All right, I admit it, I have been sneaking a look at the polls and at the political coverage. I will leave to others the endless discussion of Trump's disgusting attacks on Alicia Machado. But this lengthy piece in the Washington Post got me thinking once again about something that has long been on my mind. The Post piece gives an extended portrait of a Trump supporter who, among other things, believes a wide array of bizarre conspiracy theories. I am not talking about the claim that Obama was really born in Kenya and spirited into the United States as what might be called a real-life Manchurian candidate, equipped with phony birth notices in Hawaiian newspapers and a name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- designed to appeal to gullible American voters. After all, some scores of millions of Americans claim to believe that. I am referring to a number of conspiracies now making the rounds that I had never heard of, such as the claim that Obama is gay, that Michelle is really a man, and that Malia and Sasha are not the children of the Obamas but were kidnapped [I am not kidding -- read the article I linked to above.]
How, one asks, can anyone believe such things? Now, to be sure, the person featured in the Post article has serious mental issues, but she is not alone in her beliefs. Think of those millions of clinically normal people who believe that Obama is not an American citizen. What is going on?
Here are my thoughts, for what they are worth. The vast majority of those who profess to believe these conspiracy stories are perfectly normal men and women who can navigate the demands of everyday life quite well. They get up in the morning, make breakfast, send their kids off to school, go to work, hold down averagely demanding jobs with average efficiency, mow their lawns, get their cars serviced, remember birthdays, pay their taxes [unlike their hero, Donald Trump], and do not get more than ordinarily lost when finding their way to the supermarket.
Now, if you tell them that Michelle Obama is a man and that Michelle and Barack kidnapped Sasha and Malia, they will nod sagely and say, "I always knew there was something off about that family." But if you tell them that their TV set is really a toaster and that their next door neighbor is a gerbil, they will nervously edge toward the door and think of calling 911.
In short, there is a disconnect in them between their averagely rational capacity to negotiate their directly sensed world and their utter inability to grasp and hold even elementary facts about the socio-political [or indeed the scientific and technical] world to which they are connected solely by the system of information transfer on which we all must rely. After all, I have met Obama only once, at a White House Christmas party to which I was taken, as a guest, by my son, Tobias. Or at least I was told it was Obama. How do I really know? Indeed, how do I know I was in the White House? It might all have been a Potemkin village. I have never met a sitting senator in my life, nor a member of the Cabinet. I think I watched [on television] a man walk on the moon, but then I also think I saw Ewoks on Endor. What direct evidence do I have that the first was real and the second was not?
Most of us use hand-held phones and such like devices every day, but precious few of us actually know, all the way down to the molecular level, how those things work. If I tell you that there are tiny men and women in your phone who speak to you when you think you are calling someone, you really are not equipped to demonstrate to me that I must be wrong.
We live in a social and political world that has almost no direct connection to our felt experiences and first-hand knowledge. Once our belief is shaken in the authority figures who putatively inform us about that world, any conspiracy theories we are offered seem as plausible as the authorized stories sensible educated people are expected to accept.
One of my very favorite philosophical passages comes from the Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. In Chapter 6 of Part I, which carries the lovely title, "Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed," Hobbes offers this pair of definitions: "fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."
There is really nothing more to be said.