Introduction: Conspiracy Theory Versus Theorizing Conspiracy
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The term “conspiracy theorist” has been associated with pathological, irrational thinking since the term “paranoid style” was coined by historian Richard Hofstadter. His influential essays also linked the “paranoid style” to American populism in a way that echoes the Trump phenomenon today. But there no longer is unanimity about the causes and consequences of believing that conspiracy beliefs are socially dangerous, held mostly by the humbler social classes, taint all forms of populism, and hinder understanding the “real” causes of social injustice. We need to problematize, not discard Hofstadter’s approach. Many conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his acolytes should be regarded as dangerous because of their nativist nature, including its attacks on immigrants, encouragement of white supremacy, stereotyping of minorities, and defense of traditional patriarchy. But other conspiracy theories should be judged like any other theory on their explanatory power and their ability to be justified with evidence. Armed with a better theoretical approach, we can better assess the uses and abuses of conspiracy theories by Donald Trump, by both his supporters and his opponents, and by political scientists seeking to better understand his rise and influence. A conspiracy is defined as having three characteristics (1) political activity in which two or more people collude secretly with one another to achieve an objective; (2) would be frustrated by revelation; and (3) would be sanctioned as illegal, as immoral or unethical, or as embarrassing.