Sunday, October 06, 2019


Peter Pomerantsev, author of the new book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, argues in The New York Times that leaders peddle conspiracy theories in order to create a world where truth is devalued.
As I follow the news coming from America at my home in Britain, the political culture and language in the thing once known as “the West” reminds me of my years in Moscow, where I lived in the first decade of the 21st century. Perhaps in nothing more so than in its relationship to the truth.

The media manipulation of the early Putin years didn’t try to convince you of a fabricated version of “truth.” Instead, it worked by seeding doubt and confusion, evoking a world so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, had no chance to work out or change. Instead of conspiracy theories being used to merely buttress an ideology as under Communist rule, a conspiratorial worldview replaced ideology as a way to explain the world, encouraging the public to trust nothing and yearn for a strong leader to guide it through the murk — a tactic that’s as common in Washington these days as in Moscow.

... When the Russian president went on international TV during the annexation of Crimea to smirk and say that there were no Russian soldiers on the peninsula, and that the soldiers the world could see were just locals who had bought Russian military uniforms, he wasn’t so much lying as demonstrating that he doesn’t care at all about facts and, by extension, the rules governing his behavior.
Pomerantsev believes that creating a post-truth world makes it easier for leaders such as Putin -- and Trump -- to get away with corrupt acts.
Seeing all rules and norms as mere facades for a vast conspiracy also legitimizes getting around them to exercise unlimited corruption. The cynicism implicit in conspiratorial thinking frees you up to indulge in anything you want.
I can't speak knowledgeably about Putin's Russia, but is this really what's happening in our country? I don't believe Trump is trying to persuade Americans that the world is "so full of endlessly intricate conspiracies that you, the little guy, [have] no chance to work out or change." I think he expects his base to believe his conspiracy theories wholeheartedly. And while Trump lies relentlessly, it's clear that he believes in quite a few conspiracies himself.

I have my doubts about Pomerantsev's assessment of Putin's lie about Russian troops in Crimea. If Trump did something similar and insisted he hadn't done it, don't you think his base would believe him, despite all evidence to the contrary? I do.

At the very least, his base would praise him for infuriating his opponents. As I wrote a few days ago,
I think Trump's supporters do take him literally. They believe he's building the wall. They believe he's draining the swamp. But if they find out he isn't, they don't care, because merely announcing that you want to do these things pisses off the libs, and then seemingly getting away with lying about them also pisses us off. In the eyes of the base at least, Trump wins either way.
I was probably giving Trump's fans too much credit for discernment -- they never seem to believe he's lying.

(Oh, wait -- that's not entirely true. Every prominent Republican in America is telling us today that Trump's call for Chinese help in investigating Hunter Biden was a joke. It's not clear what the fan base believes, but I'm sure no one thinks Trump was mocking the very notion of truth.)

Of course, Americans, particularly on the right, don't need would-be authoritarians to bamboozle them -- they actively seek out conspiracy theories whether or not there's an authoritarian behind them. We recall the Obama birther conspiracy as inextricably linked to Trump, but what about theories Trump has never mentioned -- that Barack Obama is gay, or that Michelle is actually a man? Many right-wingers believe these theories; many believe the cockamamie theories of QAnon, a movement that's been linked to Trump but has never been openly endorsed by him.

If conspiratorialism exists to make Americans doubt the existence of truth, they're getting the bamboozlement from outside the government -- from Alex Jones, from whoever the hell concocted QAnon, and so on. Maybe the powerful are outsourcing this (as they outsourced disinformation to Russia in the 2016 campaign) -- but it seems to me that a certain subset of Americans actively seek to bamboozle themselves.

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