Dissecting the GOP’s ‘Big Lie’ and Other Toxic Conspiracy Theories 

Interview with Amanda J. Crawford, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, conducted by Scott Harris

It often appears that Americans, divided by politics and endless culture wars, live in totally different realities. Many Republicans and those on the right believe that both climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are an elaborate hoax. Large numbers of Trump voters reject COVID vaccines, wearing masks and social distancing. Thousands of QAnon cult members believe Satan-worshipping Democrats eat or sexually abuse children, and that the deceased JFK Jr. will rise from the dead and run as vice president with Donald Trump in 2024.

Recent polls find that more than 70 percent of Republican say they don’t believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected to the White House, echoing former President Trump’s “Big Lie” that he was the actual winner of the 2020 election.  More worrisome is that even after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a failed pro-Trump coup attempt, up to 40 percent of Republicans told pollsters that they believe the use of violence may be necessary to achieve their political goals.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Amanda J. Crawford, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, who has worked as a reporter for major national news outlets. Here, Crawford examines the reasons why so many Republicans and those on the American right have so fully embraced toxic, and often bizarre conspiracy theories that demonize their perceived enemies.

AMANDA J. CRAWFORD: I do not think the right holds any kind of claim to being the only place that conspiracy theories live. And, certainly those on the left are also susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. But what we see on the right, particularly, is that for decades, leaders of the Republican party and more right-wing ideologies have really sought to discredit the institutions that verify truth. So there’s been an attack on the media for decades. You know, we definitely can say it goes back, you know, further, but you know, certainly you can look from the Reagan administration onward: the birth of talk radio, the birth of Fox News. We’ve seen a systematic effort on the right to discredit journalists, to discredit them to malign them, to say, they’re not trustworthy and you can’t believe anything they’re saying. Similarly, we’ve seen that with academia, you see the right-wing attacks on academics and professors as being liberal and indoctrinating people in liberal ideologies.

So once you discredit those institutions that are there to verify truth, then there’s no one to be on the other pole — to say, believe this person, they’re trustworthy. We’ve seen it with climate change, the discrediting of science, right? For decades. “Don’t believe what the scientists say.” “They’re not telling the truth.” “It’s all a conspiracy, it’s all a lie.” And that kind of discrediting of media, academia, scientists — that has ramifications. And so after you pump that for so long, people don’t trust journalists. So when journalists say there’s a mass shooting, they don’t believe them. They don’t trust scientists, so when scientists say there’s a pandemic, they don’t believe them. And there’s been for a long time, obviously a distrust of government on the right as well, which is, you know, certainly linked to the idea of smaller government, right? And believing that the only good government you can drown in a bathtub or whatever the saying is, right?

So if you have this kind of institutional discrediting of all the people who are fighting for truth, really you’ve primed people to accept conspiracy theories and to accept misinformation. And then when we get into psychological reasons and you know, I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist studying this in that way, or are a behavioral scientist. I’m a journalist, but you know, when you look at the studies by people who are studying human psychology, there are various reasons we fall into these traps. And some of them are that you’re trying to deal with a chaotic world and conspiracy theories, these kind of convenient narratives — while they seem ludicrous, they can explain away things you don’t wanna think about. You know, when you’re talking about mass shootings, it may be easier for someone who believes in gun rights to just say, there’s no problem. I don’t have to deal with thinking about an assault weapons ban because there’s no real tragedy, right? There’s no emergency. And so we call that motivated reasoning where it’s really linked to, you know, your political beliefs.

SCOTT HARRIS: Some of the most dire predictions about our current conflict and divergence of views about what the real world is in our country have led some to speculate — and there’s been polling data about, concern about a new civil war in this country — you know, armed conflict in the street. And we’ve certainly seen the wrongs of political violence that you can’t deny, but how concerned are you that we may be approaching some kind of dramatic shift of what we, you know, have come to expect from our politics and make a really dark departure to an earlier time when Americans were shooting at each other and killing each other?

AMANDA CRAWFORD: Well, I think a lot of that conversation, the nuance comes into, what are we talking about when we talk about civil war? Are we gonna talk about, are we talking about, you know, lines of soldiers shooting at each other and, you know, and uniforms of blue and gray or a geographical, you know, secession from the nation? That doesn’t seem as likely to me from what I’ve read.

But if we we think in more modern terms of what that could look like, we could be looking at more incidents of domestic upheaval, like the insurrection, like the attack on the Michigan Capitol, right? And the threats against the governor there. And so I think from the polls that I’ve seen and the research that I’ve done, that those kinds of incidences of domestic terrorism connected to political ideology and to misinformation, that seems likely to me.

So if you have this kind of institutional discrediting of all the people who are fighting for truth, you’ve primed people to accept conspiracy theories and to accept misinformation. And then when we get into psychological reasons and you know, I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist studying this in that way or a behavioral scientist. I’m a journalist, but you know, when you look at the studies by people who are studying human psychology, there are various reasons we fall into these traps. And some of them are that you’re trying to deal with a chaotic world and conspiracy theories, these kind of convenient narratives, while they seem ludicrous, they can explain away things you don’t wanna think about.

You know, when you’re talking about mass shootings, it may be easier for someone who believes in gun rights to just say, “There’s no problem. I don’t have to deal with thinking about an assault weapons ban because there’s no real tragedy, right? There’s no emergency.” And so we call that motivated reasoning where it’s really linked to, you know, your political beliefs.

I think the key when we’re talking about all these things is what our leaders do. A lot of it’s that we have leaders in the Republican party who are unwilling to distance themselves from the most extreme ideas. And so that’ll be our challenge going forward. Can we establish some kind of leadership to tamp this down, or does the most extreme fringe, you know, these polls are showing maybe 25, 30 percent of Americans who have that, you know, more belief in some kind of insurrection or rebellion or uprising. Are they going to get the political support from national party leaders? Are they gonna be relegated to being domestic terrorists? But I think that threat, whether you consider that civil war or not, I mean, it may have already arrived.

For more information, visit Amanda J. Crawford’s page at journalism.uconn.edu.

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