Conspiracy theories are explanations based on the belief in alternative or hidden narratives. Their proponents connect dots in different and often subversive ways, to make the unintelligible reasonable and the unbelievable believable.
And that outside-the-box thinking is needed — because troubling things are routinely hidden from view.
But no matter how unconventional, many of these so-called conspiracy theories have been based on evidence and its interpretation.
Entertaining such theories has always been an important part of an open, democratic society, and of the checks and balances that keep the government and its institutions accountable. However, in the era of Trump, as with so many things, the useful function of conspiracy theories has been badly undermined. Those with malicious intent have essentially hijacked the public’s justifiable desire to learn more.
This is a huge problem that must be addressed if we are ever to trust anything or anybody again, and rationally assess the evidence of real conspiracies (Iran-Contra, BCCI, etc.) when they are uncovered.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we are joined by Harvard professor Nancy Rosenblum, and Dartmoth professor Russell Muirhead — the authors of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. They talk about how flat-out lies and fabricated rumors, often backed only by the mantra “people are saying,” have undermined an important aspect of understanding, exploring, and questioning events in a democracy.
Rosenblum and Muirhead explain that, today, the likes of Donald Trump, Alex Jones, and others have completely turned conspiracies on their head. The MAGA/Jones stories about “Pizzagate,” Trump’s support for birtherism, widespread voter fraud, and, most recently, a link between the Clintons and the death of Jeffrey Epstein are prime examples. All of these were postulated without any evidence and based merely on unsupported assertions.
Rosenblum points out that the goal was simply to delegitimize political opposition. In so doing, they have uncoupled the very idea of conspiracy from theory, and substituted a compromised sense of reality.
For today’s new conspiracists the goal seems to be not to uncover the truth but rather to make us believe in nothing — so that we can be made to believe anything.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Thanks for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Long before the internet, in the early days of talk radio, the all-night hosts were the progenitors of what was then modern-day conspiracy theory. Hosts spent hours talking about crop circles, animal mutilation, Area 51, and all manner of events and evidence that could be used to construct a hidden narrative. The idea then, just as we’ve seen evolve in the past several weeks with Jeffrey Epstein, was that strange things were happening, that evidence in plain sight could be interpreted in ways that evolve to different conclusions. The narrative was always about the interpretation of evidence that was in plain sight. We were told that we just didn’t understand the full impact of what it meant.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Today, all of this has changed. Almost like science, the conspiracy theories of today from people like Alex Jones and Donald Trump are not about another way of interpreting the world. It’s all about flat-out lies, fabricated rumors, and it’s often presented with the only backup being the mantra, “People are saying.” In so doing, this new way in which conspiracies are presented undermines the very fabric of democracy as it discourages events from being looked at with legitimate alternate interpretations.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||We’re going to look at this today with my guests, Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum and Dartmouth Professor Russell Muirhead. They’re the authors of a new book entitled, A Lot of People Are Saying, and it is my pleasure to welcome them here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Nancy, Russell, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Thanks for having us.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Glad to be here. Thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||That’s great that you’re both here. Nancy, start with you. Why should we even be spending real time talking about this whole notion of conspiracy theories?|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Well, for one thing, because whenever a new phenomenon really takes over public life, the way this new conspiracism has, it’s worth noting, and it’s also, we find, quite disorienting. That is, it’s one thing to have a conspiracy theory, which is an explanation of events, and your introduction was just wonderful, Jeff. It’s another thing to have bare assertions that an election is rigged or that the National Park Service has doctored photographs of the inauguration to suggest that the crowd was much more modest than Trump has claimed. So it’s a new phenomenon, it’s a very disorienting phenomenon, and as I hope we’ll discuss, it has very real political consequences.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russell, talk about what you’ve seen as the tipping point for this. Certainly Donald Trump is not the beginning of this trend that we’re seeing. Talk a little bit about that.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah, that’s right. I mean, when we first started looking at this and trying to make sense of it, Donald Trump had just barely announced his candidacy and it wasn’t clear that he would ever move from the periphery of politics into the center. And we noticed things like Alex Jones down in Texas warning people down there that the United States Army was planning to take over the state of Texas and declare martial law. This was the Jade Helm conspiracy of, I think, 2015. And it struck us as really, really strange that Texans would worry that the United States Army was planning to take over the state to the point that the governor at the time, Abbott, actually called on the National Guard to step up their enforcement of individual rights in the state and keep a keen eye out for the possibility that the United States Army might be invading. So we really started to see this bewildering, and mystifying almost, new conspiracism at work, you’re right, before Donald Trump took it into the White House.|
