The Mainstreaming of Conspiracy
July 28, 2022
“We have to figure out what’s going on!”
“The world laughs at us. They won’t laugh when I’m president.”
– Donald J. Trump
It is a sign of the convulsive cadence of our era that conspiratorial thinking has pushed its way into the mainstream of political life. Some have even referred to this phenomenon as a “rise to power,” in which “conspiracist thinking that was once on the margins of American political life now sits at its heart.” This movement has certainly stimulated consideration among artists and academics, but are they approaching conspiracy in a progressive or even fair way?
One such work, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum’s A Lot of People Are Saying (ALPAS) (Princeton UP, 2019) stands out amongst the slew of recent titles on conspiracy theorizing and post-factuality because it proposes a new theory of conspiracy theory. They aim to help explain what it is that feels so different about recent shifts in our political culture, and they seek to point out the way to combat those shifts. The book provides a fresh overview of many of the most infamous conspiratorial crazes of recent times, and it does so by combining interdisciplinary social science research with anecdotes from the world of today. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the takeaway seems to be to hold fast to the status quo. In the end, the book may reinscribe the very chasm that gave rise to the mainstreaming of conspiracy, rather than genuinely attempting to overcome it. A reading of the book, though, might show us where we so often go wrong.
The book’s thesis is simple: We have witnessed the emergence of a new kind of conspiracy theory culture, which, unlike the “classic conspiracism” – think the JFK assassination or the moon landing – does not really put out proper conspiracy theories as much as it just vocalizes a conviction in conspiracy without seeking to gather and present evidence. This is the “new conspiracism” of the book’s subtitle. Thus, despite a fascinating argument (borrowed from Gordon S. Wood) that American political culture has always framed things in conspiratorial terms, due to a mismatch between an Enlightenment belief in individuals intentionally making history and a world shot through with indifferent error and lamentable happenstance, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that the conspiracism of today is distinct.
I’ll begin by summarizing their understanding of what a healthy democracy looks like before moving on to consider how the “new conspiracism” undercuts that vision of healthy democracy so potently.
Criteria for a Healthy Democracy, and What Kind of Politics Befits it?
Muirhead and Rosenblum believe that a healthy political life rests on healthy republican institutions. These institutions include a free press and universities, free and fair elections, dueling political parties, and a president who exercises judicious moral authority. It’s these institutions that are most under siege by the rise of New Conspiracism (NC).
The first of these, “knowledge-producing institutions,” generate, well, expert knowledge. Under this heading, we can place both a free press and a robust university system, which are meant to both inform the public about the latest developments while also equipping people to make political judgments by providing them with facts about the world.
The second major category follows from this bedrock of commonly accepted facts: free elections contested by political parties that offer competing narratives about how we should understand the facts provided by knowledge-producing institutions, and, more importantly, offer differing visions of what we should do about them. This is not as easy as it sounds, because parties need to “translate the pluralism of society into organized conflict,” but they must also “bring people together. . . in spite of the differences of interest and identity that divide them.” This delicate balancing act between mobilizing differing interests in a contested and sustained sense of shared common ground is the dance of politics that parties ordinarily facilitate.
At the helm of the whole system, one finds the president. According to the authors, presidents “shape the national agenda and they. . . confer recognition.” Not only that, but the authors also see the president as an agent or figure of identification, one whose leadership “brings people together” by persuading them to embrace an “ideal of unity that goes beyond what the contemporary facts might warrant.” Thus, the president is simultaneously a product of party politics even as they stand above those politics, serving as a sort of keel that maintains balance amongst the choppy seas of deliberation and contest. The president is thus a key element in the political life of the nation.
Thus these are the component parts of a healthy democracy: authoritative and independent institutions of knowledge production that generate a common ground of facts, dueling parties that offer competing narratives about how to interpret and act upon those facts, and an executive who both carries out an agenda but simultaneously references the common ground upon which the parties carry out their dance. Let’s call this a conservative liberalist picture of how political life operates.
It is these three institutions that Muirhead and Rosenblum see most threatened by the New Conspiracism.
For example, the authors observe that President Trump basically discarded the unifying function of the presidency and courted a typically populist conception of the people being divided into two groups, and governing on behalf of only one, pushing up against the other. More importantly, though, Trump has invited conspiratorial thinking into the White House in a way that is unprecedented. Trump speaks, administers through, and surrounds himself with conspiracy thinking.
