Froot Loops Nation
What happens when a major political party conditions its members to believe in conspiracy theories?
Over the weekend, this poll elicited many gasps:
It was indeed shocking, but not surprising.
After all, as the same poll reaffirmed, Republican support for Donald Trump remains incredibly robust. And this “despite the U.S. dipping into a recession, reporting the highest unemployment rate in decades, and continuing to log sizable new coronavirus cases and deaths,” as a Bloomberg reporter observed.
So what gives? Has the Republican party turned into a death cult, as some people are saying? (Actually, a lot of people.) At the very least, Tim Alberta writes in Politico “that Donald Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing…if it agitates the base, if it lights up a Fox News chyron, if it serves to alienate sturdy real Americans from delicate coastal elites, then it’s got a place in the Grand Old Party.”
I’ll leave it to social scientists and future historians to sort all that out. In the meantime, there is a common denominator to the steadfastness of filial Trump Republicans and QAnon believers that might explain why the very stable genius still has more than a fighting chance to win re-election in November: The power of social identity.
Which, in the MAGA universe, is electrified by conspiracism. Think about it. Since the 2016 Presidential election, conspiracy narratives have been a major part of the public discourse, generated by Trump’s twitter megaphone and amplified by his echo machine in social media, at Fox News, et al.
To those of us not living in upside down world, the litany has become mind-numbing.
But if you are a Trump/Fox news-watching Republican, conspiracies are larded into your daily media diet. Maybe they were hard to swallow at first. Maybe you even got indigestion. But after being fed a constant stream of crazy-land fodder for the last four years, you’ve probably gotten better at digesting it. And now you have these cravings that only Trump’s tweets, Lou Dobbs, and Sean Hannity can satisfy.
I get it. I’ve been eating Froot Loops my whole life. I love my junk cereal. It’s part of who I am. (Why should I be forced to grow up?) Now my kids and my wife are trying to take it away from me. They are shaming me. I resent it. So of course I will eat my Froot Loops to spite them.
My Trumpy friends and family members can surely relate. Joe Biden, Dr. Fauci, and the Deep State want you to wear a mask because that will help weaken the virus. But they are part of the Trump-hating cabal and besides, this whole Pandemic is a CNN hoax.
Not that I’m trying to make light of all this insanity that is routinely normalized. I just don’t know how else to process it. The best I can do is try to understand how and why it is happening.
On that note, I read a new paper in a psychology journal titled, “The dark side of social movements: social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories.” It argues that conspiracy theories can form an important part of a person’s identity:
People are prone to form social identities in which group membership becomes part of the self. Social identities are connected with different motives including the need to hold positive beliefs about ingroups and negative beliefs about outgroups. We argue that these motives draw people primarily to certain contents of conspiracy theories.
Before the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, Democrats and Republicans equally expected that electoral fraud would occur. Once President Obama was re-elected, however, Republicans were more likely to believe that electoral fraud had occurred. After the elections, fraud beliefs might have helped Republicans to uphold a positive partisan identity.
Of late, Trump and his sycophants in conservative media are juicing that partisan identity.
The authors of the journal paper write that people are “more likely to believe conspiracy theories that aligned with their party’s political stances and vilified the opposite party.”
I’d like to hear what other researchers think of this. But it bears pointing out that there is only one major political party in the United States that now conditions its members to believe in all manner of outlandish conspiracy theories. And it seems to have worked.
I may eat junk for breakfast, but don’t blame me if we turn into a Froot Loops nation.