Millions of Americans continue to actively participate in multiple conspiracy theories. Why?
A conspiracy theory promulgated by Donald Trump, the loser of the 2020 presidential election, has gripped American politics since Nov. 3. It has been willingly adopted by millions of his followers, as well as by a majority of Republican members of Congress — 145 to 108 — and by thousands of Republican state and local officials, all of whom have found it expedient to capitulate to the fantastical claim that the election was stolen by the Democratic Party, its officeholders, operatives and supporters.
Trump’s sprawling conspiracy theory is “being reborn as the new normal of the Republican Party,” Justin Ling wrote in Foreign Policy on Jan. 6.
A Dec 30 NPR/Ipsos poll found that “recent misinformation, including false claims related to Covid-19 and QAnon, are gaining a foothold among some Americans.”
According to the survey, nearly a fifth of American adults, 17 percent, believe that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.” Almost a third “believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” Even more, 39 percent, agree that “there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.”
The spread of these beliefs has wrought havoc — as demonstrated by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, as well as by the overwhelming support Republicans continue to offer to the former president.
Well before the election, on Aug. 22, 2020, my news-side colleagues Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman described the rising strength of conspiracists in Republican ranks in “The Republican Embrace of QAnon Goes Far Beyond Trump”:
A small but growing number of Republicans — including a heavily favored Republican congressional candidate in Georgia — are donning the QAnon mantle, ushering its adherents in from the troll-infested fringes of the internet and potentially transforming the wild conspiracy theory into an offline political movement, with supporters running for Congress and flexing their political muscle at the state and local levels.
Conspiracy theorists are by definition irrational, contradictory and inconsistent. Polarization, the Covid-19 pandemic and the specter of economic collapse have engendered suspicion. Many on the right see “liberal elites” pulling strings behind closed doors, and paranoia flourishes.
According to Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders, professors of political science at the University of Miami and the University of Louisville, conspiracy theorists do not “hold coherent, constrained policy positions.” In “Who Supports QAnon? A Case Study in Political Extremism,” Uscinski explores what he identifies as some of the characteristics of the QAnon movement: “Support for QAnon is born more of antisocial personality traits and a predisposition toward conspiracy thinking than traditional political identities and motivations,” he writes, before going on to argue that
While QAnon supporters are “extreme,” they are not so in the ideological sense. Rather, QAnon support is best explained by conspiratorial worldviews and a predisposition toward other nonnormative behavior.
Uscinski found a substantial 0.413 correlation between those who support or sympathize with QAnon and “dark” personality traits, leading him to conclude that “the type of extremity that undergirds such support has less to do with traditional, left/right political concerns and more to do with extreme, antisocial psychological orientations and behavioral patterns.”
The illogic of conspiracy theorists is clear in the findings of a 2012 research paper, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” by Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, members of the psychology department at the University of Kent, and Michael J. Wood, a former Kent colleague. The authors found that a large percentage of people drawn to conspiracy thinking are willing to endorse “mutually incompatible conspiracy theories.”
In one study, for example, “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. Special Forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.” In another study, “the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.” For those who hold such beliefs, the authors wrote, “the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all.”
Douglas, in an email, wrote that “people are attracted to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not being met.” She identified three such needs: “the need for knowledge and certainty”; the “existential need” to “to feel safe and secure” when “powerless and scared”; and, among those high in narcissism, the “need to feel unique compared to others.”
Uscinski and two collaborators, in their 2016 paper, “What Drives Conspiratorial Beliefs? The Role of Informational Cues and Predispositions,” describe how they identify likely conspiracy believers by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statements:
- “Events like wars, the recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us”;
- “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places”;
- “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway”;
- “The people who really ‘run’ the country, are not known to the voters.”
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
Lack of evidence of a conspiracy, or positive proof against its existence, is taken by believers as evidence of the craftiness of those behind the plot, and their ability to dupe the public.
There are five common ingredients to conspiracy theories, according to Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt, professors of psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in their paper “Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms.”
