Thursday, January 18, 2018


Politico has published an opinion piece by Joseph Uscinski titled "Why 'Girthers' Are the Biggest Losers." Uscinski is a political science professor at the University of Miami and a co-author of a 2014 book called American Conspiracy Theories. He lectures on the subject of conspiracy theories. So when he writes about conspiratorialism for Politico, you'd expect him to get everything right.

He doesn't. He gets nearly everything wrong.

Uscinski writes:
Why have Democrats become so prone to conspiracy theorizing about Donald Trump?
We haven't. Go on.
Even though Trump is said to be in fine health by his doctor, many of the president’s detractors believe the doctor is lying and that there is a conspiracy afoot to conceal the president’s true deteriorating condition.
No, really, we don't. We see undoctored photographs of him that reveal a 71-year-old man who's unmistakably out of shape. We read his own acknowledgment that he does nothing a reasonable person would call exercise. We see reliable accounts, from careful reporters and even Trump backers, of his shockingly unhealthy diet. We read stories in which doctors say on the record, based on data released by Trump's White House physician, that the president is at serious risk of a major coronary incident. If we're skeptical of the rosy picture painted by Trump's doctor, it's for good reasons.
After David Axelrod called Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor, a “very good guy and straight shooter,” Keith Olbermann asserted that Trump must have refused a presidential weigh-in and instead ordered Jackson to “just guess my weight.”
It was a tweet, from a political commentator who's skilled at tossing off barbed one-liners. It's not being offered as a definitive account of what happened.
The conspiracy theories about Trump ... may seem well-deserved. Trump’s conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz’s dad, Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, voter fraud and the news media have cost him the moral high ground from which to denounce the conspiracy theories about himself. Trump’s use of the birther conspiracy theory against Obama has given way to a girther conspiracy theory about his health.

That’s because there is a strategic logic to conspiracy theories: They are for losers. Conspiracy theories bind groups closer together, focus attention and motivate action. Electoral losers have a strong incentive—consciously or not—to motivate their co-partisans with a unifying narrative of a terrifying enemy. After their devastating loss in 2016, Democrats have accused a wide range of domestic and international actors of conspiring to cause their defeat.
There's a lot wrong here, but let me point you to just one thing: Uscinski says conspiracy theories are for losers -- and then tells us (correctly) that Donald Trump regularly engages in them. Um, didn't he win the election? So why is he still a conspiratorialist? And why was he a conspiratorialist with regard to, say, Ted Cruz when he was beating Ted Cruz? "Conspiracy theories are for losers" is Uscinski's big idea -- you can watch him deliver a lecture by that name -- and yet Trump proves him wrong. So why should we pay attention to anything Uscinski says?

And if "conspiracy theories are for losers," why does Fox News -- backer of the winning presidential candidate in 2016 and main messaging unit of the party that won both houses of Congress -- continue to promote ever more extreme conspiracy theories about the perfidy of the losing party?

Uscinski never mentions Fox's conspiracy theories about Clinton collusion with the Russians or FBI/special counsel/"Deep State" efforts to sabotage Trump. But he does say that "Democrats have accused a wide range of domestic and international actors of conspiring to cause their defeat." So, Professor, Russia didn't try to tip the election to Trump? Our intelligence agencies lied to us about that? The FBI didn't announce an eleventh-hour reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation? The press didn't obsess over those emails, and the documentation of that monomania by the Columbia Journalism Review and others was just Alex Jones-level tinfoil-hat-ism?
Resonant conspiracy theories in the United States tend to emanate from the party out of power and be aimed at the party in power.... Until 2009, conspiracy theorists villainized George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Halliburton, Blackwater and other members of the Republican coalition. Many of these theories suggested that 9/11 was an inside job....
"The party out of power" did not spread 9/11 conspiracy theories -- some on the left did, but 9/11 trutherism was overwhelmingly rejected by Democratic officeholders and the general Democratic electorate.

Uscinski does ultimately acknowledge that those in power do sometimes engage in conspiratorialism. Is his first example of this Donald Trump? Of course not.
... powerful people, even presidents, will try to use conspiracy theories from time to time. It doesn’t usually work very well because it’s hard to see the most powerful people in the world as the victims of shadowy forces. The powerless make more believable victims. Think about Hillary Clinton’s claim that “a vast right-wing conspiracy” was the cause of her husband’s troubles, or the opening salvo of the Obama reelection campaign that “secretive oil billionaires” were out to get him.
Right -- there was no organized effort to take down President Clinton and there were no oil magnates who engaged in a multi-pronged effort to take down Obama.

And then we get to Trump as a conspiratorial president.
The Trump presidency is different: He is a political outsider who came to power by building a coalition of conspiracy theorists. Even though Trump is presumably the most powerful person in the world, he will continue to use conspiracy theories to keep the coalition he built motivated and together. Yet Trump’s conspiracy theories gain little traction, as they convince only those who support him already.
They're on the most popular cable news outlet in America every day and night. They're endorsed, or at least tolerated, by the party that controls Congress. If that's "little traction," I'd hate to see serious traction.

And this paragraph ends with yet another swipe at the Democrats:
Conspiracy theories by the Democrats, on the other hand, have captured the national attention.
The link in that quote goes to a story titled "Most Say Trump Should Allow Russia Investigation to Continue - CBS News Poll." Intelligence agencies have documented Russian interference in our election, and Americans just say they want the investigation to uncover the truth. Uscinski calls this the seizure of "the national attention" by conspiracy-minded Democrats.

This isn't a sloppy op-ed -- it's disgraceful. Politico should be embarrassed to have published it.

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