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.

 

Trump’s presidency is one giant act of trolling

America’s feral president swerved into a denunciation of a nonexistent bill — “It’s called ‘the open borders bill’  ” — that, he thundered, “every single Democrat” in the Senate has “signed up for.”

..  Reid was in the Senate. In 2012, while the Nevada Democrat was majority leader, he brassily said during the presidential campaign that the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had paid no taxes for a decade.

.. Romney, unlike the Republicans’ nominee four years later, did not hide his tax returns. Reid, however, remained proud as punch of his accusation when, three years later, he was asked why he still defended it: “Romney didn’t win, did he?

.. “We don’t mail Elvis a Social Security check, no matter how many people think he is alive.” No. Matter. How. Many.

.. Bannon says: “The way to deal with [the media] is to flood the zone with shit.”

..  Trump’s presidential lying, which began concerning the size of his inauguration crowd, reflects “a strategy, not merely a character flaw or pathology.” And the way to combat Trump’s “epistemic attack” on Americans’ “collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood” is by attending to the various social mechanisms that, taken together, are “the method of validating propositions.”

.. Validation comes from the “critical testers” who are the bane of populists’ existence because the testers are, by dint of training and effort, superior to the crowd, “no matter how many” are in it.

.. Rauch says Trump’s “trolling of the American mind” has enjoyed “the advantage of surprise.” But as this diminishes, the constitution of knowledge can prevail because, although trolling has “some institutional nodes” (e.g., Russia’s Internet Research Agency and Trump’s Twitter account), they are, over time, much inferior in intellectual firepower to the institutions of the constitution of knowledge.

.. much of the public has formed the impression that academia is not trustworthy.

.. Imposing opinions and promoting political agendas, many academics have descended to trolling, forfeiting their ability to contest he whom they emulate.

After You, Mr. Putin

Live in Helsinki, Trump brings his blame-America-first tour to a close.

.. let me admit that my absolute top take away was that at a critical moment in modern American history, our president managed to mention his winning margin in the Electoral College.

Bret: Also, I’m thinking about just what Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and the rest of right-wing punditry would be saying if it had been President Barack Obama at that podium, saying the sort of things Trump was saying, not to mention the way he said it.

.. They’d call him the Manchurian Candidate. They’d accuse him of treason. They’d call for an armed insurrection or something close to it. They’d say he hates America. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Here is a president of the United States who repeatedly blames America first; who takes the word of a former K.G.B. agent over his own intelligence agencies; who promises to work constructively with a despot whose regime

  • kills journalists,
  • shoots down civilian airliners and
  • uses nerve agents to assassinate its enemies abroad;

and who aims his rhetorical fire on an opposing party instead of an enemy government. And the Make America Great Again crowd, with an exception or two, says pretty much nothing, or averts its gaze, or switches the subject.

.. John Brennan has noted, “people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.”

.. The thought that the government — our government — just put this child through that trauma for no other reason than Jeff Sessions’ fantasy that it will “deter” desperate migrants or otherwise help Stephen Miller work out his manhood issues turns my stomach as nothing else has in a long time. That a majority of Republicans support the policy turns it even more.

In some ways, this worries me a lot more than whatever Putin and his cyber-armies might be trying to do to us. Putin is a former KGB agent, so at least he’s playing to type. It’s the trashing of democratic values from the inside that concerns me even more.

.. During his press conference in the U.K. with Theresa May, he warned Europe to watch out for immigration because it was “changing the culture.” It was such a pathetic call for racism to rise up. And then of course he blamed Sadiq Khan, London’s Muslim mayor, for encouraging terrorism.

.. I guess that, as horrific as I find the stories about those poor kids being tormented at the border, I’m even more disturbed by the way our president is trying to promote this kind of ideology around the world.

..  it’s also important to understand why they’ve gained so much strength recently. The key is their ability to traffic in half-truths, to pick up on a legitimate issue and put it to an illegitimate end.

.. That’s why I think calls in the United States to “abolish ICE” are so dangerous: They create the impression that Democrats want unregulated migration, as opposed to a generous but lawful immigration policy. And that just helps Trump and the Bannonites.

.. Gail: For most Democrats, “abolish ICE” is just shorthand for getting rid of the Trump anti-immigration agenda. Although I do agree we could use a better code. Perhaps involving a quote from the Statue of Liberty.

..  in California, their state of nearly 40 million people is only going to be represented by two senators, which is exactly the same number as Wyoming, population 579,315. I keep harping on the fact that the real division in this country is between the empty-places people and the crowded-places people. Us crowded folk are virtually disenfranchised.

