The testimony that former FBI Director James Comey delivered Thursday morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee and a wide television audience is likely to generate as many questions as it is answers regarding the central issue—did Trump obstruct the former FBI director from investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election? One thing is clear already: What started as an explosion of shock and anger about Hillary Clinton’s surprise defeat in November has tipped over into the kind of toxic fabulism typical of Third World societies.
The Comey testimony signifies that we have retrofit the architectural features of our democracy in order to legitimize an alternate conspiratorial universe. Comey’s testimony, the Senate and House investigations, former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s appointment as special prosecutor make sense only if you believe the narrative of high-level treachery and espionage that has been leading the network news for the past six months. If you believe the Great Kremlin Conspiracy Theory, all the stories are true, in their essence—even if the specifics of any particular story are wrong. If you don’t believe it, then you’re on Trump’s side—and in bed with the Russians.
By now, Donald Trump’s faults are plain to every sentient being on the planet. He is dangerously erratic and volatile. He makes things up. He is surrounded by opportunists who seek to bend his presidency to serve their own bureaucratic or personal interests. These are serious faults in a man chosen to lead the United States. So why not concentrate on those?
Hillary Clinton was indeed more qualified to be president than Donald Trump. Her problem was that voters didn’t like her. The same has been true of dozens of other presidential candidates in American history. What’s new is a vulgar conspiratorial mind-set becoming the norm among the country’s educated elite—editorialists, distinguished professors, figures who were once talked about as future members of the Supreme Court—and being legitimized daily by truth-telling bureaucrats who make evidence-free and even deliberately false accusations behind a cloak of anonymity.
The problem with conspiracy theories—or the advantage of them—is that they’re difficult to disprove. For instance, consider that there is no evidence showing that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia in a plot to “hack” the American election, and yet the story persists—with no less a party than Hillary Clinton, who now asserts that the Russians were aided by “polling data” from an inside source.
But wait: Weren’t the polls dead wrong? Wasn’t that the big story of the 2016 election? Maybe polling data was part of the conspiracy, too. You see, elements of the Deep State aligned with the Trump campaign used Kremlin hackers to break into ADA, the Clinton camp’s billion-dollar AI that determined where the campaign’s resources would go. Trump’s Kremlin buddies deleted the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania from ADA’s memory banks, making it impossible for Clinton to travel there.
Is Donald Trump a Russian puppet? Given that he operated in the most heavily saturated media market in world history, where he was alternately reviled and lampooned for four decades, and no one has ever reported on any real ties between Trump and the Russian government, it’s unlikely. But who cares? Tomorrow, it will be someone close to Trump—maybe someone in his family, or an adviser, or someone who never even met him—who was secretly in bed with the Russians, because the Trump-Kremlin conspiracy theory has eaten the news.
Washington insiders know what the current media ecosystem looks like—how this part of the intelligence community feeds this journalist, how this political operative is responsible for this aspect of the campaign, who’s likely funding which war room against which Trump official or Trump policy. This former Obama staffer leaks to this reporter he goes hiking with. This story, leaked by an administration official hostile to Trump, was shopped by Democratic operatives to several news organizations that couldn’t nail it down, until this leading newspaper ran it anyway, allowing the game to continue.
In other words, the American media has become just like the Arab press, consumed by savvy audiences not for the news it actually publishes but for the various pieces of information disclosed between the lines. In Lebanon, for instance, readers and viewers know which journalists are owned by which political figures or security services. This guy is close to military intelligence, which is controlled by Hezbollah, and this guy is known to be close to the Saudis. Oh, if X is saying Y that’s because A is sending a message to B about C. It’s the same throughout the region, where different regimes speak to each other via the journalists they’re known to control.
That’s what much of the American press is like now. It’s political warfare among the country’s bureaucrats and the political elites—a game for insiders, in which the press, Democratic political operatives, and parts of the intelligence community run information ops against each other while playing on the credulity of the rubes. If you don’t know the score, then you’re the target. In the meantime, however, the public sphere is being degraded, perhaps beyond repair.
Conspiracy theories are different than the lies and fables that every community tells itself to explain its tragic condition. We lost the war because our gods abandoned us, because of the sins of one particular clan. Hillary lost to Trump because the Russians hacked the election. Our children died because Jews poisoned the wells. These aren’t conspiracy theories, they’re consolations, vicious, self-sung lullabies.
A conspiracy theory is when you weaponize these kinds of narratives through mass media to put them to political use. Conspiracy theories are about channeling the direst energies of the masses—the peasants with pitchforks. The concern before the November election was that Trump was going to put the ignorant, hateful, and violent American masses in the streets to stay. In retrospect, it is obvious why that assessment was flawed. The “deplorables”—as Clinton called them—do not own the platforms or networks through which it is possible to proliferate weaponized narratives capable of doing real damage to our polity—the elites do.
What’s interesting here is the light this episode sheds on the modern conspiracy theory itself, the weaponized political narrative that began in Russia with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Thus it’s curious that the origins of the Kremlin Conspiracy can be found in the Kremlin itself. I don’t mean that the Russia/Trump Narrative was cooked up by Russian intelligence—although, given the nature of the dossier ostensibly authored by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and the effect that both Trump and anti-Trump advocates are having on the stability of our institutions, who knows?
Contrary to what Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, the real problem isn’t that Russians will keep trying to undermine our democracy. Nor is the issue Fake News, or the garbage published on fringe websites that talked of dark sacrificial evenings hosted by major Democrats. In a country of more than 300 million people, you can find a significant percentage of the population who will believe any wild story you can dream up—whether it’s Pizzagate, UFOs, Obama is a Kenyan Marxist, or the fact that Clinton lost because she was heavily criticized by a Russian television network that .001 percent of Americans watch.
No: We’re the problem. The real danger is that the once-sturdy institutions and procedures of our democracy—the press, the intelligence community, political parties, etc.—have been used to legitimize a conspiracy theory.
Liberal Arabs will tell you that the way to combat ignorance, or the nature of the mind captured by conspiracy theories, is through education, learning how to think critically. It is a hopeful idea. And yet education is nothing but an institution that reflects and confirms the values of the culture it arises from. Institutions like a free press are also contingent historical products.
What we’re watching now reflected through the decay and delirium of our institutions is something much more common in history—a society moving toward obscurantism.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).