Conspiracy Theories

Some discontented people seize eagerly on conspiracy theories, no matter how implausible, to find someone to blame for their plight.

People who feel that the world has become a hostile place, over which they have no control, are vulnerable to believing in conspiracy theories.  They are both frightened and angry,  Chip Berlet’s paper on conspiracy theories, Toxic to Democracy, points out that “angry allegations can quickly turn into aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups”.  He writes about “four tools of fear”:

“Dualistic Division: The world is divided into a good “Us” and a bad “Them.”

“Demonizing Rhetoric: Our opponents are evil and subversive…maybe subhuman.

“Targeting of Scapegoats: They are causing all our troubles—we are blameless.

“An Apocalyptic Timetable: Time is running out and we must act immediately to stave off a cataclysmic event.”

Donald Trump used all four “tools of fear”, from the time of the presidential election campaign trail until after he had left office:

●  At his Sarasota rally in November 2016, he said “My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government corruption and take back our country … we are going to drain the swamp”.  He was urging his followers to identify themselves as “good”, in opposition to a “bad” establishment – in which he included President Obama and the Democrats.  He also said that he would “stand up to China” and reduce immigration.

●  His use of demonization as a conspiracy theory tool can be seen in his description of his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “crooked” in the same speech. He demonised Mexicans as ‘Drug dealers, criminals, rapists’.

●  He targeted Democrats, immigrants and the Chinese as scapegoats: accusing them all of threatening American jobs.  The Democrats’ regulations to protect the environment, immigrants seeking employment and “unfair competition” from the Chinese were all cited.

●  One of his final acts in office was to argue that time was running out, so he incited his supporters to invade the Capitol building on 6 January 2021.  As the New York Times reported: ‘Be There. Will Be Wild!’: Trump All but Circled the Date“A day to gather in Washington to “save America” and “stop the steal” of the election he had decisively lost, but which he still maintained — often through a toxic brew of conspiracy theories — that he had won by a landslide.” This has been referred to as the “Republican Party’s ‘big lie’”, as described in a blog post on this website.

Trump’s overarching conspiracy theory provided a framework within which further groups flourished.  A BBC article, Capitol riots: Who broke into the building?, identified “a range of extreme and far-right groups and supporters of fringe online conspiracy theories” including “the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon” – which “is a wide-ranging, completely unfounded theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”  Trump’s retweets of QAnon material were seen as a sign of his approval of the group.

Photographs of one QAnon supporter, Jake Angeli, were widely circulated – creating a lot of publicity. The Independent published an article about him, giving some insight into his personality: ‘QAnon Shaman’ who turned on Trump.  (Trump didn’t pardon him.)

Such phenomena are not new.  One example that Berlet mentions, which predates the Internet, is the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion – which “played an important part in the Nazis’ propaganda arsenal” according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia

Linda Goudsmit’s article Gaslighting – technocracy’s preferred weapon of war, argues that Democrats are in a conspiracy against America by using ‘gaslighting’:

“The term originates in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light, and the film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944.  …The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights, but in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane.

Today we are living in a perpetual state of gaslighting. The reality that we are being told by the media is at complete odds with what we are seeing with our own two eyes. And when we question the false reality that we are being presented, or we claim that what we see is that actual reality, we are vilified as racist or bigots or just plain crazy. You’re not racist. You’re not crazy. You’re being gaslighted.”

She is trying to convince her readers that the Biden government is evil and is trying to trick them into believing that they are insane.  Using her argument it becomes impossible to persuade people that they are mistaken.

Conspiracy theories have become more numerous and influential recently due to two factors:

1.  Many people have lost their jobs due to globalisation, automation, changes in fashion and measures required to combat climate change. Worry, resentment, status anxiety and ‘left behind’ feelings make people particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories – as noted earlier (  Politicians in the major political parties had not paid sufficient attention to the scale of such problems in America, providing a golden opportunity for Trump to exploit.  

2.  As described in the previous sub-section (, people and politicians influence each other through Internet social media – which use algorithms that create an ‘echo chamber’ effect, helping modern conspiracy theories to spread rapidly.

It is much easier to describe the problem than it is to combat conspiracy theories.  Brian Klaas points out, in his article Why is it so hard to deprogram Trumpian conspiracy theorists?, that adherents are very unlikely to believe evidence showing that they have been deceived.  They are more likely to see criticism as further confirmation that they are facing an enemy – so “correcting misperceptions actually ends up entrenching them” and, “[n]o matter what happens, there’s always another explanation”.

Concerns about freedom of speech make it very difficult to use the law to prevent untrue stories from being spread, particularly on the Internet: messages spread very fast; originators are hard to trace; and some might be in other countries and hard to prosecute ( 

Perhaps the only remedy, which urgently needs to be implemented for many reasons, is to try to address the problems caused by rapid social change (6.7.8).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6427b.htm.