First, they write,
- Conspiracy theories make an assumption of how people, objects, or events are causally interconnected. Put differently, a conspiracy theory always involves a hypothesized pattern.
- Second, conspiracy theories stipulate that the plans of alleged conspirators are deliberate. Conspiracy theories thus ascribe intentionality to the actions of conspirators, implying agency.
- Third, a conspiracy theory always involves a coalition, or group, of actors working in conjunction. An act of one individual, a lone wolf, does not fit the definition of a conspiracy theory.
- Fourth, conspiracy theories always contain an element of threat such that the alleged goals of the conspirators are harmful or deceptive.
- Fifth, and finally, a conspiracy theory always carries an element of secrecy and is therefore often difficult to invalidate.
Van Prooijen elaborated on his analysis in an email:
Conspiracy theories are a powerful tool to demonize opposing groups, and in extreme cases can make people believe that violence is necessary. In this case (Jan. 6), the crowd clearly believed that the elections were stolen from their leader, and this belief incited them to fight for what they believed was a just cause. Most likely the conspiracy theories make them perceive themselves as a sort of “freedom fighter.”
Van Prooijen sees conspiracy thinking as deeply rooted in the evolutionary past.
Our theory is that conspiracy theories evolved among ancestral humans to prepare for, and hence protect against, potentially hostile groups. What we saw here, I think was an evolutionary mismatch: some mental faculties evolved to cope effectively with an ancestral environment, yet we now live in a different, modern environment where these same mechanisms can lead to detrimental outcomes. In an ancestral world with regular tribal warfare and coalitional conflict, in many situations it could have been rational and even lifesaving to respond with violence to the threat of a different group conspiring against one’s own group. Now in our modern world these mechanisms may sometimes misfire, and lead people to use violence toward the very democratic institutions that were designed to help and protect them.
Why, I asked, are Trump supporters particularly receptive to conspiracies? Van Prooijen replied:
For one, the Trump movement can be seen as populist, meaning that this movement espouses a worldview that sees society as a struggle between ‘the corrupt elites’ versus the people. This in and of itself predisposes people to conspiracy thinking. But there are also other factors. For instance, the Trump movement appears heavily fear-based, is highly nationalistic, and endorses relatively simple solutions for complex problems. All of these factors are known to feed into conspiracy thinking.
The events of Jan. 6, van Prooijen continued,
underscore that conspiracy theories are not some “innocent” form of belief that people may have. They can inspire radical action, and indeed, a movement like QAnon can be a genuine liability for public safety. Voltaire once said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” — and he was right.
In their 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories,” Uscinski and Parent argue that “Conspiracy Theories Are For Losers.” They write:
Conspiracy theories are essentially alarm systems and coping mechanisms to help deal with foreign threat and domestic power centers. Thus, they tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity.
To illustrate how the out-of-power are drawn to conspiracy theories, the authors tracked patterns during periods of Republican and Democratic control of the presidency:
During Republican administrations, conspiracy theories targeting the right and capitalists averaged 34 percent of the conspiratorial allegations per year, while conspiracy theories targeting the left and communists averaged only 11 percent. During Democratic administrations, mutatis mutandis, conspiracy theories aimed at the right and capitalists dropped 25 points to 9 percent while conspiracy theories aimed at the left and communists more than doubled to 27 percent.
The “loser” thesis received strong backing from an August 2020 working paper, “Are Conspiracy Theories for Losers? The Effect of Losing an Election on Conspiratorial Thinking,” by Joanne Miller, Christina E. Farhart and Kyle Saunders, political scientists at the University of Delaware, Carleton College and Colorado State University.
They make the parallel argument that
People are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that make their political rivals look bad when they are on the losing side of politics than when they are on the winning side, regardless of ideology/partisanship.
