A company in Salt Lake City that sells packaged food for survival in emergencies is preparing for a post-election sales bonanza. Phil Cox, chief executive of Legacy Food Storage, said sales typically spike around events that inspire fear in his customers, whom he describes as “independent conservatives.”
For instance, sales of his freeze-dried chili and pasta prima vera boomed last year when the Chinese stock market crashed and just before the so-called blood moon, linked to apocalyptic prophesies, arrived.
"The conspiracy theory industry is not going away. It’s growing"
If Hillary Clinton wins, “we would expect something similar,” Cox said. “It’s an interesting election year, where there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
That would be a major understatement. This election has seen Republican nominee Donald Trump embrace fringe political views and conspiracy theories like no other presidential candidate in U.S. history, thereby bringing them into mainstream consciousness. Trump has even stoked fears that doomsday awaits if his rival wins, and his followers are taking it seriously.
Legacy Food Storage isn’t the only business cashing in. Underground bunkers with hazardous materials suits and secret stashes of gold and silver are back in vogue. Trump has also raised the profile of an array of far-right figures, who may become even more successful if the nominee launches a television network as rumoured.
"It’s manufactured outrage, all done with a profit motive"
“The conspiracy theory industry is not going away. It’s growing. And it’s becoming a cottage industry, not just in the U.S. but everywhere,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said. “It’s manufactured outrage, all done with a profit motive.”
Conspiracy-minded Americans with far-right political leanings have been a growing economic force since the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent election of Barack Obama. The industry catering to people preparing for surviving the collapse of society is likely worth billions, with companies as plain-vanilla as Costco Wholesale Corp. stocking backpacks filled with emergency gear.
It’s not hard to find liberals who also predict the collapse of society under a Trump presidency, but Legacy Food’s Cox said they don’t account for many of his customers.
“The person who is our buyer is … not planning on the government taking care of them,” he said. “People on the left typically assume everything will be fine.”
Similarly, Obama’s presidency has been great for the gun business. Gun sales spiked immediately following his election in 2008 and continued to soar amid fears he would enact stricter gun-control legislation. The Washington Post in 2015 estimated that Obama had given the gun industry a US$9-billion boost during his tenure.
"The Clintons inspired so many conspiracy theories in the ’90s that the whole thing is just spinning out of control"
It takes more than gun sales to buoy the economy, however, and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) — often referred to as Wall Street’s fear index — suggests investors are scared, too. A Trump victory introduces risk and uncertainty into the market and the VIX has climbed 54 per cent since Oct. 25, and has posted the longest streak of gains since those seen leading up to the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Of course, not everyone who buys a rifle or keeps a water purifier in the basement believes in the imminent collapse of society. But Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on conspiracy theories, said it is no coincidence that alt-right thinking is influencing both consumption trends and a presidential candidate right now.
“It’s eight years of a black Democratic president,” Olmsted said. “Now the Democratic candidate is a woman. And the Clintons inspired so many conspiracy theories in the ’90s that the whole thing is just spinning out of control.”
Alternative media that cater to a conspiracy theory-receptive audience have been growing in size and influence. The Trump campaign has given some of the key players unprecedented influence and access.
Trump campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, known for dog-whistle white nationalism and the villainization of victims of police shootings and anti-gay hate crimes. Breitbart’s web presence has significantly increased over the past year and it’s now the 134th most popular website in the U.S., according to the traffic-ranking website Alexa.
Those “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts you keep seeing on the news? They’re sold through the website Infowars, whose head, Alex Jones, has interviewed Trump. Jones has turned conspiracy theories about everything from the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to the Sandy Hook shootings into a business empire that includes a line of health supplements that purports to protect listeners from government campaigns to pump them full of toxic chemicals.
Trump himself is widely rumoured to be planning to launch his own television network if he loses the election. Alan Wolk, a media industry analyst and founder of Toad Stool Consultants, said such a venture could be very successful considering Trump’s core supporters make up about 30 per cent of the U.S. population.
“If he gets 10 per cent of those people to sign up for his network, yeah, he could make a good sum of money off that,” Wolk said. “He’s very good at getting publicity, so the marketing costs would be low. There would be a lot of interest around it.”
A caveat Wolk added is that Trump would likely have to charge viewers a subscription fee to be successful. Assuming Trump TV would continue to espouse controversial ideas about immigration, minorities and other issues, attracting mainstream advertisers would likely prove challenging.
The audience for Trump-endorsed alt-right ideas may be significant, but University of Miami conspiracy theory expert Joseph Uscinski said it’s important to remember they’re still a minority. Despite chants of “CNN sucks” at Trump rallies, the likes of Infowars and Breitbart have a long way to go before they attract anything close to that network’s audience and revenue.
“Most of the mainstream coverage of this outside stuff just immediately slams it,” Uscinski said. “The dominant voices in our society are not accepting of this.”
Historically, conspiracy theories that become truly mainstream must appeal to people on both the left and the right, Uscinski said. An example would be the John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, believed by 60 to 80 per cent of Americans, though they may have different ideas about who was behind it depending on their political leanings.
“Most conspiracy theories that are specific in any way, if they have a partisan element to them, they’re limited in the audience they can attract,” Uscinski said, adding that Trump’s brand of alt-right paranoia definitely qualifies as partisan. “I don’t see our politics falling into some conspiracy theory delirium for extended periods of time.”
For similar reasons, the upside of marketing to Trump supporters are for most businesses likely outweighed by the downsides. Media analyst Wolk said trying to sell beer to the alt-right is very different than targeting, say, NASCAR fans, another once-ignored demographic of white middle Americans.
“Budweiser and other brands sponsoring NASCAR is pretty safe,” Wolk said. “There’s nothing negative about NASCAR.”
There are plenty of negative things — both real and imagined — to say about Clinton, however. Assuming she becomes president, alt-right media outlets are going to have an organized and angry audience of former Trump supporters eager to consume that message. More freeze-dried chili, anyone?