Monday, August 19, 2019

Essay: Conspiracy Theories Leave Democracy in Tatters

“A vast number of conspiracy theories hinge on the existence of a subjugated yet honorable ‘people’ against a corrupt and scheming ‘elite,’ and, as it happens, so does populism. That conspiracism and populism are often found together probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Donald Trump’s supporters in any detail. But it does suggest that fighting conspiracy theories will mean understanding and taking seriously the causes of the rise of populism in the United States and Europe over the last few years. Addressing the conditions that enable conspiracism, rather than the content of the conspiracism itself, points the way toward quashing it.” —J.C. Pan, “When Facts Fail: The Roots of American Conspiracism,” The New Republic, July-August 2019

Pan’s strategy for countering conspiracy theories worldwide makes sense, but in the here and now, how are Americans going to defeat the men responsible for their spread in the United States—particularly when the perpetrators preposterously cast themselves as victims?

Both Donald Trump and the GOP leader who carries water for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell, have assailed as “McCarthyism” any criticism of their curious inaction regarding Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 election.

Most observers would regard this characterization as awfully rich—and not just because Trump’s mentor as a rising businessman was Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings as the Wisconsin Senator tarnished reputations and damaged careers with reckless charges of Communism. Nor is it simply laughable because, with each passing day, it becomes more impossible to explain how Trump could not have benefited from Russian interference in the 2016 election.

No, the charge of McCarthyism is also farcical because the Senator was adept at making spurious accusations involving “a conspiracy so immense,” then throwing out more half-baked charges that the media would promptly chase down a rabbit hole—practices that Trump has embraced with abandon. The charge of “McCarthyism,” in fact, is another instance of Trump’s penchant for projecting his own worst tendencies onto others.

Just as it became a parlor game to argue whether McCarthy was cannily concocting his deceptions or was an alcoholic too slobby to strategize, so speculation centers today on the level of craft that Trump is employing in his falsehoods. The point, though, is that both McCarthy and Trump were indisputably purveyors of what Trump loyalist Kellyanne Conway has helpfully labeled “alternative facts.”

A decade of conspiratorial buncombe

Among the conspiracy theories that Trump has peddled in the last decade or so are that:

*Vaccinations cause autism;

*Barack Obama was not born in the United States;

*The official who released Obama’s birth certificate died in a suspicious plane crash;

*Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower;

*Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the Kennedy assassination;

*The suicide of Clinton friend and aide Vince Foster looked “fishy”;

*TV commentator Joe Scarborough may have been involved in the death of an intern;

*Climate change is a hoax, maybe perpetrated by the Chinese;

*The Democrats planned to steal the election with votes cast by millions of undocumented immigrants;

*The Democrats won New Hampshire in 2016 because of people streaming in “from parts unknown”;

*The “Fake News Media” wants to “crash the economy because they think that will be bad for me and my re-election," he thinks;

*The FBI’s Russia probe is a “deep-state” plot against him;

*Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have been murdered.

What rational voter believes all of these theories? Come to think of it, what rational voter believes any of these? But such is the state of American politics that these are run up the flagpole constantly.  

The current American environment for conspiracy theories differs from earlier ones in this respect: a President promotes them openly and daily.

Every American President since George Washington has had enemies bound and determined to run him out of office. At least two—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—privately complained to aides that some of their enemies were plotting against them.

But never before has a President seen signs of this everywhere he looks, and expressed that belief in public. Trump not only peddles conspiracy theories of his own, but also encourages those of others through retweets or through noticing them at appearances.

Through most of his business career, and all of his political one, Trump has gotten his way not through compromise—the real “art of the deal”—but through conquest. In turn, he dreads that someone else will follow the same path to victory at his expense. Spontaneously, he is gripped by the thought that someone is out to get him. 

El Paso and Epstein: Present and Future Results 

The effects of this conspiracy-mongering are ever more apparent. 

It wasn’t enough that the white supremacist movement was heartened first by Trump’s notion that Mexican “rapists” were coming to America, or his comment after the rally two years ago in Charlottesville that there were “good people on both sides.” But the President’s constant cries over the last few years about “invasion” by illegal immigrants—echoed endlessly at Fox News—made even more fetid the toxic rhetorical atmosphere absorbed by the El Paso shooter.

