Essential Politics: Conspiracy theories and fear of immigrants — a toxic mix

Donald Trump stands next to Melania Trump at the top of an escalator in Trump Tower. His daughter Ivanka Trump applauds.
Donald Trump as he prepared to announce his presidential candidacy on June 16, 2015, in a speech in which he denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Long before Donald Trump descended the escalator to the Trump Tower lobby, where he launched his presidential campaign while labelling Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” immigration was playing a powerful role in motivating voters on the right.

Along with opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the effort to stop immigration reform played a key role in mobilizing conservatives during President Obama‘s two terms in office. Trump’s candidacy further ramped up the political focus on immigration. It also allowed the spread of toxic falsehoods that had been largely relegated to the fringe.

One of the most pernicious is “replacement theory” — the belief that elites (big business, Democratic politicians, major cultural figures and so on) have conspired to bring large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. in a deliberate effort to replace the native-born population with more subservient people who will work for less and vote for whom they’re told.

The conspiracy theory, which gained traction on the far right in Europe before being popularized in the U.S., has become a staple of some prominent cable television figures, like the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said last year that President Biden wanted to increase immigration “to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World.”

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults believe at least a couple of major tenets of that theory, according to a new study by the National Opinion Research Center and the Associated Press.


Conspiracy theories shape debate

Overall, the American public remains largely supportive of immigration, the new AP-NORC study found. Almost 40% of Americans say that the number of immigrants to the U.S. should remain at about its current level, while 25% think the number of immigrants should be larger.

On the opposite side, 36% say the number of immigrants should be reduced, with 19% saying the number should be cut “a lot.”

Support for immigration restriction continues as a major rallying cry for the Republican base. A lot of the rhetorical ire is aimed at illegal border crossing, but proposals to dramatically reduce legal immigration became official White House policy under Trump and remain important to a large segment of his core supporters.

The AP-NORC study asked a number of questions about immigration, including two aimed specifically at gauging how many Americans believe key parts of the replacement theory.

One question asked whether “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.” About 1 in 7 Americans said they “strongly agree” with that. A similar share said they were “very concerned” that “native-born Americans are losing economic, political, and cultural influence in this country because of the growing population of immigrants.”

About 1 in 5 Americans agreed with both of those tenets of replacement theory to at least some extent.


That finding was “the primary thing that got our attention” when analyzing the study results, said Jennifer Benz of NORC. The researchers were struck by “how widespread the belief in these core arguments of replacement theory are,” Benz said. “It’s a larger segment of the population than we may have expected going into this who have this fairly extreme view.”

Viewers of right-wing media especially shared those ideas: Among people who said they most often watch OANN or Newsmax, 45% agreed with both of the replacement theory statements. So did 31% of Fox viewers, compared with 13% of CNN viewers.

That reflects the partisan nature of America’s immigration debate, but something else as well: The most widespread support for ideas central to replacement theory came from Americans who believe generally in conspiracy theories.

The AP-NORC study used a four-question scale to measure a person’s belief in conspiracies. The questions ask if people believe that major events are the result of plots executed in secret, whether events are directed by a small group of powerful people, whether those people are unknown to voters and whether that group controls the outcome of elections, wars, economic recessions and other major developments.

People who scored high on the conspiracy scale were, in most respects, very similar to the general population. Comparing the 25% who scored highest on the conspiracy scale with the rest of America, the researchers found no significant difference by education, for example — people who believe events are controlled by a small, secret cabal are as likely to have graduated from college as people who don’t hold that view, Benz noted. There’s no gap by income either.

There is a partisan gap — people who score high on the conspiracy scale tend more often to be Republicans and also tend to identify as evangelical Christians. That’s especially true of white conspiracy thinkers, who are heavily Republican and voted for Trump in 2020.


By contrast, people of color who scored high on the conspiracy scale were more likely to identify as Democrats. They were as likely to have not voted as to have cast a ballot for Biden.

Conspiratorial thinkers also are more likely to believe they have been discriminated against, the study found. That’s especially notable among white conspiracy thinkers: On a series of questions about whether people believe they have been discriminated against because of their race in seeking jobs, getting a house, obtaining healthcare or applying for a loan, about 30% of white conspiracy thinkers said yes, compared with about 10% of whites who aren’t conspiracy thinkers.

That reflects a basic fact about people who believe in conspiracies, said political science professor Joe Uscinski of the University of Miami, who for the past decade has studied conspiracy theories and who developed the scale the AP-NORC study used to measure conspiratorial thinking.

A certain set of personality traits seems to lead some people to believe in conspiracies, and belief that they belong to an oppressed group is a part of that, Uscinski said.

The fact that belief in conspiracy grows out of personality types helps explain “why we find so much stability” in the share of the population that’s conspiracy minded, he said. A decade of work has produced no evidence for the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are on the rise, he noted.

“A lot of people worry that people see these ideas on cable TV or on the internet and start believing in conspiracies, but that’s not really how this works,” Uscinski said. “People are either disposed to those particular kinds of ideas or they’re not.”


The problem for American democracy is not so much the share of Americans who believe in conspiracies, but the political system’s weakened ability to keep those ideas at bay.

