Time for myth breaking and complacency busting. Time even for equal-opportunity offending. We all hold pre-conceptions, assumptions and prejudices, often without prudent scrutiny. Not all overwrought biases—seeds for conspiracy theories—are created equal. Today we enjoy the (phony) golden age of (phony) rightwing nuttiness. Have unhinged schemers no shame? Does the total refutation (of fact, context and motivation) of deluded projections never invade titanium bubbles? Like old soldiers, wacko conspiracies never die, just fade away. Not once did inerrant Trump withdraw, nor deny, nor correct his worst, most appallingly diseased fabrications.
No doubt Birthers still spout the comic book hokum about Obama’s origins. If QAnon were even 1% correct, produce any mangled body parts from munchkins getting munched on. Gosh, not even Trump, scion of the Seven Deadly Sins, was tagged for cannibalism. If climate change were even remotely a hoax, imagine the inconceivable organization and Orwellian thought-control to infiltrate the 97% of data-obsessed specialists who sound the same dire warnings.
Large-scale hoaxes are devilishly hard to pull off – and today’s right has the worst batting average going. Conspiracies if real almost always unravel over time. Name a visible gang who could pull off a national hoax on vaccine mandates, illegal voting, gun control (confiscation tomorrow), the Trump Persecution Complex or climate denial—let alone cause an immigrant invasion or impose Sharia law (remember that one?). Who imagines a roomful of dim, egocentric billionaires (Trump’s hardly alone) agreeing on the weather, let alone the perfect, covert, never-revealed plots to destroy the planet? Alas, the means, hardly invisible, are bad laws, systemic levers and tax loopholes.
Imagine a confederacy of “genius” Democrats who don’t corrupt an entire election—but “stole” only one selective office from one victim. Isn’t getting more Democratic votes an infinitely simpler task? If Dems could rig the presidential race, they’d dominate the Senate and the House, plus demolish Trumpism for good. Trump bunk.
TribalThink for tribal types
To appreciate the force of conspiracy thinking, TribalThink afflicts more than the unintelligent, uneducated, or disempowered. These qualities, however, do help explain how all those “no-one-tells-me-what-to-do” rugged individualists embrace the crudest, fact-free conspiracies, hook, line and sinker. According to scholars Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, “Conspiracism” is a “narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.” At the heart of conspiracism is mental comfort food that deflects complex, threatening (often fabricated) disturbances – or hated outcomes, like low-achieving whites losing undeserved “entitlements.” Fear incites fictions.
Thus, racists, defiant “their white America” can’t be ruled by a black president, made Obama an illegitimate, Muslim “furriner.” Since insurrectionists can’t imagine “their exceptional America” despoiled by a “sleepy,” senile (yet election-thieving!) Biden, only nutcase connivance’s resolve their “cognitive dissonance”—the unbearable tension of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs. Folks afflicted with confirmation bias (who only reinforce beliefs) exhaust themselves finding “evidence” to support folly. Co-conspirators, needing “secret” knowledge to buoy low self-esteem, abandon all logic and default to make-believe (QAnon).
“Conspiracies” hardly equal
But consider more defensible “conspiracies” some of us hold. Many Sanders fans complained the DNC loaded the primary dice in 2016 (which they did), but evidence is mixed whether Sanders was a shoe-in who would have won in the end. The 2020 shortfalls suggest Sanders did not have enough Dem support (with too many scared, right-leaning primary voters). Ditto, progressives view the establishment media (then and now) as unsympathetic to reformers like Warren and Sanders or “the Squad.” True certainly, but the story involves more than media resistance to structural reform: the cable T.V. monopolies, compressed time slots (that preclude policy complexity, let alone education), hard-bitten, skeptical journalists, plus excessive attraction to the latest disasters, displacing politics. Despite early fears, Jeff (Amazon) Bezos’ ownership has not altered the independence or multiplicity of voices at the Washington Post. Trump didn’t get billions of dollars of free publicity because the press liked him or thought him qualified (au contraire); the obscene, attention-getting mix of gall, novelty, and outrageous won out.
