The New Politics of Conspiracy

Moscow, September 2008
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Moscow, September 2008

The second act of the Trump-Putin farce seems to be playing out faster than the first act, but following the same general trajectory: apparent revelations followed by exaggerated interpretation followed by a subdued debunking, all of it somehow giving weight to what, in the end, has never been much more than a matter of speculation. The theory is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is actively trying to bring Donald Trump to office and in fact has direct ties to the onsandidate. The evidence is scant, but the assumption is strong. The reality-based world view is further weakened and American political culture is the loser.

To recap: on Sunday, two days after FBI Director James Comey’s controversial letter to Congress about possible new developments in the Hillary Clinton email case, Senate minority leader Harry Reid accused Comey of sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.” Was Reid referring to something specific? There was doubt: The Washington Post pointed out that the senior Democrat has been known to make unsubstantiated claims. But Reid’s assertion was more than sufficient to start a new round of intense press scrutiny of the question.

On Monday, two national magazines had expanded on what Reid may have had in mind. Mother Jones reported that a retired spy had alerted the FBI to what he believed was a Russian connection in the Trump campaign. The story did not say what the connection was, who was involved, what the former spy’s name or area of expertise was, or even what country he had served before he retired. An article by Franklin Foer on Slate had more substance: Foer reported that a group of computer scientists had discovered a server belonging to the Trump organization that seemed to communicate directly and exclusively with the Russian Alfa Bank. Immediately, the Clinton campaign fired off a series of tweets about Foer’s story, starting with “It’s time for Trump to answer serious questions about his ties to Russia” and ending with “RT if you agree Trump should immediately disclose all of his ties and connections to Russia.”

By the end of the day, though, The New York Times had posted a lengthy investigative piece—one that would also be published in Tuesday’s paper—reporting that the FBI had “spent weeks” investigating the supposed computer back channel, along with other allegations, and had found nothing conclusively sinister. Thus ended another round of embarrassingly wild speculation, from Reid’s assertion—incendiary because it was unsubstantiated—to a venerable magazine publishing a piece, in effect, about someone they won’t name telling the FBI something they won’t repeat about someone or someones they also won’t name. Foer’s piece, by contrast, contained significant reporting, but strained to make connections: between what may or may not have been back-channel communication of the Trump organization and the Trump campaign; and between Alfa Bank and the Kremlin. These connections are by no means implausible—but they have not been proved, and the Times made clear that the FBI, in weeks and weeks of investigation, has failed to find them.

Perhaps more than any previous election in history, this year’s contest has been dominated by charges of lying and mistruths on both sides, from the primaries to the general election. Our allegiance to a fact-based reality has been constantly challenged. But conspiracy theories work on a different level than mere lies. They lodge themselves in the mind by showing that something could be true without proving that it is true. They are therefore impossible to disprove: they cannot be fact-checked because their central tenets are conjectures rather than facts. Debates spawned by conspiracy theories become fruitless arguments about beliefs, and merely by having them, we gradually elevate these theories from assertion to assumption.

Our beliefs about conspiracy theories do not stem from facts. Instead, they demand facts to buttress them. This is how the latest round of Trump-Putin reporting came about: the facts on which the original theory had relied had been debunked, but the belief remained. So new facts were being sought to support it.

When the Trump-Putin conjecture was first widely aired last summer, the following evidence was marshaled: Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had worked for former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich; Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page had business dealings in Moscow; Trump’s people had intervened to alter the Ukraine plank in the Republican platform; and Russian hackers had broken into the Democratic National Committee’s computers in order to compromise Clinton’s campaign. On closer examination, it turned out that: Manafort had not followed a pro-Moscow line in his work in Ukraine; Page had little or no part in the Trump campaign and his business in Moscow was more aspiration than actual deals; the Ukraine plank in the Republican campaign was not at all what Russian wanted; and while Russia did hack the DNC, the release of the DNC emails by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who has publicly made clear his hostility to Clinton, has yet to be connected to Moscow. (Russia also appears to have hacked the Trump campaign, but only the fruits of the DNC hack have been released via Wikileaks.)

