Unless something unusual happens or legal barriers are erected in his way, not only will Donald Trump win the Republican nomination, he is also likely to return as the President of the United States.
Incumbent Joe Biden was looking shaky well before his mishandling of the Israel-Hamas crisis and he has been steadily losing votes since then. This might change – but only if enough Americans are hugely frightened by the prospect of another vindictive and impulsive Trump presidency.
CNN and other liberal media have already started covering Trump’s second coming along those fearful and – genuinely – worrying lines, but I doubt that it is going to sway enough Americans.
One of the reasons it is not going to sway Trump supporters – and probably many fence-sitters too – is that elite, liberal commentators in the US – such as those in the CNN – are blind to the privileged space of their own enunciation. This can be best illustrated with conspiracy theories and Trump’s recourse to them.
Trump is probably the only major national politician in the world who has shown a deep and open belief in conspiracy theories. So much so that Wikipedia has a list of them, which is prefaced with this valid commentary: “This article contains a list of conspiracy theories, many of them misleading, disproven, or false, which were either created or promoted by Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States from 2017 to 2021.”
These include such false ones as “Birtherism” (claiming that former US president Barack Obama was not an American citizen) and such whacky ones as “Pizzagate” (portraying the Clintons and Democrats as operating a paedophile network through a pizzeria). The list is long: Trump has propounded, propagated or supported dozens of conspiracy theories.
Mainstream commentators mock Trump and his penchant to spout conspiracy theories. But, actually, the joke is on them – and that is one of the reasons why I think that Trump will return as the 47th president of the United States. The point is not that his conspiracy theories are wrong and even whacky. They are. That is obvious enough: the very definition, “conspiracy theory”, implies that what is being discussed is not seriously tenable.
The problem with “conspiracy theories” is not that abstract patterns of exploitation and discrimination, with very concrete benefits for some elites, do not exist. It will be difficult to deny that racism works to the advantage of white people, or that sexism and patriarchy provide clear advantages to men.
To say that many white people are likely to look away from the advantages accruing to them through racism – such as the preference for a white first-language speaker of English over a coloured first-language speaker of English in European Departments of English – is not to concoct a conspiracy.
Similarly, to say that in a male-dominate world, men are paid more than women for the same jobs is not to offer a conspiracy theory. Yet, such discrepancies exist and are often structural. They cannot be dismissed as figments of the imagination, despite the lack of any concrete conspiracy.
Similarly, it will be ludicrous to claim that millionaires and corporations do not have a tendency to exploit people who have only their labour to sell.
One can even believe, as author Amitav Ghosh implies in a book, that global elites are not seriously interested in saving most of us from being killed off by global warming and pollution. These are not conspiracy theories, as they do not point the finger at a specific individual or group actively conspiring to obtain such results. But they do share a genuine critique of power structures with the suspicion that conspiracy theories also aim at the same or similar power structures.
In general, conspiracy theories take the complexity of such larger critiques of power and turn them into a (simpler) conspiracy by an individual or a group.
This is what mainstream commentators miss when they make fun of conspiracy theories or Trump’s love of conspiracy theories. Given their educationally and professionally privileged positions, their ability to share refined discourses and speak in a certain manner, media commentators or academics can afford to laugh. They fail to see that what they consider a failure of Trump is actually a major pillar of his popularity.
Trump’s success has a lot to do with the fact that he seems to take conspiracy theories very seriously. This connects him immediately to ordinary people who know that they are being exploited by their elites and states, but can only conceptualise that huge, shapeless, abstract force of exploitation in terms of conspiring individuals or groups.
No, the Clintons did not run a paedophile network from a pizzeria. No, Obama was not Kenyan. These, and many others espoused by Trump, are outrageous conspiracy theories.
But it does not matter. What matters is that Trump talks in terms of conspiracy theories, and this makes him appear to talk like ordinary people and, above all, to share in their anger and frustration. This is not an easy elitist dismissal of their position: I am not calling them stupid, though some (like some members of the elite) might be stupid too. No, they have reason to be suspicious. Complex explanations, in their language and institutional locations, strike them with good cause to belong to that part of the world which seems to be having a good time at their expense.
Hence, when CNN collates a few smart, suave, knowledgeable experts to discuss whether or not Trump was guilty of instigating an insurrection, it makes no difference to Trump’s supporters. Because what Trump’s supporters remember is that, faced with what they think was a national crisis, Trump turned to them – and asked them to “save America”. He did not constitute a glib committee of experts to “look into the matter”, as his liberal opponents would have done. Trump’s supporters feel that he reposed faith in them, and not in remote tribes of people whom they, often with good reason, no longer trust.
Similarly, by talking in the language of conspiracy theories, Trump communicates to ordinary people his willingness to dismantle a system that they experience as exploitative or oppressive. At the same time, while he removes their focus from the real but huge and abstract system of exploitation – which he probably does not even understand, despite benefiting from it – he also gives them concrete targets.
Conspiracy theories arise from genuine and obscured injustices in our world, but also make it seem possible to address and remedy such injustices. Glib committees and abstract academic analyses do not convince many people, especially those who have no chance of sitting on those committees or obtaining tenure.
To face up to Trump, suave commentators will have to start asking themselves why, from their privileged spaces, they find it so easy to laugh at the conspiracy theories of ordinary people. What are they laughing at: the banality and whackiness of the theories, or the pain and confusion of the exploited? Sometimes, and with good reason, the exploited and the hurting cannot tell the difference.
Tabish Khair, the author of several books, is an associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.