The Freudian roots of Conspiracism

Money quote from an article at Slate. I think when you combine this with cognitive dissonance reduction, you begin to get at the roots of conspiracism.

Conspiracy theories arise not only when they “fit” with certain mixes of personality traits but also when they fill psychological and ideological needs. Freud long ago distinguished between “errors” on the one hand and “illusions” and “delusions” on the other…..Illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes….Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, modern cognitive psychology suggests that Freud was on the right track here. The tenacity of many conspiracy theories in the face of facts suggests that these beliefs are not merely alternate interpretations of facts but are rooted in conscious or unconscious wishes, in what cognitive psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”

Conspiracy theorists are people who have a deep-seated need to have the world explained to them in moral terms, and who wish for an authority figure to enforce its categories–a cult leader, a Pope, a king, a populist leader who epitomizes all of the national virtues. To allay the cognitive dissonance that this causes (we are a Democratic, Protestant nation, after all), they project those forbidden wishes onto their enemies: the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Jews, international Communism, the Deep State, Islam.

The New World Order that they fear is a funhouse reflection of the New World Order that they secretly wish for–the dictator who will free them from tyranny.

Impeach Me Twice, Shame on Me

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I woke up bleary-eyed, feeling as gut-punched as I did the mornings after each of my parents died, and tried to organize my thoughts. Let’s face it, I wrote on this blog, we all know that late stage capitalism sucks. Progressives want to fix it; Trump demagogued it. What can we expect over the next four years?

Among the things I didn’t predict was Flynn being fired five minutes into Trump’s presidency; a big scandal over payments to a porn star; a multi-year Russia investigation; children in cages; a pandemic that is killing more than 4,000 Americans a day as of this week; the growth of Q-Anon; Trump’s thwarted love affair with Kim Jong-il; Michael Cohen, George Conway, Joe Walsh, and Bill Kristol emerging as some of Trump’s loudest critics; Biden walking away with the primaries and the election; a Jewish and a black Senator being elected in Georgia; Rudolph Giuliani leading an attempt to overturn the election, followed by a Trump-fomented insurrection and a second impeachment with just days to go in his administration, and so on. I could go on and on and the odds are good that something terrible and shocking will still happen tomorrow and the day after. But I think I did get a few things right.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini (one hopes) [Trump] doesn’t have a program of global conquest or racial and ideological cleansing ready to roll out; he was a vanity candidate and he’ll be a vanity president. Most of the work of governance will be left to the right wing hanger-ons who flatter him the most and they will do their very worst. There’s not going to be a wall, he’s not going to restore smoke stack industries, or fix the cities. Taxes will be cut, environmental protections will be rolled back, and terrible judges will be appointed to the courts. Undocumented immigrants will be deported at the same pace that they were during the Obama administration. The world will be a little safer for ignorant, backwards-looking white people. Globalized capitalism will march on apace, wealth will continue to flow to the top, and the ice caps will keep melting.

We were just as fucked yesterday as we are today, even if we didn’t know it. But now we do. I don’t see much of a bright side this morning, but I do believe that we progressives can pull the same levers of economic discontent that he did and to just as powerful effect, starting in 2018. The backlash will have its own backlash. Let’s start laying the groundwork for it now.

Remembering the J20 Protestors — And Looking Ahead to Trump’s Next Act

No, those aren’t the J20 protestors; they are just a few of the Great Americans who tried to save Trump’s presidency from Pence, Schumer, Pelosi, Romney, and the 80 million-plus people who voted for Biden on Wednesday. But since their story is mostly lost in the mists of history, it’s worth remembering what happened to the protestors who were swept up by the police at Trump’s inauguration after a limousine was smashed up and a Starbuck store’s windows were broken. 234 were jailed and then charged and prosecuted for crimes ranging from riot and property destruction to conspiracy to do the same. “Our job,” Trump declared on the White House website, “Is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” Some of the defendants were acquitted at trial; others spent more than a year in court, facing up to 75 years in prison before the DOJ dropped the charges.

