America / Politics in America

“Spreading conspiracy theories once had a price — printing or even mimeographing a tract costs money — but now…, anyone can post a madcap theory or a doctored photograph virtually for free”

Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can’t be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.

Trump is so closely tied to the “new conspiracism” that it can be hard to tell the ranter from the rant. Then again, it’s hard to imagine his ascent without other key developments: the polarization of the electorate, a generation of attacks (mostly from the right) on the news media and government, and, of course, the rise of the Web. Spreading conspiracy theories once had a price—printing or even mimeographing a tract costs money—but now, as Muirhead and Rosenblum point out, anyone can post a madcap theory or a doctored photograph virtually for free.

The Internet revolution “has displaced the gatekeepers, the producers, editors, and scholars who decided what was worthy of dissemination,” they write. This has opened the way for “conspiracy entrepreneurs” who proffer “a seemingly infinite array of wild accusations.”

Elizabeth Kolbert, “That’s What You Think”, The New Yorker (22 April 2019), 29.