"Corrosive beliefs are at the heart of what America is": James Tynion on conspiracy theories

The "Batman" writer told Salon about Trump's election inspiring "The Department of Truth" & interrogating beliefs

By Chauncey DeVega
Published May 15, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)
James Tynion at Comic-Con in New York, 2014 | "The Department of Truth" logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Michael Stewart/WireImage/Image Comics)
James Tynion at Comic-Con in New York, 2014 | "The Department of Truth" logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Michael Stewart/WireImage/Image Comics)

The following interview contains spoilers for "The Department of Truth" series.

In his oft-cited 1964 Harper's magazine article "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", historian and political scientist Richard Hofstadter observed how:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds . . . 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. In using the expression "paranoid style" I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good.

Some 50 years later Hofstadter's warning is much too generous. Today's Republican Party has taken the paranoid style and made itself into the most dangerous political organization in the world today.  It seeks to overthrow American democracy and replace it with a type of new Jim Crow apartheid regime. Political violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, non-whites, and any others deemed to be "the enemy" is being increasingly normalized.

TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse are trying to annihilate empirical reality and the truth to advance the Republican Party and white right's agenda. The George Orwell- and Joseph Goebbels-inspired "Big Lie" that Trump won the 2020 presidential election is now accepted as literal gospel by the many tens of millions of people who belong to the Trump-Republican cult.

This malignant reality is tied together by such conspiracy theories as QAnon, a belief in a "plot" by the "deep state" that removed Trump from office, that there are various "elites" such as George Soros on the "left" who are working to destroy "traditional" (white) America, and somehow the "white race" is being "replaced" by non-white immigrants.

Democracy requires a shared consensus reality. It is a dire crisis when tens of millions of Americans have lost their ability to properly understand reality and to separate fact from fiction because of their belief in conspiracy theories. Matters are even worse – and a society is thrust into an existential crisis – when "conspiracism" takes hold.

In an interview with the Economist, Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, who are the co-authors of the recent book "A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy", explain conspiracism and its dangers in the following way:  

Conspiracy theory has always been part of political life. So long as those who exercise power are secretive and self-serving — and so long as democratic citizens value vigilance and even a degree of mistrust — it always will be. Some theories are far-fetched, but sometimes the dots and patterns that support a conspiracy theory prove the charge.

What we're seeing today is something different: conspiracy without the theory. Its proponents dispense with evidence and explanation. Their charges take the form of bare assertion: "The election is rigged!" Yet the accusation does not point to any evidence of fraud. Or take Pizzagate, the claim that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-trafficking ring in a pizzeria in Washington, DC. It doesn't connect to a single observable thing in the world — it's sheer fabulation. And in America, this new conspiracism now comes directly from the president, who employs his office to impose his compromised sense of reality on the nation.

Rosenblum and Muirhead continue:

The new conspiracism obliterates nuance and judgment and replaces it with a distorted unreality in which some things are wholly good and others (say, Hillary Clinton) wholly evil. This is its appeal. And something with such political force will be taken up everywhere by those who seek to abandon regular processes and disrupt established institutions, and especially by those who reject the idea of a "loyal opposition."

The counter-force comes from the authority of knowledge-producing institutions (that is, courts, expert-staffed agencies, research universities) on one side, and democratic common sense on the other. Wherever conspiracism is reshaping public life, two preventatives are vital: to defend the integrity of knowledge-producing institutions and bolster confidence in the ballast of common sense.

What if those individuals and groups who are deeply committed to conspiracy theories and conspiracism had the power to actually change empirical reality to fit their deranged beliefs through sheer force of will? Who then would be tasked with stopping them?

This is the premise of James Tynion's bestselling comic book series "The Department of Truth" (art by Martin Simmonds; published by Image Comics). Tynion is also the current writer of "Batman."

Tynion's other work includes the Eisner and Harvey award-winning comic book series "Something is Killing the Children." He also received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book for "The Woods."

In this conversation, Tynion reflects on the challenges of being creative and focused during a moment when time itself seems to be broken by the coronavirus pandemic and its season of death. He also shares how a desire to tell uncomfortable truths and push creative boundaries motives his work as seen in "Batman" and "The Department of Truth".

