The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Tribal Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

President Trump greets reporters outside a meeting with congressional Republicans in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Conspiracy theories are a form of superstition. They work on the assumption that bad things must be willed by human actors.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including the creepy dude in the raincoat who keeps asking people to inspect his suspicious package),

Last year I went through an IRS audit. I got through it okay. But it was exactly as much fun as you’d expect. Then last week, I came home from a grueling trek on the road to discover I was being audited again, this time for two different years’ tax returns — one of them for the year I had just been audited for! In case the IRS is reading this, let me say I am overjoyed to once again work with the fine and upstanding patriots of the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that I am paying my fair share.

It’s also a wonderful opportunity. At the risk of being charged with over-sharing with you, my dear readers, I am also in need of a colonoscopy. I am going to try to schedule it around the same time so that I can test the accuracy of a commonly used metaphor regarding these fiscal inspections.

Anyway, I bring this up because I keep getting asked, usually half-jokingly, “Do you think it’s because you criticized Trump?” My short answer: “No.”

Causation and Correlation

It’s a very human reaction. Superstition and reason are often pitted against one another as opposite forces, but they are both born from an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to connect dots. In our natural environment, our understanding of cause and effect often boiled down to the fallacy of correlation equaling causation. Countless dietary and hygiene rules were based on the fact that certain benefits accrued to those who followed them. Kosherism is more than a guide to healthy eating — but one can see how staying Kosher thousands of years before pasteurization, refrigeration, etc. might correlate highly with better outcomes.

But one of the key points at which superstition and reason part company is the fact that superstition is non-falsifiable. If the king sacrifices an ox to Baal in the hope he will end the draught, and it rains, Baal will get the credit for the rain. If it doesn’t rain, Baal doesn’t get the blame. Instead, it must be that Baal wanted two oxen — or maybe a virgin maiden or the head of Alfredo Garcia, whatever. If you keep offering sacrifices, it will eventually rain, and when it does, “Praise Baal!”

The Seduction of Conspiracy

Superstition takes many forms in modern societies — not just carrying around rabbit feet and playing lucky numbers at the casino. Conspiracy theories are a form of superstition. They work on the assumption that bad things must be willed by human actors. What makes conspiracy theories so compelling is that they are like a complex molecule in which Reason and Superstition stick to each other in just such a way that they can get passed the blood-brain barrier and, like a virus, wreak havoc in our minds. They make us think that we are reasoning our way toward some deeper truth: All those Post-It notes and red strings connecting 8×10 glossy photos can’t be wrong!

The central fallacy here is the idea that conspiracy theories are reasoning toward anything at all. It is in fact a form of pseudo-reasoning: thinking backward from the proposition that a bad event must have been caused by dark forces, which (allegedly) benefit from it. Like the drunk who only looks for his car keys where the light is good, the truth-seeker only looks for evidence to support the proposition. The levees in New Orleans did not hold, Spike Lee observed, so it must be because George W. Bush had them bombed.

Of course, everything becomes so much more complicated by the fact that sometimes there are conspiracies. But they are rare, they are almost never vast, they usually fail, and when they succeed it is most often more from luck than will. Whenever you hear someone insist that “there are no coincidences,” they are revealing that they live in a world of magical realism where powerful unseen forces are treating us all like pawns. It’s a form of secular demonology.

The Unravelling of the Conservative Mind

I’ll be honest: I am far more annoyed by conservatives who traffic in conspiracy theories than liberals who do so. My reasons are twofold. As a practical matter, it bothers me because they make conservatives look bad, and I consider myself more invested in protecting my “side” from making an ass of itself. More generally, it bothers me because conservatives are supposed to understand, as a matter of philosophy, the limits of planning.

For instance, it’s one thing for liberals to claim simultaneously that George W. Bush was an idiot and that this idiot nonetheless managed to orchestrate a massive conspiracy to attack the United States on 9/11. It’s another for conservatives, presumably trained in the laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reason, and the fatal conceit of planning, to argue that the hijackers were just a bunch of patsies for an operation that would have involved hundreds or thousands of American agents — without a single whistleblower among them. This can best be visually represented by someone turning Occam’s Razor into a heavy spoon or soup ladle and beating Friedrich Hayek about the head and neck with it. But that’s what happened to people such as Morgan Reynolds and Paul Craig Roberts. Worse, these people have to believe their colleagues and ideological comrades — whom they knew and for whom they often worked — were in fact brilliant mass murderers.

In the latest example of the massive race to be wrong first that spontaneously erupts after any mass shooting, terrorist attack, or similar calamity, a host of conservatives and “conservatives” sprinted to shout, “Cui Bono!?”

“Cui Bono” — literally “to whom is it a benefit” — is like the starter’s pistol for conspiracy theorists to strap on their helmet lamps and go spelunking into their own posteriors for an explanation that affirms their superstitious view of the world.

