather they are a central part of political discourse, and they have to be taken very seriously. People’s belief in the fact that some strong political or social force is trying to ruin their lives points to certain conflicts that are prevalent in society. Belief in conspiracy theories is especially strong during periods of social/cultural/existential transformation, which usually cause uncertainty and fear in society. An individual’s or a group’s belief in a conspiracy is connected with a lack of trust in institutions of power. Their lack of transparency, their corruption, the polarisation these institutions cause – all of this inspires people to turn towards simple “alternative facts” that don’t involve much critical thinking. And as today’s new media make fact-checking more and more difficult while spreading information at greater speed, certain messages can reach a huge number of people in a heartbeat, making belief in certain “alternative facts” spread more quickly than before.
The current surge of conspiracy theories relating to Trump’s victory in the USA and the accusations that both parties have hurled at each other are just another chapter in the evolving political struggle in America. In this struggle, conspiracy theories are an important instrument of delegitimization of political opponents. Notice that both Trump and Clinton accused each other of being “traitors” and “conspirators.” These are two sides of the same coin: on one hand, there was the conviction that Trump was working for the Russians; and on the other hand, there was the conviction that Clinton was abandoning the ordinary American in exchange for the loyalty of corrupt Washington DC elites.
The political and intellectual establishment’s state of shock following the Trump victory, and the turbulent four years we're facing ahead, indicate that the existing elite consensus about democratic institutions is no longer working. This means that we will see even more conspiracy theories emerge over the next few years. After all, it’s a lot easier to find a scapegoat than it is to rethink and to overcome the deep social divides that plague not only the USA, but all Western liberal democracies.
Ilya Yablokov's book "Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World" (Cambridge: Polity Press) is due to be published in 2018.