Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

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.

The Id Takes Over

This Presidential campaign has been like turning over a rock and seeing the cockroaches scamper out. I really didn’t think it could get any worse.

And I never, ever expected to agree with Charles Krauthammer about, well, anything. But even he was appropriately appalled by Trump’s “lock her up” descent into banana Republicanism–and the hypocrisy of denouncing him only when the “groping” tape emerged.

His views on women have been on open display for years. And he’d offered a dazzling array of other reasons for disqualification: habitual mendacity, pathological narcissism, profound ignorance and an astonishing dearth of basic human empathy.

All true. But everything we already know about the Orange One really does pale before his “unshackled” version, which is unabashedly embracing every white supremacist fever dream and unhinged conspiracy theory floating around the sewer of the “alt-right.”

Donald Trump has indulged in conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, the FBI’s “rigged” probe of Hillary Clinton, the Federal Reserve’s “political” agenda and whether Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

With his presidential campaign in full-blown crisis on Thursday, Trump was at it again, putting a new spin on a familiar tactic.

This time, there was a bigger, badder villain — “a global power structure” of corporate interests, the media and Clinton engaging in subterfuge.

As I read reports of his bizarre speech to a rally in West Palm Beach, I remembered a friend’s wry comment from our days in the Hudnut Administration. A neighborhood group had accused the administration of a conspiracy of some sort; after noting that we really weren’t capable of pulling off sophisticated plots, he remarked that simple incompetence explains so much more than complicated conspiracies.

Unless, of course, you are a bat-shit insane megalomaniac absolutely incapable of accepting responsibility for your own behavior.

“For those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. Our campaign represents a true existential threat like they haven’t seen before,” Trump said…

A day earlier, Trump appeared to allege, without evidence, that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and other GOP elected officials who distanced themselves from him were involved in a mass scheme to undermine him.

“There’s a whole deal going on — we’re going to figure it out. I always figure things out. But there’s a whole sinister deal going on,” he said.

Trump charged that Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends and her donors.” As Martin Longman put it, at Washington Monthly,

Yesterday, he might as well have put the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his teleprompter for all the subtlety he used in going after the media and international bankers. He will be the new Father Coughlin and he’ll make plenty of money.

“International bankers” thus joins the racism of Trump’s “birtherism,” the xenophobia of his rancid anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and his “Alpha male” misogyny. His anti-Semitism–previously a bit more subtle–has now become more overt.

Donald Trump’s supporters in the white nationalist movement have found who is to blame for the tape in which the Republican nominee brags about sexually assaulting women: “The Jews.” Trump’s racist supporters are claiming that Republican consultant Dan Senor leaked the tape, and are responding with anti-Semitic attacks.

Members of the “alt-right” and white nationalist movement have been heavily supporting Trump’s campaign, and the candidate and his team have been courting members of the movement, including by appearing in white nationalist media, refusing to denounce them, and retweeting their messages.

The Daily Stormer is a virulently anti-Semitic website that celebrates Nazism, purports to document the “Jewish Problem,” and attacks “kikes.” Editor Andrew Anglin wrote an October 11 post claiming that “we knew whoever leaked the tape was a Jew. And a #NeverTrump Jew advisor to Paul Ryan is currently being pointed at as being responsible. Dan Senor.” He called Senor “a #NeverTrump kike” and concluded:

If we lose this election, it is going to be because of this pussy-grabbing tape. And having it be known that it was a Jew is extremely important. One of the GOP’s Jews being responsible makes it all the better.

Because if we lose, this country is going to enter a new age of anti-Semitism.

The 35% or so of the country that is hardcore pro-Trump is going to know that it wasn’t “liberals” that defeated Trump, but traitors within the party who abandoned him. And they are going to want to know why that happened.

And there is only one answer:

The Jews did it.

Yes, we Jews–in league with the Clintons, the banks, the Republican establishment, the media, the Kenyan Muslim in the White House (and probably the aliens who landed at Roswell)….all of whom are expertly and covertly co-ordinating a conspiracy to destroy America by defeating Donald Trump.

We do not have enough mental health professionals in this country.

They’re Out to Get Us..

According to a recent story in something called the Civic Tribune,

The internet is abuzz with reports of forced micro-chipping taking place in Clint, Texas. Dozens of families were said to be rounded up by American troops, and given the option of an RFID implant, or imprisonment for an indefinite amount of time.

Well, as you know, Obama is using Jade Helm to take over Texas. He also plans to confiscate everyone’s guns. The moon landing was faked. The government is hiding the remains of aliens and their flying saucer in a secret compound at Roswell. Agenda 21 is a U.N. plan to destroy American sovereignty…

According to Time Magazine, there are more people who subscribe to these and other loony-tune theories than most of us would guess. (And I thought Donald Trump was the most depressing aspect of contemporary American life…)

According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists—and there are a lot more of them than you may think—tend to have one thing in common: they feel a lack of control over their lives.

Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, has been studying conspiracy theories and those who believe them for six years. “When I started this research, one of the things that I really found astonishing was how many people believe in certain conspiracy theories,” he says.

Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters.

We certainly live in a “time of uncertainty.” The Great Recession, the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us, the incessant news reports highlighting terrorism both foreign and domestic, and–perhaps most of all– the constantly accelerating pace of social and technological change have combined to create a free-floating anxiety to which few of us are immune.

Still, it’s hard to believe that social uncertainty really explains the Birthers….and the Black Helicopters…and the New World Order….and the “proven” fact that Obama plans to cancel elections and make himself President for Life…

The distance between feeling a loss of control and embracing bat-shit-crazy is evidently a lot shorter than we knew.

On the Other Hand….

Yesterday’s blog bemoaned the skepticism–and the sound reasons for that skepticism– with which so many of us have come to view media reports.  A couple of commenters noted what we might call “the flip side” of that phenomenon–people  distrustful of both government and the media who are anything but skeptical when it comes to wild and crazy conspiracy theories.

One of my regular reads is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, Inc., written by a Molly Ivins-like Texan. A recent post began

If you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a large military exercise around the country from July 15th to September 15th. It’s called Jade Helm 15 because all military trainings have names and that one wasn’t taken, I suppose. Texas has five counties involved and the rightwing is damn sure that it means Obama is taking over and gonna put all them in a concentration camp Just! Like! Hitler!

The post included a local newspaper’s report of a public meeting in Bastrop County, where the exercise was to take place.

Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria answered questions for two hours from a crowd of more than 150 people at a special meeting of the Bastrop County Commissioners, hoping to allay locals’ concerns that the training operation is a way for the federal government to take over Texas and much of the Southwest. Instead, Lastoria was told that he couldn’t be trusted and was asked whether Jade Helm 15 will involve bringing foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, whether U.S. troops will confiscate Texans’ guns and whether the Army intends to implement martial law through the exercise. (The answer for all three was no.)

As Juanita Jean noted,

Cowboy! Think about it. If the military wanted to take over, they would not ask your permission first. They would just do it because I do not care a hill of beans how many guns you have, they have tanks. And bombers. And stuff you have never even heard of.

How lost and terrified must people be in order to believe things like this? How paranoid?

And how much do they have to hate having an African-American President?