In an email, Miller compared polling from 2004, when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, to polls after the 2020 election, when Trump lost to Biden:
A 2004 a Post-ABC poll that found that 49 percent of Kerry supporters but only 14 percent of Bush supporters thought that the vote wasn’t counted accurately. But this year, a much larger percentage of Trump voters believe election fraud conspiracy theories than voters on the losing side in previous years. A January 2021 Pew poll found that approximately 75 percent of Trump voters believe that Trump definitely or probably won the election.
Over the long haul, Miller wrote, “I find very little correlation between conspiratorial thinking and party identification or political ideology.” But, she quickly added. “the past four years are an outlier in this regard.”
Throughout his presidency, Miller wrote,
former President Trump pretty much governed as a “loser.” He continued to insist that he would’ve won the popular vote in 2016 had it not been for widespread election fraud. So it’s not surprising, given Trump’s rhetoric, that Republicans during the Trump presidency were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than we’d have expected them to, given that they were on the winning side.
The psychological predispositions that contribute to a susceptibility to conspiracy thinking are complex, as Joshua Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College, and his student, Molly Graether, found in their 2018 paper “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories.”
Hart and Graether contend that “conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe that the world is a dangerous place full of bad people,” who “find it difficult to trust others” and who “view the world as a dangerous and uncontrollable.”
Perhaps more interesting, Hart and Graether argue that conspiracy theorists are more likely “to perceive profundity in nonsensical but superficially meaningful ideas,” a concept they cite as being described by academics in the field as “b.s. receptivity.”
To test for this tendency, psychologists ask participants to rank the “meaningfulness” of such incoherent and ludicrous sentences and phrases as “the future elucidates irrational facts for the seeking person,” “your movement transforms universal observations,” “the whole silence infinite phenomena” and “the invisible is beyond all new immutability.” The scale is called “Mean perceived meaningfulness of b.s. sentences and genuinely meaningful sentences,” and can be found here.
Adam Enders argued in an email that:
There are several characteristics of QAnon acolytes that distinguish them from everyone else, even people who believe in some other conspiracy theories: they are more likely to share false information online, they’re more accepting of political violence in various circumstances.
In addition, Enders writes,
QAnon followers are, in a sense, extremists both politically (e.g., wanting to overthrow the U.S. government) and psychologically (e.g., exhibiting many antisocial personality traits).
Polarization, in Enders’s view, when joined with conspiracy thinking, produces a toxic mix:
As polarization increases, tensions between political parties and other groups rise, and people are more willing to construct and believe in fantastical ideas that either malign out-groups (e.g., “Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles”) or bolster the in-group (e.g., ‘we only lost because you cheated’). Conspiracy theories, in turn, raise the temperature of polarization and make it more difficult for people from different partisan and ideological camps to have fact-based discussions about political matters, even those that are in critical need of immediate attention.
Conspiracy thinking has become a major internal, problem for the Republican Party, which is reflected by the current turmoil in party ranks over two newly elected congresswomen, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, QAnon sympathizers with long records of florid, antagonistic conspiratorial accusations.
There is some evidence that the Republican establishment has begun to recognize the dangers posed by the presence in that party of so many who are preoccupied — obsessed is not too strong a word — with denying the incontrovertible truth of Trump’s loss and Biden’s win in the 2020 election.
Even Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most cunning and nefarious member of the Republican establishment, has come to see the liability of the sheer number of supposedly reputable members of the United States Senate caving in to patent falsehoods, warning colleagues earlier this week of the threat to their political survival posed by the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” voiced by allies of QAnon in the House of Representatives.
“Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality,” McConnell declared. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
McConnell has a history of bending with the wind, accommodating the extremists in his party, including Trump and Trump’s allies, and he voted in support of the claim that Trump’s second impeachment trial is unconstitutional. If the conspiracy wing of the Republican Party becomes strong enough to routinely mount winning primary challenges to mainstream incumbents, McConnell may well abandon his critique and accept a party moving steadily closer to something many Americans (though not all) could never have imagined: the systematic exploitation of voters gullible or pathological enough to sign on to preposterous conspiracy theories in order to engineer the installation in Washington of an ultraright, ethnonationalist crypto-fascist white supremacist political regime.
