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Conspiracy theorists and terrorists

October 30, 2018

Those who commit acts of political violence have done so for a wide variety of causes, from environentalism to spreading religion, from protesting the IRS to protesting racism. There is no inherent reason to blame that violence on those who pursue those same causes peacefully. Normally, the latter can simply say that they eschew violent means, that they have no intentional connection to it, and that they will continue to pursue what they think is a good end in a non-violent fashion.

We don’t live in normal times. The movement that Trump rode to power is driven by conspiracy theories. Obama is secretly a Muslim, has gay lovers, and didn’t call Benghazi a terrorist attack. The Clintons have a kill list. A cabal of powerful DC politicians traffic children for sex and ritualistic murder, protected from the law by the deep state. The refugee caravan from Central America is a dangerous invasion full of ISIS terrorists. George Soros wants to destroy America through the propagation of cultural Marxism. The Obamas and Clinton are running a deep state coup to depose Trump. Californians are rioting against sanctuary cities. And the latest: the #MAGAbomber is a creation of the deep state.

These conspiracy theories are not restricted to the fringe. They are propagated by right wing media from InfoWars to Fox News. (Whose lead anchor regularly rebukes the nonsense that his station propagates.) Pundits such as Limbaugh, Coulter, and D’Souza have long prepared their followers for a steady diet of paranoia, and were telling the false flag story before the MAGAbomber even was caught. Chris Farrell — the board member of the right-wing Judicial Watch, not the rugby player — went on Fox News to drum up fear of the refugee caravan from Central America, claiming it was “getting money from the Soros occupied State Department.” Fox News says they will no longer have Farrell as a guest. Alas, they will find plenty others like him.

Trump was able to make himself leader of that movement and ride it to power because he is a habitual liar and practiced conman. That movement views conservative but normal politicians, such as Romney and McCain, as RINOs. Because normal politicians have some concern for facts and cannot bathe themselves in that stew of conspiracy theory.

Just this week on Facebook, a Trump supporter told me “any ‘lies’ he tells are inconsequential, told to illustrate a valid, underlying point.” One of the characteristics of an authoritarian movement is that it features a range of attitudes toward its propaganda. Those who view themselves as cognoscenti recognize the lies as lies, but view them as useful. The masses take it all as a kind of liturgy of rage. Those in between acknowledge some of it is deceit, but serving a larger purpose. The leader must be taken seriously, not literally. Adam Serwer dissects that excuse for the lies:

Ordinarily, a politician cannot be held responsible for the actions of a deranged follower. But ordinarily, politicians don’t praise supporters who have mercilessly beaten a Latino man as “very passionate.” Ordinarily, they don’t offer to pay supporters’ legal bills if they assault protesters on the other side. They don’t praise acts of violence against the media. They don’t defend neo-Nazi rioters as “fine people.” They don’t justify sending bombs to their critics by blaming the media for airing criticism. Ordinarily, there is no historic surge in anti-Semitism, much of it targeted at Jewish critics, coinciding with a politician’s rise. And ordinarily, presidents do not blatantly exploit their authority in an effort to terrify white Americans into voting for their party. For the past few decades, most American politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, have been careful not to urge their supporters to take matters into their own hands. Trump did everything he could to fan the flames, and nothing to restrain those who might take him at his word.

Many of Trump’s defenders argue that his rhetoric is mere shtick — that his attacks, however cruel, aren’t taken 100 percent seriously by his supporters. But to make this argument is to concede that following Trump’s statements to their logical conclusion could lead to violence against his targets, and it is only because most do not take it that way that the political violence committed on Trump’s behalf is as limited as it currently is.

Click through to the original, which has links documenting those accusations.

The terrorists and criminals the Trumpistas want to disavow are simply taking literally those conspiracy theories. Fox News spent many cycles spewing the nuttiness that drove the Pittsburgh shooter. So, no, the Trumpistas cannot simply say: those are crazed people on the fringe. What is crazed they share in common. The difference is between those who propagate the craziness, but in their heart or hearts know it is a a lie, and those less cynical and less smart who let it more shape their worldview.

The conservative road today takes a fork. Those who are both honest and sane reject the conspiratorial right. Like Max Boot and Charlie Sykes, they wonder how their movement gave rise to the Trumpistas.

And the Trumpistas? Their leader has been campaigning on those conspiracy theories. At every rally, his followers chant that Clinton or Soros or other demon must be locked up. And if he — the president! — cannot do that? Why shouldn’t some of them then think they must take more direct action?

That movement was with us before Trump rode it to power, and will be with us after he is gone. It reproduces itself much as any cult does. We cannot argue its members to leave. The best we can hope is to outvote it.

Scientific American has a topical article speculating how a tendency toward conspiracy theories is related to antagonism as a personality trait. (Cite.). Antagonistic, in this sense, doesn’t mean vicious. Those toward that end of the axis may seem loyal, and may make fine neighbors and friends. Alas, their participation in conspiracy theories has a social effect.


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