Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

The Real “Deep State”

The conspiracy theorists who surround Trump (a/k/a the conspiracy theorist-in-chief) have issued dark warnings about the so-called “deep state.”

In this telling, there is a shadowy cabal of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy and usurp the authority of democratically elected officials. Prior to Trump’s “democratic election,” the term was generally used to describe the politics of countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements worked within to undercut elected leaders. Trump and his inner circle, particularly the now-departed  Bannon, have argued that the administration is being intentionally undermined by a network within the federal bureaucracy.

As the New Yorker has described it,

Some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters (and, in a different, cautionary spirit, a few people on the left) have taken to using “the Deep State” to describe a nexus of institutions—the intelligence agencies, the military, powerful financial interests, Silicon Valley, various federal bureaucracies—that, they believe, are conspiring to smear and stymie a President and bring him low.

In my City Hall days, a witty colleague opined that incompetence generally explains more than conspiracy–an observation that seems particularly appropriate here. Nevertheless, I think there is a deep state, although one that is rather different from the dark conspiracy conjured up by the Trumpsters. And we all should be deeply grateful to it.

Federal bureaucrats are routinely maligned; the word “bureaucrat” is semi-pejorative. There is an abundance of research, however, that confirms the public service motivations of people who work for government. The evidence is that public and private organizations attract different kinds of individuals, and those drawn to government have a desire to serve the public interest and are convinced of the social importance of their work.

I have a number of former students who work in federal agencies. In the wake of the election,  two of them shared with me that they were torn: should they simply leave government, knowing that Trump neither understood nor appreciated the importance of what their agencies did? Or should they remain, focusing on the fact that their obligation is to serve the American people and the Constitution, not any individual President? Should they try to keep the federal government–at least, their small part of it–operating properly despite the chaos and dysfunction in Washington?

The ones I spoke with are still there. They are doing their jobs as best they can in the absence of rational policies and Presidential leadership, soldiering on despite still-unfilled senior positions and conflicting policy signals. They are the real “deep state”–the reason FEMA has responded appropriately (so far) to Hurricane Harvey, the reason Social Security checks continue to arrive on time, the reason that day-to-day American government still functions.

If and when America emerges from “Trumpism,” we’ll have the public servants of the deep state to thank.

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

How The Big Lie Works

Most of us have heard the famous quote by Hitler henchman Joseph Goebbles, who said  “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

The importance of repetition to this formula has been confirmed by a recent study  conducted by three scholars at Yale–a psychologist, an economist and a professor of management. They were researching the so-called “fake news” phenomenon in the wake of the 2016 election, and a key conclusion was that repeated exposure to inaccurate or false information makes its acceptance far more likely.

Subjects rate familiar fake news (posts they have seen even only one time before) as more accurate than unfamiliar real news headlines. The perceived accuracy of a headline increases linearly as the number of times a participant is exposed to that headline grows, suggesting “a compounding effect of familiarity across time.”

The research findings suggest that “politicians who continuously repeat false statements will be successful, at least to some extent, in convincing people those statements are in fact true,” and that the echo chambers so many voters inhabit create “incubation chambers for blatantly false (but highly salient and politicized) fake news stories.”

The salience of repeated disinformation makes it incredibly difficult for experts and real journalists to debunk widely accepted beliefs, especially beliefs about the success or failure of complex public policies. I’ve previously cited papers written by Peter the Citizen, the nom-de-plume of a former staff member in the Reagan White House, whose area of expertise is welfare policy. Unlike current Republican lawmakers, Peter is interested in making welfare policies actually work for people in need, and for the past several years he has tried to “speak truth to power”–to call out his fellow conservatives when they engage in self-serving “big lies.”

For example, in response to a publicized interview titled “Maine Shows How To Make Welfare Work,” in which Jared Meyer, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, interviewed Mary Mayhew, former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Peter meticulously countered what he labeled “conservative talking points and misleading data analyses.”

Another paper, “The Failure of Conservative Welfare Reform is what ‘Traps the Poor in Payouts’: A Response to Adam Brandon,”  responds to–and rebuts– one of the often-repeated assertions that reforms instituted by then-Wisconsin-governor Tommy Thompson improved the lives and incomes of poor people in that state.

As Peter’s research has convincingly demonstrated, when sound methodologies and scholarly rigor are applied, the pat defenses of welfare reform, TANF, and various other punitive state policies prove hollow. They have not incentivized work (after all, the majority of welfare recipients are children, the elderly and the disabled) and they’ve done little or nothing to actually help poor people. Worse, the block grant structure turns funding streams purportedly intended to ameliorate poverty into massive “slush funds” for Governors.

But the “big lie” apparently works as well with policy wonks as with the general public. Repeat sunny but discredited analyses often enough, and they become conventional wisdom. Repeat ridiculous conspiracy theories often enough, and they become memes.

Mitch McConnell and the Administration continue to insist that their “healthcare” bill is better than Obamacare. Rightwing media has repeatedly reported Kellyanne Conway’s denial that Medicaid is being cut.

I have proof that Donald Trump is really an alien. (That explains his inability to spell or use the English language properly.) He was sent from Alpha Centuri to test America’s ability to deal with a destabilizing madman…Post it to Facebook and tell all your friends.