The problem of keeping the extremist fringe at arm’s length has plagued the Republican Party for decades — dating back to Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society — but nothing in recent American history has reached the crazed intensity of Donald Trump’s perseverating, mendacious insistence that he won a second term in November. That he is not alone — that millions continue to believe in his delusions — is terrifying.
In his zero-sum universe, you’re either victorious or you’re defeated... “Vast numbers of manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania have moved to Mexico and other countries. That will end when I win!”.. “China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, these countries are all taking our jobs, like we’re a bunch of babies. That will stop,”.. In Trump’s view of the world, there is a finite amount of everything — money, security, jobs, victories — and nothing can be shared... It’s a universe where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides said... The problem is that the triumphs that Trump craves — strength, safety, prosperity — cannot be achieved alone... They require friends and allies, and they require the president to see those people as partners, not competitors... other governments don’t like to be punching bags, the only role he appears to envision for them... In real estate, relationships often take the form of one-off transactions: You can cheat people you’ll never do business with again... Winners have trade surpluses, and losers have trade deficits... The United States is the biggest economy with the biggest military, and therefore the United States has leverage to get the best deals. If we don’t emerge from negotiation with a clear advantage, that’s because our negotiator was a soft-headed, do-gooder globalist who didn’t put America first... Washington has the most leverage when it deals with countries one on one, which is why, he says, “we need bilateral trade deals,” not “another international agreement that ties us up and binds us down.”To abide by the same rules as less-powerful countries would be to sublimate American interests to those of lesser nations... Trump seeks to begin negotiations with a threat that forces the other side to defend its smaller piece. He pledges to tear up NAFTA, rip up the Iran nuclear deal and revisit America’s relationship with NATO — unless he gets concessions... he gains advantage not by telling the truth but by saying things he believes will boost his bargaining power and sell his vision: China has been allowed to “rape our country.”.. He’s just an alliance-hating unilateralist... he sees three kinds of immigrants:
- smart guys from smart countries, like Norway,
- undeserving charity cases from “shithole” countries and
- terrorists/gang members who threaten ordinary Americans.
.. The zero-sum cosmology touches everything. Obamacare supposedly sticks us with the bill for people who should pay for their own insurance — or a find a job that provides it.
.. he doesn’t exercise, because “the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”
.. China is more a strategic competitor than a real partner linked by shared values.
.. “after more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it.” That’s a real problem, and Trump is right to point it out.
.. He could have demanded that NATO members pay more without signaling that he might abandon the mutual-defense agreement that undergirds a treaty to contain Russia.
.. Relations among nations are not like real estate deals. The president has to negotiate with the same people again the next month, and they’ll remember how they’ve been treated.
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu never forgave President Barack Obama for openly criticizing his approach to settlement-building;
imagine how every other leader feels about being constantly humiliated by Trump.
.. Other countries form judgments about whether American promises are credible and whether they can trust the president. Trump says he’s willing to talk with North Korea about its nuclear program, but surely Kim Jong Un is watching as Trump threatens to shred the Iran nuclear agreement.
.. The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan to blaze new commercial trails and cement new political ties via infrastructure investment in dozens of countries, is seven times larger than the Marshall Plan when adjusted for inflation.
.. More than 120 nations already trade more with China than with the United States.
.. China is investing in smaller European Union members like Hungary and Greece to alter official E.U. attitudes toward Beijing. That’s why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump quashed, was more than just a trade deal. By joining, Trump could have expanded U.S. ties with many of China’s neighbors, governments that fear overreliance on China’s goodwill for future growth.
.. Trump’s win-or-lose philosophy is most confused when it comes to immigration. Foreigners who want to become Americans are not charity cases. They participate in the labor force at higher rates (73.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) than native-born Americans.
.. Trump’s tendency to hire foreign guest workers over Americans at his own properties suggests that he understands something about how hard they work.
