Beyond conspiracy theory: Trump and the Republicans are waging an all-out war on reality

The Ukraine scandal, and Donald Trump himself, are just markers in a vast campaign against empirical reality

By Chauncey DeVega
December 5, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
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Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Robert Mueller and Adam Schiff (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

Words have actual definitions. Conspiracies do in fact exist.

A conspiracy consists of two or more people acting in private to advance their own interests against and contrary to those of other people.

Donald Trump and his agents’ bribery and extortion plot to withhold congressionally approved military aid to force the government of Ukraine to “investigate” Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, with the goal of helping Trump win the 2020 presidential election, is a textbook example of a very real conspiracy.

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The House Intelligence Committee's impeachment inquiry report summarizes Trump’s conspiracy against the American people and our democracy in stark terms:

 [T]he impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection. In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent. In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

The President engaged in this course of conduct for the benefit of his own presidential reelection, to harm the election prospects of a political rival, and to influence our nation’s upcoming presidential election to his advantage. In doing so, the President placed his own personal and political interests above the national interests of the United States, sought to undermine the integrity of the U.S. presidential election process, and endangered U.S. national security.

By defending Donald Trump, the Republican Party and its disinformation news media are also willing participants in this conspiracy.

The Ukraine scandal is also part of a much larger global conspiracy. As exhaustively documented in Robert Mueller's report, by the U.S. intelligence community and many of our allies, as well as independent analysts and investigators, the Russian government or its agents interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of helping to elect Donald Trump. Vladimir Putin’s elaborate psy-ops campaign and other efforts to manipulate American voters and influence the 2020 presidential election to keep Trump in power are ongoing.

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This too is a textbook example of a conspiracy.

There is an ugly and obvious irony here, of course: the Republican Party and its allied media have been master purveyors and architects of ridiculous conspiracies about Hillary Clinton’s emails and “Benghazi,” about Barack Obama's birth certificate, about “Pizzagate,” the “War on Christmas”, the Sandy Hook massacre and the climate crisis, among other things.

In a failing democracy such as the United States, fantastical right-wing conspiracy theories are a way of undermining the truth, as well as the shared consensus about empirical reality that is necessary for a functioning democracy.

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This is both a symptom of society in crisis and decline as well as a tool that authoritarians and autocrats like Trump and his minions use to attack democracy and civil society.

As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat warned in a recent op-ed for CNN:

A healthy democracy is founded on a tolerance of differences of opinion, but is grounded in a shared body of norms. Autocratic governments, in contrast, need to change our opinion about what violates norms and constitutes crime and corruption. Trump and the GOP, in de facto partnership with Fox News, are creating an alternate reality for followers in which facts are what the President needs them to be. This is a hallmark of authoritarianism.

The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas summarizes how and why Trump embraces and uses conspiracy theories:

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A product of tabloid culture, Trump has long trafficked in conspiracy theories. But as chief executive, he’s used the machinery of government to give the ones especially useful to him the stamp of official validation. (That’s the main reason he now faces impeachment in the House.) These baseless theories are a way for Trump to explain away his problems and undercut opponents. Beyond that, though, they seem to serve distinct emotional needs, feeding a narcissistic ego that cold reality won’t satisfy. His efforts to persuade the public to go along with these self-protective myths have already corroded democratic institutions. The wreckage from that destructive legacy won’t be easily repaired after he leaves the stage. ...

The Ukraine debacle is the most extreme case, illustrating just what can happen when the president takes hold of a bad idea and won’t let it go. Repellent to Trump is the notion that he would have lost to Hillary Clinton had it not been for Russia’s electoral interference. … All of which explains why, for the president, the Ukraine fiction is so alluring. It’s a twofer. If Ukraine covertly interfered in the election for Clinton’s benefit, as Trump has suggested, that would both exonerate Russia and cement his 2016 victory. Trump apparently finds that theory so compelling that he risked his presidency to see if he could give it traction.

Political elites deploy conspiracy theories to attack the credibility of their enemies and other rivals. Elites also use conspiracy theories to create a feeling of powerlessness and impotence among the public. If there are awesome forces rigging the system — and distorting reality and truth itself — then how can one organize against or effectively resist them?

Elite-fueled conspiracy theories are also a weapon for focusing rage and anger by the in-group against the out-group (usually racial and/or ethnic minorities and/or political critics) in order to distract from the real problems afflicting a given society.

By comparison, the less powerful are attracted to conspiracy theories as a means of making sense of a world that is often so unequal and unfair.

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Moreover, members of marginalized communities — in the United States this means nonwhites, the disabled, the poor, gays and lesbians, and others — have all too often been victims of actual conspiracies by the government and other powerful groups and individuals.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment as well as the forced sterilization of poor women (most of them black) across the American South are two of the most infamous examples. Senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s white supremacist machinations and policies will likely be studied by future generations as an example of a real conspiracy as well.

