An interview with Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum authors of A Lot of People Are Saying – The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy

If you are as puzzled as I have been by the spread of corrosive conspiracism in American politics, then reading Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead’s recent A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy will help.

Harvard University’s Rosenblum and Dartmouth College’s Muirhead are democratic theorists. What they have to say might not reassure readers but they offer a beautifully argued and coherent explanation of a phenomenon that is eating away the integrity of our political institutions. Which is needed if we are to respond effectively. As Sun Tzu would express it: “Know your enemy and know yourself, and prevail in one hundred battles.”

I was privileged to pursue some of the important ideas in A Lot of People Are Saying with Rosenblum and Muirhead in the interview that follows. You will see why readers are impressed with their work.

Hickman: Please pardon the disease analogy but American politics seems to be suffering an ideological epidemic of conspiracism right now. So my first question is whether we have any reason to hope that the conspiracism in our politics can be cured, quarantined or treated?

Muirhead: True, conspiracism is enveloping today. There are so many conspiracist allegations that they have begun to collide with each other – as they did last month when moments after President Trump retweeted the charge that the Clintons had sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein killed, others tweeted that it was Trump who conspired to have him killed.

Rosenblum: There’s always reason to hope, though history is not static and neither is the present, malignant normality of conspiracism that is shaping our politics. On the positive side, presidential conspiracism is unique, and when Trump leaves office the amplifier will be turned down and perhaps the immediate dangers will abate. One danger is the disorientation produced by what we call conspiracy without the theory – for Trump’s conspiracism is all bare assertion, without any effort to connect the dots and reveal hidden patterns, or to adduce evidence and argument which are the aims of conspiracy theory. The other danger is the delegitimation of knowledge-producing institutions of all kinds and, even more importantly, the political opposition.

True, the conspiracy entrepreneurs who create concoctions like Pizzagate and QAnon will remain potent, and they will find new and even more effective ways to exploit new communications technologies. But without the amplification that comes from having a conspiracist in the White House — the liking and retweeting and proselytizing direct from the Oval Office — conspiracism may become less of an active political force and more of a social/cultural phenomenon. On the other hand, Trump has demonstrated the effectiveness of conspiracy claims to mobilize followers and as a justification for action, and Democrats (who have their conspiracy theories of dark money etc) may be tempted to return fire with fire and to take up the bare, unsupported assertion that marks conspiracism today.

Hickman: Your definition of the New Conspiracism offers a theoretical advance over what we knew before about the phenomenon. Could you describe your intellectual process in theorizing?

Rosenblum: What struck us first was the disorientation of conspiracy without the theory. After all, conspiracy theories provide evidence (however unwarranted) and argument; the reasoning is familiar. And some conspiracy theories are true! The conspiracism distorting politics today dispenses with all that. It is sheer assertion, and it is validated not by facts (not even ‘alternative facts’) but by repetition and assent: “a lot of people are saying.” This creates an epistemic polarization deeper than party polarization. It creates a divide over what it means to know something. It is an assault on common sense, and, we thought, an attempt to own reality and to impose it on the nation.

Muirhead: From there we went on to study how this conspiracy without the theory works – the way that “true enough” displaces the question of whether an allegation is really true; the congruence with conservative assaults on the regulatory state – what we call the “partisan penumbra”; and the dimensions of institutional delegitimation that follow as foundational democratic institutions are derailed, hijacked, invented, and circumvented.

Rosenblum: Conspiracist delegitimation is unceasing and no institution or official is invulnerable. Trump assaults the chairman of the Federal Reserve: “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or [China’s] Chairman Xi.” He asserts that the Obama administration engaged in an “all hands on deck” conspiracy against him, enlisting “DOJ/FBI/NSA/CIA/State,” and that the “the real Collusion, the Conspiracy, the Crime was between the Clinton Campaign, the DNC, Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele…and on and on!” Everywhere, Trump sees a conspiracy of “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media,” machinating to defeat him and therefore the nation. Always, he rages that the Democratic Party is a nest of traitors evidenced by the petty — failing to applaud at the State of the Union address – and the profound – willfully undermining national security: “I think what the Democrats are doing with the Border is TREASONOUS.” As political theorists of democracy, this stood out for us: the defining institution of representative democracy – regular party rivalry with its idea of a loyal opposition – is being overturned.

