You Have to Believe It to See It
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
It’s hard for me to stomach political news these days, but certain things are tough to ignore. Donald Trump’s recent rally in Ohio, where he embraced QAnon tropes got my pulse racing. I’m nervous about anything that smacks of collective brainwashing. This is a bi-partisan bugaboo. I was similarly nauseous watching automaton celebrities “pledging” to “be a servant” to Barack Obama in a 2009 advertising campaign.
Ah, the herd of independent minds.
As a student of conspiracy theories, I have long been convinced that “conspiracism” is the one enduring American religion with both hibernations and awakenings. Moreover, I’ve spent a career in crisis management dissecting conspiracies, real and imagined, and trying to understand their dynamics and pathologies.
We’re in the midst of another religious awakening.
All religions are anchored in stories that require a leap of faith to believe. That’s why “faith” is often used as a synonym for “religion.” Across religions, there are varying degrees of acknowledgment of landmark events that really happened and those that can be relegated to a parable.
Conversely, conspiracies demand faith and belief but are put forth as events that actually happen. Each broad wing of the political spectrum believes that the other is more subject to conspiratorial thinking when, in fact, it depends largely on the events of the day and who’s winning and losing political and cultural wars at the time.
In the wake of Trump’s Ohio rally, some of my friends and acquaintances let it serve as validation of the right’s innate paranoia. But the left has had its own nuttiness — the JFK assassination industry, the CIA spreading AIDS and drugs in the black community, and the Russia collusion hoax.
Trump is now offering preposterous theories about election-rigging and the FBI planting top secret documents at Mar a Lago. These theories, which will surely be proven false, are anchored in the belief that a “deep state,” perhaps the same one that assassinated JFK, is trying to destroy him because he is trying to protect the only true Americans that remain. It’s not just that evidence for these things is weak; it’s that the proof of the conspiracy is the lack of evidence — and relies on faith that this absence is proof of something diabolical, namely that the conspirators covered it up perfectly.
Wrote historian David Brion James, conspiracy theories are made of “hard grains of truth connected with a mucilage of exaggeration and fantasy. But the central theme, which is so central to the paranoid style, is the conviction that an exclusive monolithic structure has imposed a purposeful pattern on otherwise unpredictable events.”
Indeed, there is always some degree of election fraud, and law enforcement authorities are not above planting evidence. But for Trump’s web of theories to be true, superhuman sleight-of-hand would have to be the modus operandi given the unprecedented level of scrutiny and forensic confirmation that defines the current environment.
In consumer entertainment, from which Americans derive much of our reality, conspiracies always work. Saul Goodman’s elaborate cons always hit their mark, James Bond slips into the villain’s lair and kills him without the cameras seeing anything, and Newman and Redford’s swindle in The Sting, which involves hundreds of players, goes off without the wily crime lord catching on.
Conspiracy theories give people tribal comfort. To believe that President Kennedy was murdered in a sanctioned hit by a shadowy cabal allows people on the left to think that the Sixties and Seventies wouldn’t have been as turbulent had the bastards, writ large, not killed him. The election being stolen from Donald Trump validates the belief on the right that a cohort of Weathermen has systematically purloined a country that was once theirs. A conspiracy certifies the premise of victimhood; it explains having been wronged as being the result of orchestration rather than brewing external events or demographic shifts, not to mention stuff just, well, happening.
But try telling a believer that their theory doesn’t add up. You’ll lose friends. You may find yourself on the receiving end of abuse because when you mess with fundamentalism, you’re telling someone that everything that makes their world make sense is wrong. Alas, a friend who has written extensively and persuasively debunking the JFK conspiracy found himself being accused of being an agent of the spy cabal that carried out the hit. (I believe he was in elementary school at the time, clever little devil.)
