Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Professor Mary Dudas
The relationship between conspiracy and democratic decline is well established in political theory. The tradition of American conspiracy imposes fear, mistrust, and unreality on citizens, which threatens the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Democratic electoral processes rely on a shared sense of objectivity and truth. Without this, electoral legitimacy crumbles. Twitter’s emergence as a new medium for political discourse alongside the Donald Trump presidential administration have jointly posed unique challenges to American democracy within this theoretical framework. The impacts of social media on the electoral process are unmeasured, and the implications of a conspiracy-minded president are unprecedented. I observe this relationship through Donald Trump’s use of Twitter as a new, strategic means of political discourse. To make my argument, I apply storytelling and affect theory to two case studies: Birtherism and Stop the Steal. Storytelling describes methods of rhetorical delivery, and affect theory describes listener reception. I apply four elements of storytelling (performance, adaptation, context, and iconicity) and two principles of affect theory (threat & protection and shame & belonging) to 136 of Trump’s tweets that engage the Birther and Stop the Steal conspiracy theories. I find that Trump amplifies conspiracy theories through social media and entertainment features. Entertainment is unique to Trump’s conspiratorial strategy. His emphasis on entertainment increases the embodiment of conspiracies in his followers. Donald Trump used the Birtherism conspiracy to consolidate a large, homogeneous base of followers and amass political power. When his power ran out, Trump weaponized the Stop the Steal conspiracy to mobilize his base. His base willingly participated in anti-democratic action. I attribute the attempted coup, the capitol insurrection, and post-2020 voter suppression legislation to democratic decline.
Kessel, Hannah, "Backsliding: Donald Trump, Conspiracy Theory, & Democratic Decline". Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2022.
Trinity College Digital Repository, https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/theses/968