.. The undocumented contribute $13 billion to the nation’s retirement fund each year and get just $1 billion in return.
.. “More than three out of every four patents at the top 10 patent-producing US universities (76%) had at least one foreign-born inventor,”
.. he doesn’t seem to know that some of our country’s greatest success stories began in failure.
- Thomas Edison famously erred 1,000 times on the way to inventing the light bulb — it “was an invention with 1,000 steps,” he said.
- Henry Ford went broke repeatedly before he succeeded.
- Steve Jobs, a college dropout, was fired from the company he founded. Even
- Trump’s own businesses have gone bankrupt.
.. If he wants to track terrorists before they try to enter the United States, he needs support from foreign intelligence services.
.. Today, the United States doesn’t have that kind of leverage, and Trump’s aggressive criticism of other countries, including allies, poisons public attitudes toward the United States and makes it harder for foreign leaders to cooperate with Washington publicly.
.. Trump and his leadership at some of the lowest levels since Pew began tracking the U.S. image abroad in 2002. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they have little to no confidence in Trump.
.. if Trump wants to make the best deals, he’ll need to learn a few words:
- cooperation and
These ideas won’t fire up a campaign rally. But they might help build an American strategy that works.
he denounced the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
..McCain and Bannon are the antipodes of the Republican Party.
- The institutionalist versus the insurgent.
- The internationalist versus the America Firster.
- The maverick versus the ideologue.
- Above all, the hedgehog versus the honey badger.
The hedgehog, said the Greek poet Archilochus, knows one big thing.
.. On Monday McCain called America “the land of the immigrant’s dream,” and said: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.”
To a large and growing segment of the G.O.P., which thinks magnanimity is for losers, these statements amount to a form of treason.
.. The honey badger, by contrast, will do anything to get what it wants. It is wily, nasty and has as much use for honor as a pornographer has for dress.
.. For the honey badger, it’s whatever works: anti-Semite one day; Israel’s make-believe champion the next. Bannon is the most revolting operator in American political life since Roy Cohn.
.. The goal isn’t to win elections but to purge the party and remake it in Bannon’s image. He wasn’t kidding when he told historian Ronald Radosh in 2013 that he’s a “Leninist.”
.. serve as a rallying point for a Republican Party that can save itself from dishonor, win its share of elections, and stand up to the honey badgers who mean to pillage it.
his repeated use of the word “fake” to describe news coverage when he actually means “unpleasant” and his style of rhetoric in front of the United Nations, where he called terrorists “losers” and applied a childish epithet to the head of a nation in whose shadow tens of thousands of American troops serve and with whom nuclear war is a live possibility, are all cases in point. There is no way to formalize conventions of maturity and dignity for presidents. Custom fills that void.
.. When he violates such customs, Mr. Trump is at his most impulsive and self-destructive. It may sound ridiculous to invoke James Madison or Edmund Burke when we talk about this president, but that is part of the problem. Mr. Trump could profit from the wisdom of his predecessor Madison, for whom the very essence of constitutionalism lay not in what he derided as “parchment barriers” — mere written commands there was no will to follow — but rather “that veneration which time bestows on every thing.” The Constitution, in other words, would be only as strong as the tradition of respecting it... Burke is generally seen as the progenitor of modern conservatism, but Mr. Trump, who came late to the conservative cause, is said to be so hostile to custom that his staff knows the best way to get him to do something is to tell him it violates tradition... demagogic campaign rallies masked as presidential addresses.. because many elements of his base associate these customs with failed politics, every violation reinforces the sense that he sides with them over a corrupt establishment... Historically, conservatism has tended to value light governance, for which custom is even more essential. Aristotle writes that “when men are friends they have no need of justice.” In other words, rules enter where informal mechanisms of society have collapsed. The philosopher and statesman Charles Frankel summed it up powerfully: “Politics is a substitute for custom. It becomes conspicuous whenever and wherever custom recedes or breaks down.”.. Since Woodrow Wilson’s critique of the framers’ work, progressive legal theory has generally denied that the meaning of the original Constitution, as endorsed by generational assent, wields authority because it is customary. Much of libertarian theory elevates contemporary reason — the rationality of the immediate — above all else.
