Tag Archives: conspiracy theories

Alex Jones And Donald Trump

One of the blogs I read regularly is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, Inc. “Juanita Jean” is really a Texan named Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. She’s a longtime Democratic activist in her part of Texas, and a wit who reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins.

Bankston’s husband and son are both lawyers (these things tend to run in families), and her son recently represented parents of children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, in a suit against Alex Jones.

As many of you are probably aware, Alex Jones is a truly vile, probably crazy conspiracy theorist who spent years making life hell for those parents–telling his depressingly large and equally crazy audience that the massacre never happened, that it was a “false flag” operation conducted by the government, and that the parents were really actors. Followers of his constantly harassed and threatened the parents. Bankston sued Jones on their behalf and in a deposition, got Jones to admit that the massacre had been real and the children had actually been murdered.

Partly due to negative publicity generated by the lawsuit, Jones has been removed from the larger Internet platforms–Facebook, Twitter, etc.–although he evidently remains on the “dark web.”

These details are prologue: recently, Juanita Jean blogged that her son would be on an upcoming PBS Frontline show about Jones, The United States of Conspiracy. So I watched it.

You all need to watch it too. It explains a lot about ugliness and fear and hate, and where America is right now.

The fact that someone like Jones–who certainly seems visibly deranged, whether that’s a schtick or real–could amass literally millions of viewers (presumably equally deranged) is depressing enough. The danger posed by Jones’ devotees is very real; Frontline showed a video made by the listener who believed Jones’ “Pizzagate” conspiracy and proceeded to shoot up the pizza parlor where Hillary Clinton was supposedly running a child porn ring out of its (non-existent) basement. It showed him hyping several other, equally bizarre conspiracies–including 9/11 and Obama “truther” fabrications.

The really eye-opening revelation was the show’s documentation of the relationships between Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump. It is not too far-fetched to think that Jones’ exuberant embrace of candidate Trump–an embrace which included Trump’s appearances on Infowars and his public praise of Jones–resulted in thousands of votes Trump wouldn’t otherwise have received.

Jones’ audience of conspiracy-believers obviously form a significant part of Trump’s base–and while that explains some things, it’s also terrifying.

Far and away the most spine-curdling part of the documentary were the repeated instances in which Jones would be shown making a wild, unsupported and frequently bat-shit crazy statement–followed by a clip showing Trump echoing that statement.

We know that Trump doesn’t listen to Dr. Fauci (or any experts, for that matter). He does, quite obviously, listen to Alex Jones.

Anyone sane who has followed politics in the United States the past four years knows that Donald Trump is both appallingly ignorant and seriously mentally ill. We’ve seen that he can be receptive to conspiratorial theories. But it’s impossible to watch this Frontline presentation without realizing how much closer to the edge he is than most observers have recognized.

I also didn’t realize how many Americans aren’t just close to that edge, but well over it.

Watch it.

 

But Reality Is So Complicated…

Paul Krugman devoted a recent column to the conspiracy theories that have emerged to “explain” the coronavirus. My only quibble with the column was its narrow focus; I’ve come to the conclusion that a substantial percentage of Americans find reality so intimidating, messy and/or incomprehensible, the only way they can make sense of it is to assume that someone or some group must be intentionally responsible for the aspects of that reality they most fear.

It can’t be random–“those people” must be engaged in a purposeful effort to harm or mislead them.

We really haven’t come very far from colonial days, when clerics opposed the newfangled smallpox vaccine because smallpox was undoubtedly sent by God, and inoculating people against it would constitute interference with God’s plan. Just substitute “those people”–the Deep State, the bankers, the Jews, the DNC, whoever–for God.

It’s just really hard for some people to accept randomness, and the fact that–as the undignified saying goes–shit happens.

As Krugman writes

We still don’t know how much damage Covid-19 — the coronavirus disease — will do, but it’s reasonable to be very concerned. After all, it appears to be highly transmissible, and it is probably a lot more lethal than ordinary flu.

But not to worry, say right-wing pundits and news organizations: It’s all a hoax, a conspiracy by the liberal media to make Donald Trump look bad. Administration officials and Trump himself have echoed their claims.

These claims are, of course, crazy. Among other things, Covid-19 is a global phenomenon, with major outbreaks ranging from South Korea to Italy. Are the South Korean and Italian media also part of a conspiracy to get Trump?

I agree with Krugman that this particular reaction was predictable to anyone who  follows the right-wings long-running war on facts, especially when facts prove  inconvenient or conflict with the right’s preferred version of reality.

And as Krugman also reminds us, much of their insistence on attributing unwanted outcomes to nefarious evil-doers rests on projection.

In the case of Covid-19 the usual suspects were, in part, engaged in projection. After all, they themselves engaged in a concerted effort to politically weaponize the 2014 Ebola outbreak against Barack Obama, whose response was in reality smart and effective. By the way, in the aftermath of that outbreak the Obama administration put in place measures to deal with future pandemics — all of which Trump scrapped.

Denial, as my grandfather used to say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.

Climate change? As recently as the 2018 midterms, a survey found 73 percent of Republican senators denying that man-made climate change is happening. The success of Obama’s economic measures?  Right-wing politicians and pundits insisted that the numbers were being cooked. (Those evil “deep state” folks, no doubt…) Etc.

