The conspiracist mindset moved into the White House with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Trump is the most powerful person who views politics through a miasma of secret, malignant intent, but he’s not the only one. Alex Jones, a syndicated radio talk show host from Austin, Texas, has become a celebrity by peddling conspiracy. Fox News is not above giving its audience the conspiracy they want to hear—even if it turns out to be false, as was “pundit” Andrew Napolitano’s charge that British intelligence (on President Obama’s orders) spied on Trump during the 2016 campaign. Amplifying charges by characters such as Napolitano are websites like Infowars (which is operated by Jones) or the Gateway Pundit, which, like burbling mud pots, release new conspiracies by the day. And underlying the officials, celebrities, and the fantasy news sites are online forums like Reddit, where anyone can share conspiracy theories with an audience of thousands at the click of a button.
Conspiracism has traveled from the margins to the mainstream, infusing public life and altering the bounds of what is acceptable in democratic politics. Aside from the presidency, conspiratorial designs are attributed to judges, elected representatives, and civil servants working in federal agencies. No official action is immune to being labelled a conspiracy. Rewording questions in the Census, for instance, is cast as a conspiracy to make the Affordable Care Act look more successful. Even acts of nature point to secret conspiratorial machinations: in 2012, some insisted that Hurricane Sandy was engineered by scientists at the direction of President Obama to help secure his reelection.
Conspiracism is not new, of course, but the conspiracism we see today does introduce something new—conspiracy without the theory. And it betrays a new destructive impulse: to delegitimate the government. Often the aim is merely to deligitimate an individual or a specific office. The charge that Obama conspired to fake his birth certificate only aimed at Obama’s legitimacy. Similarly, the charge that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicized flawed data in order to make global warming look more menacing was designed only to demote the authority of climate scientists working for the government. But the effects of the new strategy cannot be contained to one person or entity. The ultimate effect of the new conspiracism will be to delegitimate democracy itself.
Conventional conspiracism makes sense of a disorderly and complicated world by insisting that powerful human beings can and do control events. In this way, it gives order and meaning to apparently random occurrences. And in making sense of things, conspiracism insists on proportionality. JFK’s assassination, this type of thinking goes, was not the doing of a lone gunman—as if one person acting alone could defy the entire U.S. government and change the course of history. Similarly, the brazen attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 could not have been the work of fewer than two dozen men plotting in a remote corner of Afghanistan. So conspiracist explanations insist that the U.S. government must have been complicit in the strikes.
Conspiracism insists that the truth is not on the surface: things are not as they seem, and conspiracism is a sort of detective work. Once all the facts—especially facts ominously withheld by reliable sources and omitted from official reports—are scrupulously amassed and the plot uncovered, secret machinations make sense of seemingly disconnected events. What historian Bernard Bailyn observed of the conspiracism that flourished in the Revolutionary era remains characteristic of conspiracism today: “once assumed [the picture] could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.”
When conspiracists attribute intention where in fact there is only accident and coincidence, reject authoritative standards of evidence and falsifiability, and seal themselves off from any form of correction, their conspiracism can seem like a form of paranoia—a delusional insistence that one is the victim of a hostile world. This is not to say that all conspiracy theories are wrong; sometimes what conspiracists allege is really there. Yet warranted or not, conventional conspiracy theories offer both an explanation of the alleged danger and a guide to the actions necessary to save the nation or the world.
The new conspiracism we are seeing today, however, often dispenses with any explanations or evidence, and is unconcerned with uncovering a pattern or identifying the operators plotting in the shadows. Instead, it offers only innuendo and verbal gesture, as exemplified in President Trump’s phrase, “people are saying.” Conspiracy without the theory can corrode confidence in government, but it cannot give meaning to events or guide constructive collective action.
The effect of conspiratorial thinking, once it ceases to function as any sort of explanation, is delegitimation. The new conspiracist accusations seek not only to unmask and disempower those they accuse but to deny their standing to argue, explain, persuade, and decide. Conspiracism rejects their authority. In the end, the consequences of delegitimation are not targeted or discrete but encompassing.
Conspiracy without the theory
The new conspiracist mindset posits the meaning of events with certainty, but in contrast to conventional conspiracism—the myriad accounts of JFK’s assassination or 9/11, say—it has little interest in explanation. “Rigged” was a single word that in the election of 2016 had the power to evoke sinister intentions, fantastic plots, and an awesome capacity to mobilize three million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president and then to cover it up. In Trump’s (and Bannon’s) insistence that busloads of fraudulent voters were sent to vote against him in the New Hampshire primary there are no stray facts to account for: no local officials testify to having been besieged by hundreds or thousands of new voters exiting from fleets of busses. The baseless charge of voter fraud in New Hampshire is designed to obscure the reality that Trump lost the popular vote: it is an attempt to enhance Trump’s legitimacy by delegitimizing the electoral process.
