The conservative movement has created a pretty neat little conspiracy-generation factory, and these days it’s humming at peak output.
In addition to classics such as PizzaGate and the Seth Rich murder, a partial listing of its recent product line would include the so-called “unmasking” scandal back in April, in which top Obama officials in the national security arena were accused of spying illegally on their political opponents. At the time, that was promised to be a “Watergate-level” scandal that would put important people in prison; it of course turned out to be groundless, and then quietly went away.
More recently, we have had the Nunes memo, which was supposed to expose a scandal that would dwarf Watergate and shake the republic to its very foundations, or at the very least “vindicate” President Trump. Again, not so much. We also have had claims of a Deep State conspiracy, claims that a “secret society” had been uncovered within the FBI, and that an informant had revealed ominous “off-site meetings” to take down Trump. We have also had false claims -- based on a single FBI text stripped out of context -- that President Obama had meddled illegally in the Hillary Clinton email investigation and perhaps even dictated its outcome.
All amazing, if true. And all amazing in a different way because they are not true.
Conspiracy theories are of course a common human weakness; no political philosophy or creed is immune to their temptations. What makes these different, however, is that they are not being created and propagated by figures on the margins. They are embraced and championed by top political figures, including the president of the United States and chairmen of powerful congressional committees, and they are being pushed into the public debate by leading members of the mainstream conservative media, with increasing amounts of hysteria.
So, since this threatens to become a more or less permanent feature of our public life, I thought it might be useful to try to dissect how this process works and what its end goals might be. The first step in doing that is to take one of these conspiracies apart, piece by piece, to see how it functions.
Our specimen for the dissection table comes -- no surprise -- from Fox News. Here’s the lead paragraph of a story that it published last week:
“An FBI informant involved in the controversial Uranium One deal has told congressional committees that Moscow paid millions to a U.S. lobbying firm in a bid to influence then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by helping former President Bill Clinton’s charities during the Obama administration.”
That certainly sounds extremely damning, with many of the components of a conservative fantasy: Uranium, Russia, the Clinton Foundation, Hillary, an FBI informant. Whoo boy. The problem is that it’s pretty much all a lie, beginning with the first three words, “an FBI informant.”
Back in January, the Trump Department of Justice warned congressional Republicans that the “informant” in whom they placed such trust is in fact someone not to be trusted at all. The DOJ told Congress that the man is a liar, that his statements to the FBI have been convincingly and repeatedly contradicted by documentary evidence. The DOJ warned Republicans that it refuses to use the informant as a witness in court cases because he is so unreliable and during trial would be easily exposed as such.
In addition, the Trump DOJ informed Congress that “at no point did (the alleged informant) provide any allegation of corruption, illegality or impropriety on Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, the Uranium One deal, President Clinton or the CFIUS,” and also that the documents it had reviewed contained “no allegations of impropriety” against Clinton.
Congressional Republicans know all this, which is why for months now, they have refused to give their Democratic counterparts access to the “informant.” They know that under a little questioning the truth will come out, and that their conspiracy will be exposed as a complete fabrication. But in the meantime, their little story can continue to perform its useful function.
And what is that function, exactly? For that explanation, I want to borrow a few concepts from the world of military strategy and analysis.
It’s fair to state that the conservative movement sees itself as under attack by forces that are far more powerful than itself. That belief is in fact crucial to its sense of identity. It embraces the assumption that the mainstream media establishment is always aligned against it, to such a degree that it even dismisses sites such as Snopes and Politifact as irredeemably anti-conservative.
It further believes that the media are assisted in conservative persecution by the nation’s political establishment, a term that in their minds even includes prominent members of their own party. Trump’s ability to tap into that attitude, to win the trust of the conservative “us” pitted against the establishment GOP “them,” was crucial to his success in seizing the 2016 nomination from the likes of Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
So what happens when a group feels itself outmanned and outgunned in the conventional means of doing battle, unable to fight the more powerful forces arrayed against it? It doesn’t surrender. It turns to what military analysts refer to asymmetric warfare, to means of battle that do not confront the enemy directly.