Conspiracies must, by definition, be secret. Secrecy requires absolute loyalty and perfect silence, and I have seen neither in evidence during my career in crisis management and investigative authorship. Incredibly, I have had psychiatrists dish about famous patients, mobsters tell me about murders, spies tell me state secrets, and reporters name confidential sources. None of these people should have told me what they did.
Something very deep in the human brain demands recognition, even if doing so violates a professional code, not to mention being against their strategic self-interest. Perhaps this yearning for significance originates in the fear of death and the desire to achieve immortality by informing others that you’re the special one who knows how it all went down. I get the impulse, truly.
And it’s not just that some people talk when the stakes are high; it’s that almost all do; technology has
It’s not that there aren’t conspiracies; there are. But there isn’t magic, and that’s what the conspiracy faith demands. Put differently; you have to believe it to see it.
There were the monopolies of the industrial age, the Kennedys putting their thumb on the scale of the 1960 election, the tobacco industry covering up the health effects of its products, the Tuskegee experiments on African Americans, the Catholic Church covering up child abuse, the corporate scandals of the early 2000s, to name a few — and I’ll make no attempt to disqualify these events. In fact, the Justice Department and white-collar defense bars exist precisely because there are conspiracies. What I keep coming back to, however, is that while all of these affairs were pernicious and required savvy, they didn’t require wizardry.
New clients often come to us with theories about why investors are shorting their stock or why activists are coming after them. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we often have to give them a reality check that contains simple explanations such as “you’re doing something that people don’t like” or “competitors are doing what competitors do.” Occasionally, we do find a conspiracy, but it tends to involve people acting in their self-interest more than it does Machiavellian plot twists.
The dirty deeds that work best either involve very few people or are oddly out in the open. Volkswagen conspired to rig millions of diesel autos with “defeat devices” to misrepresent emissions releases. The con didn’t involve a huge number of people in the scheme of the damage it did and was exposed only a few years after it began. Some have understandably claimed that big pharma companies conspired to capitalize on the Covid epidemic. If they did, the conspiracy was equipped with massive advertising and PR campaigns, including extensive media commentary by company executives.
Other conspiracies are often more of a matter of cohort and culture. Indeed, Hillary Clinton would have been better served by alleging that the political right saw it as being in their natural self-interest to destroy Bill Clinton (true) than asserting the campaign was a result of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (eh).
For much of my career, I had to address the belief of my many clients that the news media were a left-wing conspiracy. I explained that most journalists had precisely the biases they suspected but that their coverage wasn’t coordinated. Rather it was a result of a clubby worldview and symbiosis. The media don’t conspire with labor unions, plaintiffs’ lawyers, short sellers and left-of-center NGOs as much as they travel in the same circles, agree with them or profit from these relationships in the form of mutual back-scratching. For example, trial lawyers provided the victims, activist groups provided certification that their corporate targets were terrible, and media outlets broadcast interesting narratives with varying degrees of veracity.
Embarrassing confession: As a teenager, I devoured conspiracy theories. Still, this was before I had any personal experience with them. It was all abstract entertainment and titillation where the personal stakes were low. My friends and I thought we were cool, pointing out shadows in Dealey Plaza and speaking confidently about entities we knew nothing about.
Eventually, my career and personal acquaintances with the players in such capers left me unimpressed with their supernatural abilities. Some have been very sly and mendacious, but I have seen little facility for obscene risk-taking against one’s self-interest or the capacity for complex logistical gymnastics. Nor have I seen a Svengali-like power to command absolute loyalty among multitudes who guarantee eternal silence under withering scrutiny. Donald Trump surely has a gift for getting people to carry out his wacky wishes, but you may rest assured that they are all talking to Bob Woodward.
As the pressure on Trump mounts, we can guarantee that the present awakening of conspiracism will run deep and loud. Regardless of our political biases, we would all do well to attack the serious problems we face by committing to see human behavior as it is, not how we need it to be, because it fills a psychic need.
Then again, perhaps this wish on my part is as unrealistic as the grassy knoll-ism I’ve been trying to debunk.
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