The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics

Republicans are an authoritarian regime in waiting

In particular, the readiness with which senior Republicans embraced crazy conspiracy theories about the opposition to Kavanaugh is a deeply scary warning about what might happen to America, not in the long run, but just a few weeks from now.
.. About that conspiracy theorizing: It began in the first moments of Kavanaugh’s testimony, when he attributed his problems to “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” motivated by people seeking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” This was a completely false, hysterical accusation, and making it should in itself have disqualified Kavanaugh for the court.

But Donald Trump quickly made it much worse, attributing protests against Kavanaugh to George Soros and declaring, falsely (and with no evidence), that the protesters were being paid.

..And here’s the thing: Major figures in the G.O.P. quickly backed Trump up. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate committee that heard Blasey and Kavanaugh, insisted that the protesters were indeed employed by Soros. Senator John Cornyn declared, “We will not be bullied by the screams of paid protesters.” No, the protesters aren’t being paid to protest, let alone by George Soros. But to be a good Republican, you now have to pretend they are.

.. When people on the political fringe blame shadowy forces — often, as it happens, sinister Jewish financiers — for their frustrations, you can write it off as delusional. When people who hold most of the levers of power do the same thing, their fantasizing isn’t a delusion, it’s a tool: a way to delegitimize opposition

..  to create excuses not just for disregarding but for punishing anyone who dares to criticize their actions.

.. That’s why conspiracy theories have been central to the ideology of so many authoritarian regimes, from Mussolini’s Italy to Erdogan’s Turkey.

.. the governments of Hungary and Poland, former democracies that have become de facto one-party states, love to accuse outsiders in general and Soros in particular of stirring up opposition to their rule. Because, of course, there can’t be legitimate complaints about their actions and policies.
.. the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting.
.. Trump himself clearly has the same instincts as the foreign dictators he so openly admires. He demands that public officials be loyal to him personally, not to the American people. He threatens political opponents with retribution — two years after the last election, he’s still leading chants of “Lock her up.” He attacks the news media as enemies of the people.

Add in the investigations closing in on Trump’s many scandals, from tax cheating to self-dealing in office to possible collusion with Russia, all of which give him every incentive to shut down freedom of the press and independence of law enforcement. Does anyone doubt that Trump would like to go full authoritarian, given the chance?

.. And who’s going to stop him? The senators parroting conspiracy theories about Soros-paid protesters? The newly rigged Supreme Court? What we’ve learned in the past few weeks is that there is no gap between Trump and his party, nobody who will say stop in the name of American values.

The Theory vs. the Facts

9/11 conspiracy theorists responded to refutations by alleging more cover-ups.

It’s worth lingering over Griffin’s response to illustrate a typical reaction among conspiracy theorists to refutation. One of the bedrocks of the conspiracy theory is that U.S. military planes should have been easily able to intercept any of the four hijacked airplanes on 9/11 to prevent the attack. The Popular Mechanics article notes that only one NORAD interception of a civilian airplane over North America had occurred in the decade before 9/11, of golfer Payne Stewart’s Learjet, and that it took one hour and 19 minutes to intercept before it ultimately crashed. Based on initial reports that misread the official crash report, conspiracists had previously cited the Stewart case as evidence that it normally only took NORAD 19 minutes to intercept civilian aircraft.

“That’s a very debated thing,” Griffin told me. “It looks like somebody has kind of changed the story there. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve read enough about it to look like that’s not true that it took that long.” And what about other physical evidence that debunks the interception theory, specifically the NORAD tapes, which document the chaos and confusion of American air defenses that morning in painstaking detail? Griffin’s response is that the tapes have likely been doctored using morphing technology to fake the voices of the government officials and depict phony chaos according to a government-written script. It’s not surprising, he says, that after 9/11, mainstream historical accounts would be revised to fit the official narrative.

“This is a self-confirming hypothesis for the people who hold it,” Meigs says. “In that sense it is immune from any kind of refutation and it is very similar to, if you’ve ever known a really hardcore, doctrinaire Marxist or a hardcore fundamentalist creationist. They have sort of a divine answer to every argument you might make.”

