Campaigning on conspiracy theories: How the political ideology of White Nationalism mainstreams racism
By Sara Kamali, Professor, Creative Writing, University of California San Diego
In September 2022, President Joe Biden convened a summit called “United We Stand” to denounce the “venom and violence” of white nationalism ahead of the midterm elections.
His remarks repeated the theme of his prime-time speech in Philadelphia on September 1, 2022, during which he warned that America’s democratic values are at stake.
“We must be honest with each other and with ourselves,” Biden said. “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
While that message may resonate among many Democratic voters, it is unclear whether it will have any impact on any Republicans whom Biden described as “dominated and intimidated” by former President Donald Trump, or on independent voters who have played decisive roles in elections, and will continue to do so, particularly as their numbers increase.
It’s also unclear whether Trump-endorsed candidates can win in general elections, in which they will face opposition not only from members of their own party but also from a broad swath of Democrats and independent voters.
What is clear is that this midterm election cycle has revealed the potency of conspiracy theories that prop up narratives of victimhood and messages of hate across the complex American landscape of white nationalism.
Campaigning on conspiracy theories
In my book, “Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War on the United States,” I detail how the white nationalist narrative of victimhood and particular grievances have gained traction to become ingrained in the present-day Republican Party.
I also examine four key strands of white nationalism that overlap in various configurations: religions, racism, conspiracy theories and anti-government views.
Conspiracy theories allow white nationalists to depict a world in which Black and brown people are endangering the livelihoods, social norms and morals of white people.
In general, conspiracy theories are based on the belief that individual circumstances are the result of powerful enemies actively agitating against the interests of a believing individual or group.
Based on the interviews I conducted while researching my book, these particular conspiracy theories are convenient because they justify the shared white nationalist goal of establishing institutions and territory of white people, for white people and by white people. While conspiracy theories are not new, and certainly not new to politics, they spread with increasing frequency and speed because of social media.
The “great replacement theory” is one such baseless belief that is playing a role in the anti-immigration rhetoric that is central to the 2022 strategies of many Republican candidates who are running for seats at all levels of government.
That theory erroneously warns believers of the threat that immigrants and people of color pose to white identity and institutions.
For months on the 2022 campaign trail, Republican Blake Masters, a venture capitalist who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, has portrayed immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an elaborate plot by Democrats to dilute the political power of voters born in the United States.
“What the left really wants to do is change the demographics of this country,” Masters said in a video posted to Twitter last fall.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is another Republican leader who decries what he calls “the invasion of the southern border.”
The lie of the ‘Big Lie’
Aside from the inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric, the conspiracy theory currently having the biggest impact on local, state and federal political campaigns across the country is Trump’s “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 election.
Of the 159 endorsements Trump has made for proponents of the Big Lie, 127 of them have won their primaries in 2022.
In addition, Republican candidates who align themselves with the Big Lie are also emerging victorious in races for state- and county-level offices whose responsibilities include direct oversight of elections.
The continuation of QAnon
On his social media site Truth Social, the former president quotes and spreads conspiracy theories from the quasi-religious QAnon. A major tenet of QAnon is the belief that the Democrats and people regarded as their liberal allies are a nefarious cabal of sexual predators and pedophiles.
Trump is not the only Republican politician who welcomes and spreads such disinformation. Two of the most prominent politicians who have been linked to supporting QAnon are U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, both of whom have been resoundingly endorsed by Trump.
Democracies under threat
The blatant use of conspiracy theories for political gain reflects the open embrace of white nationalism in not only the United States but also throughout Sweden, France, Italy and other parts of the world.
In my view, the conspiracy theories that drive the 2022 midterm campaigns reflect the global threat of hate around the world.