Conspiracy without theory: A new book casts today’s conspiracism in a revealing new light

Once one aim of conspiracism was to explain confounding events. Trump uses it only to foster doubt, fear and anger

By Paul Rosenberg

Published April 25, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)


Interest in conspiracy theories has been rising fairly steadily for a very long time, before Donald Trump raised attention to a fever pitch. But now a new book argues that, in a sense, the emperor has no clothes: there’s no theory to speak of in Trump’s conspiracism—and he’s not alone. A good deal of what’s bewildering in the present moment may well be due to how different this new conspiracism is — and how much spreading that bewilderment is built into its DNA. Plausible, implausible or downright crazy, conspiracy theory at least attempts to make sense of things. The new conspiracism? Not so much. Which is why it’s so important to make sense of it, and what it’s doing to our politics and our public life. So Salon sat down to talk with Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum about their book, “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.” It has been edited for clarity and length.

"Warranted or not, classic conspiracism is conspiracy with a theory," you write. "The new conspiracism is something different." How is that so? What is it missing and what does it have instead?

Muirhead: The word conspiracy and theory almost always seem to go together. It's hard to say one without saying the other. Anyone with a conspiracy is a conspiracy theorist, but really, conspiracy theory is a very special thing. It gathers data, it mimics the techniques of science or investigative journalism, it connects the dots to form an explanation to make the world make sense, and to make power look accountable. It’s sometimes very, very wrong; it’s sometimes absurd; it's sometimes true.

What we're seeing today is not anything like that. The conspiracism that dominates our politics, that's in the papers every single day now has no interest in theory or explanation. It takes the form of bare assertion—“Rigged!”—or maybe it takes the form of a concoction, a fabulous concoction like Pizzagate. It’s not at all clear what the story about ‘Hillary Clinton is an international sex trafficker’ is making sense of out in the world.

So what does it offer instead?

Rosenblum: It offers the gratification of a kind of bare assertion, or ‘just asking questions’ innuendo, or validating the conspiracists’ claim by saying, “a lot of people are saying,” which is Trump's mantra. And it has a real effect in the world. It offers an opportunity for people to assent — and they're not assenting to a theory, an explanation of something, they’re not assenting to a set of facts or to an argument — they’re assenting to the aggressiveness and the targetedness of the conspiracists’ claim. And this assent offers support for the President and others to use these conspiracy claims to act in the real political world.

Muirhead: It probably offers the satisfaction of knowing that your side is entirely right, the other side is entirely evil. It's gratifying, I think, to paint the opposition as so criminal that it deserves to be imprisoned, because then you never have to doubt yourself, you never have to wonder whether the other side might have something to say that's worth listening to. While the new conspiracism doesn't really explain anything that shows Hillary Clinton to be a very evil person worthy of being locked up, I think it offers a certain kind of comfort.

Rosenblum: And it lowers the bar, to assent to these often bizarre and always unsupported claims. I'll give you an example, of what “true enough” sounds like. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Press Secretary, was asked about Trump's tweet of a video that falsely purported to show a Muslim migrant committing an assault; and her answer to the press's correct question was, “Whether it's a real video, the threat is real.” That is to say, it lowers the bar of assent. It doesn't have to be true, in its facts or in its reasoning. It's true enough in making sense of the world that people who share in these political animuses and political goals can agree to, and acquiesce in.

It’s striking how the concept of ‘true enough’ contrasts with how classic conspiracy theories are concerned with being exactly true. It gives new conspiracists a tremendous amount of flexibility. Could you expand on the ways in which different ways in which the new conspiracism gets used?

Muirhead: Take the allegation that Democrats conspired, that liberals conspired, that leftists conspired to create a clash of protesters and white nationalist in Charlottesville. This is a very common kind of conspiratorial allegation. And one member of Congress said, he endorsed it, he said, “I'm not saying it's true, but I am saying that is completely possible.” And that's how he lowers the standards. He's not asking you to believe that is true. He’s actually inviting you to displace the question of whether it's true — to put that out of your mind — and only consider whether in some possible world, it's plausible. If you can get there, you can join him in the conspiratorial allegation.

Rosenblum: And validation of these conspiracist claims is not, once again, in evidence or argument. The validation comes from repetition and assent. This is where the social media is so important for the new conspiracism, because the validation is a matter of retweeting and liking and sharing. Even though they lack evidence, of these conspiracists claims coming from the center of power are true enough, they can actually measure that a lot of people are saying and accommodating to it.

Muirhead: Innuendo is substituting for evidence and facts. Here's a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump voiced just a couple weeks ago at a Republican fundraiser. He says that elections that elect Democrats are probably fraudulent. And here's a direct quote, he says, “There were a lot of close, close selections that seem to every single one of them went to Democrats. If it was close, they say the Democrat. There's something going on, fella.”

