Life in the age of conspiracies

Over dinner a few nights ago, Stew, two friends and I, talked—actually gossiped—about another couple of guys we all know. This other couple is very politically conservative and believers in conspiracy theories of all sorts, from jet contrails causing cancer to Neil Armstrong not really having landed on the moon, and, I imagine, the entire canon of sinister plots attributed to Hillary Clinton, her handling of emails, her involvement in the Benghazi fiasco and her public life in general.

Yet these two contrarians, mind you, are not tin-foil hatted loonies, or ignorant bumpkins, but perfectly serious, amiable, intelligent people. What gives?

Our conversation reminded me of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” an essay that first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, and was later that year expanded into a book. In it, Hofstadter explores the prominent role of conspiracy theories and “movements of suspicious discontent” in U.S. politics, though he makes it clear they are not exclusively American phenomena.

And what has made the essay a classic—it’s still on many college reading lists—is its continued relevance up to the present day of Big Oil and Big Pharma, of a fetid Washington Swamp that urgently needs draining, or a sinister Deep State, all part of an ever-growing edifice of conspiracy theories that guide political discussions in the U.S. today.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Conspiracy theories abound across the political spectrum though they seem to sprout and thrive most readily in right-wing circles, particularly in the presently contentious Trumpian political climate, of Us versus Them.

Some particularly outrageous examples come to mind: Pizzagate, which sought to implicate the Clintons in a child sex ring operating out of a Washington, D.C. restaurant and pizzeria called “Comet Ping Pong”; the “birther” allegations that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and his academic credentials were phony—a vile calumny never explicitly repudiated by Trump; or that the atrocity at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, most of them children, was all a hoax perpetrated by who-knows-what-or-who.

But before right-wing readers rise up crying whatabout-ism, let me point out that liberals and self-described progressives then and again also go fishing in Lake Wackadoodle for their own sinister plots.

A good sum-up of how the left feeds its own conspiracy machine is “How the Left Lost Its Mind,” in The Atlantic Magazine, though the author admits that wacko leftist publications and personalities, “do not yet wield the same influence in the Democratic Party that their counterparts do in the GOP.”

The perfect storm of contemporary political conspiracies probably began to form forty years ago, due to various factors. McKay Coppins, a writer for The Atlantic, blames Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House for, beginning in 1979, shattering any pretense of bipartisanship or legislative comity and turning politics into a blood sport that persists and in fact thrives more than ever today, under the Trump administration.

“[F]ew figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise,” Coppins wrote. “During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.” 

The rise of the internet and the so-called social media, which offers a forum to anyone—liberal or conservative—to opine about anything—truth or balance be damned—also laid the base for the age of conspiracies in which we live today. That, plus the polarization of cable television news, in which it is often difficult to tell the difference between straight reportage, fiction or fevered partisan rants. 

The horror of 9/11, 18 years ago, acted as accelerant to the fires of partisan conspiracies and baseless rumors, by adding the legitimate element of fear, most of all, but also of Islamophobia, racism and immigrant-bashing, as Americans struggled for answers to the real threat of terrorism hitting the U.S. mainland for the first time in our history. Cynical politicians moved in for the kill, injecting their own crackpot theories about the dangers of Islamic Sharia law taking over the land, and other nonsense.  

Donald Trump, though, masterfully weaved all these threads for his own political advantage.  Here’s a guy who’s a master at media manipulation and use of social media, and who dispatches tweets by the dozen, often filled with vile accusations, name-calling and outright falsehoods. Not true, no problem.

With the ink still fresh on the papers with news of the suicide of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Trump retweeted a ludicrous conspiracy theory suggesting Bill Clinton might have been involved. That’s what passes for political intercourse these days. 

If Trump is defeated in 2020, he and his supporters no doubt will cry electoral fraud. Win or lose,  he’s not likely to fade into decorous retirement, like George W. Bush or Barack Obama did after leaving office. The age of conspiracies is not going to go away soon. 

That’s too bad for the rest of us, with a vested interest in the business of honorable government capable of promoting the general welfare, something that cannot take place in a miasma of mutual distrust, or “truthiness,” where facts, logic or intellectual rigor take a back seat to partisan warfare, no matter the cost.  

Still truth does indeed matter, especially in a democracy, in which citizens are called to make rational choices about their representatives and public policy that must be based on facts and reliable information, not self-serving quackery.    

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