Hickman: You have written that the practitioners of the New Conspiracism are simultaneously delegitimizing and enlisting important institutions such as the press or government agencies. U.S. presidents have historically struggled to establish advantageous relationships with the press and to successfully direct the various Federal departments and agencies to achieve their policy goals. What is different now? Is the ‘delegitimizing plus enlistment’ formula something qualitatively different?

Muirhead: As a general formula your notion of “delegitimizing plus enlistment” is well taken. You make an important point: every Administration has to find a way to dance with the Press that serves each partner’s aims, and every administration has to find a way to exert control over the sprawling executive agencies that the President in name leads but that often frustrate presidential initiatives.

Rosenblum: The differences are striking, though. For one thing, when the president imposes his distorted sense of reality on government agencies, it’s not in the service of any articulated policy agenda. In fact, it incapacitates the state from pursuing any coherent agenda, liberal or conservative. In the same vein, the loyalists and amateurs who replace experts and professional civil servants are not loyal to an administration, or ideology, or even to a party in the sense that we know it; this is personal loyalty, demanded by the president. Consider these examples:

Institutions are derailed: the military is diverted from its appropriate operations and training to the southern border to “deter” an “invasion” of M13 gangs, Middle Eastern terrorists, migrants carrying diseases (leprosy, small pox) and wielding illegal votes.

Institutions are invented: when National Security Director Daniel Coat’s annual threat assessment identified climate change as a security threat, a commission is created to ‘reexamine’ this finding, and a physicist who likens the demonization of carbon dioxide to Hitler’s demonization of the Jews is appointed to head it.

Institutions are hijacked: the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr is enlisted to prove (after earlier investigations failed to show) that FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign was part of a malicious plot by Obama, and that the Mueller investigation was an attempted coup against the President. “I think spying did occur,” the Attorney General said: “it’s a big deal, it’s a big deal.”

And institutions are circumvented and rendered impotent,most ominously in foreign affairs. Trump assaults intelligence and national security experts and diplomats as elements of a nefarious ‘deep state’ or as liberal proponents of a ‘new world order’ designed to weaken the nation. Foreign relations are now conducted outside of regular process – like Trump’s unmonitored, unrecorded exchanges with Russian president Putin. There are no official diplomatic channels, there is no Congressional oversight, not even banks or markets are constraining the “deals” being made.

Unlike anything before, this wreckage of normal order adds up to the delegitimation of democratic government itself.

Hickman: “What you are saying presents democracy as more fragile, less robust than we thought a decade ago.”

Muirhead: Yes, there’s a tendency to think that democracy is always going to be popular, and therefore enjoy a certain kind of stability: the people would naturally seem to support rule by the people, after all. The democratic revolutions of ‘89 underlined this assumption.

Rosenblum: But the people are never in fact a natural whole. That’s why we have parties. Because the people are divided and it takes great skill to bring them together and hold them together — this is what partisans try to do. It is hard to make democracy work. And for that reason it is always vulnerable.

Hickman: I am wondering about the social psychology of the New Conspiracism because I have been startled in the past few years by disturbing encounters, mostly online, with people who credit nonsense such 9/11 as an “inside job,” Pizzagate, or, my personal favorite, Rep. Louie Gohmert’s “terror babies.” Slavoj Žižek references the pervasiveness of appeals to a ‘Big Other’ in ideology. Jodi Dean has written that conspiracism reflects passivity, powerlessness and isolation of members of mass media audiences. So I want to know what you think might make people susceptible to conspiracism or New Conspiracism? And are these different populations of the susceptible?

Rosenblum: There is an abundance of theoretical explanations for conspiracism; Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” among others. None of these address the conspiracism of the moment – conspiracy without the theory, amplified and spread by the winner of the presidential election!