Through most of U.S. history, “we’ve generally counted on our elites” not to exploit conspiratorial thinking among their followers, Uscinski noted. Some presidents “would dabble in conspiracy theories now and then,” but mostly, they steered clear of them. Trump changed all that.

“The way that Trump used it was at a level and volume we haven’t seen,” he said. And other ambitious political figures have taken note. “They’ve seen the prototype,” he said. “It works.”

The fight over abortion

a crowd of mostly women holding candles stand together on a darkened street with lights in the background
Abortion-rights advocates stage a protest outside the house of Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito in the Fort Hunt neighborhood on Monday, May 9, 2022 in Alexandria, Va.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Senate Democrats failed to advance a bill to protect abortion rights nationwide, but as Jennifer Haberkorn reported, they hope the effort would draw a sharp political contrast with Republicans who largely support the Supreme Court’s expected ruling to undo the Roe vs. Wade decision. The effort received 49 votes — all the Senate’s Democrats except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. It needed 60 votes to pass.

The anticipated overturning of Roe has quickly became the focus of political ads coast to coast, Seema Mehta and Terry Castleman reported. Democrats and allies who support abortion rights have spent more money and focused more of their messaging on the issue than GOP candidates and antiabortion organizations have, according to AdImpact, a political ad tracking firm, and Meta’s Ad Library Report, which summarizes political advertising data on Facebook and Instagram.

David Savage examined three key questions about what happens next with the high court, including whether its conservative majority is likely to reconsider its decision legalizing same-sex marriage.


California would set aside $40 million for abortion service providers to help cover uninsured residents and an expected influx of women from other states seeking care if the court overturns Roe under a plan unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Melody Gutierrez reported. Newsom is expected to also announce new incentives for businesses wishing to relocate to California from states with abortion bans or anti-LGBTQ laws — with details expected during Friday’s budget announcement, according to the governor’s office.

Several hotly contested congressional races in Orange County could be among the places where abortion politics helps Democrats, Mehta and Priscella Vega reported. The Orange County districts largely consist of suburban territory with large numbers of college-educated voters. Democrats believe that those voters, especially women, will be motivated to vote by concern over abortion rights.

Ever since the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn the landmark ruling legalizing abortion, Barbara Smith has felt as if she were living in a time warp. An author and publisher who’s earned accolades for a lifetime of work as a Black feminist, LGBTQ activist and advocate for legal and safe abortions, Smith takes this new blow to women’s rights personally, Tyrone Beason wrote after interviewing Smith about the implications of overturning Roe.

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Covering Kamala Harris

Al Gore came armed with policy memos, George H.W. Bush with jokes and Dan Quayle with requests from Cabinet secretaries. Mike Pence brought plenty of patience. For four decades, the weekly lunch with the president has been a key part of establishing successive vice presidents as bona fide players in their administrations. And that, as Noah Bierman reported, adds weight to the fact that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have lunched together only twice since January.

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The latest from the campaign trail

Americans in all walks of life have been trying to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. That includes political consultants. Mark Barabak reported on a recent 10-day trip to Ukraine that Mike Madrid, a longtime California consultant, took to help the country with its social media presence.

The latest from Washington

It’s been months since Biden’s $1.7-trillion Build Back Better plan stalled on Capitol Hill, including $555 billion to help move the nation away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. As Anumita Kaur reported, climate activists continue to hope that some portion of Biden’s climate proposals can still get through Capitol Hill, but that prospect grows dimmer by the day.

The House committee scrutinizing the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol has subpoenaed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and four other prominent conservative members of Congress after they refused to voluntarily comply with requests for information. As Sarah Wire reported, the committee has debated privately for months about whether to subpoena representatives who refused to cooperate and whether it wanted to set such a precedent — particularly given time constraints, the chance of a lengthy legal battle and the likelihood that Republicans could regain control of the House after the midterm elections and shut down the committee.

The latest from California

California’s minimum wage will rise to $15.50 an hour in January, advisors to Newsom said Thursday, the first time that rising inflation has triggered a provision of a 6-year-old state law governing automatic pay increases. As John Myers reported, the wage law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 requires that any inflation growth above 7% triggers a higher minimum wage. The state’s minimum is currently $15 per hour for large employers and $14 for those that employ 25 or fewer people.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino dropped out of the race for mayor Thursday and threw his support behind billionaire developer Rick Caruso. As Benjamin Oreskes and David Zahniser wrote, Buscaino, a former L.A. police officer, planned to run on a platform demanding tough action on homelessness and crime, but Caruso largely occupied that space after he entered the race in February, spending tens of millions of his personal fortune that Buscaino could not match.

And on the topic of campaign money, check out this excellent interactive map that Sandhya Kambhampati and Iris Lee developed that shows where the Los Angeles mayoral candidates are getting their contributions. As the bank robber Willie Sutton was quoted as saying, they go “where the money is” — Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills are all top sources of campaign cash, but so are a few other neighborhoods less on the beaten path.


Some activists on the left have denounced Rep. Karen Bass as insufficiently progressive, largely because of her public safety plan, which includes hiring additional LAPD officers. But, Erika Smith writes, the police union’s fierce opposition to Bass should remind progressives of what’s really at stake in a likely matchup between the congresswoman and Caruso.

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