Last June, in the midst of the BLM demonstrations, Trump signed an executive order to protect statues of Confederate heroes. “I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the US with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent,” he Tweeted.

I suspect that Washington, DC will be so militarized on Inauguration Day that there won’t be any violence at all–nor will there be crowds or much in the way of public events.

Trump will build or adapt a new media platform to replace his Twitter accounts; Twitter will pay a huge financial price for silencing him. But going forward Trump will have a harder time portraying himself as the enemy of violent disrupters, as he will not want to alienate a single member of the base he will be building on, which will look a lot like Alex Jones’ (which is to say that some of its members will wear Six Million Wasn’t Enough t-shirts to his rallies). Will he continue to control the Republican Party? For a while, certainly. The RNC is packed with loyalists. A disciplined, determined strong man could kindle a revanchist movement out of the ashes that are left of his presidency.

How disciplined, determined, or even strong is he? Six months from now, things may look very different than they do today. But if you read this New York Times article about the RNC’s meeting, you have to worry. Trump’s whole reason for being is grievance; his weakness is his super power.

Indeed, much of Ms. McDaniel’s speech was Republican red meat. There were warnings against socialism, attacks on the four liberal congresswomen known as “the squad” and boasting about the diverse class of lawmakers who helped the party gain House seats in November despite Mr. Trump’s broad unpopularity. “Candidates matter,” she said, alluding to new lawmakers.

David Bossie, one of Mr. Trump’s advisers and the Maryland committeeman, insisted that the party’s losses had been on the margins.

The White House, the House, and the Senate are the margins? If your goal is destruction, maybe they are.

Mike Pence’s Day of Reckoning

Donald Trump’s magical thinking last night, as the black Baptist preacher and the 33-year-old Jew improbably pulled ahead of the self-dealing Republican billionaire and ex-Dollar General CEO: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back!”

Donald Trump’s magical thinking this morning, as Republicans face the loss of the Senate, thanks in no small part to his campaign against Georgia’s Republicans: “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”

We. As if he’s ever thought about anyone but himself.

In Trump’s mind, it all falls on Mike Pence’s broad, bland shoulders–the awesome discretionary power of choosing the country’s next president. True, no vice president before has ever exercised this supremely important constitutional duty, because they hadn’t known that it exists. But someone told Trump that it does, and he believes it because it’s his last chance to hold onto the presidency.

As a person who dined off the absurdity and ubiquity of right-wing conspiracy thinking for a time, I’ve constantly found myself at a loss for words these last four years. I’m like the doctor who wrote a book predicting the spread of a SARS-like disease two publishing seasons too early. How many times can I say the words “as I wrote”? How many times can I say, “it’s so much worse than I thought it would be?” It is, it is, it is. I’ve hated every minute of it, and I don’t for a second believe it’s over. We’ve been here before as a country. The fever breaks for a while, and then it comes back again. The irrationality, the bigotry, the hypocrisy, the self-delusion is never far beneath the surface.

In the event that Mike Pence chokes this afternoon, allow me to quote Dahlia Lithwick’s summation of Trump’s legacy:

Building a culture in which everything is probably illegal and every effort to stop it is probably futile is Trump’s legacy to the country.

The consequence of four years without consequences isn’t going to be a reversion to all the norms and values that came before. It will be a spreading of anti-democratic, illiberal, and purposively small, petty, performative shabbiness that will always seem, in the moment, too silly to matter, and that will continue to be, going forward, too important to ignore. Trump was always the symptom, not the disease, and our distaste for curing it will mean that we spend the coming years coughing, choking, and gasping for air, from something at once too trivial to hurt us and too contagious to be stopped.

