Above Victory Liquor and Wine and Burger Chef on Victory Boulevard in Staten Island, Donald Trump signs obscure a second floor window. Richard Luthmann, who hung the signs in his office, said he bought them from Trump’s campaign. You don’t usually have to pay for signs, he said with a laugh, it’s a credit to Trump’s business skills.
Luthmann, an attorney, and his friend Bobby Zahn run the Facebook page ‘Staten Islanders for Trump.’ Their headquarters is an unused office next to Luthmann’s, which he calls the “war room.” Zahn and Luthmann said they founded their page because they want to see Trump smash the political establishment.
As Trump tumbles in the polls, Luthmann and Zahn said they are unmoved. They said they believe Trump’s narrative that the media is biased against him, the political system is rigged, and the election may not even be fair.
“I think that he’s inspiring people to go up against the rigged system,” said Zahn, who recently retired from Con Edison. He believes that both parties are complicit in corruption, but that Trump can fix it because he’s an outsider. Zahn thinks Hillary Clinton is the personification of what’s wrong with American politics.
Luthmann said he is a registered Democrat and voted for Barack Obama. Zahn said he’s part of the Conservative Party of New York State.
Both men expressed reservations about Trump, especially in light of recent sexual assault allegations. But with Clinton on the ballot, both men feel the stakes are too high to be swayed by Trump’s personal faults.
“Is Donald Trump probably a pig?” said Zahn, “Yeah he probably is a pig. But I’m not voting for pig. I’m voting for President of the United States.”
Zahn also thinks Trump might be the last chance to fight the rigged system. Experts say this side of Trump’s appeal is not supported by facts; that it is a textbook case of conspiratorial thinking.
Their Facebook page has just over 1,047 followers, about seven times more than the Staten Island Republican’s page, but just a quarter of borough’s democrats’ following.
The page was most active during the Republican primary, when Trump won 82 per cent of Staten Island’s votes. Richard Flanagan, a professor at the College of Staten Island, said little polling is available for the borough specifically, but that Trump will probably win there. He said voters on the island have an affinity for outsider candidates.
Congressman Dan Donovan, who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, still supports Trump amid his own reelection campaign, said his press secretary Alexia Sikora. The borough’s republican president, James Oddo, declined to comment on whether he still supports Trump.
Trump has long defined himself as a political outsider who will upset a corrupt system. Recently, he has claimed that the election will be “rigged” against him, despite their being no evidence that this is true.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll surveyed 1,022 people from 15 to 18 September and found that despite their being little evidence of systematic voter fraud, 35 per cent of Americans think there is a great deal of fraud, and just 24 per cent think there is hardly any.
Joseph Uscinski, an academic who studies conspiracy theories, said Trump’s narrative of a ‘rigged system’ is a textbook case.
“He is sort of a conspiracy entrepreneur,” said Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami.
Uscinski defines a conspiracy theory as the belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good. Uscinski said Trump built his campaign on broadcasting this kind of belief.
Uscinski found that before the 2012 election 65 per cent of voters believed that if their chosen candidate lost fraud was involved. After the election he found half that number, because only the defeated Republicans maintained that belief.
“Conspiracy theories are for losers. I mean that in a descriptive rather than a pejorative sense,” he said.
Luthmann rejected the idea that Trump promotes conspiratorial thinking, because there is obvious evidence of political corruption.
“It’s not a conspiracy theory so much as conspiracy facts,” he said, pointing to recent corruption scandals in New York state and Bill Clinton’s controversial June meeting with Loretta Lynch.
Luthmann and Zahn also said they distrust the news media because it is often complicit in political corruption, and no longer tells the truth. Zahn said there is no way someone will get the full story from the mainstream media. They try to combat this with their Facebook page.
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said that mistrust of certain sources of information can be an effect of political polarization.
“Our polarization extends to the sources that we trust,” he said, because people are skeptical of information that contradicts their beliefs.
Nyhan cautioned that we shouldn’t image a past golden age of truth in politics, but he thinks modern political culture is too tolerant of prominent people making false claims.
He said we often blame the public for holding false beliefs, rather than condemning the elites who spread them in the first place. He said the media should deny these people air time, and do more to tarnish their reputations.
Once false beliefs are established, Nyhan said, they are very hard to eradicate.