.. The president’s daily, even hourly, abuse of language is also deeply problematic for a republic that conducts its business with words and cannot do so if their meanings are matters of sheer convenience. The unique arrogance of Mr. Trump’s rejection of the authority of custom is more dangerous than we realize because without custom, there is no law.
The Trump Fog Machine erased all his Tweets supporting the other guy in Alabama. No need for that. We do it for him, by following the fresh distractions. Trump is not Teflon. Things do stick to him. But he survives by saying or doing something so outrageous, so regularly, that we forget the last atrocity, and turn on one another.
.. So, this week his cabinet official charged with taking away health care from the poor and cutting the budget for cancer research is using our money to fly private planes at his pleasure. The multimillionaire treasury secretary wanted the same perk for his honeymoon.
.. He’s already tweeted the word “loser” 234 times, “incompetent” 92 times and “pathetic” 72 times. Call them projection tweets, showing the man for what he truly is.
.. He’s already lied about whether his tax plan will benefit the rich and his own family. It will, by eliminating the estate tax, and ensuring that the top 1 percent will get nearly 50 percent of the windfall.
I enjoy the self-abasement of Jeff Sessions, who endured private harangues and public humiliation from his boss because the attorney general saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use his office to get tough on illegal immigration.
And then there’s the joy of watching Sean Hannity trying desperately to pin the blame for the president’s border wall betrayal on congressional Republicans. The Fox News host seems to be drawing moral inspiration from Samuel Beckett, who is said to have mused: “When you’re in the sh— up to your neck, there’s nothing left to do but sing.”
.. But now it’s the president who is doing exactly that, making the case for DACA beneficiaries in terms his base most condemns: as “good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military” and who don’t deserve to be thrown out of the country simply because their parents brought them to the United States as children. It’s the kind of thing Nancy Pelosi — or, worse, John McCain — might say.
.. He feels about as much loyalty toward them and their convictions as he’s felt toward his several wives. Remember that, as recently as 2012, he denounced Mitt Romney for an excessively harsh attitude toward immigrants, calling the Massachusetts governor’s policy of self-deportation “crazy” and a turnoff to “everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”
.. at heart he was a destructive opportunist with no core convictions beyond his own immediate advantage.
Hugh MacLeod’s cartoon is a pitch-perfect symbol of an unorthodox school of management based on the axiom that organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs.
.. So while most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school, which I’ll call the Whyte school, would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.
.. The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties). The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.
.. The Sociopaths defeated the Organization Men and turned them into The Clueless not by reforming the organization, but by creating a meta-culture of Darwinism in the economy: one based on job-hopping, mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, cataclysmic reorganizations, outsourcing, unforgiving start-up ecosystems, and brutal corporate raiding. In this terrifying meta-world of the Titans, the Organization Man became the Clueless Man. Today, any time an organization grows too brittle, bureaucratic and disconnected from reality, it is simply killed, torn apart and cannibalized, rather than reformed. The result is the modern creative-destructive life cycle of the firm, which I’ll call the MacLeod Life Cycle.
.. Based on the MacLeod lifecycle, we can also separate the three layers based on the timing of their entry and exit into organizations. The Sociopaths enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top. The contribute creativity in early stages of a organization’s life, neurotic leadership in the middle stages, and cold-bloodedness in the later stages, where they drive decisions like mergers, acquisitions and layoffs that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive. They are also the ones capable of equally impersonally exploiting a young idea for growth in the beginning, killing one good idea to concentrate resources on another at maturity, and milking an end-of-life idea through harvest-and-exit market strategies.
.. The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot.
.. The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm — the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned.
.. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left
.. The Gervais Principle is this:
Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.