The Inmates and the Asylum

Remember the old line about the inmates running the asylum? We’re so there.

Catherine Rampell’s recent column in the Washington Post spelled it out:

Time to trade in those red #MAGA caps, Trumpkins. If you want your headgear to fit in with the latest White House fashions, invest in some tinfoil.

From top to bottom, this administration has been infested with conspiracy theorists. Most appear to be true believers. Take Stephen K. Bannon and his anxieties about the “deep state,” or the recently ousted Michael Flynn and his propagation of suggestions that Hillary Clinton was tied to a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Others, such as Kellyanne Conway, appear to just be paranoiacs for pay.

Conway, as you’ll recall, says our microwaves are spying on us…. Then there’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney , who shared his suspicions of his predecessor’s job reports:

We’ve thought for a long time, I did, that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the workforce to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was,” Mulvaney told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Mulvaney declined to say exactly how the numbers were being manipulated, saying the explanation might “bore people.”

In case you were concerned about this numerical manipulation, you will be pleased to know that when the numbers made Trump look good (or so he believed–he actually hadn’t been in office long enough to have an effect on employment one way or the other), they suddenly/magically became credible.

Rampell points to others in the administration who hold–how to put this?–unconventional ideas. There’s Scott Pruitt, of course, who dismisses settled science on climate change. There’s  Curtis Ellis, an appointee in the Labor Department who has argued that Democrats engage in “ethnic cleansing” of working-class whites. There’s Sid Bowdidge, a massage therapist with no discernible relevant credentials, appointed to the Energy Department, Rampell tells us, “despite tweeting that Muslims ought to be exterminated and Obama was related to radical Islamist terrorists”.

It’s hardly just coincidence that the Trump executive branch is rife with beliefs that are wholly disconnected from reality. Such beliefs were a foundation of his campaign. Of course this would be the talent he attracts. Not scientists, experts or others who believe in weighing evidence, but people who heard Trump’s many malicious lies and reckless insinuations — that vaccines cause autism, that Ted Cruz’s dad was connected to the JFK assassination, that Mexicans are flooding over the border to rape and kill, that Antonin Scalia and Vince Foster may have been murdered, that 3 million people voted illegally, that our first black president was born in Kenya — and said: “Sign me up!”

Not long after reading Rampell’s funny-but-sad-and-scary enumeration of the Trump Administration’s nutballs and conspiracy-theorists, I came across a report confirming her assertion that many Trump voters shared and applauded these sentiments. And worse.

Maricopa County burnished its reputation as the Trumpiest in America last weekend as hundreds of locals, including heavily armed militamen, white nationalists and even a few elected officials, gathered to support the 45th president. The ensuing “March for Trump” was as horrifying as it sounds.

Aside from the predictable misogyny, the continued calls to “lock her (Hillary Clinton) up,” and angry rejection of the notion that America has any obligation to take in refugees, there was lots of that “old time religion” aka unrepentant bigotry.

Some even dared to tell Dan Cohen of the Real News Network how they’d make America great again now that Trump is in office. And Muslims weren’t the only religious minority unwelcomed.

“If she’s Jewish, she should go back to her country,” a 13-year-old Trump supporter said of a protester.

“This is America, we don’t want Sharia law,” one attendee explained. “Christian country,” he added.

One man insisted that Senator John McCain was a “secret communist.”

Beam me up, Scotty!

Today’s deepest political schisms aren’t partisan, and they aren’t political in the traditional sense of that word. Americans aren’t arguing about policies, about different prescriptions for solving problems, or conflicting interpretations of constitutional restraints.

The reason we are having so much difficulty communicating is because today’s divisions are increasingly between people who live in the real world, and people who have long since lost touch with it.

And guess who’s running the show?

Less Trust, More Conspiracy

“People say” was the way our embarrassing President-elect introduced bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or others who had offended him in some fashion.

No evidence. No factual basis. In most cases, no plausibility.

The question rational people asked–and still ask–is “why would anyone believe that?” Because clearly, many did. A recent report from Journalists’ Resource offered an answer, or at least the beginning of one.

President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

A number of studies have found that politically active people–especially conservatives with deeply ideological commitments–embrace conspiracy theories that confirm their beliefs and paint their political opponents in a bad light. A new study builds on that previous research, and adds an important element: the absence of trust.

“Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in October, investigated the hypothesis that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They anticipated that people who endorse such theories would be “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

People with a reasonable amount of trust in social and governmental institutions were far less motivated to accept such theories. The study’s authors asked approximately 2,200 Americans who self-identified as either liberal or conservative to consider eight conspiracies. Four were designed to appeal to conservatives and four to appeal to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also created a “trust index” based on how much the individuals trusted the federal government, law enforcement, media and the public to do what is right.

Here were some of their conclusions:

  • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
  • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
  • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

As I have previously noted, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” can be inexact. (I’ve been called both–and my own definition of both terms is probably different from that of many other people.) Furthermore, there is a demonstrable difference between principled conservatism and the sort of Tea Party and “alt-right light” individuals who call themselves conservatives these days.

That said, the study is illuminating.