But fair is fair: this sort of nonsense is hardly confined to the crazy people on the right, although clearly, the right has a majority of the crazies.

For example, a troubling percentage of his supporters are absolutely convinced that if Bernie isn’t the nominee, it will be due to a plot by “the establishment” to rig the process. Despite the results of Super Tuesday, it is evidently inconceivable to them that a majority of Democratic voters might prefer Biden or someone else–that large numbers of voters might honestly believe that Bernie would be less likely to beat Trump and more likely to doom Democrats’ down-ticket prospects.

As a column from Talking Points Memo put it,

To hear many Sanders surrogates describe it, the establishment and power brokers closed ranks and pushed Biden into the lead. But again, this just pretends like millions of voters don’t exist, or function as pawns of party elites. So you have one theory of political agency for Sanders supporters and another for everyone else. This stands no kind of political scrutiny.

Party workers making anti-Bernie arguments are engaging in typical (small-d) democratic campaigning, not “rigging” an election. Similarly, doctors aren’t conspiring to hide the “dangers” of vaccinations. Scientists aren’t part of an international cabal engaged in falsifying data on climate change. The government isn’t running a secret program entailing the discharge of dangerous airplane “contrails.”

Elvis’ death wasn’t faked, and there really isn’t a monster hiding under the bed.

In fact, there’s no one here but us flawed human beings trying to make sense of the shit that happens in a complicated world.

 

Conspiracy Theories In One..Two..Three…

I still remember a meeting I attended many years ago, when I was in City Hall. A number of neighborhood groups–aggrieved about something I no longer recall–met with Mayor Hudnut and a small group of city officials and accused us of engaging in a devious conspiracy to undermine whatever it was they were exercised about. Bob Cross, then Deputy Director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, responded that incompetence usually explains far more than conspiracy. (Actually, as he remarked after the meeting, we would have been incapable of pulling off a conspiracy.)

It was a bit of wisdom I’ve not forgotten.

There are all sorts of ongoing problems with the Iowa Caucuses–working folks often can’t participate, Iowa is over 95% white and unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and the parties and media pay far too much attention to the results. Perhaps the monumental cluster-f**k this year will prompt a re-evaluation. (I personally favor a national primary…or at this point, even a retreat to those despised “smoke filled rooms.” Trump would never have emerged from a smoke-filled room.)

In the wake of Iowa’s inability to issue immediate results, Talking Points Memo blamed complexity and an app that was definitely “not ready for prime time.”

Experts in cybersecurity and election administration told TPM on Tuesday that the app chosen by the Iowa Democratic Party failed to handle the complexity, providing an example of what not to do in administering an election.

But incompetence isn’t an explanation that feeds the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders identified a donor who had given money to both Mayor Pete and to the company that developed the flawed app (as had four of the Democratic contenders) and concluded that Pete was part of a clandestine effort to rig the election. Anti-Bernie folks responded by identifying a guy with a “commie background” who has  donated to Bernie, so Bernie’s a commie.

For the record, Bernie’s campaign has said the caucuses were not rigged.

Business Insider reported that GOP operatives were gleefully piling on.

Amid the chaos surrounding the delayed results of the Iowa caucuses, multiple Republicans have pushed conspiracy theories that imply the process was rigged against Sen. Bernie Sanders.

With so much confusion in Iowa, some in the GOP saw an opportunity to be exploited.

There is no evidence whatsoever the caucuses were rigged, but some Republicans are pushing this conspiratorial narrative in what appears to be a fairly transparent effort to divide Democratic voters. The primary season is already heated, with supporters of the various Democratic candidates often duking it out online.

A column in the Washington Post summed up the various elements of this mess that should genuinely trouble Democrats, and the lessons this exercise in breathtaking incompetence should teach.

Transmitting results digitally opens up a whole cyber-world of hacking risk — yet Iowa insisted on doing it anyway. Organizers did try to guard against disaster by requiring precincts to include snapshots of an on-paper count. But there’s a lot more they didn’t do, such as test their system statewide or tell any security experts the name of the for-profit company that constructed the app in a hurried two months. (That name, by the way, is “Shadow, Inc.” Now don’t you feel better?)…

Iowa party officials started by crying “user error” to explain the struggles many precinct captains had downloading and uploading. Okay, if “user error” means very few people could use the app without encountering an error. Some encountered limited bandwidth because so many individuals were accessing the program at the same time, which the party might have anticipated considering they were running 1,681 caucuses simultaneously. Some in rural areas ran into poor wireless service, which the party also should have anticipated considering, well, it is Iowa. The next day, officials began to blame a “coding issue.”

The Iowa imbroglio, in other words, so far reveals lots of incompetence and little insidiousness. More tech isn’t always better, and, in this case, it was worse because a product wasn’t fully tested and didn’t function as it was supposed to.

The first two sentences of the column pointed to the real issue: Americans’ widespread distrust– distrust that encourages belief in conspiracy theories.

Want to cause countrywide confusion and sow doubt in the integrity of our democracy? Apparently there’s an app for that.

Indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.