By Isaac Butler
In the weeks just prior to November, we entered an odd phase of electoral politics, one that I hadn’t seen before, one of pure conspiracism. Three different conspiracy theories clamored for purchase on the rocky cliffs of our public imagination. The first alleged that the Clinton Foundation traded access to then-Secretary of State Clinton for donations, that Hillary Clinton may have used her position at State to help Clinton Foundation donors in ways that were improper, and that proof of all of this might be found in tens of thousands of e-mails deleted by Clinton and her staff off a private server. The second alleged that Putin was interfering in our election to help Donald Trump, and that Trump himself might be in some way colluding with Putin. The third alleged that the FBI and the CIA were waging a fight for their preferred candidates (Trump and Clinton, respectively) in the Press. If this latter theory is true, the FBI won that fight when James Comey took the unprecedented step of announcing that there may be new evidence in the investigation against Clinton right before the election. He retracted that claim, but it was already too late, and several studies of pre-election polling show fairly clearly that The Comey Effect was the straw that broke the Clinton Campaign’s back.
Rather than smother the flames of conspiracy back into the smoldering embers of our national consciousness, the post-election season has only fueled the conflagration. The Trump Dossier, a collection of oppo research compiled by the British Spy Christopher Steele, thrilled us with lurid tales of blackmail and the kind of watersports for which they sadly don’t give out Olympic medals. Trump nominated Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, who was in the midst of a huge oil deal with Putin’s Russia that was interrupted by sanctions. Trump kept announcing he had foreign policy opinions that were remarkably in line with Putin, like that NATO was obsolete.
This week, we’ve gone from occasionally stoking the fire to pouring gasoline on it. Look what’s happened in the just the last few days. First we learned National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had illegal contact with Russian diplomats about the new sanctions Obama saught to impose on Russia in response to electoral interference. Then we learned he lied about it. Then we learned that Trump knew he lied about it at least a few weeks ago and did apparently nothing. Then we learned that Flynn was stepping down. Then we learned that the Trump campaign had some form of contact with Russian intelligence prior to the election.
These different points of evidence and incident have led to the widespread belief on the Left of some variation on the Putin-Trump Conspiracy Theory. Perhaps Flynn didn’t lie to his colleagues at all and Trump instructed him to contact Russia. Perhaps Trump and Putin were simply likeminded individuals and so Putin improperly helped Trump. Or perhaps Trump is Putin’s puppet and is being blackmailed by him. There’s a whole range of possibilities, all of them bad, and all of them conspiracy theories.
Before you get too upset at my use of the term, please know, I believe in some form of this conspiracy theory. Furthermore, one thing I learned in co-creating Real Enemies: if you want to understand how conspiracism works, it’s helpful to get rid of our pejorative assumptions about conspiracy theories. All a conspiracy theory is is a narrative that connects evidence to allege some kind of criminal wrongdoing by multiple, connected, actors. The 9/11 Commission Report is a conspiracy theory. So is the theory that 9/11 was an inside job. The issue isn’t that they both allege conspiracies, the issue is that one has substantial proof behind it and the other doesn’t. Conspiracy theories can be true or false, they can be likely or unlikely, they can be reasonable and un-.
The ur-text of discussing conspiracy theories is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a lecture reprinted as an essay about conspiracism in the US. Focusing mainly on right wing groups like The John Birch Society, Hofstadter nails down some of the psycho-dynamics that we still use to understand conspiracists today. In particular, he talks about how personal conspiracy theories are. They tend to allege some kind of perfect Enemy (or cabal, but the cabals generally have leaders) who are as cunning and powerful as they are evil, able to change and manufacture world events and history at will. Conspiracists then tend to imitate those they think of as their enemies—the Birchers imitated communist cell structure and use of front groups, the KKK mirrored Catholic ritual etc.—but ultimately it is for naught:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. Nothing but complete victory will do. This demand for unqualified victories leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s frustration, in turn strengthening his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
By the end of the essay, Hofstadter is filled with a kind of pity for what he calls “the paranoid spokesman.” As he ascends into the realm of the poetic, Hofstadter writes that:
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by reality, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. He has little real hope that his evidence will convince a hostile world. His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs. He is not a receiver. He is a transmitter.
Now that we live in a time of heightened conspiracism, I realize that there is something that Hofstadter couldn’t really see: exhilaration. To Hofstadter, paranoia was a kind of torment. Which, don’t get me wrong, it is. But there’s also a giddiness to it, there is something exciting, like looking down through the glass floor at the top of the Sears Tower. It’s a vertiginous thrill amidst the terror, watching the world around you change shape in real time. I know others are feeling this, because I see it constantly in their twitter feeds and facebook posts, in the energy of their newfound activist spirits, in their senses of humor, in their renewed sense of purpose.