‘There something going on,’ that's the conspiratorial allegation.  There's no evidence, there's no observation that we’re trying to make sense of, there's nothing in the world that's being explained, there's no theory. It is just a vague innuendo, ‘There's something going on.’ Close elections that elect Democrats, that doesn't seem right. There’s something going on. And he's inviting his listeners, his supporters, his base, to think that there is a conspiracy, to undertake wide-scale large-scale election fraud, and not to accept the results of elections, especially close ones in which Democrats are the victors.

Rosenblum: One consequence is that you really are altering, in a dramatic and degrading way, the content of public political discourse. You can't argue or disagree about these conspiracist claims that come without evidence. You can't have politics as usual of any kind, and ultimately we argue — and this is why we see the subject as so urgent — we argue that what happens over time is the delegitimization of various kinds of political institutions and political norms and so on.

Yes, I was going to ask about delegitimation. You write that it "poses a unique threat to democracy: it rejects the meaning, value, and authority of democratic practices, institutions, and officials."  So I'd like you to address any of the particulars you think are most immediately important.

Muirhead:  Right now there are two ways that we see this happening. One is the denial of legitimacy to ordinary political opponents in the electoral contests of democratic life. The other is the denial of standing to all kinds of knowledge, producing institutions, whether it's the press, the free press, or agencies, or technical agencies of government, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or even courts, which produce knowledge about guilt and innocence. We see delegitimation as affecting these two broad areas.

Right now I am particularly worried about the denial of legitimacy to ordinary political opponents, the idea that your opponent in electoral contest isn't just someone who, on balance, doesn't deserve your support — that was sort of the way that John McCain described President Obama, when he ran against Obama. He said, ‘You know, on balance, we disagree on policy and I don't think you should vote for him. He's a good American. He’s a good family man. He's a good person, but I don't think you should vote for him.’ That's how McCain campaigned. Now we say, ‘My opponent isn’t just on balance, less worthy of your vote, she should be locked up.’ And that's a big, big change, and I think a very corrosive one, it denies legitimacy, it delegitimates elections.

Rosenblum: This is a foundational institution of representative democracy. The notion of regulated party rivalry, and the notion that the opposition, the party opposition is a legitimate opposition. These ideas are as old as representative democracy, and they are absolutely foundational. Once you wreck them, once you see the opposition as an enemy, or as a real threat, once you can say, day in and day out, ‘the Democrats are treasonous,’ when you can say that, it really goes to the essential institutional mechanisms and norms of representative democracy.

Muirhead: This is how Nancy and I got on this project, of conspiracy. We were both party scholars, scholars of parties and partisanship, and we really value the regulated rivalry of elections that make up the core of democracy. And we came to see that this description of the other party, the opposing party as itself a conspiracy against the very existence of the government, of constitutional democracy, when we came to see that, we came to think that something really worrisome was afoot.

But the other thing we picked up on, in the course of trying to make sense of conspiracism, is this attack on knowledge-producing institutions. That was something that we haven't really noticed in our earlier research, and it's equally alarming. Take an agency like the Bureau of Labor Statistics that comes up with something like the unemployment rate. There are technical reasons to think that the unemployment rate should be measured differently, or isn’t capturing certain things, or the inflation rate should be changed, the poverty rate formula should be changed. You can argue about it, but that's one thing. It’s another thing is to say that the people, the public servants who work in these agencies are systematically conspiring to fake this data, in order to make say Pres. Obama look good. And that kind of conspiratorial charge denies the meaning, the authority, the standing of the entire institution, of any institution that generates what we’d call facts. And without facts it’s very hard to make effective decisions, whether they’re conservative decisions or liberal decisions or neither. It's hard to make good decisions without facts.

Rosenblum: I think this delegitimation of knowledge-producing institutions — and it ranges obviously from mainstream media to the National Park Service, which allegedly doctored photographs of his inauguration, or the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, when he said that climate change presented a real security threat to the United States, and the President said he should go back to school — it doesn't just create mistrust. We use this term legitimation to say as you just quoted, that it undermines the meaning and value and the authority of these institutions.

It does it directly by challenging their output and the people who produce and assess and correct their information. But it also does it indirectly. Because as the President and others who are complicit with him in this act on their notions of the conspiracy within government, when they fire officials, and when they leave posts vacant, the government itself becomes more and more dysfunctional. And as it becomes more dysfunctional, more and more people are likely to find it illegitimate. So there's a kind of degradation both through the conspiracists claim, but also through the actions that follow from them

You have a chapter devoted to the presidency and the power there. A conspiracist in that position is able to make it a reality come true, because if you don’t’ trust government and you are the government, then that you can create reality that the other people shouldn’t trust the government as well. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

Muirhead: I think you're really right about that. The President has an enormous rhetorical power. So when the President says the government is conspiring, the agencies are conspiring in some way or another to make him look bad, it's almost self-validating in the eyes of very, very many citizens. I'll tell you it's such a bewildering thing to see the President of the United States accuse the very government he runs up of being a conspiracy against him, acting against him.