The president is important, of course, but the new conspiracism is much deeper and its attack on these basic institutions much more complete.
In terms of party politics, the assault is twofold. On the one hand, the NC works to delegitimize party politics rather than engage its rivals, on the other hand, it disrupts the normal narrative work of party politics by distorting those narratives parties use to organize conflict. So while all politics works by building narratives of threat and salvation, the NC goes far beyond this. It “degrades and delegitimizes” its opponent as enemies of the political process, wrecking the “forms and terms of ordinary political disagreement.” The other party is no longer a loyal opposition, but something of an insurmountable enemy of the nation. This entails, of course, that governing through compromise is itself tainted as a kind of betrayal. Politics thus becomes the grounds of enmity and dismissal. What is worst of all, argue the authors, is that the NC is purely negative: It has no policy proposals or ideas for how to govern differently. It only wants to degrade and dismiss the political process as inherently corrupted.
Finally, the NC extends this enmity by denying the very common ground upon which parties maneuver. Knowledge-producing institutions, the legitimacy of the independent press, these pillars of ordinary (healthy) political life are seen as, well, obstacles to a genuine politics that serves the people. The bulk of ALPAS is dedicated to describing just how this process works. But suffice it to say that it’s the threat to these institutions which raises the alarm that the NC is, indeed, novel and degrading to democracy.
The New Conspiracism
What monster is capable of all this destruction? Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that the current degradation of political life is, and this is crucial, the result of the NC. The NC is conspiratorial thinking that does not actually put forward complex and arcane theories that help connect the dots and disclose nefarious dealings by the state and other political actors. The NC is “all accusation” and “innuendo.” It is conspiratorial thinking without theoretical gusto. Think of that time when candidate Trump suggested that Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in the assassination of JFK. “Even if it isn’t totally true,” Trump said, “there’s something there.” The tactics of the NC are thus corrosive but highly “elastic,” like an army that operates by shooting arrows before quickly withdrawing and refuses to be outflanked or to permit frontal engagements, waging an evasive guerrilla war.
The NC is a metastasized “disdain for facts” and for the authority of the institutions that conventionally produce them. The authors argue that the NC targets parties, knowledge, reality, and truth itself through this constant process of suggestion. Indeed, the NC operates through bare assertion. Unlike the delirious conspiracy theorizing of old, the NC merely repeats claims and withdraws at a moment’s notice when confronted before continuing to assert its claims anyway.
The authors argue that this is a feature and not a bug of the NC. NC is designed to generate errors and thus jam the gears of knowledge production and distribution. Fake news is not an innocent error, it is guided by Surkovian “malignant intent.” The NC denies common sense and “severs connections between assertions and belief” by making what sound like vague allusions and unsupported accusations everywhere it goes, almost as if it wanted to invent a new reality or at least sow disorientation as to the highest values and institutions in the land. In an interesting moment, the authors point out that despite positioning themselves as rigorous skeptics with regard to institutions of conventional power and authority, epistemic and otherwise, new conspiracists can be surprisingly suggestible, lending credibility to all sorts of ideas without asking for support, as long as the suggestions come from within their political “tribe.”
Turning to the field of psychology, the authors propose that NC operates according to three cognitive principles: intentionality, proportionality, and confirmation bias. Intentionality refers to the aversion to regard social events as accidental or random. Human beings have an intolerance for seeing the world as a chaotic indifferent place. Proportionality refers to the assumption that “we look for a cause commensurate with” events that take place. This means that, when big developments unfold, we naturally want to assume that big agents (or lots of small ones) were behind those events. Finally, confirmation bias refers to our tendency to look for facts that confirm what we already think and avoid or discount information that challenges us. In politics, this can come into play especially when “what we think” serves our psychological and material needs.
Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that these three operations coalesce to generate the kind of hermeticism they note in the NC. They claim that NC renews bonds of affinity amongst political tribes and can facilitate that unity by designating outsiders the in-group can scapegoat as a way of sustaining in-group identification. In their words: “Narratives of secret, nefarious intent are emotionally compelling because of the way they fit with the affinities, connections, and hostilities that constitute elements of identity.”