That atmosphere has become positively thick enough to gag with Trump’s suggestion—unsupported by any evidence—that Bill and Hillary Clinton were behind the recent death of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. The President’s source for this: one Terrence K. Williams, a comedian with no particular law enforcement expertise.

Many people, like myself, not only never heard of Williams before but wonder what purpose he serves in life except to rehash quarter-century-old Clinton murder conspiracy theories. But to Donald Trump, he’s “somebody that’s a very respected conservative pundit.”

Trump openly admits he has “no idea” whether the Clintons played any part in Epstein’s death. At minimum, that is speculation with no documentary, oral or forensic evidence. But there is another term for it that is far more merited than the other news items to which Trump has frequently attached it: “fake news.”

If the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy mean anything, it is that the words of a President have enormous power to move a nation, even beyond the age in which he voices them—to rally the downhearted, to console the grieving, to appeal to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

More so than any President in the last century, Trump has proven himself woefully unsuited to these tasks. By spouting conspiracies at every turn, he has placed a cacophony of crackpots at the center of American discourse, in a tireless attempt to distract and divide.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current conservative columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a hard-hitting piece recently that detailed the damage caused by conspiracy theories such as Trump’s, including that they:

*Sometimes influence behavior (e.g., vaccination rates fall);
*Distract attention from other issues;
*Encourage cynicism and apathy;
*Undermine democratic dialogue; and
*Undermine the search for truth itself.
Grave risks to democracy

All of these are true as they apply to Trump, but his conspiracy theories create even graver risks:

*They undermine the notion of a common body of knowledge for decisionmakers. Facts should be the common ground on which people of different viewpoints can proceed. But how can policies be made when each side has its own “alternative facts”—and the other side is stigmatized as criminal or traitorous?

*They give prominence—and the chance to be believed—to the lunatic fringe of politics. Twitter suspended an account that featured a post Trump had retweeted. The account promoted conspiracy theories. 

*They corrode the credibility of agencies meant to protect American citizens and institutions. For the sake of his immediate political future, Trump has fostered belief in the existence of a “deep state” in a group of voters never previously likely to feel this way: GOP voters. But his success has come at the price of undermining public trust in the CIA and FBI when he might need them later. When he wants to certify to America and the world that Iran is violating arms agreements, for instance, how will he believed without certification by the CIA? 

*They dissipate the moral authority of the Presidency, which remains the indispensable steward of American interests to the wider world. Trump has “decapitated the government of the United States, leaving a distrusted and disrespected void where the head of state should be….In any genuine emergency the nation may face in the next few years, it will be effectively leaderlessess,” David Frum writes in his Trumpocracy:The Corruption of the American Republic.

*They function as a “dirty tricks” operation unseen since the days of Richard Nixon, who at least had enough respect for appearances that he farmed out to operative Donald Segretti the task of spreading baseless allegations about Edmund Muskie, Henry Jackson and Hubert Humphrey. Trump’s claims about other politicians (including rivals) have no more credibility than those Segretti promoted, and he is striving for what Segretti attained for his boss: the weakest possible Democratic candidate.
*They encourage the targeting of specific rivals, opening other candidates to physical harm. Trump may think he is only serving up what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “boob bait for the bubbas,” but he is wrong. In the current environment, who knows what materials might infect borderline personalities to strike at those they regard as murderers and threats to the republic?

Trump may have encountered only one conspiracy theory he hasn’t promoted: the one about Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election. Ironically enough, this might be the only conspiracy theory with the greatest possibility of being true, as its exposure has involved sworn grand jury testimony, intelligence intercepts, guilty pleas, and the President’s own inexplicable but unnerving statements supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin—even to the point of siding with him over his own intelligence agencies.

How far Trump’s empty conspiracy-mongering amounts to criminal activity is now up to Congress to decide. But at very least, they testify to a near-bottomless deprivation of character. 

Still craving legitimacy without exhibiting either honesty or dignity, Trump is ever more frantically pulling others down to his level, in the same way a bully drags into the mud a victim unexpectedly getting the better of him.

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