A case in point: Lou Dobbs.

“Fake News — Fake Bombs,” he tweeted from deep behind his own sphincter. “Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?”

Ironically, I found the exact text of this tweet at CNN.com because Lou has blocked me. (It’s pretty funny that I had to go to a supposedly “fake news” source to find out what Dobbs actually said about fake news.)

Dobbs was hardly alone, and I’m not just referring to Candace Owens, Rush Limbaugh, and Donald Trump:

I’m referring to the millions of people who create a market incentive for pundits and politicians to float this garbage.

I am rethinking my glee over Alex Jones’s social-media defenestration, because it’s almost as if his banishment left a vacuum that more mainstream figures feel the urge to fill.

And while I enjoy watching a man scream at excrement in the middle of the street as much as the next guy — who can forget Isaiah Berlin in ’46 laying into that mound of manure? — I still feel like there are slightly better uses for Jones’s time. Besides, you’re not supposed to yell at your food.

All of this stems from the tribalism of the moment, where each side has concluded that persuasion is impossible and total victory is the only option. They work on the assumption that anyone who is not “us” is “them.” But the reality is that most Americans are neither, and any serious political movement should be interested in attracting the people in the middle to our side. Instead, by embracing our most unattractive façade, we make it that much easier for the other side to say, “See, they’re all like that.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I thought it was possible — though very unlikely — that some lone left-wing kook took it upon himself to send these bombs (or “bombs”) as a one-man “false-flag operation.” There are enough racial hoaxes on college campuses alone to demonstrate that some people are so desperate to make the world fit their paranoid vision that they will do whatever it takes to midwife it into reality. But the idea that George Soros or “The Democrats” or “The Fake News” plotted this out in some organized way is just staggeringly insipid and paranoid. How would that work? Would Soros, Maxine Waters, Robert De Niro, et al. meet like the Legion of Doom and plot to commit a felony that could put them in jail for the rest of their lives?

The Trump Contagion

Earlier this week, the president was nigh-upon insistent that the Democrats must be behind the immigrant caravan heading our way, with all of the speed of a steamroller in an Austin Powers movie. To be fair to Trump, it’s possible this is just rank cynicism given that the caravan is — or at least was — a political gift to Trump, not the Democrats. But the people who believe it don’t have that excuse.

And that’s why I increasingly feel more like a spectator to American politics than I ever have before. It’s really quite liberating, if exhausting. Because I have zero personal loyalty to, or emotional investment, in Donald Trump, I feel no need to defend him from legitimate criticism, never mind bend my understanding of conservatism to his behavior and rhetoric. This was a point I tried to make in my debate with Charles Kesler about the Trump presidency. Because humans are wired to believe that their leaders are worthy of being the leader, they bend their views to extol the character traits and priorities of the leader. Today, definitions of good character are being bent to fit Trump’s character, and the yardstick of what amounts to being presidential is being shaved down to a nub to match Trump’s conduct.

(Similarly, because I have no investment in the Democrats or the Mainstream Media, I feel no compulsion to rush to their defense either. As far as I am concerned, they are all living down to my expectations. They’re all making things worse, too. I’m certainly not going to do what Max Boot at times seems to be doing: constructing a revisionist history of conservatism to fully justify his abandonment of it. To be fair, Boot hasn’t gone Full Jen Rubin, but he does seem to be struggling to find a foothold on his descent in that direction.)

Newt Gingrich is a great example of how everything must be bent to the president’s personal needs. The man who led the expansion of NATO and the passage of NAFTA long ago cast aside these essential parts of his legacy, like so much ballast, in order to stay afloat on the Trumpian tide. But on Thursday, he reached a new low. When asked about a possible Supreme Court fight to release Trump’s tax returns, Gingrich said, “We’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.”

I’m sorry, the 40-plus-year fight to get constitutionalists on the Court wasn’t about protecting Donald Trump from embarrassment or criminal jeopardy. The reason why the Kavanaugh fight united nearly the entire conservative and Republican coalition wasn’t about circling the wagons around Trump. Indeed, the only reason the Right unified around Kavanaugh was that it wasn’t about Trump. If Trump had picked Jeanine Pirro, you would not have seen the Federalist Society, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review, et al. rush to support her. During the confirmation fight, before the sexual-McCarthyism phase, conservatives — including, most emphatically, Kavanaugh himself — insisted that the charge that Kavanaugh would be a Trump crony on the bench was everything from wrong to an outrageous slander. Newt himself described the stakes very differently. When the fight was on, it was all about decency and patriotism.

Now that the fight is over, Newt is saying “never mind.” None of it would be “worth it” if Kavanaugh doesn’t protect the president’s tax returns — which candidate Trump said he would release! It profits a man nothing to lose his soul for all the world, but for Trump’s tax returns?

Tribalism is a helluva drug.