Tynion also highlights the challenges involved in writing a timely and very topical comic book series such as "The Department of Truth" in a moment when truth often feels stranger than fiction and reflects on the growing power of conspiracy theories and conspiracism in America.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The comic book industry is very deadline focused. The coronavirus pandemic has distorted time and in many ways people's perceptions of reality here in the United States and around the world. How has that impacted your work and creativity?

It has been a very difficult year on that front. This is especially true because there are times when I have streaks where I am incredibly productive. But I have had other weeks, especially in the height of pandemic where I'd be falling behind on every single front. At that point you are just doing things in piecemeal fashion because there is a whole machine that moves without you. But then there is no satisfaction with having finished any one project in its entirety at once.

Thankfully, it helps that I have a few projects that the public is really responding to. I just put my head down and dig into the work and hope that it all ends up good.

How do you maintain that discipline? There are many people who have been languishing during the pandemic. Unable to focus and be productive. There are collective PTSD and other mental health challenges here in the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic and Trumpism. What allowed you to maintain your drive?

I have been probably leaning into some habits that I am going to have to unlearn. I am someone who has always had a difficult time with not working. I wake up in the morning and I'm usually thinking about work, and then I go to sleep thinking about work. As I move more and more into my adult life I know I can't let that happen as much. Beyond being a very strange moment in our world and country's history, this has also been a very strange moment in terms of my own personal career.

I'm currently writing the main "Batman" comic for DC. The spotlight is on me, and I need to be conscious of what I am using that spotlight for. What types of stories do I want to write? What do I want to do with this opportunity? Do I want to focus on mass market appeal? Or do I want to say the things that I'm thinking and try to express those personal ideas through my work?

I have a responsibility with writing "Batman" to test the boundaries a little bit and to try to do work that might be a little more difficult. People will enjoy reading these comics but it is something where I want to do something more than that.

You are writing the main "Batman" comic book series. That is an accomplishment that most in the comic book industry will never achieve. It is also a great amount of pressure. You also have the new series "The Department of Truth." That comic book series is very successful and is attracting a great deal of attention. How are you managing the success? Most never get a chance to work at such a high level.

It is a tremendous amount of pressure and it was overwhelming at times. In terms of "Batman" it was made a bit easier for me because I have been working in and around "Batman" comics for almost a decade. There is also the pressure of knowing that the main "Batman" book supports an entire neighborhood of other graphic novels and comic books. I have a tremendous respect for that responsibility, and I want to live up to it. Beginning my series "Department of Truth" while also working on "Batman" is a scary thing.

What was the genesis for "The Department of Truth"? Was it a bolt of lightning or something that you had been meditating on for some time?

It was a lightning bolt followed by two years of research and lots of contemplative thinking. Then there was the business aspect of talking to publishers about how I would want to bring "The Department of Truth" into the world. It all started coming together after Trump's election. We saw something that was a bad cliché and somehow beyond belief now made real. It was just the shock of the world that I assumed existed not necessarily being the world that actually exists.

I was never one of those people like, "Oh, it could never happen," but there was an element with Trump winning in 2016 where I felt like we are seeing the true nature of what America is. It was revealing itself to be something that is very different from the America that exists in the minds of a lot of people – or at least in the minds of people in my immediate social circle.

I had a harder time reading fiction and I started reading almost exclusively nonfiction. I wanted to start piecing together how we got to this moment with Trumpism and where we are as a society. I started thinking of American history in the 20th as if Trump was some type of inevitability.

Why were you surprised by Donald Trump's election in 2016?

I was still a kid. And I still had a very privileged view of the world. I had bought into the story that I was being sold a little bit. Part of that was also because I had the privilege to buy into the story that I was being told. I really wanted to believe in that story. I was in high school during the George W. Bush presidency. Obama was elected. I wanted to believe in the Democratic Party's vision of America in that moment and as a result I did not think enough about all of the nuances and implications.

