This is the first in a series of several essays by different authors on the issue of conspiracies. This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom
Nancy L. Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University. They are the co-authors of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy upon which this essay is based.
On “Day One” of the Trump Administration the National Park Service published photographs that showed the Inaugural crowd to be sizable, but not larger than Obama’s, as Trump had boasted of. Immediately, he hit Twitter to claim the photos were doctored.
This was not mere bluster; it was a conspiracy charge directed against career civil servants in the government he led. The single charge soon became a flurry and then a blizzard culminating in the Stolen Election Conspiracy and the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The conspiracism that has come to envelope American political life is distinctive: it is what we call conspiracy without the theory.
Classic conspiracy theory works by amassing evidence and argument to persuade us that things are not what they seem: the conspiracy theorist labors to connect all the dots and to unmask the pattern that reveals the hidden power of those with malignant intent. Conspiracy without the theory dispenses with the burden of explanation. “Rigged!” – one word substitutes for argument and evidence.
Machiavelli taught how to lie well, to be taken as telling the truth. Today’s conspiracists do not care if their lies are disproved. What validates conspiracism is not factual evidence but repetition. Asked whether George Soros was secretly funding the caravan of migrants trekking toward the U.S. border, Trump repeated his mantra: “I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of people say yes.” When a lot of people repeat conspiracy charges, they become true enough. This is how Senators Cruz and Hawley justified overturning the Electoral College results in the 2020 presidential election. They did not adduce any evidence of fraud. It was enough to say, “By any measure, the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election exceed any in our lifetimes.”
Conspiracy without the theory does not try to make the hidden machinations of power legible, as classic conspiracy does. It makes sense of things in a purely partisan way, by showing one side of the political contest to be illegitimate, part of a malevolent scheme to destroy the country.
Take Pizzagate, according to which Hilary Clinton engaged in a child sex-trafficking ring centered in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. There was no actual event that Pizzagate explains, and there is no evidence; the pizzeria in question does not even have a basement. What Pizzagate does is show Clinton to be the repository of pure evil. Or as Alex Jones put it “a psychopathic demon from hell….”
That’s why instead of going away after Hilary Clinton returned to private life in 2016, it metastasized into something larger and even more toxic: QAnon. An apocalyptic interpretation of message board clues left by “Q,” allegedly a government insider, QAnon casts Trump as a political messiah secretly preparing for a violent confrontation with a great cabal of traitors led by the Clintons, Barack Obama, and George Soros.
The danger is this: conspiracism degrades democracy by delegitimating political opposition and knowledge-producing institutions. Because these are the very institutions that bring pluralism into political life, they must be delegitimated by those who claim to own reality and brook no contradiction.
The legitimacy of political opposition is not merely an idea, it is a practice. And it depends on a demanding ethic: it takes self-discipline to acknowledge that one’s party is just a part, to resist the urge to claim to represent all real Americans, and to take any step to elude inevitable rotation in office. The ethic is acted out when office holders refrain from using their power to disenfranchise, harass, intimidate, humiliate, jail, exile or murder the opposition. And when officials who lose elections peacefully leave.
Pizzagate, QAnon, Rigged! —all of these delegitimate opposition candidates and party leaders. The appropriate response to an opponent cast as an enemy of the nation is not to tolerate but to “lock her up.” And the appropriate response to a rigged election is not to concede, but to—well, we all saw it on January 6, 2021. “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide,” Trump asserted. This is referred to as the Big Lie. But it took two “big lies” to incite the assault on the Capitol: a stolen election and the claim that the opposition is an enemy. If an election is riddled with fraud, perhaps we lobby to fix the process and we organize for the next cycle. But if opposition is illegitimate, we can’t wait or we “won’t have a country anymore.”
While the delegitimation of opposition undercuts democracy, the assault on knowledge-producing institutions makes governing itself impossible. Trump turned the term “fake news” into a conspiratorial charge according to which the media, centered on The New York Times, was conspiring to defeat him. This was not a matter of planting seeds of doubt or “fact skepticism” or the perennial charge of liberal bias; the aim was to destroy the legitimacy of the “MSM” by casting it as an enemy cabal that has no claim to consideration, much less authority.
The Deep State Conspiracy extended the attack from the media to the government itself by eliminating the very possibility of impartial competence. Trump claimed in 2016 that the unemployment rate during Obama’s presidency was “one of the biggest hoaxes in politics.” By 2020, even some Democrats came to see the unemployment rate as reported during Trump’s presidency as rigged. It does not stop with the economists. The Deep State Conspiracy encompasses knowledge-producing institutions wholesale, including experts on health and food safety, technical advisory boards, the Federal Reserve, climate scientists, government auditors, the national intelligence apparatus, the CDC. Conspiracy eliminates the specialized knowledge that governing requires. Governing devolves into ungoverning.
The term delegitimation is used promiscuously today. Delegitimation is not the equivalent of opposing or discrediting or sowing doubt or mistrust. Government often fails to keep promises or to enforce laws fairly or to fight corruption; it squanders our trust and the result is mistrust. To delegitimate a democratic institution is to go much further, and to drain it of meaning, value, and authority so that it no longer has a claim to consent or even compliance. That, we now know, is conspiracism’s distinctive work.
As we were finishing A Lot of People Are Saying we wondered when conspiracism might be returned to the fringes of public life. We expected that Republican officials would speak truth to conspiracy when it emanated from the Right, and we had confidence that the partisan connection—the trust that voters have for their representatives—would mitigate conspiracism’s corrosive effect.
We were wrong. With only a few exceptions, Republican officials made their peace with Trump’s conspiracism. Rather than speak truth to their own supporters, some were mute, and others cynically fanned the flames.
In the comparative calm of the Biden Administration, it seems possible that conspiracism might be disempowered. But what facilitates conspiracism today is not going away. First, social networking that not only allows anyone to say anything to everyone in the world for free, but also creates among conspiracists a new collective political identity. And second, ambition for power and money propels some to use any tool to make good on their desire. We have learned that conspiracism works. You can ride it all the way to the White House. Will a new generation watching and learning from the example of today’s politicians refuse to truck in conspiracism? Or will some of them use it even more skillfully—and more destructively?
Along with others, in other writings we have offered many ways to respond to conspiracism’s degradation of democracy. Ultimately however, the most effective antidote is the common sense of the people – the very quality that Thomas Paine confidently invoked at the dawn of the democratic age. But common sense needs fortification from a public culture where knowledge is acknowledged and nourished, and where one does not mistake one’s opponents for enemies. It needs leaders who care more about the fate of constitutional democracy than they do about themselves.