One might note the similarity between this description and the description of politics offered above, where politics offers unifying narratives and simultaneously sustains a common field of agonistic deliberation. But the authors of ALPAS suggest that the NC acts as a sort of degenerated version of politics, most especially because the NC is, despite its connection to the Republican Party, against party politics as such. Indeed, the NC is much more nefarious in its construction of narratives, jettisoning all reliance on bonafide policymaking. Again, the NC is only interested in delegitimizing without offering a constructive critique. It merely “sows mistrust, degrades political reasoning, and wrecks the forms and terms of ordinary political disagreement,” undercutting the foundations of a shared sense of ethical life.
The single contribution of the NC is to “pile fabulation on fabulation” by force of bare assertion and repetition, thereby generating a “disorienting schism” that goes far beyond the ordinary course of partisan polarization. In this new order, the authors argue, the “substantive grounds of division get eclipsed by the blazing fact of division itself.” This description, in fact, amounts to the claim that the NC is the result of a political culture that has exhausted itself. Much like a couple that complains about arguing while ignoring the fact that their arguments are the only thing keeping them together by helping them avoid the fact that beyond the arguing there is nothing left, the NC signals a web of affinities that feels so threatened and so without recourse that it must avail itself of a permanent siege mentality, reframing politics as a total war against an enemy that is all-powerful yet furtive and insidious.
This siege mentality, the only means by which the group can sustain itself, logically relies on a sort of “epistemic closure,” a self-authoring resistance to contradictory facts that paradoxically denies difference just as much as it relies upon it to stay alive. In this mode, claims that sustain the group must only be “true enough” to communicate belonging, and any contention to the contrary comes across as illegitimate gatekeeping from above. Here there is no truth, no common sense, save the one that consecrates the unity of the aggrieved group.
We fear conspiracist assaults on the integrity of parties and elections and on the authority of knowledge-producing institutions. We fear the conscription of thought, violations of common sense, and conspiracists’ claim to own reality. At stake in speaking truth to conspiracy is the reassertion of common sense and the stanching of the delegitimation of democracy.
Beyond the analysis summarized above, ALPAS has the great virtue of rich anecdotes and examples to illustrate its points and support its claims. Particularly prominent are the Pizzagate scandal, the conviction that illegal aliens handed Clinton the popular vote, and the whole birther phenomenon. It’s certainly useful to find all of these conspiracy non-theories gathered in one place.
That said, I was struck by the absence of some of the key conspiracy theories of the day. For example, it would be hard to say that Stephen Bannon or Stephen Miller do not have coherent theories to support their conspiratorial outlooks. And these theorists are as close to architects of the Trump coalition as anyone else. So what about that?
Most critically, the authors seem to neglect the most basic theory animating the resurgence of right-wing political mobilization over the past decade: Sam Francis’ theory of the top and bottom against the middle. If you want a conspiracy theory to help account for contemporary right-wing thought, this is the one. Indeed, as David Brooks has written, Francis designed the choreography Trump would dance to victory. According to Francis:
Today, the main political line of division in the United States is not between the regions of North and South (insofar as such regions can still be said to exist) but between elite and nonelite…the elite, based in Washington, New York, and a few large metropolises, allies with the underclass against middle Americans, who pay the taxes, do the work, fight the wars, suffer the crime, and endure their own political and cultural dispossession at the hands of the elite and its underclass vanguard. Today, the greatest immediate danger to middle America and the European-American civilization to which it is heir lies in the importation of a new underclass from the Third World through mass immigration.
This is, in my reading, the animating interpretive framework for the right wing of the US political spectrum. The elites of the country are allied with the underclass (minorities, and, especially, recent Latin American immigrants, such as myself) to squeeze the white middle classes. I was surprised that Muirhead and Rosenblum either did not come across or chose to exclude an analysis of this “top and bottom against the middle” thesis, which echoes in the thinking and writing of moderate conservatives, neo-reactionaries, and white nationalists alike.
This is what I found disappointing in ALPAS: I couldn’t shake the impression that the authors had not actually spent a lot of time actually engaging with the subjects of their study. Before closing, then, I’d like to attempt a small critique of the way Muirhead and Rosenblum carried their project out.
Conspiracy as Cause and Effect
My critique, in brief, is that the authors of ALPAS come across as dismissive and unsympathetic about their subjects. This posture weakens the book. Relatedly, the authors aim to treat the symptom rather than being curious about what the underlying causes of their object of study might be. This is unfortunate for a book that aims to heal the divide it’s addressing because it leads to the authors reproducing the very cultural chasm that gave birth to the NC, and thereby impairs their stated intention of helping the country overcome that chasm.