"The Department of Truth" is very topical; it focuses on conspiracy theories and the harm they cause. The book is released near the end of Trump's presidency. When I started reading "The Department of Truth" I did so with some trepidation because the narrative could be so obvious and therefore uninteresting given its timeliness or it could be a stroke of genius if the storytelling cohered, and the concept held up. You accomplished the latter. How did you do it?

That was a huge concern of mine from the very beginning with "The Department of Truth." I knew the book was timely and I wanted it to come out before the 2020 election. If anything, I was hoping it was going to come out six months earlier than it did. There was a real part of me that felt like "The Department of Truth" is going to be too timely and no one is going to have any interest in it. There was the simultaneous concern that what if readers only engage with the comic book because it was so timely? What happens then long-term? Now everyone stops talking about conspiracy theories in a few months. The name "Trump" actually only appears one time in the entire first volume of "Department of Truth." That was a deliberate choice.

I wanted to make sure that this was a story about where we are in present day. But it is also a story about the history of conspiracy theories and how they have shaped the 21st century and their aftermath. Dangerous corrosive beliefs are very much at the heart of what America is. In many ways America really is just a shared belief. That is all that America is, a product of storytelling that over centuries, and storytelling that often ignored the deepest, darkest parts of itself. Those deepest darkest parts manifest in these horrible ways. With "Department of Truth" I wanted to tell a story about the history of those fictions.

How did you decide what conspiracy theories to include in "Department of Truth"?

One thing that I knew I wanted to do, especially in the first five issues, was I wanted to focus on conspiracy theories that are actually having an impact on the current moment. I didn't want to do something superficial that only dealt with older conspiracy theories. Obviously, the JFK assassination is central to the mythology of this book, especially given the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald is an active character in the story. I wanted to make sure that I was writing a story that as much as it explores conspiracy theories it is much more focused on how such beliefs impact people.

"Department of Truth" digs into the detail of what these conspiracy theory beliefs are, but it is never saying this is the true story. I'd never want someone to be able to pick up "The Department of Truth" and use it as a bible to justify their belief in a very dangerous conspiracy. That is the opposite of what I was hoping for with the series. What I want people to better understand from reading "Department of Truth" is that there are people who are helping to spread dangerous ideas for their own gain. For example, propaganda that is used by governments and corporations. I want people to ask themselves, who benefits from the spreading of these beliefs? I want people to question the stories that people tell them. That is in essence of my new comic book series "The Department of Truth."

Have you received any emails from readers who believe that you are actually explaining reality as its exists and that "Department of Truth" is some type of meta guide to conspiracy theories? Where somehow you are a conspiracist mastermind who has solved the puzzle?

I have not gotten that yet. There is definitely a chance that that could happen, I'm not going to pretend otherwise. One of the main elements of the book is a meditation on consensus reality and how beliefs in conspiracy theories can somehow warp reality and literally manifest themselves as something real.

For example, rather than say, "We've been trying to keep everyone from finding out about the secret lizard people who control the government," what I am articulating through "Department of Truth" is, "Oh God! too many people believe in the secret lizard people and now there's three of them operating in this one spot."

One of the recurring themes in "Department of Truth" is how these conspiracy theories create a sense of community for people. Many of the believers are alienated from society but they find other people like them who believe in conspiracies and together they create a sense of meaning for their lives.

A great deal of that conspiracy theory community's behavior is very similar to the community that comes out of fandom. They feel like they are uncovering something. They are building fan wikis and trying to connect all the dots of the bigger picture. One of the craziest things about QAnon is that for the majority of its existence it was some kind of alternate reality game. In many ways, QAnon was just people engaging with the material and creating their own meaning from it.

A human being can love a piece of fiction so much that it lives and breathes inside their head. That speaks to the power of fiction and the power of ideas. As we've seen the decline of organized religion over the last century, especially here in America, people are trying to find organizations that they find meaning and community in. 

Thinking and talking about these subjects always lands in uncomfortable places. Those are the uncomfortable places I want to explore in "The Department of Truth." 


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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Comic Books Conspiracy Theory Interview James Tynion The Department Of Truth