.. Another article of faith among conspiracy theorists is that the conspiracy would not have to have been very large. In Crossing the Rubicon, Michael Ruppert writes that there didn’t have to be any more than two dozen people with complete foreknowledge of the attacks to orchestrate 9/11, and that they would all be “bound to silence by Draconian secrecy oaths.” But those numbers begin to balloon out of control if all of the people and institutions accused of playing a part in the cover-up are counted. They would have to have included the CIA; the Justice Department; the FAA; NORAD; American and United Airlines; FEMA; Popular Mechanics and other media outlets; state and local law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York; the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and, finally and perhaps most prominently, the 9/11 Commission.
.. Of the alleged conspirators in the cover-up, few play a greater role than Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director. A career academic and diplomat, he was asked to resign from his post in 2004 by representatives of 9/11 families because of an alleged conflict of interest stemming from his role on George W. Bush’s transition team. Zelikow recused himself from any part of the investigation dealing with the time period that he worked with the transition team, but his presence on the commission is all the conspiracists needed to discredit the entire report.
.. “I play a very prominent part in their demonology of the world, but the people themselves don’t come across like raving lunatics,” Zelikow says. “They’re often people who in many respects seem quite sincere, very concerned, very patient. They just are fixated.” The obsessive nature of conspiracism makes it very difficult to discuss or debate issues with some of the more hardcore believers. “They’re not really able to listen to you,” Zelikow says. “It’s almost like you’ll say something and then the tape will just replay its loop again.”
.. In 2007 a conspiracist confronted Zelikow in public with the “fact” that many of the hijackers are still alive. Zelikow responded that the 9/11 Commission had looked into the claims and found nothing to them but could not fit every single debunked conspiracy theory into the final version of the report. The questioner’s reply was to repeat his accusation.
.. I had a similar experience on the same topic when questioning Griffin, who begins his book The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortionswith the “hijackers are still alive” theory. I sent him an email pointing out that this theory relied on discredited media reports—the “hijackers” they had found were just people with the same names as the hijackers. In response, he emailed me a chapter on the topic from one of his books and said he was too busy to discuss the issue further.
.. Another common conspiracist tactic is to obsess over minor points of contention and exaggerate the importance of often easily explained inconsistencies in very hard evidence, such as phone calls victims made to family members on the ground describing the hijackings. For example, Griffin says that the phone calls, records of which were made public as part of the 9/11 Commission, were faked by “voice-morphing” technology that fooled family members on the ground.
.. . The petition he started at the time now has signatures from more than 1,500 licensed or degreed architects and engineers, and he is considered one of the movement’s most persuasive leaders.
.. “We’re calling for a federal grand jury investigation of the lead investigator and his co-project leader,” Gage says. “Whoever’s names are on those reports need to be investigated.”
.. Dozens of peer-reviewed papers have been written that support the official hypotheses, but those are dismissed as well. Both Gage and Griffin do, however, point to the movement’s own peer-reviewed paper, published by former BYU professor Steven Jones and Danish scientist Niels Harrit. Because traditional controlled demolitions would have been audible throughout lower Manhattan had they actually occurred on 9/11, conspiracists have been forced to posit a very obscure scientific explanation for their central thesis: that the demolitions used an incendiary chemical called nano-thermite.
.. Griffin and Gage hold this up as mainstream validation of the movement’s work, but the peer-review process of the paper is suspect. (The editor of the journal resigned over the paper after it was published without her approval, for example, and one of the paper’s peer reviewers is a 9/11 conspiracist who has speculated that the passengers on the four flights are actually still alive and living off of Swiss bank accounts.)
.. The man who created the single most influential piece of propaganda about the 9/11 conspiracy is now ambivalent about the movement he helped make popular. “There’s a certain thing called tact that you need when you’re dealing with the public,” says Dylan Avery, director of the film Loose Change, released in 2005 and since viewed tens of millions of times online. “And I think that is a certain approach that a lot of people lack.”

Avery should know. He has been accused of being a traitor, a spy, or—slightly more charitably—just plain “sloppy.” According to 9/11 conspiracy proponent Michael Ruppert, the movement has been hurt by its acceptance of some of the (relatively speaking) more absurd notions that were featured prominently in the early versions of Loose Change, notions that he says were planted as disinformation by those looking to discredit conspiracists. “That’s one of many reasons why I completely cut myself off from the 9/11 Truth movement in 2004,” Ruppert says. “They just swallowed too many poison pills.”

.. Because conspiracy theorists can’t just have disagreements. If you disagree with a conspiracy theorist, then you probably belong to the conspiracy.

.. But in 2005, Haupt started preaching a theory, referred to disparagingly by other conspiracists as the “no-planer” hypothesis, that the footage of jetliners hitting the WTC seen live on TV that morning was actually of holograms. Around that time, he started accusing other leaders in the movement, including Jones and David Ray Griffin, of being government plants themselves. At the end of 2006 he nearly got in a fist fight with Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, and by May 2008 he was accused of assaulting fellow conspiracists protesting at Ground Zero.

