After last night's Super Tuesday victories, Donald Trump is closer than ever to becoming the Republican nominee for president of the United States. Trump scored victories in Massachusetts, Georgia, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Vermont, garnering 316 delegates as of today - nearly 100 more than his closest rival.
While there are many factors in Trump's rise, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. No modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump.
Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.
But Trump's endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American's guns.
According to The New York Times, when asked by radio talk show host Michael Savage about conspiracy theories circulating soon after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Trump responded: "You know, I just landed, and I'm hearing it's a big topic... They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."
Even though there was no evidence of foul play – Scalia's family had known he was ill for some time, and a pillow was not in fact found over Scalia's face - this coy response allowed Trump to implicitly endorse the plausibility of the conspiracy while not explicitly associating himself with it.
Trump's best known conspiracy theory involves questions about President Obama's birthplace, which was of course an indirect but clear challenge to Obama's legitimacy as president under Article Two of the United States Constitution.
Trump, after investing what he claimed was millions of dollars on groundbreaking investigations of Obama's birth, stated that Obama's "grandmother in Kenya is on record saying he was born in Kenya."
In fact, his grandmother is on the record as saying exactly the opposite, that he was born "In the state of Hawaii, where his father, his father was also learning there. The state of Hawaii."
Of course sometimes the conspiracies stick, other times they don't: Despite myriad questions raised about Obama - including the country of his birth, his alleged Muslim faith, and even his status as the Antichrist – he was re-elected.
Trading in political rumors is one thing, but perhaps more alarmingly,Trump has also endorsed discredited, anti-science conspiracy theories, including that childhood vaccines cause autism.
The Populist Appeal of Conspiracies Why does Trump regularly use conspiracies in his rhetoric? Quite simply, it works. Controversial and inflammatory statements - whether true or even plausible - are guaranteed to get the attention of news media and keep Trump's face in front of voters.
As The New York Times noted: "It is not a total surprise that Mr. Trump is the candidate most likely to use the phrase ‘I hear' before stating something as fact, no matter how flimsy the information he passes along. A man who reveled in his presence in the New York tabloid pages for decades, he saw firsthand the power of stories, especially those that shock people, to command attention."
But Trump also plays to the other side of the equation. Research has shown that while conspiracy theories span the political spectrum, there is a clear breakdown by ideology.
Trump, running on the Republican ticket, endorses conspiracy theories that appeal to his base. For example, a 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found that over a third of Republicans and Independents "believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order," with fewer than half that percentage of Democrats agreeing.
Conspiracies evoking that fear find traction with many voters.
Conspiracy theories are fundamentally about insecurity, a theme Trump has masterfully exploited. Conspiracies are psychologically comforting to many people because they provide a sense of meaning, control and security over their lives.
Being "in the know" and smarter than the deluded "sheeple" makes conspiracy believers feel important. For many people it's more comforting to believe that some powerful elite somewhere is pulling the strings - even if it's seemingly for selfish or evil purposes-than it is to accept that no one is in control and the world is essentially a random series of events, causes and effects.
The American public doesn't want to believe that the fate of our great nation is subject to fundamentally random and uncontrollable (or difficult to control) influences such as terrorism, warfare, disease, drought and so on. Trump offers an appealing alternative: a rich and powerful leader who confidently assures voters that he his plans will solve the nation's looming problems-and not just any ideas, but simplistic, easy-to-understand plans such as building a wall to keep out Mexicans, banning Muslims, "bombing the (hell) out of ISIS," and so on.
The worldview Trump offers, exactly paralleling that of conspiracy theorists, is neatly divided into two groups: winners and losers, good and bad, heroes and villains. You are either with us or against us, either part of the problem - that is, involved in the conspiracy or too stupid to recognize its threat - or part of a populist "grassroots" groundswell of ordinary citizens who feel manipulated and victimized by outsiders.
Love him or hate him - and regardless of whether you think Donald Trump's bombastic style is good for the country or presidency - he has undeniably been a powerful force in American politics and has risen to be the Republican frontrunner, based, in part, on conspiracy theories.