The new, lazy conspiracism satisfies itself with vague assertions. For instance, when a former Washington D.C. homicide investigator wrote on Facebook, referring to Justice Scalia’s death: “My gut tells me there is something fishy going on in Texas.” References to unnamed actors (“people are saying”) are elastic; they can embrace a changing cast of public enemies and a wide but unspecified repertoire of nefarious acts. Complicity by insinuation and equivocation also evades responsibility. A telling example was Mike Huckabee’s seemingly off-hand comment in relation to Obama’s birth certificate in 2011: “I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough.”
The manner of coy insinuation that marks the new conspiracism both absolves the speaker of responsibility for the charge he’s putting forth and invites endless investigation. As Trump said about a National Enquirer story that linked Texas senator Ted Cruz’s father with JFK’s assassination, “even if it isn’t totally true, there’s something there.” Or, as Representative Bryan Zollinger (R-ID) said about the allegation that Democratic Party officials lured white nationalists and anti-fascist protestors to Charlottesville in order to manufacture a clash, “I am not saying it is true, but I am suggesting that it is completely plausible.”
Where nothing is true but everything is plausible, it becomes respectable, even necessary, to insert conspiracism into the official business of democratic institutions. Trump enlisted administration officials to affirm his ungrounded claim that he was being wiretapped by former president Obama (“during the very sacred election process”), and followed up with a demand for a congressional investigation. In another example from 2013, Congress held a joint hearing to investigate ammunition purchases by the Department of Homeland Security, in response to charges that the federal government was stockpiling arms in preparation for a violent campaign against American citizens. Conspiracism simultaneously degrades and exploits Congress, the Justice Department, intelligence agencies, and the press.
The new conspiracism—conspiracy without the theory—is potent and divisive. It pretends to own reality. It carries us beyond partisan polarization to epistemic polarization, so that Americans are in conflict about nothing less than what it means to know something. And through disinterest in explanation and disregard for the logic of evidence and argument, it is energetic and all-encompassing in its targets.
The new conspiracism’s partisan penumbra
The ultimate consequence of the new conspiracism is the destruction of the administrative state, a state with the capacity to design and implement long-term policy. The administrative state is the legacy of the Progressive era and the New Deal. To be sure, every conspiracy theory is not designed to attack the administrative state in toto. It is often only one institution (like the EPA) or one actor (such as President Obama) that is the target. But the blizzard of conspiracy theories creates white-out conditions that obscure any perception of governmental integrity. The consequence of conspiracism is not simply distrust; it feeds the assumption that the government is staffed by those who are actively hostile to the common interest.
In its consequences for the administrative state, today’s conspiracism is congruent with partisan Republican purposes, because it has the effect of derailing the operations of liberal policies and programs that defined national politics in the twentieth century. In its modest iteration, conservatism sought to correct the alleged excesses of New Deal liberalism while securing its core. As Ronald Reagan explained, in his youth he shared the goals of Roosevelt and the New Deal, but as he saw it, the Democratic Party became more extreme. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” Reagan pronounced, “the Party left me.” In its current, more radical iteration, conservatism seeks to reverse the New Deal legacy altogether. It was also Reagan who gave radical Republicanism its organizing principle: “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” This more radical and destructive impulse was exemplified by Rick Perry when he insisted during the presidential campaign of 2011 that he would eliminate three federal agencies, but could only name two. The specifics do not matter—what matters is that government be dismantled.
Yet once in power, radical conservatism runs into a formidable obstacle: dismantling government is not very popular. People expect government to protect them from dangerous products, to monitor the safety of the water and food supply, to assist victims of natural disasters, to ensure access to healthcare, to regulate markets, to prosecute frauds, and so on. Conspiracism helps accomplish what radical conservatives in office cannot by delegitimizing the institutions that deliver these policies. It dissolves the authority of knowledge-producing institutions inside and outside government, communities of expertise, and conventions of fact and argument necessary to make effective decisions.
Conspiracism’s attack has a partisan penumbra, then, but its effects are totalizing and go well beyond what even radical conservatives want. It destroys not only liberal policies but the institutional capacities of the state wholesale. The communities of special knowledge—the doctors and economists and engineers who regulate the safety of airplanes, who steward the macroeconomy toward low inflation and sustainable growth—do not reside on one side of the partisan divide. To undermine them is not to weaken liberalism or progressivism or the left but to weaken democracy. Conspiracism is the acid that dissolves the institutions, processes, and standards of justification that make government possible.
