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The attorney general’s FBI conspiracy theory is all conspiracy and no theory

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 16, 2019

Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s new book, “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” comes out today. I asked them how their theories applied to modern American politics, including Attorney General William P. Barr’s suggestion that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign.

HF: Your book talks about how a new kind of conspiratorial thinking has taken hold in American democracy. How does it differ from traditional conspiracy theories?

RM & NR: Conspiracy and theory have been decoupled so we now have conspiracy without the theory. Conspiracy theory aims at explaining some otherwise unintelligible, unbelievable event. 9/11 “Truthers” and conspiracists who create narratives about JFK’s assassination connect the dots to try to expose the secret causes of events.

Conspiracy without the theory dispenses with the burden of explanation. There isn’t any insistent demand for proof, or exhaustive amassing of evidence, or close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. Instead, we get bare assertion: “rigged!” — a one-word exclamation evokes fantastic schemes and the awesome capacity to mobilize 3 million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president. Or it takes the form of innuendo. Or “I’m just asking questions.” Or President Trump’s mantra: Asked whether George Soros was funding the so-called caravan of refugees trekking northward to the U.S. border, Trump replied: “I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of people say yes.”

When Trump tweeted that Barack Obama had ordered the FBI to tap his phones, he repeated his mantra: “a lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign.”

Barr’s testimony at Senate hearings on April 11 conforms to this logic. “I think spying did occur,” Barr says. But he did not claim to have evidence of the government spying on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and only made a bare assertion, made emphatic by his insistence that “it’s a big deal.” As today’s conspiracists do, Barr then shifts to “just asking questions”: “I am not saying that improper surveillance occurred. I am saying that I am concerned about it and I’m looking into it.”

Read the full piece at The Washington Post