The Morning Jolt

Elections

Our Conspiracy-Minded Subculture

Attorney General William Barr participates in a roundtable discussion about human trafficking at the Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, Ga., September 21, 2020. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

On the menu today: Attorney General William Barr declares that he and the Department of Justice have found no evidence of widespread vote fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election; some Trump fans conclude the attorney general has been a deep-state sleeper all along; and why this country is likely to have conspiracy-minded subcultures for a long time.

It’s All Over, Barr the Shouting

Yesterday afternoon, U.S. attorney general William Barr addressed the contention of the president, and many of his supporters, that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen, through vote fraud and voting machines that changed Trump votes to Biden votes. He sees nothing to support their accusations:

Disputing President Donald Trump’s persistent, baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department has uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.

Barr told the AP that U.S. attorneys and FBI agents have been working to follow up specific complaints and information they’ve received, but “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

. . . Barr didn’t name [Sidney] Powell specifically but said: “There’s been one assertion that would be systemic fraud and that would be the claim that machines were programmed essentially to skew the election results. And the DHS and DOJ have looked into that, and so far, we haven’t seen anything to substantiate that.”

Back on November 9, Barr specifically “authorized federal prosecutors across the U.S. to pursue ‘substantial allegations’ of voting irregularities, if they exist, before the 2020 presidential election is certified, despite no evidence of widespread fraud.” President Trump appointed the U.S. attorneys for Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. There is no rational argument that these prosecutors would turn a blind eye, or help cover up, credible and serious allegations of vote fraud on a massive scale.

Many Trump supporters appeared genuinely shocked that Barr said his department has not found any evidence of fraud on a scale that could change the election’s outcome, and that there wasn’t any evidence to substantiate the claims of voting machines altering the outcome. Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis issued a statement that “with the greatest respect to the attorney general, his opinion appears to be without any knowledge or investigation of the substantial irregularities and evidence of systemic fraud.” (With the greatest respect, mind you.)

Apparently, some Trump supporters on Parler came to the conclusion that Barr had been a “Deep State” operative all along — including the president’s longtime friend, Roger Stone. Fox Business Channel host Lou Dobbs fumed, “For the attorney general of the United States to make that statement, he is either a liar or a fool or both. He may be, uh, perhaps compromised. He may be simply unprincipled. Or he may be personally distraught or ill.” Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch declares that Barr is “protecting Hillary Clinton” and trying to shut down all of his organization’s lawsuits. And over at Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft declares: “The only people the FBI and DOJ target are patriotic conservative Americans who want things better for their country and for their children’s future . . . AG Barr had a good scam going but now it’s over. We now know definitively what he is all about. He is just another crooked swamp creature.”

They’re talking about Attorney General William Barr. The William Barr. The nation’s chief law-enforcement officer who has been described as the president’s “champion and advocate,” who’s been tough on illegal immigration, suggested the Russia probe was unfair to Trump, who described the Mueller report as a complete vindication of the president, who House Democrats held in contempt of Congress for failure to cooperate with probes, who reinstated the death penalty for federal crimes, who ordered the streets around Lafayette Square cleared, who defended law enforcement against congressional critics, who attacked “militant secularists” who “seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience,” who changed the sentencing recommendation of Roger Stone from its original, excessive call for a sentence of seven to nine years, the man whom 20 progressive groups are trying to impeach, who sent a surge of federal law-enforcement agents to cities that were plagued by skyrocketing violent crime, and who allowed federal lawyers to defend President Trump against a lawsuit from E. Jean Carroll alleging sexual assault.

That William Barr.

The man who is arguably the president’s most loyal and probably most effective cabinet official is, in the minds of some Trump fans, now revealed as a sleeper agent for the Deep State all along.

It’s been unnerving in the past few weeks to watch seemingly sane people — in some cases friends, allies, former colleagues — appear to get devoured and replaced by pod people. They look like the people we knew before, but this strange replacement starts spouting that the voting machines were hacked, that Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are in on some secret plot to steal the election in Georgia from Trump or turning a blind eye to massive voter fraud, that “these charts” prove that Biden couldn’t possibly have won, that turnout amidst a giant pandemic couldn’t possibly have been so high, that Biden couldn’t have won more than 80 million votes, and so on.

We may just be witnessing something very basic about human nature — the search for scapegoats in the aftermath of failure, and the preference to believe in the fantastical instead of the mundane.