The U.S. military knows the problem well. It is the most powerful force ever created, yet it has found itself frustrated in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where its opponents refuse to “fight fair” in open confrontation. Instead, they fight back asymmetrically, through means such as terror attacks and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The goal of the insurgents is not to defeat its powerful opponent outright, but to harass, to “distract, disrupt, or delay” for so long that the enemy gives up the effort.
In domestic politics, I would argue, conservatives likewise see themselves as outmanned and outgunned, and out of necessity have adopted a peaceful but still useful form of asymmetric warfare in the information battle space. In that world of information warfare, conspiracy theories serve as the functional equivalents of IEDs.
UPDATE: In a new interview with best-selling author Michael Lewis, Steve Bannon describes this as a conscious, knowing choice: “The Democrats don’t matter,” he tells Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
The parallels are instructive. For example, military scholars tell us that one reason IEDs are so effective is “due in part to the relative ease of production and widespread availability of raw materials.” A few readily available industrial chemicals and a cellphone to serve as detonator, and voila! -- in the right hands, you have an IED.
Likewise, these conspiracies also take very little in the way of resources -- the basic components, after all, are a few cherry-picked facts and a bit of imagination. And because these weaponized conspiracies are so low-cost, they are basically disposable. A new conspiracy is quickly conceived, created, pushed off the production line and into the information battle sphere, in full knowledge that in a few days or weeks it will be demolished by actual facts.
But by that time, another disposable, weaponized conspiracy theory is ready to replace it. And as with IEDs, the resources required to defeat the device -- in this case, to dismantle or explode those conspiracy stories -- are significantly higher than those needed to create them.
In studying the IED phenomenon and how to counter it, U.S. military scholars have focused particular attention on trying to disrupt the networks used to create them. Typically, somebody assembles the components, and someone else delivers them. A third person builds the bomb, a fourth person places it. Somebody else serves as a lookout. Somebody else films its explosion and impact. Someone else then puts the video on the Internet, for maximum propaganda value. U.S. military planners put a lot of work into trying to penetrate the various nodes of that network.
Again, you see much the same division of labor in the conception, creation and propagation of weaponized conspiracies. In fact, as illustrated in the list of examples cited earlier, the information-IED manufacturing process, once the work of amateurs, is becoming professionalized.
These theories are no longer the product of fringe media outlets and basement bloggers; instead the production process has moved into the inner sanctums of important congressional committees, where it is funded with tax dollars. The theories are created there and then smuggled into the hands of right-wing media, which then plants them in the public consciousness, and which are then expanded upon and highlighted by the president.
The advantages of that new system are significant. These committees have, at least temporarily, a patina of credibility. They have, at least temporarily, access to a vast amount of secret intelligence to be cherry-picked. And as we have seen, they can use their status as protectors of classified material to cherry-pick and disseminate facts of their choosing while barring access to the context that would expose their fraud more quickly.
Confronted by this form of asymmetrical information warfare, those of us schooled in the conventional forms of information warfare instinctively attack it on grounds that it is not truthful, that it makes no real attempt at being truthful and that in fact it undermines the very existence of truth. We also operate under the assumption that news outlets and politicians that generate false stories will over time suffer a reputational loss that renders them less effective. And that is pretty much wrong.
In fact, from the conservative point of view, such statements sound an awful lot like the complaint of American soldiers and generals that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t fight fair, that they attack from the shadows, through “cowardly” means such as IEDs, rather than coming out in the open to do battle.
In asymmetrical warfare, the opponent’s strength becomes his weakness. And from the conservative point of view, the establishment’s reliance on truth is a weakness to be exploited. If they can’t win a conventional battle over what is conventionally known as truth, then the asymmetric response is to attack the concept of truth itself and render it meaningless. They are doing what works, what allows them to survive and in time maybe win.
Conservatives have come to realize that the idea that stories must be true, or at least strive toward truth, reflects a cramped understanding of what stories can do, what power they hold. In generating these conspiracy tales, conservatives have found a way to frustrate and confuse the other side, and they show no sign of altering a strategy that seems to be paying dividends.