Populism, Conspiracy Theories, and Political Preferences for Federal Office in the US
The onset of the “post-truth” era, characterized by the accretion of conspiracy theories and “fake news”, has generally coincided with a rise in right-wing populist groups and politicians who are often the receptors and propagators of such conspiracy theories. The proposed research project intends to focus on the way in which conspiracy theories are incorporated into populist rhetoric by politicians and its effect on their supporters, arguing that conspiracism is not simply a tendency of populism but also holds instrumental value; the populist radical right can use them to either demonize their opponent, resulting in a “demobilizing” effect among supporters of their opponent or a “mobilizing” effect among the supporters of the populist candidate. Given the lack of detailed data concerning adherence to certain conspiracy theories, the author incorporates a new method for studying conspiracism: data concerning an interest in certain conspiratorial topics from Google Trends. Taking the case of the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, the results demonstrate a significantly positive relationship between certain conspiracy theories and votes for Donald Trump on the state level suggesting that conspiracy theories play an important role in framing populist arguments. In the fifth chapter, the data acquired from Google Trends is merged with individual-level survey data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey. The utilization of a multi-level model demonstrates that those individuals who live in states where interest in the anti-Clinton conspiracy theory was high were less likely to turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, whereas those living in states where interest in Birtherism was highest were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. The results testify to the significant role that conspiracy theories played in the 2016 election and provide evidence as to the consequences of such conspiratorial rhetoric.