Conspiracy Theorist in Chief: An Interview with Michael Barkun

"[It] is the nature of many conspiracy theories to construct a world that is divided sharply between the forces of good and the forces of evil. There’s the notion that bad things are going to happen because of some secret evil cabal, and that cabal is sometimes associated with some social, ethnic, or religious group, which can serve as a trigger of violence."

Michael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The author of eleven books, he is an expert on the history of conspiracy theories, terrorism, millenarian and utopian movements, and the American far-right. He has also worked as a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Donald Trump has spread a number of conspiracy theories about American institutions and political figures. Enough voters found these claims to be attractive (or insignificant) enough to vote for him into the White House. Would you attribute this to some recent change (or set of changes) which rendered the American public more prone to accept conspiracy theories?

One of the most significant things that’s happened since the presidential campaign began is the spread of conspiracy theories, largely through Donald Trump and his representatives. In a sense, that’s both a product of trends that were out there before the campaign began, but it was also a significant innovation. There was a sort of conspiracy milieu present in American society well before Donald Trump became a major figure. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

In popular culture you had things like the Dan Brown novels, which became sensationally successful and which were premised on conspiracy theories that in the past only existed on the fringe. Another was the popularity of the X-Files TV program, which recycled conspiracy theories which had also only previously been known on the fringe.

On the political front I suppose the major example would be the Obama ‘birther’ theory, which spread from the internet to mainstream media in a way that was really a change from what would have happened ten to twenty years ago. Conspiracy theories became a major motif in the Trump campaign, and the volume of conspiracy theories that entered the political mainstream has increased enormously. So what was previously a secondary element of American culture became a kind of primary element.

American culture has a long tradition of conspiratorial thinking going all the way back to the 1940s. Is the current popularity of conspiracy theories really a new development?

It actually goes all the way back to the late 18th century. Richard Hofstadter, in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", does a very good job of tracing this all the way back to the 1790s. He demonstrated that there is a kind of ebb and flow to the popularity of conspiracy theories in American life. There’s certain periods where you’ve got a lot of them. The 1950s was another such peak period.

So if we’re at another one of these ‘peaks’ right now, is the trend reversible? Or will the current volume of conspiracy theories become the new norm?

I hope we can go back. One of the factors that has produced change is technology. The internet and social media have significantly altered the way in which ideas can be communicated by eliminating gatekeepers. Ideas that at one time could have been filtered out are now available to large audiences in ways that were not possible in earlier periods.

The proliferation of so-called 'fake news' online has prompted media outlets and government institutions to implement new programs intended to help filter fiction and rumor from fact. Do any of these programs strike you as likely to succeed? Or will this require an overhaul of how critical thinking is taught in schools?

I would say the latter. It’s enormously important that more attention be paid to critical thinking. You now get students who say "Oh, this must be true, because I saw it on the internet". I’m supportive of attempts like Facebook’s to ferret out fake news. But ‘fake news’ has been around in the form of conspiracy theories for decades, and in some cases centuries. Obviously there have been reports of people doing that sometimes for monetary gain. But in fact, a large proportion of conspiracy theories are demonstrably false, so you can call it fake news if you want, but I don’t think there’s any viable mechanism that can filter them out other than the kind of massive censorship program like the Chinese government uses. But that is simply incompatible with the norms of free expression that we value.

In the last two years, North America and Europe have seen an increase in hate crimes, particularly against Jews and Muslims. What role do conspiracy theories play in activating people's’ existing existing racial or religious bigotries?

I don’t consider myself an expert on hate crimes, so the only answer I can give is that it is the nature of many conspiracy theories to construct a world that is divided sharply between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In many conspiracy theories there’s the notion that some kind of bad thing is going to happen because there is some secret evil cabal that is going to commit these bad acts, and that cabal is sometimes associated with some social, ethnic, or religious group, which can serve as a trigger of violence.

The term ‘epistemic closure’ refers to people’s tendency to latch onto an explanation which satisfies an existing prejudice, whether it is racial or religious. Is that one of those psychological mechanisms which makes conspiracy theories such an attractive explanation for confusing events?

A lot of conspiracy theories are closed systems. They aren’t falsifiable, as they construct a worldview wherein there is no evidence that you can present to believers which will lead them to doubt that the theory is true. The response to your evidence is going to be: "this evidence was planted by the conspirators to deceive you", or that the evidence is fraudulent. So in effect, nothing that you can present by way of empirical tests will lead a believer in conspiracy theory that will lead a believer to change his mind.

Now that Trump and his team are in the White House, do you think that strategy of using conspiracy theories as a PR tactic is sustainable, considering that faith in most American institutions is at an all time low?

Well the Presidency itself is one of those institutions, so the question is: will faith in that institution drop? At this point we don’t know. Obviously, the administration has attempted very consciously to erode the authority of journalists and the press broadly, with a certain amount of success unfortunately.

Power inside the Trump administration is increasingly being centralized around Stephen Bannon, a man who has made a fortune by spreading conspiracy theories online as CEO of Breitbart. Was Bannon known to your area of research before he rose to prominence in the Trump campaign?

To a certain extent. Breitbart was know because of its connection to the alt-right, but Bannon was not particularly known, though he was running the place. But he wasn’t a particularly well known figure before the campaign.

What are the implications of Bannon’s apparent power-grab within the administration?

We’re talking about an administration that is, what, two weeks old at this point? It’s a very skeletal administration, and many of the cabinet secretaries have yet to be confirmed, so I think it is way, way too early to speculate about anybody’s future role. What Steve Bannon is going to do, or his position in the administration, may look very different six months from now.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how to properly categorize and understand the alt-right. Looking at the demographics that the alt-right attracts and their ideology, what is the best way to understand this movement?

I think it is fluid, and it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of ideological cohesiveness. There’s some infighting within it, in terms of attempts to try to determine who is ideologically pure and who isn’t. One can say that is a white separatist - I was about to say ‘movement’, but ‘movement’ implies a level of organization that I don’t think the alt-right has. Maybe ‘tendency’ or ‘intellectual stream’ or ‘family resemblance’ is more accurate. We’re not talking about an organization which has officers or a single journal or official meetings and so on. So there is a kind of amorphousness to it, but they have enough ideas in common that it justifies giving them a name.

It also lies outside what could be called the mainstream of American politics. That is to say it lies beyond the farthest right-ward end of the conservative wing of the Republican party. One of the things that is most disturbing about the position of Steve Bannon is that you take someone that was running one of the communications platforms for this intellectual tendency and you catapult them into the White House.

Much of the influence of the alt-right in the current administration is centered around those specific figures like Bannon. But many of the extreme policies proposed by the Trump team during the campaign were very popular with the Republican base. If Bannon and Trump fade from influence after a chaotic four-year term or impeachment, will these sentiments remain?

I think that it would dissipate because there is no real ‘Trump’ political movement. He has a following, but nothing nearly as organized as the Tea Party. In other words, he can attract big audiences when he holds rallies, but when he’s not there, there isn’t really anything. So at the moment I think that this would dissipate.

Are you optimistic about the trajectory of American politics, given that the majority of voters disapprove of the Trump administration, along with the protests we’ve seen almost weekly?

A majority are certainly unhappy, but I’m very concerned about where this administration is going. As far as where we might be two years from now when during the midterm elections, or four years from now, my crystal ball is cloudy.

He’s doing what he said he would do during the campaign, and as far as we know the people who voted for him like what they see. He’s holding onto his base, which looks to be about 40%, but the general population is much more skeptical.

Reid Marcus

Reid studies International Relations and Political Science at UBC. His main interests are far-right hate groups, political media, and the history of terrorism.

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