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The attorney general’s FBI conspiracy theory is all conspiracy and no theory

- April 16, 2019

Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s new book, “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” comes out today. I asked them how their theories applied to modern American politics, including Attorney General William P. Barr’s suggestion that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign.

HF: Your book talks about how a new kind of conspiratorial thinking has taken hold in American democracy. How does it differ from traditional conspiracy theories?

RM & NR: Conspiracy and theory have been decoupled so we now have conspiracy without the theory. Conspiracy theory aims at explaining some otherwise unintelligible, unbelievable event. 9/11 “Truthers” and conspiracists who create narratives about JFK’s assassination connect the dots to try to expose the secret causes of events.

Conspiracy without the theory dispenses with the burden of explanation. There isn’t any insistent demand for proof, or exhaustive amassing of evidence, or close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. Instead, we get bare assertion: “rigged!” — a one-word exclamation evokes fantastic schemes and the awesome capacity to mobilize 3 million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president. Or it takes the form of innuendo. Or “I’m just asking questions.” Or President Trump’s mantra: Asked whether George Soros was funding the so-called caravan of refugees trekking northward to the U.S. border, Trump replied: “I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of people say yes.”

When Trump tweeted that Barack Obama had ordered the FBI to tap his phones, he repeated his mantra: “a lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign.”

Barr’s testimony at Senate hearings on April 11 conforms to this logic. “I think spying did occur,” Barr says. But he did not claim to have evidence of the government spying on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and only made a bare assertion, made emphatic by his insistence that “it’s a big deal.” As today’s conspiracists do, Barr then shifts to “just asking questions”: “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it.”

Conspiracy theory, warranted or unwarranted, requires investigation and research. By contrast, Barr’s public performance demonstrates the immediate gratification of conspiracist claims. The one inflammatory word, “spying,” is easy to communicate. “Just asking questions” is easy to disown.

HF: You write about how a “malignant normality” can take hold when powerful figures adhere to conspiratorial thinking, so that “conspiracist accounts of reality can be realized” through their actions. Does the reported investigation into allegations that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign fit the logic you describe, or is it something different?

RM & NR: Yes, Robert Jay Lifton’s concept fits this case. Malignant normality is more than desensitization to conspiracism. Today’s conspiracists claim to own reality and impose their compromised sense of reality on the nation. With no evidence, Trump asserts the government conspired to spy on his campaign, and now the attorney general reaffirms the claim. They have the power to shape the institutional response — lawyers and civil servants in the Justice Department are enlisted to investigate questionable claims aimed at “locking her up.” Other aspects of institutional derailment include the claim that migrants at the southern border constitute an “invasion,” and dispatch of armed troops to meet the apparently nonexistent threat.

HF: You argue that this kind of reasoning is quite different from traditional partisanship on the left and right, which can be healthy. How so?

RM & NR: Partisanship is about disagreement. Today’s conspiracism makes it impossible even to disagree. Instead of dividing Left and Right, it creates a fundamental polarization about what it means to know something. Conspiracism imposes a distorted way of knowing and a distorted reality, one where liberals planned the neo-fascist protest in Charlottesville or where the Sandy Hook massacre was staged as part of a secret plan to pass gun control legislation, or (on the other side) how there is a “deep state” that will rescue America from Trump. It attacks even innocuous knowledge-producing institutions like the National Weather Service that illuminate the ordinary facts that make discussion and debate possible.

Partisan disagreement can be paralyzing or destructive, but it can also be creative. In any case, democracy requires regulated party rivalry and the norm of legitimate opposition. Today’s conspiracism rejects both. Conspiracism is purely destructive. That’s why, in spite of the momentary alignment of the new conspiracism with radical conservatism, we do not think it is bound to one particular ideology.

HF: What are the consequences of the new conspiracism for democracy?

RM & NR: Today’s conspiracism threatens to make democratic government itself unworkable and therefore seem unworthy. This is what we mean by delegitimation. More than mistrust, it saps the meaning, value, and authority from institutions. This is not a revolution or a coup d’etat. It rusts through the metal of constitutional democracy.

What if an admonition like Trump’s — “Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” — is repeated over and over, over time? A state of disorientation may not be personally sustainable. Some people will muster the resources to assert the shared grounds of common sense in their own lives and in public life. Others will acquiesce in conspiracist narratives as “true enough”. They will adjust. The most likely scenario for many, however, will be retreating into private life and distancing from news about public life. Call it resignation, or numbing.

That would eviscerate democracy from within. It does not take an alternative political ideology — communism, authoritarianism, theism, fascism, nativism — to delegitimate democracy. Angry, sterile conspiracism may work perfectly well on its own.