It was once thought by scholars of conspiracy that conspiratorial thinking was really the province of the outcasts, of the losers the politics, people who were nowhere near the levers of power. And one of the ways that they made sense of how to themselves was to describe it as a conspiracy. They never imagined that the winners, the party or person who would win a presidential election would no sooner win than say, ‘Hey, the election was rigged!’ The election that I just won was rigged!’

Rosenblum: He doesn't accept the terms of his own victory. He has to insist that he won the popular vote, and would have won the popular vote, should have won the popular vote, did win the popular vote, if you discount the 3 million illegal voters who were bused to the polls by Hillary Clinton's campaign. It really is an extraordinary thing in the hands of a victor and someone in power.

Muirhead: I don't know that we've never really seen presidential conspiracism in American history. I mean, what do you think Nancy? I think this is altogether new phenomena.

Rosenblum: Well, early on in the early Republic the two proto-parties did accuse one another of treason and so on, but I think that you're right.

Muirhead: That might be right. This is taking it back to that age.

The 1790s were pretty overheated, shall we say.

Muirhead: yeah taking it back to that time with the Alien and Sedition acts 1798 when the Federalists said anyone who criticizes the government is guilty of a crime, is guilty of sedition.

They threw a congressman [Matthew Lyon] in jail for that.

Muirhead: This is ‘Our opponents are seditious, they're not legitimate players in the democratic contest.’ That's what we’re talking about.

Rosenblum: I would just emphasize the fact that this isn't just speech and a degradation of democratic discourse, or that it allows people to assent to these conspiracy claim by saying is true enough, I think it's important that it results in real action that changes the terms of government. So the president can hijack institutions and ask the Justice Department to investigate things that are patently simple claims, without any evidence or reason. He can say that the invasion of the southern border is something like a real military threat and call up the Army to guard the southern border. Or he can invent institutions, like his Election Integrity Committee, to perpetrate the thought that his conspiracists claim is real enough to invent a political institution..

That's a great point. I wanted to ask you to address what can be done and you write about what happens with that, as an example of the kind of pushback that’s possible. I want to get back to that, but first start with your argument that transparency is important, but it's not enough that we need legibility, not just transparency. What does that mean? Why is it important? And what are some examples of legibility?

Muirhead: We think it’s important to make ordinary governmental processes, the ordinary processes of public decision-making, readable or legible to everyday citizens, and this is actually one of the most powerful ways of responding to the new conspiracism, and to some, we call this enacting democracy, that sometimes public officials have to say is ‘no were not going to investigate that claim, that's not the way investigations proceed at the Justice Department, and here's the right process,’ or ‘Here's a process that we follow, ordinarily and customarily.’ This kind of explaining, almost pedagogical style explaining, of the ordinary course of government decision-making can make it seem, in fact make it be more legible, more readable, more understandable to ordinary citizens so they don't think or the police are more resistant to the idea that the government is conspiring. They understand the way it works, and we think that that's actually very, very important.

But even more elemental than that, is the power of speaking truth to the conspiracist concoctions that are being spread. We think it's very very important for public officials to say, ‘No, that's really not happening,’ when again, McCain said to somebody at one of his rallies, ‘Actually. Pres. Obama is an American citizen, and he’s a loyal one, he’s not born abroad.’ He rejected that birther conspiracy, and even we think it's necessary for public officials to stand up, back in 2015 when Alex Jones was spreading the conspiracy that the U.S. Army was planning to invade Texas, Texans needed a governor who and members of Congress, Senators who’d stand up and say ‘That's simply not true. There's not a whit of evidence to support that idea.’

Rosenblum: Russ said something very important. We don't disagree with all of those who say that the media and fact checking, responses of that kind are critical, they are. There's no substitute for them. But we want to emphasize the extent to which the responsibility to speak truth to conspiracy really does fall on public officials. And in this case, in particular, on Republican elected officials who so far have acquiesced and accommodated and gone along.

Now there are exceptions, and those exceptions really stand out. I mentioned before Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, it was quite short-lived because the head of his commission was asking for all kinds of information about voters, for the various states, and secretaries of state refused to comply. They wouldn't give this information, they said there is no evidence to suggest that election fraud is rampant, or large-scale, and we’re not going to accommodate this kind of fantastical conspiracy claim. And as a result, he had to abandon his Election Integrity Commission. He'll start others, they are is always threatened to create a commission to question climate change, and the science of climate change that's coming out of his own National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, but, political officials have to push back. And especially Republicans, who have a kind of partisan connection to their people and whose objections to conspiracism are the most important.