Transactional Shmansactional

This is the fatal flaw with the “transactional” defense of Trump. Very few people seem capable of sticking to it. The transactional argument holds that one can be critical of the man while celebrating what he is accomplishing (or what is being accomplished on his watch by Cocaine Mitch and others). In private, most of the conservatives I talk to around the country offer some version of this defense. And I find it utterly defensible, as far as it goes. Indeed, my own position of praising the good and condemning the bad is a version of the transactional defense, even if I was a critic of making the transaction in the first place. But anyone who actually acts on this view in public is instantly pilloried for his or her refusal to “pick a side.”

Indeed, the president’s job description is being retroactively rewritten as Media Troll in Chief.

And, as always happen with tribal logic takes over, the next phase of the argument is, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” or, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

I’m gonna take pass on all of it. I’ll strap on my helmet and defend what’s worth defending, and criticize what’s worth criticizing, from a conservative worldview. And if that pleases neither side, that’s alright with me. Sometimes you have to stand athwart the asininity.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: As many of you know, when we first adopted Pippa, Zoë’s immediate reaction was the canine equivalent of the robots in the old video game Berserk. “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” For the first several months, constant vigilance was required to keep Zoë from annihilating Pippa. Those days are over, but once every now and then, they get into a scrap. I hate saying that it’s always Pippa’s fault for not understanding she’s not the alpha, but it’s pretty much always Pippa’s fault for not understanding she’s not the alpha. That’s because, if Zoë shows aggression to Pippa, Pippa will usually back down. But if Pippa shows aggression to Zoë, Zoë pretty much will never back down. So it escalates quickly.

The other day, I took a nap after the morning walk because my plane didn’t get home until crazy late. Both doggers joined me. Pippa up on the couch with me, Zoë on the floor below. Everything seemed fine. But about 20 minutes after I fell asleep, I awoke to growling. It was Pippa growling at Zoë, and Zoë sorta growling back, more bemused than angry: “The spaniel can’t possibly starting something with me.” But she was. I don’t really know what happened, but my best guess is that Zoë grew tired of being in the beta spot on the floor, and Pippa, all snugly in a blanket and at my side, thought she shouldn’t have to relinquish her spot. The growling got worse, with Zoë starting to curl her lips in that canine gesture that means, “It is about to go down.” I grabbed Zoë and pinned her to the floor, which Pippa insanely mistook as my signal to make this a two-on-one situation. Pippa went after Zoë and the Dingo was like, “On no she didn’t!” and tried to go after Pippa. The Spaniel, shocked that I was now holding down the two of them, one arm apiece, looked at me like I was pulling a “Leeroy Jenkins,” blowing her carefully crafted plan to depose Zoë from her throne. It was crazily tense for a minute or two, until I kind of tossed Zoë backwards and dragged Pippa away, forcing her to go upstairs. All the while she was fuming, “This is our shot! You’re blowing it!”

Pippa went and sulked in her fancy kennel and Zoë was like, “That was weird.” And it ended. But it really put me on edge for a while. The last time something like this happened was when we were out of town and Zoë and Pippa got into a fight over some pieces of gutter chicken (not a euphemism: People, when you throw chicken bones in the street you are inviting bad things for dogs). Pippa ended up needing stitches. And again, it was because Pippa wouldn’t back down when Zoë, like the toughest guy in prison, said, “This is mine.”

Anyway, now they’re fine, sharing Zoë’s love for logs, and Pippa’s for hilarious jokes, and having a wonderful autumn with the pack (when they’re not fighting crime). Just today, they joined me on the very same couch to hear me record the latest episode of GLoP. They weren’t riveted. But they’re always excited to see the real alpha of the house. Zoë doesn’t always hold me in the same high regard.

My apologies for last week’s missing G-File. The travel schedule finally caught up with me, and there was just no way I could get it done. But given the relative dearth of complaints, I’m not sure it was particularly missed.

Thanks to everyone across the country who has come out to my various appearances. In general, the crowds have been among the best I’ve ever had — either qualitatively or quantitatively.

Things are slowing down a little bit. I only have one out of town gig next week — at UNC Chapel Hill. If you’re around, come on by.

ICYMI . . .

In defense of ideology

On voter apathy

The latest Remnant

The Saudis and Khashoggi

On The Axe Files with David Axelrod

Our vendetta politics

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

Dog gets legs

Would traveling back in time destroy the universe?

A hero passes

Giant spider?

Runners live forever

The history of horror movie music

Furious mongoose

Stolen colon

Miracle dog dies

Behold: Titanic II

Crime smells

Rectangular iceberg

Arctic agony…

Frank Sinatra’s spaghetti and meatballs

Pokémon Go to Church

An octopus on ecstasy

Pregnant Minnesota woman gives birth after performing CPR to save husband

Naughty Marines

Bee parasite

Ancient shipwreck

Rational response

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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