|Russell Muirhead:||I mean, I have to say that in Donald Trump’s hands, it remains somewhat difficult to understand. We continue to be bewildered. For instance, people, scholars of conspiracy, used to think of conspiracy theories as almost a province of losers or outsiders in politics. It was a way of making sense of power when you didn’t have access to power, when you’re a long way from it. When Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, he said that the election by which she was elected was rigged. And it’s really unusual to see the winners of elections saying that the election was rigged. So, at that point, we really knew something very, very different was happening.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And talk a little bit, Nancy, about traditional conspiracy theory, where this phrase comes from, and kind of how that evolved, the original idea of this.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Yes. I think the conspiracy theory is just that. It’s a theory. It’s an explanation of some event. And what conspiracy theorists do is they collect, as you suggested, evidence, sometimes evidence in plain sight, but often evidence that official explanations overlook or lie about on this view. And they connect these dots to find patterns, and the patterns evolve into a narrative and an explanation. And usually they’re always being amplified and made more complex. You add information and the theory grows and grows. And it’s a theory because it’s an explanation of things.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Sometimes conspiracy theories are true. We want to acknowledge that. We want to give a certain due regard to conspiracy theory. When people say that officials in Michigan were responsible for tainting the water in Flint and then covering it up, it was a true conspiracy theory. So, sometimes the evidence and the explanation is warranted, and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s a very confusing mix of the two. But conspiracy theory is an attempt to use what we think of as ordinary reasoning, that is, evidence and argument to make the unbelievable believable and the unintelligible intelligible. And what we have today is the really quite dramatic uncoupling of conspiracy and theory.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||In fact, sometimes, though, we have found historically that what we take as conspiracies turns out to be layers and layers of incompetence.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yes. Yeah-|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Yes. I mean, one of-|
|Russell Muirhead:||That’s right. That’s very right. I mean, I think sometimes what classic conspiracy theorists do is they make the world into a much more orderly and controlled, controllable place than it actually is. And they discount the important role of incompetence and accident. You know, as Nancy says, many times conspiracy theories are wrong, but sometimes they’re right. And to know the difference, you actually have to look into them and think through the evidence.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||I was going to say that psychologists who study conspiracy theorists suggest that they have cognitive mechanisms that we all have but are much amplified. So, for example, they always see, as you just said, agency, active agency and will and deliberateness behind events, not accidents or unintended consequences, and they look for proportionality between a cause and an effect. So, 9/11 could not have been the work of 19 men plotting in some dusty corner of Afghanistan. It must have been more complex. The government was involved, or Jews were involved, or some other more complicated explanation.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||And then they use this cognitive mechanism that we call confirmation bias, which is that they already have an idea of how the world works, who the enemies and who the friends are, and they collect that information that affirms that. So these are things that we all do, but in conspiracy theories, they’re much amplified and they really end up, for some people at least, becoming a kind of mindset through which we view the world.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And Russell, in many ways, though, they appeal to the same kind of baser instincts in people. I mean, as Nancy talks about, that part of what drives conspiracy theories is this need people have to try and make sense of something, not wanting to believe that even horrible things can be an accident, this idea of trying to impose some kind of order. And what we’re seeing is that a lot of these lies and sort of this modern-day conspiracism is really appealing to that same mechanism in people. It’s just doing it in a different way.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah. And when you talk about baser instincts, I think the one that really might be prominent in the new conspiracism and the conspiracy without the theory is the tendency to demonize your enemies or your foes. Take something like Pizzagate, which, of course, is no kind of theory. It’s just a concoction of allegations that says Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizzeria in suburban Washington, D.C. What this functions to do is not explain anything about the world, not to make the world more orderly or understandable in any way, but rather just to paint Hillary Clinton as a repository of pure evil, so that if you’re inclined to disapprove of her or to think that she wasn’t the right candidate to vote for, you could take satisfaction in your judgment knowing that she was not just a less commendable candidate, she was actually profoundly evil.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And Nancy, talk about this phrase that is the title of your book, A Lot of People Are Saying, and why it is so insidious in what we’re talking about.