Is it economic anxiety? Is it loss of white, Christian identity? Is it simple bigotry? Is it authoritarianism?
My own current theory is that it isn't based so much on any of these things, as so much as an ideological narrative that has been stewing and metastasizing for decades, propagating largely via conservative media outlets, but thriving in the oxygen-rich environs of isolated rural and suburban America - church to church, gun show to gun show, Cabellas to Cabellas, racetrack to racetrack.
Would it be possible, I ask, for an ideological narrative to develop that isn't actually based on facts in reality, but rather on facts that are assumed by its own mythology?
The clearest example of this is the world of conspiracy theories. Despite no evidence - and often times direct evidence to the contrary - a certain type of person continues to buy in to the larger story. The belief is thus sustained and maintained over time.
You also see this in religion, where certain areas of inquiry are immune to contradiction. The more insular and extreme the religion, the greater the immunity. The pure example of this is the religious cult, where almost all sense of normality is overridden by dogma.
In general, we view people who go down these rabbit holes as abnormal, and generally psychologically flawed in some way. Yet how so? I'm not very familiar with the literature here, but my guess is that there a lot of theories but nothing conclusive. At any rate, these types of people have generally been considered a small, deluded, (yet strangely persistent), segment of the population.
Yet historically we can find examples of ideological movements that are not abnormal to the population, but rather the norm. Nazi Germany comes to mind. Anarchists at the turn of last century. Fundamentalist Islam is a more contemporary example of an ideology that is quite popular in many regions of the world.
So how possible, then, might it be that contemporary conservatism has normalized a form of hysterical, at times conspiratorial thought? I realize that this line of argument could easily become a cheap form of ad hominem dismissal of valid political arguments. But what we have in Trumpism are not valid political arguments. The bile that has been spilling from AM radio for at least 40 years - throughout the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's and 2010's is not valid argument but demogoguery and conspiratorial falsehood. Fox news, Breitbart.com and social media have only spread the narrative's reach.
"…You have to explain this to them in this time of mental rape that's going on. The children's minds are being raped by the homosexual mafia, that's my position. They're raping our children's minds."Glenn Beck:
“President Obama, Tim Geithner, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, all the other lawmakers are going after the blood of our businesses, big and small. Who's next? They have their fangs in the necks of everybody, and nothing's going to quench their thirst…There's only two ways for this movie to end: Either the economy becomes like the walking dead, or you drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.”Bill O'Reilly:
"I just wish Hurricane Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out, and I wouldn't have rescued them." --Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, Sept. 14, 2005Sean Hannity:
"Halloween is a liberal holiday because we're teaching our children to beg for something for free. … We're teaching kids to knock on other people's doors and ask for a handout." —Fox News host Sean Hannity (October 31, 2007)Ann Coulter:
"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"Rush Limbaugh:
"A feminazi is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. Nothing matter but me, says the feminazi; the is an unviable tissue mass. Feminazis have adopted abortion as a kind of sacrament for their religion/politics of alienation and bitterness.”~Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be, p.192-93 , 1992The problem with people in cults or who buy into conspiracies isn't the specific beliefs they hold. They are often innocuous enough. Rather, it is the mental state within which they are interacting with the larger world. The sense of measured, reasonable, epistemological skepticism is gone. Truth becomes "truth", and one becomes incredibly susceptible to manipulation, as long as the sense of anger, fear and often hatred, is fed.
It doesn't happen in a vacuum. People just don't wake up one day and decide to join a cult. But with enough isolation, social reinforcement, and limited knowledge, and desire for some kind of affirmation of values, the ideology seeps in, puttying the gaps with its insidious dogma.
The number one priority in cults is to develop in the individual a lack of faith in outside authority. Don't trust your family. Don't trust the government. Don't trust outsiders. This enables complete mind control. Paranoid conservatism has slowly been developing a similar tactic: don't trust the government, the media, scientists, academics, or outside culture in general. What is left is a form of mind control in which only paranoid conservatism has any authority.
So is it economic anxiety, bigotry, loss of White Christian identity, or authoritarianism? We've all felt economic anxiety. Having bigoted thoughts - fear of the "other" - is a natural part of being human. We live in a pluralistic country that values personal freedom of religion and diversity. Authoritarianism seems as much a value as anything else that becomes socially reinforced.
What stops us from allowing these things to rule our lives and destroy our objectivity is a faith in the outside world, a maintenance of continuity with our past, and trust in institutions that have stood the test of time. There are certainly legitimate critique of the authority of government, media, science or academia. But each are only as good as we make them, and themselves come from principles that we ignore at our peril: democracy, objectivity, empiricism, and study. Cultish conservatism seems diametrically opposed to each of these.