We understand the hunger for a sociological key to followers of conspiracism – a parallel to the hunger to find a key to populism – status loss? economic insecurity? the disruption of the recession? scapegoating and racism? the engrained American mistrust of government and elites? Regular followers of conspiracism on social media are likely moved by varying combination of these. The equally important political question is what sort of mindset sees conspiracy everywhere, as Trump does.

Muirhead: We are not experts in the psychological mechanisms that render people susceptible to conspiracism. That said, two things are clearly at work: the stimulation of conspiracy entrepreneurs and social media. The first transforms conspiracism from serious investigation (see the websites of 9-11 “Truthers”; or the endless theories of the Kennedy assassination) and from entertainment into a sort of activation of hostility – the follower who shot up Comet Ping Pong, for example. The second, social media, creates a “we” of assenters and, again, and invites a sort of performative aggression. The aggression can be aimed at liberals or minorities, as is common, or it may simply be stimulated by creating chaos, nihilistic destruction.

Rosenblum: What alarms us as political scientists is the political effect of conspiracism – especially the delegitimation of democratic institutions.

Hickman: So on page 120 of A Lot of People Are Saying you write the following:

“Conspiracists embrace the self-conception that they are skeptics and critical thinkers. But their epistemic closure undercuts the capacity for skepticism. When knowledge-based pluralism is closed down, when sources are delegitimized and thrust outside the orbit of consideration, when conspiracist transmitters have lost the capacity for receiving, the framework of questioning and assurance is undone.”

That absence of shared intellectual reference points sounds awfully like a retreat from the modern to the traditional, to something medieval or tribal. In the past, overcoming such blockheaded thinking usually required wrenching social and economic change. But didn’t the disruption of the Great Recession inflame the tendency toward conspiracism?

Muirhead: Depending on what one identifies with the “traditional,” the erasure of skepticism might seem like a retreat from the modern. But all in all, we take the disorienting effect of conspiracy without the theory to be something quite different than return to some traditional way of thinking or even a rejection of Enlightenment.

Rosenblum: When on day two of his presidency Trump claimed that the National Park Service had doctored photographs of his inaugural crowd (‘the biggest ever’), he was not invoking folk understandings, or appealing to traditional ways of knowing, or signaling his loyalty to a particular tribe. He was not even signaling his approval of white nationalism, as he has done on so many other occasions. Instead he was asserting his power to impose his own distorted reality on the others. He was invoking presidential power to exact epistemic acquiescence, to force those who could not resist to accede to his description of things.

Muirhead: Conspiracy without the theory — the sheer assertion exemplified by Pizzagate, for example — does not console those who suffer because of economic change or the recession. It functions rather to eradicate all ambivalence in politics. If you opposed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, Pizzagate tells you that was not merely, on balance, the less preferable candidate or the bearer of values and aims that, all things considered, are somewhat less compelling than those presented by her opponent. It tells you that she is the heart of all evil — that she would torture and sexually exploit children. She should not merely be opposed, she should be locked up.

Rosenblum: The erasure of ambivalence in politics is the end of political judgment. It is also the end of one of the most important ideas in democratic life, that the opposition party is legitimate and deserves to be respected and tolerated even as one opposes it. This does take us back in a sense — to a time before the idea of a legitimate opposition took hold, when all opposition parties were classified as seditious conspiracies.

Hickman: Could you prioritize what needs to be done to respond effectively to this ideological epidemic?

Rosenblum: Again, at the level of politics, we discuss a range of ways to defang conspiracism – speaking truth when it comes from political representatives who use the partisan connection to correct constituents is one. Another is what we call “enacting democracy”, where officials not only adhere to regular process but explain the governmental forms and processes that constrain the exercise of power.

Muirhead: Common sense is the essential point of resistance to the conspiracism enveloping our politics today. Conspiracism threatens to sever our connection to a common world of facts and events and to a common moral world. Maintaining that connection, which is to say maintaining our common sense, is at the heart of any effective response. We hope that by naming the unnamed, we can help fortify common sense and resist the invitation to substitute what seems “true enough” for what seems true.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.