From Democracy to Demagoguery

Senator Joseph McCarthy (R), an American demagogue

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

In American politics today an extraordinarily large percentage of the population believe not only ideas that disagree with mainstream science but also in conspiracy theories.

• 55% of Republicans reject evolution.
• 45% of Republicans reject the view that humans play a major role in climate change.
• 60% of Republicans (as of July) thought the coronavirus outbreak was exaggerated.
• 70% of Republicans believe there was election fraud in the 2020 election despite a lack of any good evidence.

What this shows is that large segments of the US simply reject evidence-based reasoning. Their views thus are increasingly untethered from reality. And this is a serious threat for our democracy, as a democratic political order in which large segments of the population reject evidence-based reasoning establishes defacto the conditions for demagoguery. In this context, we must begin to consider how we will effectively confront the coronavirus, deal with climate issues, and even preserve our democracy.

One basic characteristic of the hard-core conspiracy theorists that are on the ascendency is that they accept no evidence that would show they are wrong. In the language of philosophy of science, their views are not falsifiable.1

Trump is a conspiracy theorist, and he has been key in helping convince millions of Americans to buy into spurious conspiracy theories. He launched his career in politics with the birtherism conspiracy. In 2017, 1/3 of Americans still believed it was possible that Barack Obama was born outside of the United States. This is despite that in 2008 Obama acquiesced to the pressure and decided to show his birth certificate, hoping it would end what had by then become a political distraction. As the persistence of the spurious views nine years later shows, this didn’t work.

Trump’s most recent conspiracy is of course that there was massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. In fact, over two weeks after he lost the election by more than 5 million votes, he tweeted “I WON THE ELECTION” (his caps not mine). The reporting from earlier in the week of this quote is that 70% of Republicans believe there was serious voter fraud in the 2020 election. They believe this with no viable evidence And a good many of them are likely to continue to believe it.

In this, the Trump administration has not found evidence of voter fraud and on the basis of evidence maintained that the fraud exists. Instead, it has maintained the fraud exists and then set out to manufacture the evidence. The results are the kinds of farces that are to be expected. In fact, this week team Trump has upped the ante and transferred responsibilities of entire information security squads to evidence creation. So far they have proven as unsuccessful as the initial attempts of the Trump campaign.

Nonetheless, the sad fact is, like the views of so many Americans about birtherism, on this issue too there is no evidence that could shake many of its adherents from their views. Their views are held dogmatically and they are not falsifiable. They of course would and will vehemently deny this and present loads of discredited “evidence” to support their position.

But let’s consider what evidence might possibly dissuade them. How about a proclamation from the government’s own election security team that this election was “the most secure in history”? That document exists but hasn’t dissuaded the conspiracy theorists. How about statements from the governing boards of elections in the states in question and from the governors in the states where there have been allegations of voter fraud? What if those in the positions who made these statements were even Republicans? Hmmm, we have many such statements already and these haven’t moved the hearts and minds of that 70 percent.

What if the courts rejected all of the lawsuits filed by the administration about fraud because of lacking any evidence of widespread fraud? What if Trump’s own lawyers in various court depositions indicated that in fact, they weren’t maintaining there was fraud at all but that there just may have been some honest mistakes in the counting of ballots? Well, those things apparently have not dissuaded the conspiracy theorists either. All these things have happened.

Yet right now about 49 million Americans believe with no viable evidence that there was serious voter fraud in the 2020 election. The fact is, millions of them will continue to believe this regardless of the evidence just as millions of them believe that Obama may have been born outside the country. The Party of the President has become fertile ground for conspiracy theories. And that is one and the same as fertile ground for demagoguery. In Trump, they have found their conspiracy theorist and demagogue. The reality we face is that a Party comprised of millions of these conspiracy theorists has lost an election. But tens of millions of them are still convinced that this just can’t be true—the evidence be damned.

This unfortunately leaves us in a dangerous place. A good portion of the Republican Party who subscribe to the voter fraud conspiracy theory appears in fact to be OK with overthrowing a legitimate election based on their evidence-free beliefs. Some are indeed calling for arms. They won’t succeed. But what about the next election? And what about ruling in the meantime and addressing this issue over the long term?

For now, it means that Joe Biden and the Democrats can put aside any plans that they had of reaching across the aisle to work with reasonable Republicans on issues of mutual interest. Trump will be deposed from office, but he will remain a social force with at least influence on the level of Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh that he will use to continue to propagate the types of conspiracy theories he has spread as president and to leverage his power.

It’s not unlikely that many Republicans will for a time thus continue to tow the Trumpian line, as they see their own political fates as tied to a certain kind of obedience to the Trumpian base. And though Trump will eventually fade from social dominance, this doesn’t mean that the base that is so susceptible to conspiracy theories will go away. In this context, there will be no easy fixes. But over the long run, something must give way — for democracy and demagoguery of this magnitude will not long co-exist.


For more see “Our politics isn’t about left vs. right anymore — it’s about reality vs. dreadful fantasy.”

  1. If your view is non-falsifiable it is essentially empty or vacuous.
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11 thoughts on “From Democracy to Demagoguery

  1. As Grover Cleveland, Trump can campaign for a second, a non-consecutive term, as president. Such is what he is consoling his fragile ego with: whether or not he thinks he lost the 2020 election, he knows he can run again. Or threaten to.
    More likely than trying for a second term later, he would probably want—at his age—to be a kingmaker: less work than president and much satisfaction.
    Trump wrote a book, ‘The Art Of The Deal’, offering a clue: he makes one bid, then another; playing his hand at cards to the fullest. He has maximum and minimum strategies.
    Maximum politically for him in the past was to be president; maximum strategy this year was to be re-elected. Maximum strategy in the future would be to gain a Grover Cleveland-type second term. Failing that, he might be content (in his late seventies) with being elder GOP statesman and kingmaker. Plus he can encourage family and friends to become politicians. Plus a rightwing Hearst-like Trump media empire can metastasize. Trump is crazy—like a fox.
    Rightists (‘conservative’ no longer applies) invariably, when all else fails, complain of leftist hypocrisy; I tell them the current rules were set up in the ‘80s…

  2. “Oh what a tangled web [they] weave when they first seek to deceive.” Will Republicans be able to close the Pandora’s box they foolishly opened?