It Never Ends

So here we are in the New Year, two months and more since Trump lost by seven-plus million votes, and he is still campaigning–last night in Georgia, last Saturday on the telephone, pleading with Georgia’s secretary of state to just “give him a break” and find him the 11,780 votes he needs to win the state, and 24/7 via his motley crew of surrogates since November 3rd. After his 60-plus failed legal challenges, all that he’d need to be “reelected” if he had Georgia in his grasp is to overturn the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and/or Wisconsin–or to simply browbeat his Vice President into refusing to confirm the election results before Congress tomorrow. As grotesquely authoritarian as his efforts are, as blatantly contemptuous of the “will of the people” and all that, they would be pathetic if there wasn’t a considerable likelihood that they will work. As the still-compliant Republicans keep saying, the evidence for massive Democratic cheating is blatant, obvious, and undeniable, except for the fact that it’s invisible and impossible to prove. Cruz, Hawley et al are betting their careers on Trump rather than democracy.

Trump won’t be able to hold onto power if he does pull off his coup, but how do we ever come back from this as a country? The children have been watching and listening. They’ve seen it all.


Millions of us feel re-enfranchised this morning. And almost as many know for an absolute certainty that the election was stolen by Obama–who is not only neither white nor Christian but wasn’t even born in the US.

Going forward, the word “Dominion” will have the same emotional resonance that “Yalta” did when I was growing up–or that “stab in the back” did for a certain generation of Germans.

Trump’s sulkiness makes me doubt he has the energy or the will to sustain any kind of movement going forward, and it’s hard for me to imagine Biden becoming the kind of lightning rod that Obama did. But who knows? When Trump came down that golden elevator more than five years ago, I never dreamed what would follow. What I do know is that mass media, especially social media, and conspiracism are an even more volatile mix than anyone–even me, who had spent the last decade reading and writing about conspiracism, and covering extreme right wing groups close up–could have imagined. In the coming years, there could be as many Q believers in state legislatures and Congress as there were anti-Masons in the 1830s. Whether it’s Trump himself, his son, or someone smarter and more capable, another demagogue will soon arise to spread another cognitive contagion–and no amount of warning labels can stop it.

What can? The only thing I can think of is a knowledge of history–including that which has yet to be written.

The Coup

If Democracy comes through this whole, it will be because 1) The people behind the coup telegraphed their intentions every step of the way, and 2) Even the most mainstream of the mainstream media didn’t try to normalize what they were doing.

This morning’s headline and story in the Washington Post must be unprecedented. Here’s its lede: “President Trump is using the power of his office to try to reverse the results of the election, orchestrating a far-reaching pressure campaign to persuade Republican officials in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere to overturn the will of voters in what critics decried Thursday as an unprecedented subversion of democracy.”

And the New York Times has a similar one.

But here’s the thing: how will we be able to say that Democracy came through this intact even if Biden does take office at some point, knowing as we now do that one of our two major parties so disdains the principle of majority rule? Even if Trump does vacate the White House voluntarily, he will still be the undisputed head of the Republican party. What do they stand for at this point, besides the disenfranchisement of majority black cities, plague denial, and universal deference to Donald Trump and his children?

I went back and read one of my old Salon stories about conspiracy theory this morning. In it, I mentioned a poll in which more than 40 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was plotting to stay in office after his second term. Those were the days! Such innocence. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that 80 percent of Republicans today believe that Soros paid the Chinese to concoct Covid-19–and that those same people also believe that it’s no worse than the flu. I wrote another story back then in which I said that conspiracy theory was the canary in the coal mine of Democracy.

Its specific claims don’t mean much (they always tell the same story about the cabal of bloodsucking, pederast billionaire/Communist/Jewish/Jesuits/Masons/Muslim/Lizards). But its waxing and waning is kind of a way to take the temperature of the polity. And we are running a very high fever.

We are heading for the abyss

What will they do if they succeed in overturning the election? There was no Republican platform, just a pledge to follow him. So where does he propose to take us?

What is it that only he can do that is so important that it’s worth overturning a democracy for? Will it be enough just to say that he conquered COVID, beat Hillary, and didn’t collude with foreigners? That he, and hence red state America, is great? Then what? Four years of vengeance against the blue states? And then a Trump dynasty to rule over the ruins?

It seems more and more likely to me that the election will be thrown into the House and the red states will elect him, just because he demands it. They are testing the limits of the system, and yes, it is breaking.

So much for law and order; we are heading for the abyss.