.. The Gervais principle differs from the Peter Principle, which it superficially resembles. The Peter Principle states that all people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. It is based on the assumption that future promotions are based on past performance. The Peter Principle is wrong for the simple reason that executives aren’t that stupid, and because there isn’t that much room in an upward-narrowing pyramid. They know what it takes for a promotion candidate to perform at the to level. So if they are promoting people beyond their competence anyway, under conditions of opportunity scarcity, there must be a good reason.
.. Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in the Peter Principle, proposed the Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a Clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them — only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the Sociopath level.
.. In Season Three, the Dunder-Mifflin executives decide to merge the Stamford and Scranton branches, laying off much of the latter, including Michael Scott. His counterpart, the Sociopath Stamford branch manager, whose promotion is the premise of the re-org, opportunistically leverages his impending promotion into an executive position at a competitor, leaving the c0mpany in disarray. The Dunder-Mifflin executives, forced to deal with the fallout, cynically play out the now-illogical re-org anyway, shutting down Stamford and leaving Michael with the merged branch instead. The executives (David Wallace and Jan Levinson-Gould) are completely aware of Michael’s utter incompetence. Their calculations are obvious: giving Michael the expanded branch allows them to claim short-term success and buy time to maneuver out of having to personally suffer longer-term consequences.
Jim’s remark on the drama is revealing. Comparing Michael to his exiting sociopath peer he says: “Whatever you say about Michael, he would never have done something like this,” a testament to Michael’s determinedly deluded loyalty to the company that will never be loyal to him. We can safely assume that Michael’s previous promotion to regional manager occurred under similar circumstances of callous short-term calculations by sociopaths.
.. So why is promoting over-performing Losers logical? The simple reason is that if you over-perform at the Loser level, it is clear that you are an idiot. You’ve already made a bad bargain, and now you’re delivering more value than you need to, making your bargain even worse. Unless you very quickly demonstrate that you know your own value by successfully negotiating more money and/or power, you are marked out as an exploitable clueless Loser. At one point, Darryl, angling for a raise, learns to his astonishment that the raise he is asking for would make his salary higher than Michael’s. Michael hasn’t negotiated a better deal in 14 years. Darryl — a minimum-effort Loser with strains of Sociopath — doesn’t miss a step. He convinces and coaches Michael into asking for his own raise, so he can get his.
A Loser who can be suckered into bad bargains is set to become one of the Clueless. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as Clueless pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged Loser will do. At the bottom, the overperformers can merely add a predictable amount of value. In the middle they can be used by the Sociopaths to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs.
.. The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out — through experiments and fast failures — that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.
.. But when the rest of the office learns of Michael’s impending interview (during Michael’s farcical attempts at using a Survivor style contest to choose his successor, which predictably, only Dwight takes seriously), the true Sociopaths act. Jim and his Sociopath girlfriend Karen instantly call up David and announce their candidacies for the same position. Unknown to them, Ryan, the intern-turned-rookie, has also spotted the opportunity. The outcome is spectacular: Ryan gets the job, Michael loses, Karen is promoted to manager of the Utica branch, and Jim — who still has not yet completely embraced his inner Sociopath — returns to Scranton. We learn later — as the Gervais principle would predict — that David Wallace never seriously considered Michael more than a temporary last resort. Much later, in a deposition during Jan’s lawsuit against the company, he reveals that Michael was never a serious candidate.
.. So the Loser — really not a loser at all if you think about it — pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere. For Stanley it is crossword puzzles. For Angela it is a colorless Martha-Stewartish religious life. For Kevin, it is his rock band. For Kelly, it is mindless airhead pop-culture distractions. Pam has her painting ambitions.
.. If you leave out the clear marked-for-Clueless characters, Dwight and Andy, you are left with the two most interesting characters in the show: the will-he-won’t-he Sociopath-in-the-making, Jim, and the strange Toby. Toby is a curious case — intellectually a Sociopath, but without the energy or ambition to be an active sociopath.