.. Conspiracists are not being entirely irrational when they express their fears of government infiltration. The FBI’s counterintelligence operation, known as COINTELPRO, spied on and sometimes infiltrated suspected Communist groups, civil rights groups, anti-war activists, and hate groups, among others, until the program was exposed and shut down in 1971. The FBI was using some of these tactics, including surveillance of journalists, as late as 1987.

..  Cass Sunstein, the current administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In it, Sunstein says that domestic and foreign conspiracy theories pose “real risks to the government’s anti-terrorist policies” and argues that the government should be “cognitively infiltrating” groups that purvey these theories. Sunstein proposes having the government send undercover operatives and paid “independent” contractors onto online message boards and websites—and into some real-life groups—in order to undermine the theories.

.. By the third day of actually speaking with people he had believed responsible for covering up mass murder, Veitch was starting to believe he was wrong about 9/11. “After meeting all of these alleged conspirators that were supposed to be in on it, I realized they were normal family men,” Veitch said. “There wasn’t anything conspiratorial about them.” It was when he questioned a demolitions expert atop the rebuilt World Trade Center 7 that he finally changed his mind about 9/11.

.. Veitch announced his “conversion” on June 29, 2011, on his blog and YouTube channel, saying that he hadn’t been wrong to believe that the government was capable of orchestrating 9/11, but he had been wrong about the facts:

I think because the government has lied about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, we do suspect foul play when other terrible events [happen] … and if governments can lie and kill half a million people, why wouldn’t they lie about killing 3,000? It doesn’t take an incredible leap of fantasy or faith or gullibility. We’re not gullible, we’re just truth seekers. And the 9/11 Truth movement is trying to find out the truth about what happened. … [But you should] not hold onto religious dogma. If you’re presented with new evidence, take it on, even if it contradicts what you or your group might be believing or wanting to believe. You have to give the truth the greatest respect, and I do.

.. This relatively mild renunciation by a relatively minor advocate of 9/11 conspiracy theories was treated as major news in the conspiracy community. Veitch received threatening phone calls and emails. Donations to his site dried up. He was accused of having taken a payoff from the BBC, of having been subject to mind control by “neuro-linguistic programming experts,” of being under hypnosis by British illusionist Derren Brown, and of being a Sunstein-sent cognitive infiltrator. “The best theory I heard has been that I have been deep undercover MI6 or CIA agent,” Veitch said. “[They say] I was basically a one-man sleeper cell waiting to discredit the 9/11 Truth movement and destroy what they call ‘the resistance’ from within.” Last month, Veitch’s site was hacked and a message was sent to his 15,000 subscribers calling him a child abuser. “When your mom phones you saying, ‘Why have you sent me something admitting to being a child molester?’ it’s not very good,” Veitch said.

.. Professional conspiracists like radio host Alex Jones and Ruppert preached conspiracy theories for years before 2001. But for many “truthers,” as they would call themselves, the 9/11 conspiracy was a kind of gateway drug. Most of the leading activists I spoke with became involved in the movement because of the Iraq war, but their anger at the Bush administration soon spread to all major institutions of government and media. “In order to maintain the bubble of the conspiracy, it needs to get more demonic, and it needs to include more people,” explains 9/11 conspiracy apostate Charlie Veitch. “You need more and more evil until you hit the wall of absurdity.”
.. The theory that Veitch gave the most credence to was that there was an ancient order of freemasons, or illuminati, or an extremely rich central banking family that had been in control of all world events since the time of Babylon. According to this theory, 9/11 was a propaganda spectacle orchestrated to make the common man fearful. “There’s something about it which appeals to the ego in people,” Veitch said. “You suddenly feel empowered by having secret knowledge.
.. A more typical theory about who is behind world events like 9/11, espoused by Alex Jones, is that a hodgepodge of disparate banking, corporate, globalization, and military interests are working together to bring about a New World Order of centralized “globalist” government. Jones’ “world government” bogeyman has been around for decades. In his quintessential essay on the psychology of paranoia in American political life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter describes an episode from 1964:

Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, a great deal of publicity was given to a bill, sponsored chiefly by Senator Thomas E. Dodd of Connecticut, to tighten federal controls over the sale of firearms through the mail. When hearings were being held on the measure, three men drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it. Now there are arguments against the Dodd bill which, however unpersuasive one may find them, have the color of conventional political reasoning. But one of the Arizonans opposed it with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government” and that it threatened to “create chaos” that would help “our enemies” to seize power.