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Right. The characteristic of the new conspiracism, conspiracy without the theory, is that it takes the form of either bare assertion: the election was rigged, no evidence, no argument. Or, it takes the form of, “I’m just asking questions,” and innuendo, which by the way can be easily disowned. Or, it takes the form of Trump’s mantra, which is “a lot of people are saying,” that is, a validation of a conspiracist claim that is being tweeted and retweeted and liked and shared. That is, it’s a kind of social validation, not a validation in terms of what we think of as ordinary political reasoning.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||The impact of this is that people assent to these conspiracy claims, the sheer assertions, by saying, “It’s true enough.” They may not literally be true. There’s no evidence of it. There are no facts behind it. There’s no argument behind it. But the general claim that it’s making, that is, of somebody being an enemy, of Democrats being treasonous, of Hillary Clinton being a child molester, the general claim is “true enough”. And let me give you a quote that really, I think, illustrates what “true enough” is, what assent to it is, “true enough” is. This is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is Trump’s … What’s her title?|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Press secretary.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Yes, thank you, press secretary. The-|
|Russell Muirhead:||You can’t bring yourself to say it.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Right, right, right. The press was asking her about Trump’s tweet. He had tweeted a video that falsely purported to show a Muslim migrant committing an assault. And her answer was, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” That is, the animus of the claim garners assent and repetition, and it’s “true enough”.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Didn’t we see, Russell, a huge amount of this, really in the ’50s during the McCarthy era?|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah. There’s kind of insinuation and innuendo, this exaggeration of political opponents into being enemies of the regime. So, if you opposed the party in power, the Eisenhower regime, you weren’t just a good faith participant in democratic life, you were a communist who is opposed to the very idea of constitutional democracy. So that kind of inflammation of a political opposition and the denial of a legitimate status to your opponents in politics is something that got going in the ’50s, but it was quickly quelled. It was contained and then defeated in the reaction against McCarthy and McCarthyism.|
|Russell Muirhead:||And I think that’s a very interesting observation you have, that this is now arising again in politics, this tendency to paint your opponents as enemies of the regime. It’s arising in a new way, and I think I really appreciate that, because I think we are called upon again to contain this, I mean, for the sake of sustaining constitutional democracy.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There was also the same kind of innuendo, McCarthy talking about that he knew there were X amount of communists in the state department, or he had the list in his pocket of 57 communists in government. I mean, very much like what we’re seeing today in these respects, and Nancy’s point about Sarah Sanders’ comment fits right into that. I suppose Roy Cohn is the common thread in all of this.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Yes, yes he is. I don’t want to say anything to validate or kind of justify McCarthyism, but I will just point out that McCarthyism rose up at a time when the communist threat worldwide, and even domestically, was viewed as a very serious political threat. This was the Cold War, this was the period, whereas there’s no threat today in saying that the National Park Service doctored photographs of Trump’s inauguration, or that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. It’s not obvious what the threat is. And when the new conspiracists claim, as Trump repeatedly does, I mean, he is the conspiracist-in-chief, that the Democrats are treasonous, and that the press is fake, it’s not obvious what the threat is.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah, that’s so important.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||There’s no real world event that is justifying the rise of this malignant phenomenon.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Mm-hmm (affirmative).|
|Russell Muirhead:||I think that’s such an important observation, Nancy. I mean, that’s really urgent, because, I mean, when you know that Hillary Clinton is not any … There’s no background threat. You might decide not to vote for her. That doesn’t mean you should say, “She should be locked up,” that the opposition is criminal.|
|Russell Muirhead:||As Trump is increasingly saying, the elections that elect Democrats are fraudulent. At a fundraiser earlier this month, he said, “There are a lot of close elections that that seem to,” he says, “every single one of them went Democrat.” If it was close, they say, the Democrat, “There’s something going on, fella,” Trump says. Well, if there’s something going on, these elections are fraudulent, without a speck of evidence, without any sense that the Democratic party is a threat to constitutional democracy. But that’s what he’s suggesting, that we should not respect the outcome of elections that elect Democrats.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||And this is the urgency behind the argument that we’re making in this book, which is that the effect of this new conspiracism is, of course, disorientation. But it’s also, and as importantly, delegitimation. What it does is to delegitimate, in the case that we’re talking about, political opposition. And you know, representative democracy depends upon an assumption of regular party rivalry, and of the notion developed early on in Britain of the loyal opposition, and this is being degraded.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||I mean, it’s a little bit like the old movie “Gaslight” in terms of what we’re being given here.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||The term is used a lot, “gaslight” and “false flags” and so on.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Right. To what extent, though, is this persuading anybody that wasn’t there already? I mean, arguably the people that are believing this are the people that would have believed and that do believe, you know, let’s say Trump or Alex Jones or whomever. It’s not really persuading anyone, is it, Russell?|
