In South Carolina on Saturday night, Donald Trump turned into an Alex Jones Show caller.
“They lied!” said Trump, talking about the George W. Bush administration. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none [false]. And they knew there were none.” Moments later, as Jeb Bush defended his brother’s administration, Trump shouted: “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign!” And, again: “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe.”
Marc Lamont Hill, Morehouse College professor and liberal commentator, tweeted that Trump sounded “more and more like a Democrat” as the debate went on. That’s mild. He sounded like Cindy Sheehan in drag.
And on Monday morning, Trump doubled down. “Now that George Bush is campaigning for Jeb(!), is he fair game for questions about World Trade Center, Iraq War and eco collapse?” he tweeted. “Careful!”
Now that George Bush is campaigning for Jeb(!), is he fair game for questions about World Trade Center, Iraq War and eco collapse? Careful!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2016
One increasingly senses that we’re on the cusp of a rant about “controlled demolition” and the melting point of steel.
It’s fitting, though, that Donald Trump turns out to be a conspiracy theorist — and it would be equally fitting if it were to not hurt him at the polls. After all, this election is about chaos, and in a political culture devoid of intellectual rigor, conspiracy theory is an easy way of bringing chaos back under our control.
Start with September 11, 2001, the fons et origo of the perception of 21st-century chaos. The decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union had established an expectation of peace and prosperity; the days of duck-and-cover drills were over. September 11 upended that expectation; it rendered the world unpredictable again.
After all, the most astonishing thing about 9/11 is that it happened. From getting into the country to getting into the cockpit, everything went right for Mohammad Atta and his crew. How could it be that the array of technology and manpower devoted to American security had failed at precisely the points in the maze where the hijackers needed it to? How was it that they drew the terrorist’s equivalent of a royal flush?
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The reality, of course, is that systems fail and people make mistakes, and the various failures and mistakes in the lead-up to September 11, 2001, overlapped in such a way as to create a unique opening for al-Qaeda.
For many people, though, the prospect of so much randomness was incredible. Unwilling to accept that a terrorist attack could just happen, they replaced systems weighing terabytes of data and thousands of bureaucrats and teams of analysts and 19 terrorists with a handful of carefully positioned explosives and a cabal of nefarious actors (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, etc.). Their explanation was wrong, but it was simple, and it restored order to their world.
#share#Consider a different example: The collapse of the housing bubble and the onset of the Great Recession occasioned a similar sort of conspiratorial thinking — one that liberal politicians frequently have encouraged. Instead of the housing bubble’s being the result of a complex interplay of hundreds of thousands of homeowners and thousands of banks and armies of lawyers and brigades of bureaucrats, the cause our economic woes has been reduced — according to Bernie Sanders, for instance — to the greed of “Wall Street” and the “billionaire class.” That is, a small group of individuals is operating according to an identifiable motive (avarice) to despoil everyone else. False — but simple and orderly. It fits in the head.
And that’s the purpose of conspiracy theories: They insulate people from the instability and unpredictability that are the inevitable result of large, complex interchanges of people and institutions. They get the massive, unknowable world back inside one’s head.
Conspiracy theories get the massive, unknowable world back inside one’s head.
That this cast of mind bodes ill for our politics should be obvious. First, it removes all possibility of good-faith disagreement. An opponent cannot simply be wrong; he must be evil. The Right is bedeviled by this impulse in its immigration debate. To a certain segment of immigration hawks, it’s not enough that Marco Rubio was or is wrongheaded about immigration. The only acceptable explanation for his heterodoxy is that he is a willing tool of certain business interests, a malevolent schemer working purposefully to undermine American workers. Marco delenda est.
Second, it demands that everything be brought under our control — because it assumes that everything can be. This is both nonsense and deeply un-conservative. Whole realms of existence are not amenable to government control, and any attempt to bring them under its jurisdiction will prove disastrous; history provides examples in abundance. Yet as long as we operate according to the assumption that the etiology of every problem should be obvious — that every problem is the result of a small group of people, one downed computer, one visa slip-up — we will assume that all that is needed to make life more predictable is smarter people in office, better tools, or a better process.
#related#This is, of course, Trump’s entire presidential pitch: All America needs is Donald Trump and his “best people.” Trump and his cadre of elites will make things orderly again — simple, predictable, comprehensible. It’s not true. The best way to handle complexity is to distribute power widely, among an array of institutions and individuals. Trump’s conspiracy theories — from Obama’s birth certificate to Bush’s wars — aim to delegitimize the constitutional system that has so ably done that in order to replace it with his own thinly veiled Caesarism.
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Donald Trump’s philosophy — or any other. Conservatives would do well to remember that.