HP Lovecraft understood this. In his fiction the world is a conspiracy between forces so dark and shadowy they cannot even be described in his prose. As we approach the threshold of revelation within his stories, the environments themselves become what novelist and critic Charles Baxter calls “wonderlands.” To Baxter, Wonderlands are zones of terror, forged out of “fugitive subjectivity.” They are warped, their scale is always off, their geographies nonsensical. And they cannot be escaped. Yet they are often thrilling as well. In At The Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s narrator struggles again and again to explain why he keeps going further and further into the Antarctic wonderland.
The answer is simple: it has seduced him, thrilled him with dark wonders, horrified him into paralysis but then egged him on with the gentle bleating of penguins.
Eleanor loves old haunted Hill House, and it loves her back. That’s how it traps her.
When Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, it “harrows [him] with fear and wonder,” he is terrified, but he is also slack jawed in the face of the inexplicable. Later, when Hamlet speaks with the ghost, he is filled with the kind of thrill I am discussing here. Because it turns out his worst fears have been confirmed, but his worst fears—that his uncle has murdered his father, and is the illegitimate King—are also Hamlet’s greatest desire, because they vindicate all of his choices and behavior, and those fears, substantiated, finally give him what he lacks: a purpose in life.
Conspiracies are a kind of narrative. Narratives tend to keep their readers involved through the use of narrative tension, explicit or implicitly posed questions to which the reader wants an answer. That desire for answers is the tension. It’s what often keeps them reading. No medium is better, more relentless or diabolical in its managing of narrative tension than television. In this time of Peak TV, you can get away with many things but, unless you’re David Simon or Louis C.K., boring the audience for their own good isn’t one of them. Our President, of course, is a master at manipulating television. He is a walking ATM machine of narrative tension. Every time he opens his mouth, we are agog, filled with the question what will he say next.
Now, as news story after news story piles up, almost faster than we take them in, we are left wondering what will happen next as if we are watching a season finale of Breaking Bad. We can’t look away. We are addicted. This is part of the exhilaration. We are experiencing the mystery and the solution at the same time.
And of course, as the word investigation enters our consciousness, dragging behind it its much slower and more powerful cousin impeachment, there is a new thrill: That we are living through history. We are minor characters in a thousand page book that someone will someday write. This is the thrill of realizing your lives may have significance after all. Maybe that facebook post of ours—or even, oh my God, this essay!—will be quoted in some bestseller in fifty years, if there are still books, or historians, or America, then.
Hamlet thrills to find out his father has been murdered. I find myself and my friends thrilling to find out that Russia may very well have hacked our elections, not through hacking our voting machines—which is what we always worried about— but rather through hacking the DNC to get their e-mails, then hacking the media through wikileaks, and hacking the election through nurturing or even controlling one of the candidates. If there’s one thing Hamlet’s high body count or the madness that grips Danforth at the end of At the Mountains, or Eleanor’s death in Haunting of Hill House should remind us, though, it’s that we should be very cautious of this thrill. It may be leading us to believe things we shouldn’t, or sources we shouldn’t, because they are telling us what we want to hear.
But it may also be that the implications, if we are in fact right, are more horrible than we’ve really stopped to consider. Let’s say that the United States did, in fact, elect a paper billionaire who was in some way being controlled by a malevolent foreign power. Let’s even say we manage to get him impeached (don’t know how that happens when you need 19 Republican Senators to get on board for a conviction), and get his closest advisors kicked out. And because of this, we take back the house in 2018 and the White House in 2020.
If we do this, the temptation will be to believe the crisis is over, when in fact it is only that the shape and scale of the crisis has finally become known to us. We must then confront an intertwined knot of seemingly insurmountable problems—white supremacy, misogyny, mechanical failure in our electoral system’s design, a widening wealth gap and inability of the government to tangibly and simply help people, our failure to truly recover from the 2008 financial crisis, a disagreement on the nature or even existence of truth amidst partisan squabbling, just to name a few—that opened the door for successful tampering in our elections in the first place. We must also confront what to do about Russia.
But we must also confront one of those other conspiracy theories: that the intelligence services may be deliberately meddling in domestic politics, executing what amounts to a soft coup against the democratically elected President of the United States. If this is true—and I am not saying it is, it's as if not more likely that this is a whistleblower/leak type situation a la Snowden or Deep Throat—then we would be relying on the people brought to power by intelligence agencies to rein them in, which is, well, scary.
But it’s also exciting of course. The times we live in are every definition of “terrific” at the same time. They are of great immensity. They inspire terror. But they can make us feel, well, good. The way Hamlet feels good when he finds out his father has been murdered. Finally, the inchoate miasma of life has a clear, horrific shape, and that horrific shape in turn reveals a clear purpose: Resist. Resist. Resist.
Hofstadter was right. We are all sufferers from history. But suffering in these times feels very different from how I thought it would, especially today, when the headlines inspire that most complicated, addictive, and at times dangerous of emotions: hope.