|Russell Muirhead:||You know, I think that there is probably a small cadre of real true believers who think that there really was a child sex trafficking ring going on at a pizzeria area somewhere in Washington, D.C., and Hillary Clinton was running it. And you’re right, I think probably outside of that, a very much larger number who view that as absurd, at least view it skeptically. Nonetheless, I think that the invitation to view your political opponents as profoundly evil, as deserving of being imprisoned, and the invitation to think that all facts that come out of knowledge-producing agencies like the National Weather Service or the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are faked, are part of a conspiracy to make one side look good and the other side look bad. This is, I think, a very corrosive, potentially very corrosive tendency, because once we no longer believe that statistics can be used to make decisions, it’s going to be really hard to make effective decisions in democratic life.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||There is another very concrete result of this that’s independent of how many people we think truly believe or think these things are true enough. And that is, the president can act on his compromised sense of reality, and he does. That is, he sees conspiracies in government agencies and he fires the principals. He invents institutions to try to affirm his notion of a conspiracy going on in elections, like his Election Integrity Commission. He can de-veil or hijack institutions to go along with his notion of conspiracy. So for example, he has this idea that we have an invasion at the Southern border, and in fact, on some versions George Soros is bribing these migrants to come to the United States. And he sees this invasion as such an almost military threat to the country that he calls up the American army to stand guard at the border. That is, things follow, policies follow, actions follow from this compromised sense of reality.|
|Russell Muirhead:||And the other thing … You’re so right.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Whether or not a large proportion of the population believes these things, people in government, officials, and specifically Republicans, acquiesce. And it gives him license to change the policies and institutions of the country in accordance with the conspiracist claim.|
|Russell Muirhead:||And you know, the acquiescence that Nancy’s talking about, it comes more readily because of the way the new conspiracy then lowers the standards for what it means to believe something. And Nancy says that conspiracists are only asking people to think that something’s “true enough.” They’re not really asking for belief. Here’s an example. There was an allegation that liberals conspired to create a clash between white nationalists and protestors in Charlottesville in 2017, and one member of Congress said, “I’m not saying it’s true, but I’m saying it’s completely plausible.” So that’s the way the standard gets lowered. He’s not asking you to believe that there was a conspiracy to create that class, he’s just asking you to think it’s plausible. And once he lowers the standard that way, he can enlarge the group that go along with the theory.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much of this, and Nancy, start with you. I’d like you both to comment on this, how much of this really comes from what has been a 40-, 50-year decline in our belief in and faith in institutions?|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||There’s certainly a historical background to this. One is the way in which political polarization has extended beyond fights in the legislature about policy to fights about what constitutes usable knowledge for the purposes of making policy. So, you have warring and alternative research institutes and warring and alternative notions of who should occupy civil service positions in these agencies. So yes, behind it is both a political dispute and the extension of political dispute into disputes about the authority and the meaning and the value of research ranging from universities to things like the National Weather Service.|
|Russell Muirhead:||Yeah, and I think our plight isn’t that citizens should have complete trust in all of their institutions. As we kind of imagine people might have, I don’t know, in 1959, we think citizens should be very skeptical. They should be skeptical of their government. They should be skeptical of authority. But we think that skepticism should be expressed in an attunement to evidence and argument and factuality. And you know, it may very well turn out that there’s an institution, a governmental institution, that’s not acting in the public interest and vigilant citizens need to be ready to make that claim. But making that claim persuasively requires access to the terrain of common sense and factuality. And it’s that terrain that we’re trying to defend here.|
|Russell Muirhead:||So we’re definitely not saying, “All institutions should always be trusted.” We’re trying to defend common access to the kind of evidence that allows us to disagree with each other, and allows us to hold a government accountable.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Russell Muirhead, Nancy Rosenblum. The book is, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Nancy Russell, I thank you so much for spending time with us.|
|Nancy Rosenblum:||Thank you, Jeff. It’s a pleasure.|
|Russell Muirhead:||[crosstalk] you’re welcome.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whohatwhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Fibonacci Blue / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), NASA and Terrence K. Williams / Twitter.