The Tribal Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

But one of the key points at which superstition and reason part company is the fact that superstition is non-falsifiable. If the king sacrifices an ox to Baal in the hope he will end the draught, and it rains, Baal will get the credit for the rain. If it doesn’t rain, Baal doesn’t get the blame. Instead, it must be that Baal wanted two oxen — or maybe a virgin maiden or the head of Alfredo Garcia, whatever. If you keep offering sacrifices, it will eventually rain, and when it does, “Praise Baal!”

.. The central fallacy here is the idea that conspiracy theories are reasoning toward anything at all. It is in fact a form of pseudo-reasoning: thinking backward from the proposition that a bad event must have been caused by dark forces, which (allegedly) benefit from it. Like the drunk who only looks for his car keys where the light is good, the truth-seeker only looks for evidence to support the proposition. The levees in New Orleans did not hold, Spike Lee observed, so it must be because George W. Bush had them bombed.

Of course, everything becomes so much more complicated by the fact that sometimes there are conspiracies. But they are rare, they are almost never vast, they usually fail, and when they succeed it is most often more from luck than will. Whenever you hear someone insist that “there are no coincidences,” they are revealing that they live in a world of magical realism where powerful unseen forces are treating us all like pawns. It’s a form of secular demonology.

I’ll be honest: I am far more annoyed by conservatives who traffic in conspiracy theories than liberals who do so. My reasons are twofold. As a practical matter, it bothers me because they make conservatives look bad, and I consider myself more invested in protecting my “side” from making an ass of itself. More generally, it bothers me because conservatives are supposed to understand, as a matter of philosophy, the limits of planning.

For instance, it’s one thing for liberals to claim simultaneously that George W. Bush was an idiot and that this idiot nonetheless managed to orchestrate a massive conspiracy to attack the United States on 9/11. It’s another for conservatives, presumably trained in the laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reason, and the fatal conceit of planning, to argue that the hijackers were just a bunch of patsies for an operation that would have involved hundreds or thousands of American agents — without a single whistleblower among them. This can best be visually represented by someone turning Occam’s Razor into a heavy spoon or soup ladle and beating Friedrich Hayek about the head and neck with it. But that’s what happened to people such as Morgan Reynolds and Paul Craig Roberts. Worse, these people have to believe their colleagues and ideological comrades — whom they knew and for whom they often worked — were in fact brilliant mass murderers.

.. I increasingly feel more like a spectator to American politics than I ever have before. It’s really quite liberating, if exhausting. Because I have zero personal loyalty to, or emotional investment, in Donald Trump, I feel no need to defend him from legitimate criticism, never mind bend my understanding of conservatism to his behavior and rhetoric.

.. Because humans are wired to believe that their leaders are worthy of being the leader, they bend their views to extol the character traits and priorities of the leader. Today, definitions of good character are being bent to fit Trump’s character, and the yardstick of what amounts to being presidential is being shaved down to a nub to match Trump’s conduct.

.. Newt Gingrich is a great example of how everything must be bent to the president’s personal needs. The man who led the expansion of NATO and the passage of NAFTA long ago cast aside these essential parts of his legacy, like so much ballast, in order to stay afloat on the Trumpian tide. But on Thursday, he reached a new low. When asked about a possible Supreme Court fight to release Trump’s tax returns, Gingrich said, “We’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.”
.. I’m sorry, the 40-plus-year fight to get constitutionalists on the Court wasn’t about protecting Donald Trump from embarrassment or criminal jeopardy. The reason why the Kavanaugh fight united nearly the entire conservative and Republican coalition wasn’t about circling the wagons around Trump. Indeed, the only reason the Right unified around Kavanaugh was that it wasn’t about Trump. If Trump had picked Jeanine Pirro, you would not have seen the Federalist Society, The Weekly StandardCommentaryNational Review, et al. rush to support her.
.. During the confirmation fight, before the sexual-McCarthyism phase, conservatives — including, most emphatically, Kavanaugh himself — insisted that the charge that Kavanaugh would be a Trump crony on the bench was everything from wrong to an outrageous slander. Newt himself described the stakes very differently. When the fight was on, it was all about decency and patriotism.Now that the fight is over, Newt is saying “never mind.” None of it would be “worth it” if Kavanaugh doesn’t protect the president’s tax returns — which candidate Trump said he would release! It profits a man nothing to lose his soul for all the world, but for Trump’s tax returns?

.. Transactional Shmansactional

This is the fatal flaw with the “transactional” defense of Trump. Very few people seem capable of sticking to it. The transactional argument holds that one can be critical of the man while celebrating what he is accomplishing (or what is being accomplished on his watch by Cocaine Mitch and others). In private, most of the conservatives I talk to around the country offer some version of this defense. And I find it utterly defensible, as far as it goes. Indeed, my own position of praising the good and condemning the bad is a version of the transactional defense, even if I was a critic of making the transaction in the first place.

.. Indeed, the president’s job description is being retroactively rewritten as Media Troll in Chief.

 

Debunking 5 Viral Rumors About Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s Accuser

Dr. Blasey has been the target of widespread social media disinformation since she came forward with accusations of sexual assault against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee.

This viral rumor is based on a case of mistaken identity. The RateMyProfessors.com page on which these negative reviews were found is about Christine A. Ford, a professor of human services at California State University Fullerton. Christine Blasey Ford, Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, teaches at Palo Alto University.

Internet sleuths quickly zoomed in on a 22-year-old civil court case involving Judge Kavanaugh’s mother, Martha Kavanaugh, a district court judge in Maryland, in which Dr. Blasey’s parents, Ralph and Paula Blasey, were the defendants. Judge Kavanaugh, some said, had ruled against the Blaseys, costing them their house and creating a revenge motive for Dr. Blasey.