  3. Al, you make some good points. I think he’ll wield a lot of power. And he’ll be able to use that to generate income. Even now, his supporters are generously donating to his legal defense fund. Much of that money will go to things other than legal defense. But going forward millions will be happy to support a TV show or to pay for a “news” service or to support a future presidential bid. In fact, part of the reason for the antics now may well be to generate enthusiasm for this future money making endeavors. That — and I believe he does see some chance that he’ll do prison time if he’s no longer president.

    Kevin, I like the Shakespeare reference. This entire unraveling has something Shakespearean about it. It’s a tragedy in the third act.

  4. Kevin: I just see that I may have falsely described your language as Shakespearean. I’ve just found that though many, like me, attribute, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive! to Shakespeare, those lines are from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion. Sorry for my misattribution.

  5. Al: I also think another couple of motivations are playing out. Trump (and some of his associates) may seriously be worried about going to prison. But beyond that, Trump is able to leverage this support into efforts to make money. He’s already getting substantial amounts of money for his election recount efforts, even while much of that money isn’t going to election recounts. He’ll also have millions of people willing to support him in a new role as a TV commentator or “news” mogul. There he can also play kingmaker — at least for a time, unless he goes to prison.

  6. Darrell,
    He could easily leave the country, being an expatriate would be no problem for Trump. His dynasty would carry on without him
    Your article gets towards the heart of it all: conspiracy theory and why such theories are so popular: unreality has always been more popular than more observable reality.
    It is more entertaining to think that the Illuminati is manipulating one’s thoughts, than more mundane reasons. Federal Reserve conspiracy theories are more entertaining than Intro Econ textbooks.
    Oliver Stone’s film ‘JFK’ is more entertaining than a documentary about the subject, the dialogue and incidental music more dramatic than real life.

  7. I would like to offer a disclaimer and explain that your argument is warranted and concise. Kudos to Dr. Arnold for quantifying an argument in dire need of objectivity. However, if the question is how can people be so accustomed to devouring—and regurgitating—so much disinformation (bullshit), then we needn’t search very far. As a whole, our society, conservative republicans more specifically, is indoctrinated with the belief that we can ask for favors from invisible friends and the wishes will be granted. President drumpf garnered a significant amount of the evangelical vote and I would suspect if one were to draw a parallel between the wacko conspiracy theories and the number of constituents of the evangelical persuasion, we would find that the numbers are within a few points of each other. History will not view this period in politics in a favorable light. Though it does no good now. The accounts captured from the populous engaged in social media to works in literature from the lines of Bob Woodward will paint a scathing image of our time. I am of the understanding that conspiracy theory is drawn from people’s minds attempting to derive simple meaning from a complex situation. The statistics stated are literally terrifying. Perhaps the future will bring us back to reality—the young folks respectively—but for now, science and math be damned, we see a growing number in our society leaning towards myth and lack of reason and I believe dire times await us but hopefully it will be short-lived as the next generation takes the reigns. Without a doubt I can think of a couple of kids who would be more apt to bring a positive twist to the future than most anyone with any kind of power today—myself included.

  8. The Trump defeat is difficult for many of his base to acknowledge because Trump’s presidency has in fact given hope and meaning to a lot of people in this country who feel threatened with job losses or wage stagnation and a sense of the eclipsing of their own relevance. Trump has spoken to their grievances — and given them a plausible enough sounding explanation of the problem. It’s immigrants, or a black president, or the deep state to blame for their problems. And they’ve found a kind of excitement in being involved in the Trump movement. They have a good time at Trump rallies, and they feel like they can make a difference in “making America great again.” I’m sure many of them can’t imagine that their America would really chose Biden over Trump. So they deny that there was a free and fair election. What cannot be cannot be. And in their America a “socialist” simply couldn’t be chosen over the political messiah who is there leading them to restore America to its lost greatness. For many, a Democratic win simply threatens their own identities, now re-defined in light of this political movement to redress their grievances.
    But for some of those who might suspect that Biden really did win, they also feel like it would still be morally justified, indeed maybe morally imperative, to undermine the election. Since their America — White America and Trump’s America — represents real America, it may be necessary to undermine democracy in order to protect the movement. Perversely, some of them will undermine the constitutional order and the democratic processes precisely in order to “save America” because they don’t identify America primarily with that constitutional order but with a dominant culture that is being undermined and that Trumpism speaks to and represents.

  9. All true, and if many on the right expect Armageddon, Trump/Pence are just the right team to help deliver Armageddon.
    Though conspiracy theories simplify, they conversely embellish reality to Hollywood dreaminess. Some even think Elvis is alive, a sort of Resurrection.
    The queen of England allegedly selling drugs is another conspiracy theory-Hollywood movie. The Dr. Strangelove fluoridation of our purity of essence (POE)…

  10. Jason: I think you’re right that we’d be well-served by the next generation taking the reins. We see that at least the next generation, even of Republicans, are much less likely to believe that climate change is a hoax. They also have more progressive views on religion — meaning they are less religious. Let’s hope they do better than most of us have.

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