And yet collective beliefs deliver a measure of truth. Don’t many progressives assume a unified cabal of greedy billionaires who regularly organize purely self-serving conspiracies? Were that they were as smart at politics as accumulating treasure. In fact, not all billionaires are right-wing fanatics, some favoring higher taxes, more educational opportunities and safety nets for the impoverished. Billionaires do not unilaterally cheer on record-breaking defense spending, foreign invasions, and dark federal spending.
Because profits for green energy technology projects are emerging, distrusted Wall Street types now promote ESGs—“Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance” funds, clear alternatives to exploitative fossil fuel/drilling/tobacco/mining enterprises. Price fixing and monopolies certainly exist but both the government (last week fining generic drug makers $450 million for misconduct) and the free-wheeling internet has checked higher prices. Post-2008 banking regulations – and the enormous growth of new financial options such as crypto, non-Fed currencies, innovative debt alternatives for mortgage and consumer loans, lessen progressive fears that five banking behemoths manipulate the entire economy. Under pressure, some lenders no longer fund fossil fuel projects or other reactionary programs.
Glacial changes, despite all
Clearly, progressives rightly think a virtual fossil-fuel conspiracy has driven much climate change denial. And yet, even huge oil giants (and gas-dependent players) couldn’t impede the Electric Vehicle (EV), hybrid/battery revolution hitting its stride. Other less organized inputs buttress climate denial: energy-driven employment, regional political pressures, and misguided skepticism that “little old us” can poison an entire planet so big its actual shape was a mystery until 500 years ago. Fossil-fuel scheming (knowing impacts, early on) qualifies as a conspiracy, echoing indefensible conspiratorial nonsense that smoking cigarettes doesn’t cause cancer. Cough, cough, just allergies.
Other plausible conspiracies persist: a “ruling class” with obscene riches has inordinate leverage on nearly everything. The hegemony of two compromised political parties does “rig” the electoral system against activist reformers, certainly third parties. But that imbalance is a far cry from infantile delusions that every Trumper loss de-legitimatizes that election. That’s craven lunacy, not conspiracy. Still Trump conspires against election laws, majority rule and accurate voting tabulations. But that doesn’t mean, per some recent fear-mongering, he will succeed in destroying the efficacy of elections. This bozo can’t mount a campaign against the most visible (most fixable) pandemic in history, okayed a deviant administration loaded with nincompoops and sleazebags, and was that rare incumbent to get routed by an even older senior citizen. Not all over-the-top, red state voter suppression bills will survive court challenges, even by otherwise defective judges from the Federalist Society.
So I don’t argue that powerful, concentrated interests don’t collude or organize to manipulate public opinion, terrible tax and inheritance rules, or underwhelming commercial/industrial regulations. But few are hidden and thus more dangerous. The current systemic inequities didn’t just happen: some group over time worked hard to favor the few and deny true opportunity and legitimate freedom for the many. But where’s the direct correction between the eruption of absurdist right-wing conspiracies and real-world political success? Where’s all that promised winning? The irrational addiction to ludicrous, epic conspiracies has blunted the chance to widen the right-wing base, a year ago quite a do-able task.
Like maturation in life, politics is about growth; screw it up and brace for stagnation, even incapacity. Trump’s conspiracy against his own party (specific and general) decreases his success chances in 2024 and, worse still, leaves the right bereft of electable national figures. Take Pence for one, dead for a ducat nationally. Which other deviant reactionaries could command more than (suppressed) red states?
What happens when old age, if not related COVID residuals, renders the biggest blowhard null and void? Lies, slanders, and conspiracies still attract media attention, but without deliverables won’t revitalize a diminished, insular, regional Republican Party. What changes before 2024 if the GOP can’t exit the pandemic-decimated, insurrectionist Trump train wreck? Let’s not underestimate the potency of the status quo to ward off today’s uniquely self-destructive derangement syndrome. Even functional elections will survive the worst Trumpist assaults – and with a revitalized Second Progressive Era (in reaction to the nastiest extremism), even bizarro America can stumble forward. What’s the real-world alternative?