When the world spins too fast, there is a coping mechanism that will ease the blow; conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory provides great comfort to those in the middle of rapid change who feel powerless to affect the course of their own lives. A conspiracy theory gives a gold-plated excuse for everything that has happened that is out of control. It gives those bewildered by change the option of laying blame on something that could, in theory, be fixed. That the familiar, the status quo, could be snatched back from the past and installed, once again, in the present. All that needs to be done is to root out the conspiracy, and defeat it.
I learned this lesson years ago, not out of books, but out of personal experience. As I try to make sense of the True Trumpist phenomenon, those lessons have been more helpful to me than anything I learned in graduate school.
In 1993, I went to Egypt, and taught for a year in the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo. I was not a specialist in the Middle East, far from it; I was a Nebraska girl with a specialty in American political parties and elections, and political theory. I had not spent five minutes trying to understand the history of the Middle East, or the role the religion of Islam played in it. I went to Cairo to be a college professor in my chosen field, to teach at the Harvard of the Middle East. But I became, out of necessity, a student, to try and make sense of the surroundings in which my students had grown and developed opinions and attitudes about political life.
The most puzzling thing I found, in the streets and shops of Cairo, among those who learned enough English to cater to the Westerners who lived in the suburb of Ma’adi, was this: Egypt was marinated in conspiracy theories. Everything that happened could be explained, one way or another, by some complex plot. Some of these theories started out on solid ground; yes, it was quite likely that the dictator Hosni Mubarak was actually trying to hand power over to his idiot oldest son. But then these theories would take a turn.