.. I think Democrats need to find a way to change the conversation about immigration, in two ways. First, stop feeding the perception that immigration is an act of humanitarianism by the United States. It’s a matter of self-interest: Newcomers mainly bring energy and drive and imagination and ambition to this country. Second, accept the premise that we need to police our borders, while making the case that we can police them better with a much more liberal system that diminishes the incentive to come into the country illegally.

.. Gail: And maybe we can get somebody from Mar-a-Lago to testify on how hard it is to get affordable help.

Fresh Air Weekend: Trump And Fox News; The Science Behind Fish Oil Supplements

Journalist Sees ‘Almost No Daylight’ Between Fox News And White House Agendas: Vanity Fair‘s Gabriel Sherman says the president and Fox News host Sean Hannity “speak almost daily, after Hannity’s show, sometimes before, and sometimes for up to an hour a day.”

.. Bill Shine for 20 years was Roger Ailes’ his closest deputy and executive. And Bill Shine has been named in numerous lawsuits that he had direct knowledge of sexual harassment claims filed by Fox News women against Roger Ailes and other senior employees at the network. And these credible allegations are that he not only covered up these allegations, but in some cases enabled them.

And one of the most disturbing that comes to mind is a story that I reported in 2016 for New York magazine about the case of former Fox News Booker Laurie Luhn, who for years had a sexually and psychologically abusive relationship with Roger Ailes. And as Roger Ailes’ deputy, it was Bill Shine’s job to keep tabs on Laurie Luhn and prevent her from going public with these allegations that Ailes had abused her and blackmailed her into a sexual relationship. And I reported it. And it was – perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story was that Bill Shine arranged for her to be committed to a psychiatric institution when she had a nervous breakdown because Roger Ailes was worried about her going public.

.. And Laurie Luhn alleged in our interviews that Bill Shine was also involved in monitoring her emails and her communications – again, very cult-like to prevent her from speaking to outsiders. So circling back to your question, it’s – to me, it’s mind boggling that someone with this amount of baggage who was too toxic for an institution like Fox News, which has sort of become a shorthand for a toxic company, would become one of the highest-ranking members of the federal government.

GROSS: Were there other employees of former employees of Fox News that alleged that Bill Shine monitored their emails?

SHERMAN: Well, I can’t speak for other employees. I don’t have other instances. I mean, I do know that it was company practice that all company emails were recorded, and Roger Ailes could request the legal department to look at them. So it’s highly likely that Bill Shine was looking at other emails. And I knew – I have direct reporting that indicates Bill Shine participated in Roger Ailes’ use of private investigators to track reporters, including myself, who are writing critically about Fox News.v

.. GROSS: The head of the group Judicial Watch is calling for prosecutors to investigate Bill Shine’s role in the sexual harassment cover-up at Fox News. What have you heard about that?

.. federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York opened an investigation into whether Roger Ailes and other Fox News executives used public company money – because Fox News is owned by 21st Century Fox. It’s a publicly-traded company. And prosecutors in the FBI wanted to know whether they used public company money to help pay off women into these private settlements and use private investigators and other dirty tricks to cover up this widespread culture of harassment.

.. it’s impossible to have a conversation about Bill Shine and Donald Trump without really exploring Sean Hannity’s role in becoming the de facto chief of staff of this White House and probably the most powerful political commentator in recent memory.

.. Sean Hannity was almost left for dead during the Obama years. His ratings were in decline. His show was moved from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., a less desirable hour.

.. Stormy Daniels, Summer Zervos – those suits are making their way through the courts.

..  I’ve been really struck by the parallels between the cultures of the two organizations. And in many ways, Bill Shine has gone from working for a megalomaniacal boss in Roger Ailes to going to working for the current president of the United States, Donald Trump. And they are very similar personalities.

..  I think Bill Shine has a lot to offer Donald Trump because of his experience helping Roger Ailes navigate a cascade of sexual harassment allegations, and not only allegations against Roger Ailes but other high-profile members at Fox News. So I think Bill Shine has a tool kit. He knows how these scandals have been weathered in the past. And it seems to reason that he can be part of Donald Trump’s war room when he has to deal with these in the future.

.. GROSS: At the same time, you can argue that if President Trump is accused of sexual harassment, as he has been, it’s not a good look to hire somebody who is accused of enabling a climate of sexual harassment.

SHERMAN: I think that’s true if you’re applying kind of the norms and logic that have governed politicians in the past. I think with Donald Trump, it’s an entirely different playbook. And I think a way of example of looking at that is looking at Donald Trump’s support for Judge Roy Moore

.. And the truth is that people around the president say that his only way to survive the sexual harassment allegations is to double down himself – to actually run towards the scandal, not away from it. And we’re actually seeing that playing out in recent days with his unabashed support for Congressman Jim Jordan who has been credibly accused of at least being aware of sexual abuse at Ohio State University and not doing anything to address it.