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.
There were particularly bizarre conspiracy theories in constant circulation about the state of Israel. Supposedly, the Israelis were putting some chemical in chewing gum that would turn people against Islam. Or they were inserting something into underwear made in Israel that would give Egyptians cancer. What was behind such an epidemic of conspiracies?
The more I learned about everyday life in Egypt, how hard the deck was stacked against individuals just trying to make a living, it all started to make sense. My students came from the upper classes, and they, mostly, turned their noses up at the first whiff of a conspiracy theory, with one exception: the small number of students who were extremely observant Muslims. As I talked with my more Westernized students about their more devout colleagues, I started collecting conspiracy theories held by highly educated young people. These conspiracies were always about Islam, which was constantly under attack by the West, in devious and devilish ways.
These conspiracy theories, which pushed the altogether wrong-headed notion that the Christian West was somehow obsessed with wiping the religion of Islam off the face of the earth, were like life preservers for people in a rough sea of change. They would cling to these theories, no matter what actual evidence others might produce out of actual facts.
These highly educated young people, fluent in English, who had often travelled abroad, would still insist, to me, sometimes in private, that for every question, “Islam is the answer.” And once that mentality took hold, conspiracy theories were not far behind.
Those who study political psychology and evolutionary psychology are now trading stories and data to mine this rich new field, where we attempt to understand what seems, at first, to be irrational political behavior. One of the best is “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt. Part of our evoloutionary path has been to pass on through our genes the psychological coping mechanisms that produce fear in the proper amount when we are under threat. But part of the job of government, as the Framers understood, was to cool those passions. They created checks and balances to stop a runaway train of overheated partisanship from taking us down dangerous directions of extremism. They had lived through a revolution, and the post-revoloutionary shake-up of Shay’s Rebellion. They knew what they were doing.
However, the current danger is testing all these checks and balances. As President Trump, the supposed champion of the “forgotten Americans”, becomes more and more threatened by the Mueller investigation, conspiracy theories will, of course, be conjured up to explain the coming defeat. It cannot be that their great man is guilty; that is too much of a psychological blow to bear. The only answer must be conspiracy. For radical Islamists, there is only one explanation for the West, full of diversity of religions and cultures, including atheists and feminists, to be wealthier and more stable than the Muslim world: anti-Muslim conspiracies.
Turns out that restoring the Caliphate and Making American Great Again have a lot in common.
True Trump followers (as opposed to the majority of Trump voter who held their nose and voted against Hillary, or Regular Republicans) cannot psychologically admit that they will just have to face change, that there is no such thing as “clean coal” that could restore West Virginia mining towns to the prosperity of 1965. They cannot psychologically admit that small towns all over the Midwest are only coming back to life if immigrants move in, take those jobs in the meat packing plants, and bring their Hispanic culture along with them. They cannot psychologically admit that black and brown people are soon going to be the majority in the United States. They cannot psychologically admit that Christianity may not always be dominant in American culture. Some cannot psychologically admit that women are equal to men, and find comfort in the male camaraderie of a gun culture that gives them the illusion of power.
The “war on Christmas,” the “war on the 2nd Amendment”, all of it comes from the same poisoned well. And now, the “Deep State war against Trump.”
We have seen this movie before, many times, in American history. Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 book, “The Paranoid Style in American History” laid out the far-right wing’s feverish attempts, in the first half of the 20th century, to blame everything on a single foe, and logic be damned in the process. The magical thinking of conspiracy has great appeal. It sure beats having to try and come to grips with change, particularly if you are not in any way in position to control change and use it to your benefit.
So I find great irony in the True Trumpists creating fever-dream charts about the supposed coming of Sharia Law if the Democrats ever got back in power. They have far more in common with Muslim Extremists than they will ever admit.
The most dangerous thing for American politics has been the mainstreaming of these True Trumpist’s conspiracy theories with the help of people who should, and actually do, know better. History will judge the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells harshly. We will always have conspiracy theorists, but we cannot afford to give them the power to try and run our government ever again. A nation cannot last on a diet of conspiracy theories, even out of a desire to “Make America Great Again” by putting history in reverse.
I’m waiting for the Mueller investigation to end, no matter the results. I’m waiting for facts to come out. Even though I know that facts might mean nothing to the very hardest of the hard-core True Trumpists if the facts are not on the side of their guy, I am encouraged by the dominant culture of the West as being firmly on the side of science, firmly on the side of the rule of law, firmly on the side of logic. That is our larger legacy, here in the United States of America. Science, logic, rule of law. Conspiracies are counter to them all, and it is my view that, unlike the culture of the Middle East, which is late to understand the crucial importance of science, logic, and rule of law, we will be able to turn the page on this set of American conspiracy theories. The fever will break. It has to, if we are to survive as a democracy.
There will be more courage among Republicans, and we will see the equivalent of the purge of John Birch Society members from the Republican mainstream, spearheaded in the 1960’s by the great conservative William F. Buckley. The Republicans will find their way back to just regular politics, where people admit good will on the other side of the political table, instead of demonizing people simply for having different political views. There will be a return to ordinary politics, where both sides can seek compromise without fear of being defeated by a rabid minority in the next primary election. We have seen where demonizing each other leads, straight to the poison of conspiracy theories. We are going to the brink, looking down at the precipice, and this will bring cooler heads to the forefront.
I say these things because this is what has happened in the past; fevers break, and we go back to the actual business of government, which is getting things done. But I also say this almost as a matter of faith, because if this doesn’t happen, if radical hate meets more and more radical hate, and there is no room to see each other as anything other than the devil incarnate, then government will break down. A strong man will have appeal. And democracy will not survive.
This essay is dedicated to Sen. Ron Johnson (R – WI).