Conspiracy theories are not new to American political life. I could find you a dozen people who think Bush is an alien, Obama is a Muslim, and Mrs. Obama is a man before tea time – and it’s already mid- afternoon. What is new, though, is the mainstreaming of an extreme fringe group that hold the most base, reptilian-brained understanding of reality. And if the popularity of that group, the alt-right, wasn’t bad enough, then what is worse is that they will have the ear of the man running the most powerful nation ever to exist – at a time of global panic, no less – and a time where low-information demagogues will easily have the power to march civilisation itself off a cliff if they become the power brokers, as Sam Harris has warned.
Donald Trump, the yet to be coronated leader of the free world and his future puppet master, Steve Bannon – an intellectually lacking and morally gutted basket of something crude and infectious – have brought a novel species of uncritical and barmy conjecture to the White House and will have it conveyed to a large public audience for the first time. Along with ‘alternative’ views about Jews, women, Asian CEO’s and other minorities, the alt-right have a unique relationship with language, evidence, and the simplest constituents of normality.
Bannon’s ventures in crude right-wing propaganda were not a lone enterprise. As a founding member of Breitbart, he collaborated with the website’s namesake, Andrew Breitbart, who, unfortunately (for some) died on March 1, 2012. Before his timely death – itself subject to conspiracy theories within alt- right circles of ‘thought’ – Andrew, with the help of Steve, pioneered the genre of fake news and trafficked in the most repellent, fact-free smears.
Andrew had the unparalleled ability to make the most outrageous claims, and yet provided the most menial, unconvincing evidence. Recently, a resurrected tweet from this prophet of deplorables surfaced. Breitbart spoke from the dead, his old tweet (dated February 4th 2011) read: ‘How prog-guru John Podesta isn’t household name as world class underage sex slave op cover-upper defending unspeakable dregs escapes me.’ – because what is political discourse without accusations that your opponent is a kingpin devoted to globalising paedophillia and hiding criminals? Breitbart’s comments, though, come in the wake of another wave of demented conspiracy theories.
PizzaGate was a conspiracy forged with the help of Russian hackers, alt-right buffoons, and internet culture – a triad that has come to define an entire election, it seems: Step 1) The Russians leaked the Podesta emails, Step 2) alt-right reddit, 8Chan boards made up a story based on the content of some email exchanges, and Step 3) they pumped out the story as if it were fact using social media. That is the practical side of how one makes a conspiracy.
The content of the conspiracy itself offers speculation that an innocuous-sounding email exchange – between John Podesta and the owner of a California-based Pizzeria – really hides a deep, dark meaning. The emails, it is alleged, are coded: ‘Pizza’ means ‘girl’ or potential human trafficking, ‘Hotdog’ means boy, ‘Cheese’ means ‘little girl’, ‘pasta’ means ‘little boy’, and so on. Podesta, therefore, is accused of operating a child-sex ring along with several of his democratic operatives, because of the fact Clinton held fundraisers at the pizzeria.
It would be alarming but overall harmless, If the conspiracy died in the circles of internet paranoia. It didn’t.The PizzaGate conspiracy and related child-sex conspiracies linking to Podesta and the Clintons have been shared by the likes of General Michael Flynn, the new National Security advisor to President-Elect Trump, his son, Michael Flynn Jr, who is also part of the Presidential transition team, and popular cultural leader of the alt-right and big Trump fan, Milo Yiannopoulos.
Only the most fantastical material gets widespread attention among Trumpets, it seems. And it riles them to the point where some of them want to take action: a North Carolina nut-job journeyed to Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria where the alleged scandals took place – armed with an assault rifle, ready to ‘investigate’, and firing at least 1 round of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, urging evacuations from nearby businesses. Lunacy that penetrates the White House, gets circulated by popular figures in angry anti-establishment circles, and seems manufactured to provoke an armed response – does that not make a good democracy?
The PizzaGate conspiracy found a home in the ‘news reports’ of Alex Jones’s Infowars and Prison Planet TV, as well as the ravings of less popular fringe figures like Mike Cernovich. Alex Jones has been a staple of fringe politics for over a decade, using his platform to peddle end of the world economic necessities like gold, health essentials like fluoride filters, and go-to vitamin powders like Tangy Tangerine. However, dear Donald – the man with the tangerine complexion – has done his best to legitimise Alex and his whack pack, introducing them to a mainstream audience by giving them interviews and nauseating praise.
How can we stop a witless narcissist – who seems to have every intention of making the United States a cheap franchise of the Trump brand – from promoting dangerous, extremist propaganda? And how do we channel the White House in any moderate direction when extremist conspiracy theory seems to have a stamp of approval from his own cabinet? The standards of evidence are so low in these alt-right communities and yet the cost of people believing these delusions are so high. Lives can potentially be lost because of misinformed idiots, and their Kool-Aid vendors, whose goal seems to be to make a quick buck off a hot story, are having their businesses boom in the post-truth world of Trump and his Trumpets. Liars, idiots, and the weak-willed wrote the story of 2016, and they will no-doubt feature heavily in the stories yet to be written. Let’s do our best to counteract these armies of deluded fanboys and compel them with the power of reason and genuine critical thinking.
Mitchell is a blogger currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath