Rush Limbaugh, if nothing else, is good at rhetoric. He’s so good, he can get hordes of people believing in what is effectively a loopy conspiracy theory, without them even realizing it.
Consider this excerpt, paraphrased from Rush’s radio show on June 12, 2013:
The entire motivation of the Democrat party, although they will never admit this, is to get the Illuminati to rule the world. If you listen to my show regularly, you will know this is true, because I’ve pointed it out again and again. I know, it’s frustrating and baffling to you, just as it is to me, that most people don’t see it. Why is it that most people don’t realize that the real goal of liberalism is to get the Illuminati to rule the world? I don’t know. I just don’t know. Most people… don’t have the great insight and wisdom that you and I have. Most people are easily deceived. Because of course, the liberal Democrats never admit that their purpose is to get the Illuminati to rule the world. But believe me, it’s the truth. Do not doubt me on this! I’ve been doing this a long time, and I promise you, I know what is going on in their minds.
Now, of course, if Rush Limbaugh had actually said that, everyone would realize that it was a conspiracy theory. Right? Even the most simple-minded of Republicans would have thought: this doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Of course, the main cue that it’s a conspiracy theory, based on the paragraph you read above, is that it mentions the Illuminati. That’s practically the ultimate archetype of the entire concept of “conspiracy theory”, right? Almost everyone who hears just the word “Illuminati” immediately has two reactions: “conspiracy theory” and “nut-job”. It gets dismissed, because it’s so “out there”.
But of course Rush Limbaugh didn’t really say that. In the above paragraph, replace “get the Illuminati to rule the world” with “acquire personal power for themselves”. That’s what he said. And because the key accusation (“acquire personal power for themselves”) seems more plausible, people don’t think they are being pitched a wack-job conspiracy theory.
But here’s the thing: what makes the above narration a “conspiracy theory” isn’t the actual accusation itself. It isn’t the content at all. What makes that paragraph a “conspiracy theory” is the style of the argument.
The way the argument is presented contains all of the logical elements of a conspiracy theory:
1) Other people’s motives are completely different than what they say they are. They are lying to you.
2) The general public doesn’t realize what these motives are because the general public is stupid.
3) I have privileged knowledge of their motivations because I’m smart, and if you agree with me then you are smart, too.
4) The way you know that I am right is that you have heard me say it before, and you trust me.
It is those elements, not the mere mention of “Illuminati”, that makes it a wack-job argument. These four points are the cornerstones of every wack-job conspiracy theory in existence, no matter what the actual topic or theory under discussion is.
That is why Rush Limbaugh’s argument is still a wack-job argument, even after you replace “get the Illuminati to rule the world” with “acquire personal power for themselves”. The structure of the argument — all of those elements I just mentioned — are still there. It still has the logical structure of every conspiracy theory from the faked moon landing to the idea that fluoride is used by the government to make people stupid.
But look how clever Rush Limbaugh is: he makes the accusation itself relatively mundane: Democrats want to acquire personal power. Seems possible. Seems reasonable. Seems not too wacky, since we all know that most humans can be tempted by wanting personal power.
And so by using wack-job conspiracy theory logic to support a reasonable-sounding conclusion, he gets people to forget (or not realize) that the logic and argument that he is using is completely ridiculous.
Bravo, Mr. Limbaugh. Bravo.