This claim seems to have originated with a Twitter user, Josh Cornett, who appears to have a history of amplifying right-wing misinformation. (The user’s account has tweeted messages of support for QAnon, a sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory.)

 

Some critics of Dr. Blasey quickly painted her as a devoted left-wing activist and donor with an ax to grind.

They have claimed that she wrote on Facebook in 2016 that “Scalia types must be banned from law.” Another variant of this claim also has her writing that “Scalia types must be banned from courts.”

Neither phrase appears in a search of public Facebook posts in 2016. It’s possible that the phrases appeared in posts that have since been deleted from Dr. Blasey’s accounts. But these claims don’t contain links to old posts, or any other form of attribution. The account of the Twitter user who appeared to originate the claim, @LodgeNixon, has since been deleted, and no evidence of the purported Facebook post has emerged.

.. It is no secret that Dr. Blasey is a registered Democrat who has given money to progressive organizations and campaigns — these facts were reported by the The Washington Post in the original story naming her as Mr. Kavanaugh’s accuser. But she appears to be far from a big-money donor. According to data from the Federal Election Commission, her donations to Democratic committees and campaigns from 2013 to 2017 total less than $100.

In a news release, Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group, said that Dr. Blasey was an unreliable accuser because of her family ties to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election..

.. And according to his LinkedIn profile, Mr. Blasey left the firm in 2004, more than a decade before any investigation into Russian collusion began.

 

With Brett Kavanaugh, as with Donald Trump, Conservatives Defend a Tainted Nominee

The implication was that the court of public opinion is trying not Brett Kavanaugh but the very idea of the All-American boy—good-natured, mischievous, but harmless. That Brett Kavanaugh was a decent kid who may have erred here and there but only did so in good fun, and that investigating the allegations levelled by Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick in earnest would amount to marching Tom Sawyer, Opie Taylor, and the Beaver single-file to the guillotine.

.. This was what moved Senators John Cornyn and Ben Sasse to seemingly genuine tears during Kavanaugh’s testimony. But it was Lindsey Graham who went apoplectic. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020,” he shouted at Democrats during his turn for questions. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”

“Boy, y’all want power,” he continued. “God, I hope you never get it.”

.. The Kavanaugh nomination is now, in part, a referendum on the #MeToomovement—on whether the goodness of successful men, with families and the respect of their peers, should be taken for granted, and whether the women who have suffered abuse, but who don’t possess the kind of evidence a prosecutor might find satisfying, should remain silent and invisible lest they sully sterling reputations.

.. Kavanaugh—by appearing in a prime-time TV interview, and in casting the accusations, incredibly, as a conspiracy against him orchestrated by allies of the Clintons—has shown himself to be exactly the political operative he was when he was working under Ken Starr and as a hired gun for the Bush Administration.

.. He is, backed into a corner and stripped of his robes, the quintessential Fox News man—both gladiator and perpetual victim, another “white male,” as Graham called himself on Friday, told to shut up and go away by feminists and a vindictive left.

.. Belligerent, wounded, proud, timorous, and entitled—a man given to gaslighting and dissembling under pressure.

..  Should he be confirmed, he will have the power to color rulings from the highest court in the land with the biases and emotionality he has revealed this past week until, if he so chooses, he drops dead.

.. Conspiracy theories about Kavanaugh’s accusers—that Ramirez was an agent of George Soros, for instance, or that Kavanaugh’s mother, a district-court judge, had ruled against Ford’s parents in a foreclosure case—were offered not only by the likes of the Daily Caller and Trumpists at the site Big League Politics this week but also by the NeverTrumper Erick Erickson, who has called Ford a “partisan hack,” and a reporter for National Review.

.. It was Ed Whelan—who heads something called the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is a man Washington conservatives consider “a sober-minded straight shooter,” according to Politico—who potentially defamed a Georgetown Prep alumnus with unfounded speculation about a Kavanaugh “doppelgänger,” a theory that could have originated on the right-wing message boards that birthed Pizzagate and are now fuelling QAnon.

.. The kind of discrediting rhetoric that was deployed by supporters of Trump and Roy Moore in the wake of allegations against them—that the charges had come after too many years, that the women bear blame or should be regarded skeptically for being in situations in which abuse might take place—was let loose by respected figures like the National Review editor, Rich Lowry. “Why,” he asked, of Swetnick, on Wednesday, “would she constantly attend parties where she believed girls were being gang-raped?”

.. And the Times’Bari Weiss and the former Bush Administration press secretary Ari Fleischer, both on the center-right, were among those who suggested that Kavanaugh should be advanced even if the allegations levelled by Ford are true.

.. It is often argued by this crowd that broad criticisms of the right risk pushing sensible conservatives toward Trumpism. But the events of the past two weeks have made plain just how illusory and superficial the differences between the respectable establishment and the Trumpists really are.

.. it cannot be said now, as it was in November, 2016, that the man in question is the best or only option for those committed to conservative policy objectives. Backing Brett Kavanaugh is a choice conservatives have made over viable alternatives—qualified conservative candidates who could be spirited through the nomination process before November’s elections or in the lame-duck session by a Republican Senate that has already proved itself capable of sidestepping the required procedural hurdles.

They have chosen this course because the Kavanaugh nomination has presented the movement with a golden opportunity to accomplish two things more valuable, evidently, than merely placing another conservative on the court: standing against the new culture of accountability for sexual abuse and, at least as important, thumbing their noses at an angry and despairing Democratic Party.