It is staggering to consider that, two weeks ago, Barack Obama was our president. Without exaggeration, I felt confident saying to a friend last night, we will spend the rest of our lives cleaning up this mess — and I meant the mess of just the first ten days. Yes, my friend replied, Fixing this will be our generation’s struggle.
Central to that struggle, and to this election, has been an abuse of language that, in its intentionality and brazenness, makes the “strategeries” of George W. Bush seem quaint — endearing, even. Recall that, chillingly and hilariously, “USA PATRIOT Act” is an acronym. That’s child’s play compared to the bald-faced Newspeak audacity of “alternative facts.” Hate-spewing trolls like Milo Yiannapolous pretend to be victims deprived of their freedom of speech.
Shortly after the election, I wrote about the importance of understanding the semantic and legal definitions of censorship — a word that is often deployed incorrectly to claim victimhood and deny the vulnerable the right to protect themselves from asymmetrical engagements with rhetorical power.
There’s another word that’s been circling around as the effort to dismantle our democracy becomes more obvious: conspiracy.
The linguistic origin of “conspiracy” is rather beautiful — it is the substantive of “conspire,” from the Latin conspirare: to breathe together. The etymology alludes to two meanings that orbit the word today: mutual dependence, and whispers (when one whispers one “talks under one’s breath;” “she breathed,” is a common literary crutch for “she whispered.”). Contemporary definitions agree on this: a conspiracy is a secret agreement to bring about a shared goal; English dictionaries differ on whether that goal is necessarily negative, unlawful, or malevolent.
Conspiracy is at the bloody root of what we are facing in this rapidly realigning world order—an order in which a twisted Russia/U.S. dynamic is once again very much in play. It is important, at this moment, to understand the distinction between, first, conspiracy as it is most basically defined; second, conspiracy as a modus operandi that has left nasty stains in the history of both nations and has returned, in both nations, with a vengeance; and third, the horrific, predictable effect of the power of conspiracy theories in contemporary America. Looking quickly at two cases of actual conspiracy, one American, one Russian, can shed some light on how conspiracy theory as a worldview has come to dominate our politics, derail our discourse, and divorce many from reality.
The Watergate scandal that began with the break-in at DNC headquarters in 1972 and culminated in Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 was one of the most damaging and well-documented conspiracies in U.S. history. The story is well-known: Nixon, along with most of the top aides in his administration and a motley cadre of patsies and collaborators attempted to burgle DNC offices for surveillance and spying purposes, and then attempted to cover it up. Common goal: retain power by discrediting opposition. Watergate, and the administration’s reaction to the investigation, led to a constitutional crisis and also coincided with the escalation of the GOP’s corrosively adversarial relationship with the press, the fruits of which we see today. It fits the definition of conspiracy to a T (a group working in secret towards a common, in this case unlawful goal) and illustrates the major role conspiracy plays in moving the highest levers of power.
Turn to Russia in September of 1999. A rash of bombings in Moscow apartment buildings left 300 dead and hundreds injured. For the psychic impact on Muscovites, and Russians generally, the most apt comparison is 9/11. The attacks, as Amy Knight wrote, “were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin to launch a bloody second war against Chechnya [. . .] They also were crucial events in promoting Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Russian presidency as Yeltsin’s anointed successor in 2000 and in ensuring his dominance over the Russian political scene ever since.” And yet even before the smoke cleared there were questions, inconsistencies, outright impossibilities in the government’s version of events. In the intervening years, the overwhelming investigative consensus — in a régime where investigating such matters has cost more than one journalist life and limb — has been that the bombs were planted by the government in order to consolidate anti-Chechen sentiment, build support for the war, instill obedience through chaos and terror, and pave the way for Putin’s taking of total executive power. Again, a conspiracy to a T: a group, working in secret, towards a shared (and destructive goal).
I use these well-documented, easy-to-research examples of conspiracy to frame the fact that in the United States today, we are living in a bizarre funhouse mirror where actual conspiracies (the Russians intervened in the election to help Trump win; they had been passing Trump and Flynn information for years; the new secretary of state is pals with Putin, etc.) have elevated a conspiracy theorist, with a rabid base of conspiracy-theorist supporters, to the highest office in what, back in the Cold War days, was called the free world.
The Watergate and Moscow bombing conspiracies share something in common beyond their naked and cynical lust for power: they both happened. They are both, as far as can be reasonably empirically documented, true. Crucially, they are also both compelling cases for not trusting government. General distrust in government has led to a broader mistrust in institutions, which is healthy in a functional democracy, but absolutely fatal to a society trying to recalibrate itself and pull back from the brink of authoritarian kleptocracy at best, apocalyptic annihilation at worst. And this is the problem we face: the erosion of trust caused by real conspiracies throws the door wide open to the cannibalization of real institutions — of real reality — by conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are not true. They employ the structural composition of a conspiracy — some group is working in secret towards a usually nefarious goal —to build up a fictive narrative that often resonates with some injustice the theorizer believes is being done to him or his country or his idea of the world. The “conspiracies” repeated ad nauseam by the president and his cronies — Trump’s racist birther lie, the Benghazi “cover-up”, Alex Jones’s execrable Sandy Hook denial, the pizza-shop child-sex ring — leverage the intellectual payoff of healthy skepticism and turn it into something dangerous: an utter disregard for the notion of truth. They play on a universal, if puerile, desire to be smarter, to be the informed skeptic, to be the first one in on what really happened. Conspiracy theories have an added visceral pull in that they confer clique status and renegade status simultaneously. They play to a masculine fantasy of cowboy or renegade or desperado, to a ragtag but heroic band of brothers that tells it like it is.
In the United States, since at least the early 1990's, the fantasy of conspiracy theory has been intensified, and ultimately normalized, by an aging population of white men who have seen their unearned status incrementally eroding. Fueled by the bile of, at first, talk radio; and, later, the right-wing media behemoth of Fox News; determined to remain the "real" heroes of all our stories, the real owners of America, they have essentially refused to accept the progress of history as an evolution of reality, opting instead for...Infowars.
Last night, trying to wrap our heads around what the next four years will look like, my friend and I couldn’t help but feel that those heads are liabilities. We are both about as highly educated as people can be. The habits our scholarly training bred in us — scrutiny, empiricism, identification of patterns, looking to history for predictors, rigorous analysis — only makes this more painful, in some ways, since we have the unfortunate acuity to suspect exactly what awaits us when reality is subject to the performative whims of a thin-skinned, morally void autocrat.
We were both born on the earliest edge of the millennial generation: born as the Cold War surged to its final, fevered “Tear-down-this-wall” pitch and then supposedly ended (along with history, as the sillier readings had it). The first election most of us could vote in was Bush/Gore (I was two months shy); we came to political consciousness in the shadow of the Iraq War and surfed the Obama wave of hope into adulthood; with Obama we settled into the steady slog of usual adult suffering, and we convinced ourselves, to some degree, that the arc bends toward justice. Our peaceful pragmatism, though, was always confronting something uglier, nastier. We laughed at the birthers, but the knives at our throats were real.
Americans, in the straight-shooting Puritan spirit that codes much of the country’s psychology, are too often liable to dismiss actual conspiracies as conspiracy theory. This puts us at a serious, and potentially fatal disadvantage: by refusing to see the conspiracy, we succumb to the world of the theories.