Some people who work in politics say the most accurate portrayal of life in government is not The West Wing or other shows and movies that offer a more glamorous, noble, or generally competent portrait. No, they say the most realistic show is the HBO series Veep, where the vice president and her staff stumble from one mess to the next, and almost all of their efforts result in disappointment, if not humiliating disaster. Reality is full of drudgery, complicated details, incompetence, miscommunication, mundane mistakes, and misjudgments. There’s no sinister conspiracy that’s trying to paint Vice President Selina Meyer and her staff as bumbling incompetents. That conspiracy would be redundant. Their biggest enemy is themselves.

In short, reality is boring and often disappointing. We rarely watch dramatic or serious TV shows or movies that portray all this. We watch shows that are full of action, twists, and turns, and often with conspiracies of shadowy forces pulling the strings from behind the scenes. We see government conspiracies, corporate conspiracies, military conspiracies, media manipulation, double agents, sleeper agents, brainwashing and mind control . . . a huge portion of our entertainment is based upon the concept summarized by the title character in Blade: “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it: the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger.” More classically minded folk might think of Plato’s cave — what we see determines our understanding of the world, whether or not it is the full picture. If all we see is only part of the picture, we end up with some seriously flawed ideas of how things work — and we never know that we’re wrong.

The vision of Trump — and Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell and Alex Jones — is a much more exciting world, and also a simpler one. There’s a big shadowy conspiracy that is trying to steal the election, impeach the president, hype the pandemic, brainwash our children, take over and throw people into jail for thought-crimes, open the borders to gangs and cartels, replace the current American population with foreigners, steal kids for celebrity sex-abuse rings. . . . It’s “Flight 93” not only in every election, but in every moment and every political fight. Every problem has a human face and is driven by the malevolence of powerful political foes. Whatever we’ve done wrong is inconsequential compared to the endless wickedness of “them” pulling the strings behind the scenes.

In this worldview, the conspiracy theorist is not just Joe Schmo, with a boring daily life, limited career prospects, and limited ability to find meaning in his life. In this worldview, the conspiracy theorist is Fox Mulder or Neo or Sherlock Holmes or Batman connecting the dots and finding the clues. They’ve found the glasses from They Live that show only the truth. When they buy into all of this, they become one of the select few who can see through the illusion; they’re no longer among the “Sheeple.” They’re doing something by posting about it on social media. In their own minds, they’re greater investigators than Woodward and Bernstein. They’ve discovered their own “Deep Throat” sources — usually some guy who’s posting anonymously on the Internet. But in this mindset, paranoia and rage aren’t problems; they are forces that give life meaning.

We might think that the futility of this kind of existence — always believing in the vast conspiracy, always finding more clues, but never exposing and unraveling it all — would make people eventually drift away from it, finding it unsatisfying. But perhaps this is how some people prefer it; on some level, they like the fact that the conspiracy is never fully exposed and the sheeple never wake up. If the “sheeple” ever woke up, then the enlightened few who recognized the conspiracy wouldn’t be special anymore. And if the conspiracy was ever exposed and torn down . . . there would be only “normal” life to go back to — and that’s frustrating and boring.

No matter how the transition to a new administration works, no matter what President Trump does after January 20, no matter what decisions are made at the news desks in the years to come, we are probably going to be stuck with an increasingly vocal, paranoid, conspiracy-minded subculture for a long time.

ADDENDUM: For some reason, Hunting Four Horsemen is particularly satisfying to people named James . . . even if they’re not related to me.

James Riley writes:

The action picks up and does not slow down — and, being a Jim Geraghty novel, there’s an additional layer of fun to be had in the pop culture references sprinkled everywhere. The key for these is that they’re solid enough to be recognized but not enough that they overwhelm the narrative.

I have a few that I caught but I won’t spoil them here.

References, however, are everywhere – they’re the glue which helps bind our pop culture together.

The bigger question, bigger than “how awesome are these references?”, is, “is this a good story?”

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Geraghty treats his protagonists as real people with real reactions to unreal problems. The characters and settings are grounded by hard data and solid research – never was I tempted to say “no, that sounds like hogwash, there’s no way that could have happened like that”. Its grounding in reality makes it far more entertaining than any current Hollywood tripe (though I do hope he’s able to translate this into a movie or movie series eventually, or even a Netflix miniseries) where outlandish situations, cookie cutter characters, and paint by number plots rule the day so far.

And James Ely writes:

A fun read with lots of humor and action. He again takes you down the road of the plausible, but scary, ideas that should frighten society if it actually happened. I cannot wait for the next installment of the Dangerous Clique.

Glad you like it, guys, and I hope everyone gives it a look, even people not named James.

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