October 19, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Conspiracy theories are like herpes
Citizens are pushing “irrationalism” back to where it belongs.
You could say conspiracy theories are like herpes. Akin to the sexually transmitted disease, belief in nefarious forces determining the fate of humanity has been around human beings as long as human beings have been around, and they will continue to be around long after the living are dead. There’s no cure. You can’t get rid of them once infected. The trick is making sure they don’t flare up, causing needless pain and injury to an open society. It’s pushing them back to the margins of life where they belong.
In a free republic, that trick is made trickier due to concerns for free speech. At what point do the protected rights of individuals to say whatever they want to say, even if it’s politically dangerous, conflict with the government’s interest in protecting the integrity of public discourse? That debate is ongoing. For now, I want to point out the citizenry may be leaving the government behind, such that the government need never catch up. The Trump presidency, I contend, has confirmed two truths for people. One, counter-speech is free speech. Two, free speech demands accountability. In other words, civil society seems to be exiling “irrationalism” to the political wilderness.
As long as fascists seemed only to pursue a purer form of “conservatism” (think: “alt-right”), they were free to smuggle lies into the public square where they hid in plain sight.
The president and his confederates are wrongly outraged by the general tendency in public discourse 15 days before Election Day to ignore or dismiss the “Hunter Biden email scandal.” Aided and abetted by the same Russian operatives who sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, Trump seems as frustrated by the gambit’s ineffectiveness as he is by the reluctance of the campaign press corps to launder a slough of slander. The more frustrated he gets, the more he flails, reaching for just about anything, even the QAnon conspiracy theory alleging that “Trump is a messianic figure battling devil-worshipping, child-molesting Democrats,” according to USA Today. The more he reaches for piles of lies, the less the president is taken seriously.
Lies, you could say, are like herpes, too. They will always be with us in some form or another. Before pushing them back, however, we should examine the reason why Trump’s and Russia’s lies worked in the first place: they did not, for a lot of people, look like lies. To the Washington press corps—specifically, to respectable white people—they looked as if they reflected just another stage in the evolution of “conservatism.” As long as radicals seemed legitimate in the eyes of reporters and editors, as long as fascists seemed only to pursue a purer form of “conservatism” (think: “alt-right”), they were free to smuggle lies into the public square where they hid them in plain sight.
Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!
I take umbrage with the conventional wisdom that Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller and other fascists “infiltrated” conservative circles in the run-up to the 2016 election. “Infiltrated” connotes naivete, as if “conservative” GOP actors were not already receptive to the dog-whistle rhetoric and reactionary fears that already constituted the gestalt of the Republican Party. They did not take over the party. They were welcomed into it. They, like Trump, are and were not a bug. They are and were a feature. And now that the lies are known as lies—now that they’re no longer working; indeed, they’re backfiring—the “conservatives” must keep lying in order to save face.
US Sen. John Cornyn is up for reelection. He said over the weekend that he broke with Trump over the border wall, budgets and other issues but kept quiet. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board: “I think what we found is that we’re not going to change President Trump. He is who he is. You either love him or hate him, and there’s not much in between. What I tried to do is not get into public confrontations and fights with him because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well.” This is the same “conservative” senator who voted to acquit the president of spear-heading a real criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. Friends, you decide whether he’s telling the truth or lying in the hopes that respectable white people—that is, the Washington and Texas press corps—will keep giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Which brings me back to free speech. The more a free and open civil society tolerates lying at this scale—the more the press corps accepts the GOP’s bad faith as good faith—the less free and open civil society becomes. All things being equal, voters appear ready to correct their mistake four years ago. We will have learned nothing, however, if we do not push lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories back to where they belong.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.