One thing that always amazes me is how much conservative discourse — whether coming from lawmakers or media figures or the mythical Guys in Diners — is predicated on sheer nonsense. Whether it’s “critical race theory” or “stolen elections” or “voter fraud” or “vaccine microchips” or what-have-you, many of the issues animating movement conservatism are based on empirical claims about the world that fall apart under the tiniest bit of scrutiny.
On that basis, the results of a new poll by the UVA Center for Politics and Project Homefire aren’t necessarily surprising, but they’re shocking nonetheless. The survey asked Trump and Biden voters — just over 1,000 of each — about their level of agreement with four conspiracy theories: that the “deep state” was working to undermine Trump, that the Capitol riot was instigated by the FBI, that a “storm” is coming that will wipe away the elites and restore the rightful leaders of society, and that society is controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles running a child-sex trafficking ring.
The survey found that roughly 9 in 10 Trump voters believed at least one of those statements.
Over 80 percent, for instance, believed the “deep state” was undermining Trump. Nearly 6-in-10 agreed that the Capitol riot was instigated by the FBI. Over 40 percent subscribed to the other two outlandish beliefs, which are core pillars of the Q-anon conspiracy universe.
If you’re familiar with the polling on issues like these you’ve probably noticed that these numbers are higher than what other surveys have shown. A May PRRI poll, for instance, found that only (“only”) 27 percent of Republicans believed that society is secretly controlled by Satan-worshipping pedos. Part of the reason for that difference is how the UVA/Homefire poll gauged support for these statements: for each one, respondents moved a slider on a scale from zero to 100 to indicate their level of agreement. A slider position of 0 through 50 was coded as disagreement, while 51 through 100 indicated agreement.
“We’re able to get more nuance in our measurement there,” said Mick McWilliams, one of the lead authors on the study. In theory, respondents could signal ambiguity toward certain propositions — maybe you only halfway believe that Satan-worshippers are running the world, for instance. In practice, McWilliams said, most people cranked the slider either all the way up or all the way down.
McWilliams and co-author Larry Schack found that belief in these conspiracy theories was one of the big drivers of support for secession. Forty-one percent of Biden voters and just over half of Trump supporters indicated support for red or blue states seceding from the Union. These secession supporters were much more likely, on either side of the aisle, to believe in one or more of the conspiracy theories.
The survey also found a somewhat surprising level of support for these conspiracy theories among Biden voters — just over a quarter, for instance, gave at least some credence to the Satan-worshipping pedo proposition (the May PRRI poll, by contrast, pegged Democratic support for this item at 8 percent). McWilliams said this is an issue he intends to dig into in a follow-up study.
Overall the study is yet another depressing reminder of how much modern political discourse is driven by absolute nonsense. Conservatives especially are willing to give credence to completely bananapants notions as long as they bolster their worldview. It’s tempting to pin this all on Trump — the most well-documented liar and bullshitter in the history of the world. But the seeds of many of the bogus beliefs animating contemporary conservatism were sown years ago. The voter fraud myth, for instance, was a big driver of Republican policymaking in the Bush and Obama years.
Under Trump, those false beliefs about fraudulent voters metastasized into facially ridiculous claims about a “stolen election” that were all but laughed out of court literally dozens of times. But to the fervent Trump believer, the objective truth of those claims doesn’t matter — the important thing is that they feel true.
The press, unfortunately, is poorly equipped to deal with any of this. A number of foundational journalistic norms — reluctance to call powerful people liars, giving equal space to all sides of a disagreement, protecting sources, drily reciting the facts and letting readers draw their own conclusions — were codified during a time when politicians could be assumed to be acting in good faith, lies and misinformation weren’t rampant, and partisans could be shamed by the truth into doing the right thing.
Much of the misinformation and nonsense we’re seeing today, in fact, are the fruits of partisan efforts to effectively hack those journalistic rules to make them work in politicians’ favor. The press won’t call you a liar? Lie all you want. They have to give equal space to all sides of a disagreement, no matter how ridiculous? Flood the zone with shit. They refuse to burn bad-faith sources? Tell reporters one thing, and the public another.
The reality-based press can’t solve the current misinformation crisis on its own. But it could, at the very least, take a stronger stand against the forces working to burn democracy down. Stop giving airtime to liars. Stop framing issue coverage on the liars’ terms. Stop acting like the party doing all these things is just as credible and legitimate as the party that isn’t.
Above all, start living up to the ideals you claim to hold dear — that honesty, integrity and democracy matter, and are worth fighting for.