Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trump, Conspiracy Theories, and Mob Mentality

Within the past few days there have been two news stories about right-wing conspiracy theories percolating upward, as such things inevitably do, from the morass of fake news platforms, online chatrooms and posts to actual instances of harassment and violence.   Both conspiracy theories appear to have originated with or, at the very least, been launched into the cybersphere by Alex Jones, a man whom Donald Trump has praised effusively.  Of course, people have a right to believe whatever they want to believe and to say whatever they want to say.  But a line is crossed - as epitomized by the example of screaming "fire" in a crowded movie theatre - when such speech precipitates actual harm.  One of these conspiracy theories, the so-called "pizzagate" conspiracy, which consists essentially in allegations that Hillary Clinton is involved in running a satanic child-sexual-exploitation ring headquartered in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria where the children are being held captive,  has resulted in death threats against and harassment of the owner and employees of this restaurant and culminated earlier this week in a vigilante firing off a semi-automatic weapon on the premises while "investigating."  The other conspiracy theory peddled by Jones is that the massacre by Adam Lanza of twenty 6- and 7-year-old children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 never occurred but was a hoax by the federal government, presumably so that the feds would have their long-coveted pretext for confiscating Americans' guns.  This has now culminated in the arrest of a woman for making death threats against the father of one of the massacre's victims.  

Although the pizzagate myth is manufactured out of whole cloth and the Sandy Hook myth is the opposite - the negation of an event that actually occurred - both of these conspiracy theories are notable for their historical precedents, from the medieval accusations that were made against Jews to the early modern accusations of witchcraft to the contemporary phenomenon of holocaust denial (another of the alt-right's preoccupations).  But even more important than the academic interest that these right-wing conspiracy theories may hold for historians is that, however false they may be, they end up creating real victims or, as with the Sandy Hook massacre, they re-victimize those horrendously victimized already.  Thus, while there were no actual victims until Alex Jones insured that there would be in the persons of the owner and employees of Comet Ping Pong, there were hundreds of actual victims of the Sandy Hook massacre: the 20 children and 6 adults who were gunned down in cold blood as well as the families of the deceased who were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.   Because of Alex Jones, the survivors would be made to suffer the most painful sort of insult-added-to-injury.   That is what is so utterly callous and reprehensible about spreading rumors and conspiracy theories such as these.   Imagine what it must feel like to have been the parent of a 6-year-old who was murdered and to have to listen to some worthless shit claim that your child never existed or that she wasn't really murdered. That is the sort of inhuman, depraved lunacy that right-wing conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have peddled and continue to peddle without a shred of concern for the consequences.

Why does this matter now, more than it did one year ago? Because Donald J. Trump has himself traded on these very types of right-wing conspiracy theories. Trump is a fellow traveler of the alt-right who has actively courted its membership and promoted some of its leading figures to the highest echelons of power in the Trump White House. Trump and Jones, meanwhile, have something of a mutual admiration society: NPR reports that Trump has gushed over Jones and that, after the election,  Trump called to thank Jones for his support. It is little wonder that Trump should share in Jones's penchant for fabrication, outright lies and conspiracy theories. Crowds of Muslims in New Jersey cheering as the World Trade Center came crashing down; global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government; millions of illegal votes for Clinton cast last month by dead people or resulting from other forms of voter fraud: all of these are completely baseless claims without an iota of supporting evidence that serve directly or indirectly only to advance the right-wing agenda.   Each of these claims (and, perhaps, most notoriously, the "birther" lie about President Obama) has been iterated and reiterated by Trump.

But telling lies, spreading rumors, and promoting "fake news" causes real harm to real people. Today it might be death threats against the grieving father of a Sandy Hook victim, and yesterday it might be a man firing a semi-automatic rifle in a restaurant filled with patrons, but make no mistake: the rumor-mongering and baseless allegations of Alex Jones, Michael Flynn (both the elder and the younger), and Trump himself is precisely the sort of reckless behavior that history shows us inevitably leads to mass hysteria and mob violence. It was just this sort of scurrilous finger-pointing that led to the trials and executions of accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. It was just this sort of finger-pointing and scapegoating that led to the burning at the stake of tens of thousands (some sources put the figure at between 100,000 and 300,000) mostly (but by no means exclusively) women in Europe during the 15th through the 18th centuries on the basis of nothing more substantial than accusations that they practiced witchcraft.  Yet another notable example of this sort of mob mentality was the periodic rounding up and killing of Jews - usually in mass burnings - in the communities along the Rhine in medieval Europe on the basis of what we would now call conspiracy theories about Jews having caused Bubonic plague by poisoning the wells or their abducting Christian children, killing them, and using their blood to make matzohs (the notorious "blood libel"). 

It is surely no coincidence that there are striking parallels between the wildly false accusations against Clinton in the pizzagate conspiracy theory and the historical accusations of witchcraft in Renaissance Europe and the blood libel against Jews in medieval Europe.  All involve false allegations of organized satanic ritual, sexual exploitation and depravity, and the abuse and murder of children.  Indeed, the Times reports that Alex Jones has actually stated that "Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up children."  The mentality of all of those who perpetrate and participate in such mass hysteria as is demonstrated in each of these examples is exactly the same: the scapegoating and the demonization on the part of the accusers and the credulousness and complete abandonment of critical thinking on the part of the mobs who listen to them.

And this type of thinking - this mob mentality - is precisely what Donald Trump knowingly and shrewdly exploited in order to get elected.  Trump might not have peddled stories about satanic sex rings but, with his demagoguery and scapegoating of Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities, with his campaign's shameless use of codewords and imagery to appeal to naked anti-Semitism and white nationalism, with his endorsement of the essential canon of right-wing conspiracy theories, with his appointment to his administration of some of the central players in this perverse predilection with gothic horror fantasies and right-wing paranoia and, most obviously, with his unbridled praise for Alex Jones, Trump has bestowed his official imprimatur upon the right-wing conspiracy-theory industry.  And because Trump has used his position to confer legitimacy on these right-wing conspiracy theorists and their fantasies, ultimately, it is now Trump himself who is responsible for them.  

This explains also why Trump has been so reticent on the subject of the support that he has received from the alt-right and why, even now, he has not repudiated it on his own initiative but rather, only when put on the spot, as when he participated in a post-election interview with the editorial- and management staff of the New York Times.  Trump validates right-wing conspiracy theorists and the alt-right and they, in turn, validate Trump.  It is a symbiotic relationship in which one cannot exist without the other.  That is why Trump represents an existential threat to our nation, to its democratic traditions and institutions, and to its social fabric.  

Meanwhile, the larger portion of the pro-Trump electorate and those craven Republicans who supported and continue to support Trump stand by silently and uncritically while the right-wing conspiracy theorists in effect scream "fire" in a crowded movie theatre. 

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