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Conspiracy Theories Explain the Right

The conservative mindset is in decline. Stories of cabals and secret plots provide comfort as its power wanes.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Suzanne Tucker

 

What just happened in Washington?

Ask a true conservative believer, and they’ll tell you that it was the birth of a terrible beauty. They’ll say the GOP’s true leaders, our nation’s future leadership, revealed itself in all its splendid, futile glory—only to be stabbed in the back by a “ thundering herd of chicken-hearted Republicans in Name Only (RINOs)  galloping to the Left.”

If you asked me, I would say that we witnessed a recrudescence of a nihilistic tendency that has never been far from the surface in American politics—a conservatism that is as far from the dictionary definition of conservatism as Obama is from being a socialist. Last fall, on the eve of the election, I  wrote in Salon that “America is becoming more multicultural, more gay-friendly and more feminist every day. But as every hunter knows, a wounded or cornered quarry is the most dangerous. Even as the white, patriarchal, Christian hegemony declines, its backlash politics become more vicious.” Was it vicious enough to strap a figurative suicide vest to its chest and threaten the U.S. with default? If you had asked me at the time, I would have said no. Little did I know.

Some of the Republican jihadists who pressed for default feel so personally violated by the presence of a black family in the White House that they would just as soon burn it down as reclaim it. And some live in such a bubble of denial—an alternate cognitive universe in which the poor lord it over the rich and white Christians are a persecuted minority, in which a president who was twice elected by an overwhelming popular majority is a pretender, and a law that Congress attempted to overturn more than 40 times was “never debated”—that they have convinced themselves that a default would have actually been a good thing, that it would have restored the U.S. economy to a sound foundation.

It is a triumph not so much of a conspiracy as of conspiracist thinking. As John Judis  wrote in The New Republic last week, even “lobbyists I talked to cited….Richard Hofstadter’s essay on ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ to explain the rise of the populist right. It’s the kind of reference you’d expect to read in a New Republic article, but not necessarily in a conversation with a business lobbyist.”  

Lest I be accused of falling for a left wing conspiracy theory myself, I want to say a few words about “conspiracy theory” before I continue. “Conspiracy theory” is a loaded and frankly a bad term, one that unfairly besmirches any and all theorizing about conspiracies.

Bracketing all thinking about conspiracies with tall tales and outright delusions about secret societies whose leaders toast each other with blood drunk out of human skulls is unfair and misleading. Some anti-government conspiracy theories—that the Tonkin Gulf Incident didn’t happen as reported, for example, or that the CIA was involved with international dope dealers, are so far from being ridiculous that they turn out to be true. The NSA doeshave access to your emails. For that matter, a certain amount of toasting with skulls (if not actual blood) has been reliably reported to go on in some quarters.

Still, there are theories and then there are theories. Scientists know the difference between unfalsifiable ones like intelligent design and genuinely scientific ones like evolution. Theories about political conspiracies are harder to put to the test; absence of evidence, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, is not evidence of absence. In fact it’s the whole point.

I do think most people know the difference between a “conspiracy theory” in its pejorative sense—say, that the Fed takes its orders from a secret society of Jewish elders, who cause depressions and wars to further their plan of ruling the world—and its literal sense, such as a serious inquiry into Oswald’s relationship to the CIA.