The Republican Party’s Conspiracy Issue
With preparation for the 2024 presidential election under way, some Americans are shocked that Donald Trump, who hasn’t been present for a single Republican primary debate, is polling nearly 40 points ahead of his closest competitor, Ron DeSantis (R-FL). After the riot in the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it seems implausible that the former President, who encouraged the riot and denied the results of the 2020 election for months, is in the running at all—let alone leading the pack. Trump’s popularity, despite his false claims about the 2020 election, highlights a disturbing issue within the GOP: the party’s proclivity for conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories aren’t new to American politics. The Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century were a party built on a foundation of anti-immigrant beliefs. Specifically, they claimed that Irish-Catholic immigrants were conspiring to influence the government and restrict the civil and religious rights of Protestants. In recent years, the Republican base has embraced and popularized conspiracy theories and groups like QAnon, an online group that believes that the world is controlled by the ‘Deep State,’ and that the government officials within the Deep State are pedophiles and worship Satan. A poll conducted by Pew Research found that 41% of Republicans who have heard of QAnon believe that it's a good thing for the country, while only 7% of Democrats believe so.
Although these theories typically originate in smaller fringe groups, they are picked up and amplified both by large media outlets like Fox News as well as smaller online personalities on social media and podcasts. Mainstream accessibility to this rhetoric is a contributing factor to the rising spread of conspiracy theories: far right news organizations such as the Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, and Breitbart are all free to access, while newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post are paywalled. Lack of access to reputable news sources also leads people to get their news from social media sites like X, formerly known as Twitter, where posts aren’t fact-checked and conspiracy theories run rampant.
Additionally, faltering public trust in government contributes to people believing in conspiracy theories with higher frequencies. Although lack of trust is now common across the political spectrum, it is felt most deeply in the Republican party. Only 4% of Republicans trust the government, according to a Pew Research poll; sentiments which often manifest themselves in adherence to various conspiracy theories. For example, according to a YouGov poll, compared to the general population, Republicans are 39% more likely to believe that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2020 election; 12% more likely to believe that the U.S. government used the COVID-19 vaccine to administer a microchip to the population; and 30% more likely to believe that the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated for political reasons.
Why worry about these theories floating around now? After all, as evidenced by the Know-Nothing party, conspiracy theories have long permeated American politics. The current issue is that members of Congress are promoting these conspiracy theories to the broader public, which further erodes trust in political institutions and increases polarization. The riots on January 6, 2021 were extreme examples of what can happen when conspiracy theories are widely spread and believed.
Post January 6, 2021, conspiracy theories have become a charged topic within the Republic party–those who refuse to condemn the theories are outsiders within the party. The treatment of Mitt Romney (R-UT) is a prime example of this phenomenon. Just eight years ago, Romney was the Republican pick for President; now he is an outsider within his own party, publicly disowned by the younger class of Congress. In response to being referred to as a “pariah” in the party, Romney agreed, “that’s saying it in a gentle way, yeah”. On September 13 he announced that he will not be seeking reelection, partly due to age, but also due to frustration with the direction of the Republican party, as he stated, “There's no question that the Republican Party today is in the shadow of Donald Trump,” and referred to the pro-Trump Republicans as a “demagogue portion of the party”. For example, in regards to his colleagues, like Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) spreading the ‘Big Lie’ regarding the 2020 election, Romney claims “They know better!”
Romney isn’t alone in his fears surrounding the direction of the Republican Party. Former U.S. Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) said that the spread of conspiracy theories has “dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.” To quantify this claim, Nunes stated in 2015 that 90% of the emails he used to receive from constituents discussed specific bills or issues that they wanted Nunes to support, and 10% would be about chemtrails or other conspiracy theories, but that this phenomenon “has essentially flipped on its head.” Additionally, Former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) resigned as Speaker in 2015 under pressure from the Freedom Caucus, a far-right caucus in the House that is currently led by Scott Perry (R-PA) and harbors members like QAnon sympathizer Lauren Boebert (R-CO), both of whom believe the 2020 election was stolen or rigged to some extent.
The effect that these theories have on the broader Republican base will likely unfold in the buildup to the next election. The rhetoric used by the advocates of conspiracy theories encourages an ‘us vs. them’ mentality among Republicans and spreads paranoia, which has turned many Republicans into reactionaries susceptible to increasingly outlandish theories. These theories are leading Republicans to view Democrats as their enemies instead of people who they must collaborate with in order to govern effectively.
Some question whether or not these conspiracy theorists truly believe in what they say. For example, Tucker Carlson was an extremely vocal proponent of the idea that the COVID vaccine was unsafe, yet Fox’s company policy held that employees had to be vaccinated. As another example, Donald Trump reportedly told his Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that “I don’t want people to know that we lost, Mark. That is embarrassing. Figure it out.” This quote suggests that Trump knew from the beginning that he lost and yet still propagated election denialism.
Regardless of whether or not the proponents of these theories truly believe them, the effect that they are having on the American public is undeniable. The storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 is a dramatic and obvious example, but a more subtle result is the ever-eroding trust in public institutions and the undermining of democracy. This ‘us vs them’ mentality of Republicans vs. Democrats and a culture of suspicion leads to ineffective government and further public polarization. To remain a serious and functional party, the GOP must denounce these conspiracy theories and work to earn back the trust of the public.