The delegitimation of political parties
Political parties are among the most important institutions that conspiracism corrodes. Americans are so used to disparaging parties and partisans that we don’t spring to their defense as we do to (ironically) the FBI. From George Washington to Barack Obama, anti-partisanship has been a staple of American political life. Against the background of endemic anti-partisanship and weak parties, conspiracism goes about the business of delegitimizing the democratic state.
It starts with delegitimizing opposition candidates. The most infamous case was the Republican story about a conspiracy to conceal President Obama’s foreign birth. President Trump is the most notorious birther, and helped bring the conspiracy into the mainstream. The conspiracy moved quickly from the periphery of political discourse to the formal institutions of politics, and threatened to keep Obama’s name from appearing on the Kansas ballot in the reelection campaign of 2012—the state where Obama’s own mother was born. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said at the time, “I don’t think it’s a frivolous objection.” Kobach said of the charge that Obama was foreign-born: “I do think the factual record could be supplemented.” This was more than a year after the White House released Obama’s “long form” birth certificate.
Allegations of conspiracy extend beyond this or that candidate or official to the political opposition altogether. Not content with the hyper-criticism and incivility that mark polarized partisanship, conspiracists cast the Democratic Party as a danger to the nation. The conspiracist mindset is part of a larger tendency to paint the opposition as a revolutionary party surreptitiously altering national identity and creating an alien nation. The party is said to be the agent of Muslims, Jews, blacks, immigrants—exploiting the electoral process to subvert America as a Christian nation, to “mongrelize” a white population, to empower “takers and suckers,” to extend rights to outsiders, to cede sovereignty to the “new world order.” As an existential threat (not merely an opponent), President Obama is cast by some, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), as a “lawless” president, and by others, like conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell, as a “dictatorial tyrant.”
And of course, the opposition is said to abet foreign enemies. Their foreign policy of international aggression (or failure to act aggressively) is not just ineffective or immoral but designed to undermine the United States’ power and status in the world. Hillary Clinton, according to President Trump, “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.”
The objective in all this is not only defeating the opposition in an election but assuring their permanent incapacitation. That was Steve Bannon’s consolation at a moment when he thought Trump would lose the election: “Our back-up strategy is to fuck her [Clinton] up so bad that she can’t govern.”
Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court was tactical, of course, designed to entrench a conservative majority on the court. But the terms of refusal are telling. Stalling until the next election in order to “let the voters decide” is a public disavowal of the authority of voters who elected President Obama in 2012.
This is delegitimation—not just opposing or discrediting or defeating. When conspiracism delegitimizes regulated party rivalry, loyal opposition, and the tradition of “agreeing to disagree” it strikes at the bedrock of representative democracy.
The ultimate moment in delegitimizing democratic politics is to impugn all parties. Trump is perfectly cast to preside over such a moment. He was never loyal to a party. His presidential campaign did not have the support of the national Republican leadership, party elites, or donors. He does not call his supporters Republicans. The conspiracist-in-chief may destroy the Republican Party, but he is not reshaping it or organizing another. He is preparing the public for a politics without parties.
True, parties and partisans frustrate this impulsive personality. He would work without and around them, bully or disregard them. But more important, he and networks of conspiracists see parties as cabals. In Trump’s view, Democratic/Obama “holdovers” at the National Security Council, the State Department, and other agencies are pulling the strings of the “deep state,” undermining the country and his rightful authority. In this respect, the Trump administration sounds much like figures such as Alex Jones, who sees the federal government as a “Trojan horse” harboring “enemies within.” And Democrats are not the only ones with nefarious, concealed aims. Republicans are complicit. The parties collude. They are all agents of (pick the conspiracy of the moment) global elites who rule the world. Both parties are responsible for the “American carnage” Trump conjured up in his apocalyptic campaign speeches.
New conspiracism versus progressive antipartyism
The United States has a history of antipartyism, but today’s conspiracism deviates from its antecedents. For, in the past, a common reason for wanting to do away with parties and partisanship was democratic reform—aimed at enhancing democracy.
Progressivism early in the twentieth century saw political parties as “perverters of the democratic spirit,” part of a system shrouded in corruption and fraud. Progressives ferreted out facts and observed patterns and wove them into detailed accounts of conspiracy; they called it muckraking. They championed nonpartisan local government and reliance on expertise. They accepted electoral democracy, but insisted on a secret ballot and primary elections in which candidates were not identified with a party and voters were independents, not partisans. And like many progressives today, they championed direct participatory democracy: initiatives and referenda, recall, and constitutional conventions.
By contrast, the new conspiracists’ delegitimation of parties is not a sober confrontation with the limitations of party democracy. There is no interest in democratic reform, no prescription for institutional innovation, or any form of collective democratic action.
