A day or two ago, a friend quietly informed me that our “Muslim” president was the figure-head for a cabal controlled by the “treasury reserve” that was manipulating the election while providing Russia with hacking techniques intended to destroy our country. My friend was a supporter of Donald Trump, whose critics, he believed, were part of the conspiracy. That the presidential campaign was rigged seemed obvious to him. My friend is not an isolated case. He reflects a more general outlook (and not only in our society) in which critical events are reduced to machinations occurring behind the scenes that are orchestrated by hidden malevolent forces. In my recent book, The Bigot, I called this conspiracy fetishism.
Conspiracies have occurred in the past, and they will surely occur in the future. But, for the conspiracy fetishist, all of history is the product of an invisible and inscrutable cabal. The more powerful the conspiracy the more it is hidden from plain sight. The lack of hard evidence only confirms its existence. Brought to trial for libel in the ’30s by the Jewish community of Berne, the Nazi publishers of the infamous Protocols of Zion, the fabricated document detailing a Jewish world conspiracy, insisted that it didn’t matter whether claims made in the tract were substantiated and verifiable: Jews were undoubtedly engaged in subversive conspiratorial activities anyway.
Fast forward to today: a different conspiracy (or interlocking set of conspiracies) but no less insidious. Everything is (again) happening behind the scenes: intimidation, deception, bribery, and even murder! How else could Obama, who was (supposedly) not even born in the United States, have become president? And isn’t it strange that the state official who verified his health certificate should have died in a plane crash? And what about the president’s refusal to talk about “radical Islam?” “Maybe” he and his lackey, Hillary Clinton, aren’t “really” interested in fighting terrorism?
Is there proof? No need. Inference should suffice. And, if it doesn’t, perhaps inverting the truth will do the trick: “Everyone” knows, after all, it was the Obama administration’s policies that created ISIS; that the president has refused to bomb its strongholds; that he has provided them with weapons; and that, through lack of “vetting” immigrants, he has allowed ISIS terrorists to enter the country in droves. Doesn’t it all fit: the give-away nuclear treaty with Iran, Hillary’s “treason” at Benghazi, her (purposeful) leakage of emails, her speaking fees, etc. etc.?
Arguments to the contrary are just lies and propaganda: The Iraqi invasion didn’t really produce ISIS; the bombing and drone attacks are too few and purposely set up to fail; the president has not sufficiently armed the opposition to ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya; and the vetting process for immigrants, which now often takes over two years, is purposely inefficient. None of this matters: since hard evidence is never available, the fetishist can arrange his “facts” arbitrarily so that they justify his claims. Anyone can have a legitimate opinion on anything. Trump likes to say that he is only raising questions, initiating discussion, and whistle-blowing. But he is actually sparking rumors that heighten paranoia and distinctions between “us” and “them.” There is no need for knowledge or specifics. “Believe me!” he cries—and that should be that!
Conspiracy fetishism provides invisible links between invisible partners in an invisible cabal. Complex collusion between elites explains their support for free trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP, Clinton’s presidency, and the paralysis in dealing with the menace of “Sharia law.” Culpable for all of this, according to Donald Trump, the political establishment shows itself “ignorant,” “incompetent,” and “corrupt.” The “low life” media, the conservative-hating IRS, the CIA, and (of course) ISIS are engaged in an alliance to protect their front men and destroy the country. Proof? Aren’t they all ganging up on Donald Trump and trying to derail his presidential campaign?
Conspiracy fetishism explains everything; the conspiracy fetishist is responsible for nothing. No one is more innocent than the victim of such a conspiracy or more evil than those intent upon confusing simple hard-working people about what they know is true, namely, that a once peaceful, prosperous, and happy community is vanishing: we no longer even know who we really are. Whether immigrants, women, and people of color enjoyed the benefits of that imagined community is again irrelevant. Their recent protests only go to show that they have been manipulated or, more ominously, that they have become part of the conspiracy that commands every powerful institution: the media, the educational system, the scientific community, big business, protest movements, and—above all—the government bureaucracy.
So immense is the conspiracy, so evil are its aims, that it often has an otherworldly quality. Thus, many prominent fetishists connect Hillary with Lucifer and Obama with the Mahdi or the Anti-Christ. Condemned by the establishment, yet struggling valiantly against its depravity, the conspiracy fetishist feels he is fighting a lonely battle for the truly insulted and genuinely marginalized. His paranoid logic reflects that of the true believer, the rabid xenophobe, or the smug know-it-all. So what? Giving “voice” to their fear and anger, he can see himself as society’s savior—the hero of his own artificially constructed drama. That is why (according to Donald Trump) only Donald Trump can save us now.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His books include A Rumor about the Jews: Conspiracy, Anti-Semitism, and the Protocols of Zion (Oxford University Press) and, most recently, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press).