This is the third 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
Colleen A. Sheehan is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies with the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership of Arizona State University.
Everybody knows that Donald Trump and his supporters are paranoid, unhinged, fanatics who think Progressives, the Academy, the Media, and Hollywood are out to destroy everything they believe in.
Everybody knows that Trumpers are out of touch with reality, imagining bogeymen and bugbears behind every political bush, and conjuring up conspirators who would lie, cheat, and steal elections just to rid the nation of Donald Trump.
Everybody knows that Trump and his followers are lunatics.
At least a lot of people are saying so.
According to Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in their new book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, Trump and his supporters pose a new kind of danger to democratic politics. Their claims of leftist conspiracies against them, accompanied by attacks on knowledge-producing institutions and the delegitimating of the opposition by means of insinuation and repetition rather than fact-gathering and argumentation, degrade democracy in America.
The best remedy for this disease is a renewal of trust and reliance on gatekeeping, knowledge-producing institutions and on the common sense of the people, the authors contend.
- Is this trend for the most part a problem/phenomenon of the right, not the left?
- Is it true that Trump and his supporters are paranoid nutcases who falsely imagine a left-wing conspiracy against Republicans, conservatives, and the traditional American way of life?
- Is this in fact a new and disturbing trend that degrades democracy, and which can be remedied in the way the authors suggest?
Who old enough can forget Hillary Clinton’s allegation of a “vast right wing conspiracy” out to destroy her husband? Recently Jeffrey Toobin published a book titled A Vast Conspiracy, supporting Hillary’s conspiracy claims (despite the fact that President Clinton actually did have sex with “that woman”).
And there is the accusation against Trump and Republicans of colluding with the Russians to influence the outcome of the 2016 election (is that tantamount to claiming the election was stolen?). After a thorough investigation, Mueller reported that there was insufficient evidence, and in some instances no evidence whatsoever, that would warrant conviction of a crime.
If conservatives in the U.S. are prone to thinking the left is conspiring against them, American liberals/progressives are no less inclined to conspiracism. My favorite new conspiracy claim against Trump, however, actually comes from BBC writer Anthony Zurcher, who asked: “Is Donald Trump a Democratic secret agent? Was he “sent by Democrats to destroy their [the Republican] party from within?”
In regard to the charge that Trump and conservative Republicans are conspiracists in a way that progressive Democrats are not, well, let’s just say that neither side seems to have a monopoly on collusion narratives or lack of demonstrable evidence. In many cases, it’s hard to say which is the pot and which is the kettle.
What about the charge of ungrounded suspicion, distrust, and even paranoia? Is the American right out of touch with reality?
To be sure, Pizzagate and QAnon are examples of sheer lunacy. And shirtless, horned helmet, Bison-man who took the dais during the January 6th mobbing of the capitol, is certainly a case in point. But is it so ridiculous to think that the Academy, the Media, and Hollywood lean more than a little to the political left and that some – more than a few – would go to great lengths to rid America of Trump and the Republican party?
When Madonna crowed that she had thought an awful lot about “blowing up the White House,” was it so odd for the President to suspect he might have some enemies in the Actors Guild?
When USA Today Opinion columnist Jason Sattler urged readers that “To save America, [they should] destroy the Republican Party of Trump,” was it senseless for Republicans to think that they had enemies in the media who were out to destroy them?
–Or when The Nation carried a piece by Thomas Geoghegan advocating the destruction of the Republican party as well as the eradication of the Constitution’s checks and balances – and all those little constitutional “nooks and crannies in the cobwebbed architecture of our political system in which Republicans can hide out and bide their time before attempting another hostile takeover of our democracy”?
Add to this the proclaimed progressivist agenda to transform the American way of life, to make this allegedly bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic nation into a radically different kind of political order.
Under fire is Americans’ “ancient faith” (as Lincoln termed it) that holds that all men are created equal, and the idea that not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character is what truly counts (as Martin Luther King declared). In their place woke social justice warriors have substituted identity politics and cancel culture. Heterosexual, cis-gendered, privileged white males are the villains; homosexual, transgendered, non-privileged people of color are the victims.
This is the new morality at universities and colleges, in schools, in the media, and in corporate tech America, and it is spreading swiftly and nimbly throughout the society at large.
Middle America mistrusts the intellectual elites who want to destroy the America they know. They clearly perceive and feel the enormous mindset-divide that separates them from the Harvard intellectuals, Hollywood celebrities, and New York Times columnists.
It really should not be so surprising that middle America suspects there is a concerted effort – even a movement afoot — to destroy what they believe in. What is rather surprising, however, is how out of touch and tone deaf the intellectual left is to the way these Americans think and feel. Muirhead and Rosenblum seem to suffer from this same disconnect.
This brings us to the third set of questions: are Muirhead and Rosenblum correct that there is a new kind of “conspiricism” in our time? Is it something we should be unusually concerned about?
It is certainly the case that with the advances in mass communication technology, especially social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc., the nation and the world have become a smaller place. Ideas – both good and bad; and passions – both sympathetic and prejudicially harmful – are communicated almost instantly and to a very large, almost limitless, audience. Moreover, the ability to post anonymously, to retweet, to like and dislike without reasons given, and to cancel and unfriend, have exacerbated thoughtlessness, the spread of rumors and falsehoods, and cynicism.
But this problem is part of a general phenomenon that is as old as human nature itself. –Distrust and suspicion regarding what the other side is up to. –Reading more into things than might be there. –Passing your misgivings and guesses along to others without knowing the facts, and telephoning the rumors and suspicions conveyed to you, to others.
Muirhead and Rosenblum advocate more respect for and confidence in knowledge-producing institutions, such as the university professorate, experts in administrative agencies, and experienced investigative reporters and writers, which would in turn result in a more settled and sane version of public opinion, or common sense.
The difficulty is that the views and values of the knowledge-producing institutions are precisely those that are antithetical and abhorrent to middle America. It is not the case that the supporters of Trump produced no evidence for their disagreement with and distrust of the intellectual elite of the nation. In general they did. The catch is that these same intellectual elites are the ones analyzing the reasons middle America supported Trump (and rejected them and their vocal admonitions against Trump), and they just don’t get it.
For the most part, what is going on is not that conservative, working class middle America has lost touch with reality and is spreading its ungrounded conspiratorial notions to the detriment of democracy, but rather that our nation is in the midst of an existential polarization crisis. This crisis is real, it is dangerous, and it threatens to destroy our democracy. The American citizenry is divided into two camps who disagree about the most fundamental things. This is what civil wars and revolutions are made of.
Unfounded conspiracy theories and rumors that stick despite the lack of evidence are as old as the flat earth theory, which, by the way, has made a comeback in recent years.
Or there’s the 5G conspiracy: Did you know that the new wireless technology caused the Covid-19 pandemic?
Or there’s Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. As those of you who have read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice know, it was not long before everybody in Longbourn knew he was “the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.” Indeed, “everybody says that he is eat up with pride” and “everybody hoped that he would never come there again.”
“Everybody knows” was a prior century’s equivalent of “a lot of people are saying.” Such is the nature of truths “universally acknowledged.” They’ve been around forever, and of course they may or may not be truths at all.