Sixteen years ago I defended my doctoral dissertation, which I’d titled “The Conspiratorial Imagination: Economies of Paranoia in Postmodern Culture.” You’d think that would make me an expert on conspiracism, and it does, but I have to admit that the proliferation of conspiracy theory over the past ten years or so—from Birtherism to Glenn Beck’s manic chalkboardsto the frenzied speculation over the Mueller investigation to the juggernaut of QAnon—makes my head spin. Every time I’ve had the thought that I should dust off the old thesis and revise it for publication in this context of renewed relevance, my mind has shrunk from the prospect. There was just too much. I would most likely have to start from scratch, and in the Age of Trump, where does one find an Archimedean foothold from which to form a critical methodology?
One thing I am finding rather fascinating, however, as we watch the election returns trickle in with excruciating slowness, is this bizarre conspiratorial split-screen in which Trump makes accusation after accusation of a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, accusations which are themselves part of the execution of his own longstanding conspiracy to disrupt the election in the hopes of stealing it.
Though I suppose to call what Trump’s doing a “conspiracy” founders a bit on definitional shoals. Trump and his people—as the saying has gone these past four years—always say the quiet part out loud. Can we properly call something a conspiracy when it unfolds out in the open? It has long been something approaching a certainty that Trump would not go easily into the night if he lost, that he would accuse his enemies (a group that comprises anyone who isn’t a sycophant) of rigging the election. He did it in 2016, and he has been sounding that horn again at least since the Democratic primaries began. But then, over the past few months, he has sketched out his plan in greater detail: repeatedly claiming (falsely) that mail-in voting would be rife with fraud; “enlisting” an “army” of poll-watchers to monitor voting for the fraud he claimed was inevitable (and, presumably, intimidate voters and poll-workers, though mercifully there doesn’t seem to have been much of that so far); promising that he would challenge an election loss in the courts; and to that end, ramming through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett prior to the election, because—again, he said this out loud and repeatedly—he wanted a 6-3 majority on SCOTUS to adjudicate his court challenges (and though he didn’t say as much, Trump’s nakedly transactional nature dictates he believes Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch owe him).
And now, as his prospects for victory dim with every tallied mail-in vote, he has twice addressed the nation and (a) claimed victory, (b) accused his opponents of voter fraud and a long list of other nefarious acts. His address from the White House on Thursday night was really quite shocking in the sheer number of blatant lies he told—and after four years of Trump’s rank mendacity, the fact that he can still shock is nauseatingly impressive. The gist of his speech, however, was an inchoate laundry-list of the ways in which his enemies have conspired to steal the election from him, starting with the accusation that the pre-election polling, which erroneously showed large leads for Biden and other Democrats, was deliberately inflated: “These really phony polls, I have to call them phony polls, fake polls, were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden and diminish Republican’s ability to raise funds. They were what’s called suppression polls, everyone knows that now.” He then went on to tell bald lies about how Republicans had been barred from poll-watching, that millions of unsolicited ballots had been mailed out, and continually suggested that the “whittling down” of his leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia was happening because the poll workers kept mysteriously “finding” ballots … and, oh, wasn’t it so interesting how one-sided the mail-in ballots were proving to be?
Never mind the fact that the scenario of Trump’s early leads evaporating wasn’t just predicted over and again, but that it was entirely predictable from the moment he started vilifying mail-in ballots and thus turning them into a partisan issue; predictable also because he turned the pandemic into a partisan issue, with Democrats believing the science and behaving accordingly, while Trump’s enthusiasts flouted mask-wearing and social distancing. Never mind the fact that he never made clear precisely how voter fraud on a massive scale was supposed to be perpetrated. Never mind that fact that, if the polls showing a significant Biden lead and the likelihood of a blue wave were consciously fabricated, then everybody in the news media and the polling industry at large is doing a really good job of pretending to wring their hands and beat their breasts at their abject failure. And finally, never mind the fact that if Trump’s enemies had in fact managed to orchestrate voter fraud on a huge scale, why would they have let Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins keep their Senate seats?
But of course, that is how conspiracism works: you have to never mind the facts. It is essentially the antithesis of Occam’s Razor: conspiracist thought flourishes on obfuscatory complexity in which apparent contradictions are actually subtle connections to which non-conspiracists are blind. Take a half hour to read about QAnon for what is perhaps the most spectacular example of this thinking to date. And as Fredric Jameson notes in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the two basic elements of conspiracy theory are contradictory: the predication of a vast, omniscient cabal or group, and its invisibility. Where most conspiracy theories fall apart is in the assumption that a huge group of people can conspire to malevolent ends with preternatural silence and competence. Faking the moon landing would have entailed the labour of thousands of people. My simple question to 9/11 Truthers is: do you honestly believe that the Bush Administration was competent enough to carry that off without a hitch? And for the same reason, I never believed that there was a complex conspiracy between Trump and the Russians. Were Trump et al collusion-curious? Absolutely. But the smoking gun, the desire for a spectacular revelation that lies at the heart of conspiracism’s appeal, was never in the cards. And as for the spectral conspiracy Trump keeps flinging about, Stephen Colbert did a tidy job of summing up just how ludicrous it is: “If Donald Trump is right—if Joe Biden did pull the strings behind the scenes in Republican states like Arizona and Georgia while coordinating with Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Nevada and Wisconsin and Michigan and throwing in the red herring of letting the Republicans keep the Senate and gain a few seats in the House while just barely removing Donald Trump—wow! I mean, kudos to that level of interstate coordination. I mean, anyone who could accomplish that many things at once right now really would be the president we need during a global pandemic.”
There have been moments in the past four years when I’ve looked at Trump’s mendacity and the obvious fact that he has, at best, a tenuous grasp of reality; and I’ve looked at the stubborn support he has from forty percent of America’s electorate; and I’ve listened to the torturous logic employed by his enablers and mouthpieces to support and justify his presidency; and I’ve had moments in which I’ve honestly had to wonder whether it wasn’t me getting everything wrong. To be clear, these moments are rare, but they’re worrisome—not least because they are reflective of the broader cultural trend in which such touchstones as science, fact, and just a generally shared reality have been so deeply eroded—and are, in fact, anathema to Trump and the phenomenon of Trumpism.
So however anxiety-inducing and—as regards the Senate—disappointing this election has so far been, it’s been a weird comfort to see these two forms of conspiracy: the actual conspiracy articulated openly by Trump, and the manic conspiracism he flails about in as the reality of the election results encroach. It’s distressing to know that millions of people accept his conspiracy theories without question, but at least the contrast offers me a bit of mental stability in the moment.