Monday April 22, 2019
Conspiracy Theorist in Chief
There's a good, sad article by The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert about conspiracy theorists called (in print) “That’s What You Think” and (online) “What's New About Conspiracy Theories?”
(SEO has made dullards of us all.)
Kolbert reviews four new books about conspiracy theories and theorists; about what's new and what isn‘t, and tries to lay it all out.
One thing that’s new is this thing; where you‘re reading this. The like-minded find each other easier online, and if initially we thought this meant scrapbook makers and baseball card collectors, experience has shown it’s often the worst of the worst. There are certain subreddits you don't want to go down.
“This category of recent conspiracy theorists is really a global network of village idiots,” Pozner tells Merlan. “They would have never been able to find each other before, but now it's this synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. There are haters from Australia and Europe and they can all make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds.”
YouTube is key, too, since it and other sites tend to push users toward more sensational versions of the material they‘re already watching. Their motives, says Kolbert, is commercial, not political, but the result is the same: extremism.
Classic conspiracy theories, Kolbert writes, tend to try to make sense of something that shatters our worldview: JFK assassination, 9/11. There has to be a reason for this unreasonable thing. But one thing that sets theorists like QAnon apart, Kolbert writes, “is a lack of interest in explanation.” What’s the child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton out of the basement of a DC pizza place that doesn't really have a basement trying to make sense of? “There is often nothing to explain,” Kolbert quotes one author. “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”
And then there's Trump, the man who reps our loutish age:
Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it's been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it's those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.
It's beyond his birtherism and “fake news” and “witchhunt.” Business Insider lists 19 examples of his conspiracy theories. I didn't know, for example, he'd floated rumors that Justice Scalia had been murdered rather than died of natural causes.
Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can't be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.
Those are the forces against us.