Firstly, as should be clear from my summary, the book consistently treats ersatz conspiracy theories as utterly baseless and deranged, and often as malicious. With the exception of a short excursus on the influence of fossil fuel money distorting climate change reporting, the authors are essentially dismissive of conservative attempts to make sense out of what is happening to their world. It depicts conservatives and Republicans as interested in division for its own sake, devoted to delegitimation and embarking on a project of pure deconstruction.
The “new conspiracism” is clearly an effect of something, not a cause. And the same applies to each individual non-theory. Unfortunately, beyond quick allusions to “righteous anger” and to suspicions toward conventional institutions, the authors do not probe here. They only spend brief moments considering the possible motivations for the NC, and don’t seem to consider this a central aspect of this sort of investigation. This reviewer has the opposite approach. Rather than assuming that contemporary conspiracists are pure dupes, one could assume that the new wave of conspiracist thinking is in some measure a legitimate expression of something gone awry, something that might demand the attention of people interesting in minding the gap between conspiracists and non-conspiracists (Republicans and Democrats, respectively, according to the authors).
I believe the authors place the cart before the horse when they attribute institutional corrosion to the NC. It’s clear that not all of us can be experts and that means, as the authors acknowledge, that advanced industrial societies must rely upon a certain degree of trust: in their representatives, in their institutions, in their “knowledge producers.” As the authors say, “the fiduciary basis of knowledge makes us vulnerable.” Yet not all of us feel equally vulnerable to our institutions, and, the more powerless one feels, the more injurious any breach of trust becomes. Coincidentally, many of the demographics associated by the authors with the NC are those that state, over and again, that they feel betrayed by the institutions meant to represent them. It’s little wonder that this has led to a rupture in the fiduciary relationship between people and their institutions. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, it’s no wonder that a people, scorned and disaffected, feeling the “humiliation of powerlessness,” would take recourse to alternative means of sense-making. The authors seem to make little of this, instead underscoring a somewhat circular logic that NC theories are illegitimate because they depart from the public transcripts relayed by official institutions. This position can only be entertained from a position of trust that conspiracists, by definition, lack.
This leads me to the second point of friction. Having set up a division between people who rely on official channels and those who rely on conspiracies, the authors can’t help but be dismissive of conspiracist thinking. But what if — give me some rope here — there is truth to the conspiracism? What if theoretical falseness, or lack of theory, evinces a deeper truth? The authors make a big point out of the centrality of innuendo to the NC. It’s not just that conspiracists are wrong, they are not-even-wrong, because they rely on seemingly cryptic references to knowledge that they know is there but refuse to speak out loud. The book's title is a reference to this: Trump often couches his statements in “a lot of people are saying.” And the authors insist that this proves the untenability of the NC. Essentially, it’s unsupported hearsay. But just because the authors are not privy to it does not mean that evidence and support for these theories do not exist. Perhaps the reason that evidence does not need to be stated is because it doesn’t need to be stated, in its proper context. Its intended audience is familiar enough with the dots that these theories seek to connect.
My point of course is not that we should give reason to conspiracy theories, but only that we should try to understand what questions these theories answer for people. Only then can people’s real concerns be understood. You can then appraise the validity of those concerns, but, formally speaking, the authors seem to react to the manner of expression of the concern first, and thereby inhibit their ability to elucidate them.
This constant reproduction of the divide they allege to repair is most emphatically displayed in the prescriptions that are offered. Essentially, the way to weather the storm of the NC is to hold on to the status quo ante bellum: confront falsity with facts and insist on the legitimacy of conventional institutional forms — the parties, the university, and the press. The answer seems to be “stay the course.” It follows logically from the choices the authors made in framing their analysis and presenting their case. But this is wholly inadequate given the concerns I just mentioned. I cannot see how insisting that nothing is the matter and dissenters (who happen to be at the height of their power) should just be dismissed. While I understand the political motivation for wanting to stay the course and sideline rivals, this is not the best way to generate genuine understanding, let alone being able to heal the rifts in trust and legitimacy that continue to motivate the NC.
 The word "tribe" here is used to mean "in-group" by the author.