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Conservative MPs seem increasingly willing to use the rhetoric of conspiracy. Recently, Liz Truss claimed that her brief tenure as prime minister had been ended by the deep state – shadowy forces within the British establishment and the media.

A few days later, Lee Anderson, the Conservative party’s former deputy chairman, asserted that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is being controlled by Islamists. He was adding his own twist on a similar conspiracy theory put forward by former home secretary Suella Braverman, who claimed in a Telegraph article that Islamists are in charge of the whole country.

Why do politicians make conspiracy claims like these? It seems strange for MPs whose party has been in government for almost 14 years to imply that they aren’t really in control and that power is wielded by hidden actors.

Maybe Truss and Anderson mean what they say, and say what they mean. But even if they do believe that Britain is governed by a deep state or Islamist plotters, knowing a bit about rhetoric can help us to see that there is more going on when politicians use the language of conspiracy.

Context matters

A good politician will adapt what they say to fit the moment and their audience. For example, Truss’s deep state comments were made at CPAC, a conference for American conservatives. She was speaking in part to promote her new book, Ten Years to Save the West, and so had little reason to do anything other than give her audience what it likes. Conspiracy theories have become prominent in American conservatism (think QAnon and the claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen), so echoing the rhetoric is an obvious way for a CPAC speaker to ingratiate themselves with an audience.

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Anderson, though, was speaking in the UK, where conspiracist language is more unusual. His comments were seen by many as deliberately divisive and Islamophobic, and quickly landed him a suspension from his party. That said, government ministers were evasive when asked why his comments were wrong and whether they were Islamophobic.

Part of the brand

Courting controversy carries risks, as Anderson’s suspension shows. But it can also thrust a politician into the limelight, giving them a chance to speak to a broader audience and potentially gain new supporters. Much of the time, politicians make their own character – or ethos, as it is known in classical rhetoric – part of their pitch.

In her comments alleging a deep state conspiracy, Truss took on a populist tone. She portrayed herself as an anti-establishment figure fighting for the British people against the elites. She didn’t mention her party’s long period in government in charge of the civil service that allegedly made her tenure so impossible. Nor did she refer to the economic problems brought about during her fleeting administration.

Speaking to an audience which is likely to be less familiar with her political career, Truss was able to present herself as the protagonist in a David and Goliath narrative – albeit one in which David is defeated.

Similarly, Anderson used the controversy around his comments to present himself as a man of the people. Rather than giving any evidence to back up his claims about Islamists controlling Khan, Anderson instead justified his views by citing the positive reaction he had received from his constituents. When told in an interview with Channel 4 News that people were puzzled by his refusal to back down, Anderson replied: “If you go and speak to people in Ashfield [Anderson’s constituency] and ask them if they’re puzzled about it, no they’re not.”

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Lee Anderson talking to a group of people outside a venue at Conservative party conference.
Lee Anderson has deployed circular reasoning in response to criticism.
EPA

In the aftermath of the controversy, Anderson told GB News: “When I went into pubs in Ashfield at the weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I got a round of applause when I went in. And these are normal working-class people.”

Such comments can be seen as part of a broader trend. Politicians have learned to cite the opinions of ordinary people in order to justify spurious claims. Rather than explaining anything about how he came to view Islamists being in charge of London, Anderson’s response to questions has been to use them as an opportunity to present himself as an outsider to the political establishment – a man in tune with what voters really think.

Pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’

This focus on presenting a certain persona and using it to justify baseless comments tells us something important – that identity is a key ingredient in conspiracist rhetoric.

It enables a politician to construct a conflict between an in-group and an out-group – a struggle between “us” and “them” – and asks the audience to pick a side. Rather than focusing on policies or ways of improving life for the British population, this rhetoric wants the audience to identify with the speaker’s character and join them in opposing a threatening enemy.

In this way, conspiracist rhetoric is much like the Conservatives’ attacks on “woke ideology” – it deflects attention away from their record in government, and rallies their supporters against an enemy at a time when the party is down on its luck.

Counteracting this is no easy task. Rhetoric is an art, not an exact science. One strategy could be to focus more on what politicians are trying to achieve when they use conspiracist rhetoric. While it is important to determine whether or not they really believe in a deep state or Islamist conspiracy, we also need to challenge the personas that politicians craft for themselves, as well the us-against-them divisions they construct.

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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