.. The Sociopaths know that the only way to make an organization capable of survival is to buffer the intense chemistry between the producer-Losers and the leader-Sociopaths with enough Clueless padding in the middle to mitigate the risks of business.
.. And here we find that Ryan is still not quite experienced enough as a sociopath. He foolishly goes the Enron route, attempting to cook the books to avoid failure, and is found out and arrested. A true master Sociopath like David Wallace would instead have spotted the impending failure, promoted a Michael to take over (who would obviously be so gratified at being given a new white-elephant title that he would not have seen disaster looming), and have him take the blame for the inevitable failure. Completely legal and efficient.
.. . Of the eight systemic metaphors in the book, the one that is most relevant here is the metaphor of an organization as a psychic prison. The image is derived from Plato’s allegory of the cave ..
.. it divides people into those who get how the world really works (the Sociopaths and the self-aware slacker Losers) and those who don’t (the over-performer Losers and the Clueless in the middle).
.. where Gervais has broken new ground, primarily because as an artist, he is interested in the subjective experience of being Clueless (most sitcoms are about Losers). For your everyday Sociopath, it is sufficient to label someone clueless and manipulate them. What Gervais managed to create is a very compelling portrait of the Clueless, a work of art with real business value.
.. Here is the ultimate explanation of Michael Scott’s (and David Brent’s) careers: they are put into a position of having to explain their own apparent, unexpected and unexamined success. It is easy to explain failure. Random success is harder. Remember, they are promoted primarily as passive pawns to either allow the Sociopaths to escape the risks of their actions, or to make way for the Sociopaths to move up faster. They are presented with an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance: being nominally given greater power, but in reality being safely shunted away from the pathways of power. They must choose to either construct false narratives or decline apparent opportunities.
.. The Clueless resolve this dissonance by choosing to believe in the reality of the organization. Not everybody is capable of this level of suspension of disbelief. Both Ricky Gervais (David Brent) and Steve Carrel (Michael Scott) play the brilliantly drawn characters perfectly. The most visible sign of their capacity for self-delusion is their complete inability to generate an original thought. They quote movie lines, lyrics and perform terrible impersonations (at one point Michael goes, “You talking to me?” a line he attributes, in a masterful display of confusion, to “Al Pacino, Raging Bull“). For much of what he needs to say, he gropes for empty business phrases, deploying them with staggering incompetence. When Michael talks, he is attempting, like a child, to copy the flawless Powertalk spoken by sociopaths like Jan and David Wallace. He is oblivious to the fact that the Sociopaths use Powertalk as a coded language with which to simultaneously sustain the (necessary) delusions of the Clueless and communicate with each other.
.. It is not just the Sociopaths who conspire to sustain Michael’s delusions. So do the checked-out Losers, sometimes out of kindness, and sometimes out of self-interest. In one particularly perfect summing up, Oscar describes the impending “Dundies” award ceremony (a veritable monument to the consensual enablement of Michael’s delusions) as “The Dundies are kind of like a kid’s birthday party. And you go, and there’s really nothing for you to do there, but the kid’s having a really good time, so you… You’re kind of there. That’s… That’s kind of what it’s like.”
.. But Michael’s grand narrative requires constant, exhausting work to keep up. He must amplify and rope in even the most minor piece of validation into the service of his script. When, in a moment of weakness, Jim shares a genuine confidence with him, Michael is so thrilled that he turns the moment into a deep imaginary friendship, practically becoming a stalker, even mimicking Jim’s hairstyle. At the other end, he over-represses even the slightest potential dent to his self-image.
.. This sort of ability to work hard to sustain the theater of his own delusions, half-aware that he is doing so, is what makes Michael a genuine candidate for promotion to the ranks of the Clueless. Dwight is interesting precisely because he lacks Michael’s capacity for this pathological meta-cognition, and the ability to offer semi-believable scripts that others can at least help bolster. Dwight is not talented enough at Cluelessness to ever be promoted.