.. Like in the case of the Kennedy assassination, [when] you have a horrible tragedy that seems absurd and it’s hard to account for the fact that a single individual could inflict so much grief on the nation, there’s a natural tendency to believe that there must be more at work,” says Lawrence Wright. “In the case of 9/11 there was a sense of disbelief that a man in a cave in Afghanistan could reach out and humiliate the most powerful nation in the history of the world. How could that happen? It must be that something else was at work and because we are so powerful, we must have done it to ourselves.”

.. When Wright was touring the country with his book, he would regularly be confronted by conspiracy theorists who hadn’t read the book but thought that, through clever questioning, they could demolish a case he had arrived at by five years of research and interviews with 600 sources. “I spent a lot of time trying to reason with various people who had these kinds of perspectives. And it was very frustrating,” he said. “There was absolutely no way to argue with them because they rejected any kind of factual evidence.”

 .. The conversation was similar to others Wright had had with other conspiracy theorists. “What they call facts aren’t typically facts,” Wright said. “They sound like facts. They’re asserted. But basically, at the root of the conspiracies are these unproven theories.”
.. the numbers believing the most radical version of the theory have been fairly steady. In 2006, 16 percent of respondents in a Scripps-Howard poll said it was either somewhat or very likely that the collapse of the Twin Towers was aided by explosives secretly planted in the buildings. That number was virtually unchanged in an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll this month.
.. One likely explanation for this trend may be the record numbers of Democrats and Republicans who say they distrust the government.
.. “One of the things I find particularly sad is that the conspiracy theorists in the U.S. have augmented this tendency in the Middle East to deny any cultural responsibility,”
..  “He thought, ‘well, why should I accept any responsibility. Americans are saying they did it themselves.’ “
.. “Middle Easterners are so susceptible to conspiracy theories, but it seems that Americans aren’t much better.”

The G.O.P.’s Bonfire of the Sanities

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Or, for that matter, the very idea that the F.B.I. is dedicated to destroying the Trump presidency. Recall this is the same bureau that, wittingly or not, probably did more than any other arm of government to create the Trump presidency in the first place, in part because disgruntled F.B.I. field agents were intent on forcing James Comey to reopen the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election.

.. None of this would have surprised Hofstadter, whose essay traces the history of American paranoia from the Bavarian Illuminati and the Masons to New Dealers and Communists in the State Department. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter wrote, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” What better way to describe a Republican Party that thinks America has more to fear from a third-tier F.B.I. agent in Washington who doesn’t like the president than it does from a first-tier K.G.B. agent in Moscow who, for a time at least, liked the president all too well?

.. The paranoid style, he noted, was typically a function of powerlessness. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.”

.. Today, Republicans control every branch of government, and nearly every aspect of the Russia investigation. Robert Mueller, a Republican, was appointed special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another Republican, and a Trump appointee. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, supposedly accuses the F.B.I. of anti-Trump perfidies in a secret four-page memo, but he won’t share the memo with the director of the F.B.I. — who’s also a Trump appointee.

.. The principal lesson of paranoia is the ease with which politically aroused people can mistake errors for deceptions, coincidences for patterns, bumbling for dereliction, and secrecy for treachery.

.. The failure to know the difference, combined with the desire for a particular result, is what accounts for the paranoid style.

.. America already has one party that’s lost its mind. We don’t need another.

The Danger of Ignoring Alex Jones

While Alex Jones has no exact analogue on the left, we have to watch him, and also watch out to make sure that something similar is not emerging on the left.

.. It has almost become a cliché that we are a polarized country, but the reality runs deeper. We now have a politics deeply infused with paranoia and distrust not only of our institutions but also of one another. We do not simply disagree; we are at war. We do not merely differ with our opponents on matters of principle or policy; political paranoids believe that we are fighting in a twilight struggle for civilization.

.. His impact is not so much his bizarre individual conspiracy theories but that his style of righteous rage infects and, in some cases, dominates the political rhetoric on the right.

.. Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. famously used his immense authority to cast out the John Birch Society. Had something similar happened, and Mr. Jones had been exposed as the lunatic charlatan he is, perhaps not even Donald Trump would have deigned to be associated with him.

.. Mr. Jones peddles weapons-grade nut-jobbery, but he has been promoted by the Drudge Report, one of the most heavily trafficked media websites in the country, and may have played a key role in the 2016 presidential campaign. “I think Alex Jones may be the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media,” Mr. Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone said in an interview last fall.

.. At the center of the paranoid worldview, Hofstadter wrote, was a sense on the right that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

.. Mr. Trump’s administration even granted Infowars a temporary press pass to the White House.