Even as the facts fell out of the story, the Clinton campaign ran with the Trump-as-Putin’s-puppet line. In August, it released a bizarre ad executed in perfect paranoid style: “We don’t know what’s going on here, and Donald won’t tell us,” it concluded. “We’ll let you guess.” Among other things, the ad showed footage from a December 2015 dinner for RT, the Russian state television conglomerate, during which retired General Michael Flynn, now a Trump adviser, and Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, sat at Vladimir Putin’s table. It is in fact Stein who sounds like an RT anchorperson whenever an interviewer asks her about her foreign policy, but the ad commented only on Flynn’s presence.

Remarkably, that one picture said more about Russia’s actual part in the US presidential election than any of the attempted Trump-Putin exposés. Russia is using the same playbook in the United States that it has used in Western European countries and elsewhere going back to the cold war: it infiltrates and disrupts whenever it sees an opening. The disruption is an end in itself. Rather than try to advance a particular candidate, the Kremlin wants to throw doubt on the legitimacy of the election itself. For this objective, a major party nominee and an obscure third-party candidate are both useful. The hacking of the DNC—carried out before Trump was the presumptive or even the imagined nominee—served the same purpose: disruption.

But, you might say, that is the connection: Russia did hack the DNC. Yes, it did—and apparently the hackers who carried out the attack, following what the FBI believes was a high-level assignment, bothered little with covering their tracks. How significant is the leap between acknowledging this intrusion and calling Trump a Putin puppet? It’s a big logical stretch, but the more frightening leap is from one way of thinking to another. “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content,” wrote Richard Hofstader in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

The style shapes a view of the world. The Trump campaign is an example. Running largely on conspiracy thinking, it promotes a world view in which Trump’s opponent is not merely corrupt but involved in secret criminal plots (for which she should be locked up). In the Trumpian account, the elites that run the country have been coddling terrorists, the media gang up on Trump, and the election is “rigged.” His campaign has been all about the invisible—the stuff of conspiracy theories.

The Clinton campaign has responded in part by creating a conspiratorial world view of its own. Focused on the ostensible Trump-Putin connection—along with theories about an FBI campaign against her and, of course “the vast right-wing conspiracy” aimed at discrediting the Clintons—this conspiracy-based outlook is not nearly as comprehensive as Trump’s. But if she wins, the effects of this conspiracy-obsessed election, and the style in which it was created, will not be easily shaken. They will linger not only in the culture at large but in one of the most sensitive and important areas of policy: the next administration’s relationship with Russia.

Hannah Arendt, who wrote extensively about the politics of conspiracy, noted that a political actor who uses an imagined conspiracy as an organizing device, without believing in it, grows blind to the likelihood of having an actual conspiracy appear as the logical response. She also wrote that conspiracies beget conspiracies, and so do conspiracy theories. The belief in a conspiracy demands a counterconspiracy to fight it.

To the extent that Russia is actually meddling in the American election, it is itself driven largely by conspiracy thinking. Putin and members of his administration really do believe that America, and indeed the world, function like House of Cards. They believe that the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan were organized by Americans and funded by the State Department, and that the protests in Russia in 2011-2012 were masterminded by Hillary Clinton herself. That conviction compels them to try to respond in kind. The conspiracy theories about Trump and Putin have served only to affirm this world view.

What has not emerged in the course of the US presidential campaign is any advance in the discussion of the US’s Russia policy. This omission is tragic and dangerous. Had a substantive conversation on Russia taken place, the former secretary of state would have enjoyed a great advantage because she knows what she is talking about and may indeed have a policy to put forward. Instead, in keeping with the conspiracy world view, she has engaged Trump in a spat about who is and is not a Putin puppet and in one-upmanship about who will be tougher on Russia. (Clinton has called for an escalation of US involvement in Syria, for example, aimed at gaining “leverage” over Russia; though it is far from clear how this might occur in practice.)

The question of whether being tough on Russia is the best way to deal with Putin has not been raised. Nor has the more important question of why the Russia policies of the last two presidents seem to have been woefully ineffective. The answer, if you ask me, lies in proceeding on unquestioned assumptions—a close cousin of conspiracy thinking.