Rather than appeal to his fellow partisans, Trump instead appeals to “real Americans.” After all, we don’t need parties if there is only one collective identity, one community, one people with only one voice. Trump gives us identity politics with a vengeance. Because unlike ethnic or racial identities, the category of “real Americans” is not just one element of the American polity.
The value of parties lies in the way they connect the pluralism of a free society to the formal institutions of politics. And though every partisan believes she is “on the side of the angels,” partisans do not imagine they speak for the whole or that their victory is anything but partial and temporary. It takes humility not to claim to be the voice of “the nation” or “the people,” and to recognize opposition as legitimate.
Today’s antipartyism—with its virulent populist trappings and eruptions of justificatory conspiracism—is a form of malignant anti-pluralism. This is delegitimation of democracy at the deepest level, penetrating beyond the formal state to society.
There are no alternatives
What, exactly, the new conspiracist mindset wants to put in place of the institutions, practices, and policies it degrades is uncertain. Perhaps nothing at all. For despite its partisan penumbra—its alignment with radical conservatism—conspiracism today is not embedded in an ideology, a political program or movement, an understanding of justice or a constitutional view (this is why discerning conservatives have so forcefully resisted endorsing Trump’s conspiracism). Conspiracism claims to uncover odious plots against the Constitution, the fabric of society, sacred American values, national identity—but not for the sake of upholding any constitutional theory, or affirming any vision of society, or installing any coherent understanding of American values and national identity.
Some commentators see in conspiracism an aspiration to overturn the established political order for the sake of a new regime—a populist authoritarian regime unconstrained by constitutional limitations, for example. This is wrong. To be sure, Trump has a few policies he favors, some venal, like lower estate taxes. He indulges his hostility toward immigrants, affinity for white supremacy and anti-Semitism, lust for thuggery, and disdain for legal restraints. But backlash garnished with a handful of grievances and bad policies is not a political theory. We’re witness to the fact that it does not take an alternative ideology or program—communism, authoritarianism, theism, fascism, nativism—to delegitimize democracy. Sterile conspiracism does the work.
The new conspiracism is destabilizing, degrading, and delegitimizing, without a countervailing constructive impulse, as if whatever rises from the detritus of constitutional democracy is less important and less captivating than narratives of grievance, catastrophe, and humiliation.
This is striking. Fearsome fascist and totalitarian regimes, revolutionary politics, even apocalyptic movements that would destroy the world to save it all envision what the next world or our own revivified world will be like. Disregard for what might be constructed in place of what is destroyed goes against the grain of human hopefulness. It instead reveals a conspiracist mindset trapped in an angry private reality of the moment, with no next steps or better ways forward.
Contemporary politics is a lesson in what delegitimation looks like. Authorities, institutions, and reasoning based on standards of evidence and argument are held in contempt, its principals charged with malicious intent. Officials are “so-called” officials (for example, “the quote president” Obama) and can be justifiably demeaned, subverted, undermined, or declared criminal. Agencies and knowledge-producing institutions can be hollowed out. Parties can be dismissed as cabals. Delegitimation proceeds by assaulting, degrading, and violating the institutions and norms that make democracy possible.
Social scientists since Weber (or Aristotle) have studied legitimacy and how authorities gain it. The process of delegitimation, however, especially in wealthy, historically stable democracies, is much less well understood. In a sense, we are on our own.
What can be done? First, we must call out conspiracists’ claim to reality. Speaking truth to conspiracy is a moral imperative. It is a sign of dangerous times that so few responsible office-holders, and barely any among conservatives, do.
We also need democratic narratives as compelling as the accusations conjured by conspiracists. Speaking truth to conspiracy is disarming, when it is, not because it offers facts or represents sounder reasoning but because it supports a story that makes better sense to citizens.
Yet we also need more. When conspiracism becomes a regular element of public life, we need to defend the ordinary routines of democratic politics. That means not only adherence to the customary and legal processes of constitutional democracy by both parties (and civil society groups and others) but also literally articulating them, pedagogically, so citizens appreciate the purpose of democratic norms. Citizens need to witness exhibitions of institutional integrity and regular politics at work, such as when the chair of a congressional intelligence committee announces that he will investigate as the evidence warrants rather than act at President Trump’s direction. These deliberate exhibitions of institutional integrity and regular democratic politics have to be meaningful, producing recognizably fair outcomes in the public interest. With that, the conspiracist threat to democratic legitimacy may be called out and contained.
Reversing the damage already done, however, is more complicated. Conspiracism has an extended half-life. Re-legitimation will be long and arduous. The challenge is clear: as Archibald MacLeish once said, “It is not enough, in this war of hoaxes and delusions and perpetuated lies, to be merely honest. It is necessary also to be wise.”
Russell Muirhead is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age (Harvard University Press, 2014).
Nancy Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University. Her most recent book is Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (Princeton University Press, 2016).