In a recent interview with Vox, Harvard politics professor Nancy Rosenblum describes how right-wing conspiracy theories have devolved into a new and even more toxic form of "conspiracism" in the Age of Trump:

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It’s a way to delegitimize what it means to know something at all. So you often find today that people don’t really care if something is totally true. They’re just looking for something they can hang their hat on, to create enough doubt to justify their core beliefs and sow cynicism at the same time. ...

The conspiracists who traffic in this sort of dishonesty aren’t interested in arguments or evidence. It’s about confirming their picture of the world and undermining the institutions charged with reporting the truth in the first place. And it’s a declaration that only their way of knowing is credible and everyone else is brainwashed.

We call this "epistemic polarization”: There is no ground for argument or persuasion or even disagreement. And we think it is more profound and unbridgeable even than partisan polarization…. The right wing wants to delegitimize the government and, really, all of our knowledge-producing institutions. So it’s naturally beneficial for them to spread conspiratorial thinking. The Democrats, on the other hand, generally like government and want to improve it, so they have less reason to embrace conspiracism.

How can right-wing conspiratorial thinking be countered and perhaps even immunized against?

Right-wing paranoid thinkers must be exposed to real facts and accurate information sources that exist outside the alternate reality such people have created for themselves. Unfortunately, research by social psychologists and others has repeatedly shown that the phenomenon of “information backfire” as a manifestation of cognitive bias results in conservatives and other right-wing ideologues actually rejecting new knowledge that is contrary to their prior beliefs.

In the most extreme examples, new information actually forces conservatives and right-wing ideologues to hold more tightly to their previous beliefs.

One must also understand that the paranoid, conspiratorial thinking of conservatives and other authoritarians is not a new problem. In his landmark 1964 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

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Neutralizing right-wing conspiracism and a belief in untrue conspiracies will be especially difficult in the case of Trumpists and other right-wing authoritarians. Trumpism and other manifestations of the “New Right” are a political cult tied together by collective narcissism and lies. From more “mainstream” media outlets such as Fox News down to the bowels of the right-wing internet, empirical reality is rejected. Political ideology is a type of religion, based on faith and other forms of magical thinking as opposed to logic or facts. In that way, right-wing politics in post-civil rights America is not a story about basic and reasonable disagreements with fellow citizens on matters of policy. It's a story of political tribalism, in which Democrats, liberals, progressives and others not loyal to Trumpism are an existential threat and enemy to be vanquished.

In service to that goal, facts and empirical reality are made malleable to the point of losing any substantive meaning.

Political scientists and other researchers have also demonstrated that individuals who choose to support a political party or leader will change their beliefs and values over time to fully align with them. Through that process Trump’s delusional world has expanded to envelop others who are now part of his political cult.

At the Independent, writer Larry Womack reflects on the small town he came from and the relationship between right-wing conspiracy theories and love of Donald Trump:

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It will surprise no one who has lived in rural America, or pays attention to Trump’s tweets, that Trump voters are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Institutions like science, education and government are run, after all, by liberals. Many Americans will see a story in the newspaper as less trustworthy than the meme or obvious hoax site shared by someone they know.

Add to the equation a steady diet of fringe media with no accountability itself and you have a rural population that largely believes Trump is no more guilty of corruption than the Clintons, the Obamas, the Bushes, or anyone else. The perception is that he is just being given a hard time because he happens to be one of them.

Trumpists have willingly put themselves inside of an alternate reality, a cave of immorality, authoritarianism and ignorance. In that cave Donald Trump is the sun and Fox News and the broader right-wing media are his mirrors. Trumpism is amplified and surrounds his followers. They bask in its warmth and light. But Trumpists have decided not to notice, or not to care, that their Great Leader's light will burn them alive.

The power and appeal of right-wing conspiracism, both in the Age of Trump and for years before that, signals to a much larger societal  problem.

Too many Americans have rejected the value of expertise and education. Civic literacy is in decline. Democratic institutions and the commons have been systematically gutted by Republicans and conservatives. The country’s schools are broken. The mainstream media has largely betrayed its responsibility to be stewards of democracy and instead has been bullied by right-wing claims of “liberal bias” and a demand that lies be treated as truths and given equal time because of “fairness” and “balance.” Extreme economic and social inequality, which undermine democracy and will eventually destroy it, continue to grow mostly unabated. Literacy and critical thinking have not caught up with new forms of technology such as social media and the internet.

In his 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” visionary thinker Carl Sagan warned of this moment in America:

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I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. ...

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

America in the Age of Trump is a country where, as in a science-fiction dystopia, individuals and groups have locked themselves inside their own personal experience machines. In these machines, occupants receive dopamine hits to their brains when they are told what they want to hear as lies become self-serving truths. Those people who live outside of the experience machines can still discern right from wrong, good from evil and fantasy from fact. They look on at the Trumpists and other right-wing political drug addicts with disgust and pity. Unfortunately, the Age of Trump is more than a state of being. It is a force in motion, one that is insatiable in its efforts to transform empirical reality into an authoritarian nightmare.

If Donald Trump wins in 2020 and his successors continue his fascist crusade, TrumpWorld will, for most people, become indistinguishable from the real world. That's when America’s democracy will be finally and fully lost.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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