Muirhead: We’re really trying to call out people, to invigorate their powers of skepticism, and common sense. We want to describe what's happening, so that people can resist it. We hope that by describing what ‘true enough’  does, this invitation to lower our standards, to say, ‘Rather than ask do I believe this?’ to ask yourself, ‘Is it possible? Could I possibly imagine it?’ We want people to resist that kind of invitation, and maintain a high standard for what they believe. Maintain the skepticism.

I wanted to ask about is the possibility of impeachment proceedings as providing legibility, since most people are not going to read the Mueller Report, we need something like the Watergate hearings, which I thought about as I read your discussion of making politics legible, making facts legible, the importance of that. It seemed like an historically sober way of seeing what impeachment hearings could reveal, particularly the way the Senate investigations that preceded the House impeachment. There's a great deal in the Mueller Report that simply being presented to the public in a way that makes clear what’s known would have an impact. So, I'd like your thoughts on that.

Muirhead: I think that's a very interesting suggestion about impeachment. There are those who think that impeachment should be — especially the process, maybe not the ultimate conviction and sentencing, but the process of impeachment should be considered more an ordinary [part of] party politics. I can see, though, the strategic concern that once an impeachment proceeding gets going, in a formal way, what we stimulate is a kind of hyperpartisan response where a whole category of the public that sometimes lean toward Trump, sometimes lean emphatically against him might feel themselves compelled to side with him, because they aren't very sympathetic with his political foes. So what you might create is kind of hyper polarized moment where it's hard to teach people anything.

Rosenblum: I agree with everything that Russ just said. I do think it is the responsibility of the Democrats in Congress to continue with the hearings that they’re having, it's a matter, as you say, it's a matter of public education, and it's matter of convincing the narrative and making it dramatic so that people can understand it in a way they couldn't if they just read the Mueller Report document, it has to be done. I think the question of its impact as a matter of public education is to be seen. For one thing, it's likely to be seen as a partisan exercise, and Republicans, now, will not go along with impeachment, but will remain silent as they have so far in the face of the Mueller Report: ‘Case closed. We should move on.’

So on the one hand, it would be a partisan exercise in the sense that only Democrats were engaged in it, and there's also the possibility – and I worry about this that the Attorney. General and others will start up competing investigations, investigations that have publicly very little merit, because they've already been tried, but investigations into the origins of the national security investigation of the Trump campaign and the Russian interference. So what its impact will be is to be seen, but that it's an exercise in public education that has to be done, I think it’s true.

The way Watergate was done, there was a much bigger role for Congressional counsel, not for the individual members of Congress, to ask questions, so it was conducted in a much more professionalized way of harkening back to the what you write about in terms of professionalization of knowledge. So that could help limit partisanship effects, if you have someone who's not an identifiable partisan actor is asking most of the questions.

Rosenblum: that's a very interesting point. I suspect that won’t happen, as you are suggesting, I suspect that the congresspeople will ask the questions on their own — informed of course by background of legal counsel — but will do it all alone, and this will be a public spectacle of interrogation.

Before we conclude, I want to ask what are the most important that lessons for the public to take away from your book?

Muirhead: We want to deny the authority of theory as even conspiracy theory to the kind of conspiratorial allegations that arise every day now in politics. We want people to be able to pick this out for what it is, which is sheer assertion, with no theory, with no evidence, that actually has a very corrosive effect on the very idea of evidence and factuality. We want to invigorate people to resist it, to resist it with their common sense, and to resist it with their insistence on a high standard for what's required in order to believe something.

As a follow-up to that: Your book breaks a lot of new ground, but there are things your book doesn't touch on, or fully explore. What do you hope scholars and researchers investigating conspiracists will further explore in light of your work?

Muirhead: I think there's some really interesting work to do on the conspiracy entrepreneurs, on this very, very select cadre of people who both invent and spread this new kind of conspiracism, through message boards like 8-chan, and through YouTube. And I think what we'll find out is that this cadre of conspiratorial entrepreneurs are people who are acting very, very cynically, and his motives are either profit, or explicitly designed to weaken the practices of constitutional democracy.

Rosenblum: I would say yes, but I would say the effectiveness and the importance of these conspiracy entrepreneurs goes along with the fact that we have a conspiracists mindset in the White House, and we have public officials who are silent and acquiescent, and I think this historic story will most written, the retrospective story is going to be how is it that so many people who could've combated this acquiesced.

Finally, I always like to conclude by asking, ‘What's the most important question I didn't ask?’ And what’s the answer?’

Rosenblum: I think the question — that I wouldn’t know how to answer — is how important is it that large numbers of the public believe that true enough is true enough, is enough? And how much it’s all a matter of public officials and people in power. In other words, it’s the old question of how much social movements and culture matters, and how much institutions and officialdom matter. Where’s the divide? How do you balance it?

I guess that's another area for further future exploration.

Rosenblum: It is.

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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