In an op-ed at The Washington Post, Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, invokes Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to, you guessed it, blame both sides for conspiratorial thinking (“Donald Trump has brought us the American style in paranoid politics”):
Supporters of both parties traveled different roads to arrive here. For Republicans, the key ingredients included a combination of partisan outrage at the Obama administration and distrust of the “mainstream media.” For Democrats, the transformation began with the revelations that the intelligence community believed that Russian agencies had waged information warfare against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Despite those differences, the net effect on how partisans view the other side has been chillingly similar.
There’s a brilliance to the ‘both sides’ argument that I begrudgingly admire, and funnily enough it has in common with conspiracy theories a key factor: it assumes a conclusion that cannot be disproved. For conspiracy theorists, any piece of evidence or logical point you put forward to debunk the existence of the conspiracy can be tabled as part of the elaborate plan—exactly what “they” want you to think. For Musgrave, and by extension all the Ron Fourniers of the world, the ‘both sides’ argument can and always will exist because you can find at least one example of any transgression on either side of the aisle. When it comes to conspiracies, it doesn’t matter that the far-right has turned it into an industry; if you can find an example of a lefty professor who believes 9/11 was an inside job, well, by Jove, that is equivalent to the media empire Alex Jones built on the back of 9/11 trutherism.
Despite a complete absence of evidence in favor of the proposition and overwhelming evidence against it, the belief that President Obama’s birth certificate was fake took hold among a large segment of the population. By August 2016, 72 percent of registered Republican voters doubted that Obama had been born in the United States.
Mainstream Democrats, by contrast, prided themselves on being members of the “reality-based community” and gloated that (as Stephen Colbert put it) “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” The shock of defeat in 2016 changed that. Paradoxically, one factor pushing Democrats away from their faith in reality was their well-supported confidence in the evidence that a hidden actor — Russian intelligence agencies — had intervened in U.S. politics against them.
So then let’s get this bullshit false equivalency out of the way: conservatives believing Obama is a Muslim, or that he’s from Kenya, or that he’s going to take their guns, or that he hates white people and ‘white culture,’ is not, not the same as liberals believing Russia meddled with the 2016 presidential election. When the intelligence community—seventeen agencies—express confidence that the DNC was hacked by Russian sources, and when Russian state-run propaganda rags like RT and Sputnik churn out a never-ending stream of anti-Clinton material, the idea that liberals are engaging in the same kind of conspiracy-mongering as their conservative counterparts is asinine. It’s not the same because it’s not a conspiracy theory in the sense that we think of them.
Musgrave’s problem here is that he hasn’t demarcated what a ‘conspiracy theory’ is, and how those differ or are at all different from actual conspiracies. Rob Brotherton, a psychologist who studies why people believe in conspiracy theories, puts forth this question to help clear up the grey area of what does and does not qualify as a conspiracy theory:
- Al-Qaeda planned and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
- The Bush administration planned and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
The question is, which one is the conspiracy theory? Most of us in the real world would point to #2. There’s no reason to believe that there is substantive credibility to the claim that George Bush and his cohorts devised a plan to take down the World Trade Center, attack the Pentagon, and crash a plane in PA for kicks, all to get into Afghanistan and Iraq. Conversely, there is reason to believe that Al-Qaeda hijacked the airliners and killed thousands of people. #1 is a conspiracy. #2 is a conspiracy theory.
So Musgrave fails immediately when he conflates the nonsense conspiracies of Obama’s birthplace and the confident assessment of US intelligence agencies of Russian interference in the election. This failure allows him to spend the rest of his editorial presenting both sides as equally culpable for this faux pas.
Consequently, the public’s willingness to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions is driven by a combination of trust in those agencies and, less respectably but crucially, the desire to accept those conclusions as true. In today’s polarized political environment, both factors follow party lines: Democrats believe the charges of Russian hacking, partly because they want to believe them. Republicans don’t, partly because they don’t want to.
Let me see whether I’ve got this straight. Democrats believe Russia interfered in the election partly because that’s what they want to believe, yet that want to believe it is somehow completely separated from the severe likeliness that they did. This is an untestable and unverifiable assumption. Would Democrats believe it if only the CIA insisted Russia interfered, but the FBI and NSA and others expressed extreme doubt at the notion? Well, sure, there’s going to be a contingency that always believes it, but it’s doubtful it would have widespread acceptance.
Many Democrats seemed much more willing to entertain the report’s allegations than its relative lack of evidence would have justified. That may reflect, in part, confirmation bias driven by earlier acceptance of the intelligence community’s superficially similar report. Perhaps equally dismaying, Republicans seemed all too eager to accept on faith the Trump team’s even less-detailed denials. For many on both sides, motivated reasoning is beginning to eclipse reasonable standards of judging new claims.
Equally dismaying? It’s perhaps equally dismaying that Republicans are willing to believe the instant, evidence-free denials of a pathological liar over the assessment of virtually the entire US intelligence community? Seriously, call Ron Fournier. These guys would love to have a beer and tell each other how Both Sides are really just the pits, man.
The other major point Musgrave misses—and which I imagine most political pundits will also miss—is that Trump is not the cause of the conspiratorial worldview a lot of right-wingers have adopted. He’s not even the catalyst. At most, he’s the crystallization that’s been coming for a long time.
When Musgrave compares Democrats’ current clinging to the idea of Russian interference to Republicans’ continuing obsession with Obama birtherism (which ignores the mountains of other completely untrue things Republicans believe and propagate), he’s comparing a current, rapidly unfolding story with one that is years old and thoroughly debunked. That’s because Democrats in general don’t hang on to fringe conspiracies for very long the way Republicans do. Fox News, right-wing radio, and right-wing conspiracy sites (not to mention white supremacy/skinhead/neo-Nazi sites or the sovereign citizen movement, which are all far-right) are built on the assumption that the world as it is presented to us is a lie, and we need special decoders to tell us how the world really operates. Maybe Musgrave doesn’t realize it, but the newspaper publishing his editorial is much likelier to be considered a liberal propagandistic rag, a perpetuator of ‘fake news’ by the right than it is the left.
Trump, then, is a product of both the perpetual paranoia right-wing media has been feeding its viewers for decades and the nonstop insistence by Republican lawmakers that liberals are a bigger threat to America than anything else. By trying to equalize the right’s gleeful indulgence in conspiracies with the left’s current fascination with the Russia story, Musgrave helps contribute to a toxic environment he opposes.