For weeks now, Sean Hannity has been giving his televised platform to a crackpot conspiracy theory in which the Democratic National Committee somehow orchestrated the murder of a low-level staffer, Seth Rich, making him look like the victim of a mugging gone wrong, in order to cover up the fact that he was the real leaker who gave internal DNC e-mails to Wikileaks.
Let’s be clear that this story is based on nothing but speculation and supposition. A great example is an e-mail I got from some third-rate clickbait site claiming to drop a bombshell. It consisted of speculation about which DC hospital Seth Rich was treated at, followed by a claim that one of the doctors at the hospital is dating a DC lobbyist, who in turn has connections to John Podesta, who is connected to Hillary Clinton. Don’t you see it?
You know that scene in a thriller where you come across a guy who has developed a whole theory for what’s really going on, and he’s laid it all out on his wall, with photos and newspaper clippings pasted up there and strings leading from one to the other to show the connections—and that’s usually the tip-off that this character is certifiably insane?
That’s what this conspiracy theory is like. It’s all breathless reports based on “an anonymous person who works in Washington” who posted on 4Chan, or a congressman citing “stuff circulating on the Internet”—all of it based on the conceit that multiple investigations by the DC police and by Rich’s own family are just cover-ups designed to hide the truth. That’s the hallmark of a conspiracy theory: lack of evidence for the theory is regarded as evidence for it, because it’s proof of a cover-up.
Like all the best conspiracy theories, this one is concocted to explain away an actual, known criminal act that doesn’t conform to the theorists’ worldview. Leftists like Oliver Stone indulged decades of “grassy knoll” conspiracy theories because they didn’t want to admit that JFK was assassinated by a Communist. “Truthers” screamed that “9/11 was an inside job” because an al-Qaeda plot wasn’t the kind of conspiracy they wanted. In this case, the point is to claim the DNC hack was an inside job so we don’t have to acknowledge Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election.
In other words, this is the pro-Trump counter-conspiracy theory dreamed up to fight the left’s conspiracy theory about how Russia stole the election.
It’s easy to blame Sean Hannity or any number of lesser figures for promoting this sort of nonsense, and they certainly deserve the obloquy. But we should also take a moment to introspect about how we have added to this conspiratorial thinking about our government.
After all, isn’t this sort of thing a staple of our entertainment? “Assassin kills low-level staffer to cover up e-mail leak” is pretty much a typical episode of DC potboiler “Scandal,” a show founded on the refusal to recognize the difference between a plot twist and a conspiracy theory. It’s a show where DC elites routinely employ clandestine murder and torture and agree to cover up evidence in exchange for career promotion. And it’s heading into its seventh season.
If “Scandal” is too much of a soap opera for you, try Netflix’s “House of Cards,” where murder and blackmail are also portrayed as standard tools of statecraft. And as far as I can tell, the plot of “Designated Survivor” is just one giant conspiracy theory along 9/11 Truther lines, in which a terrorist attack on US Capitol turns out to actually be an inside job.
This is just a recent sampling. We’ve soaked our culture with the idea that our government works by secret conspiracies, then we’re surprised when people take this notion seriously. And we just switch it back and forth, with the party out of power always imagining the secret machinations of the party in power. Or maybe the other way around.
For those who are not ready to go so far as to imagine secret murders and Muslim Manchurian candidates, there’s always a more genteel version: viewing every public policy debate as a manifestation of the other side’s desire to promote some nefarious, hidden business interest. Anyone not secretly in the pay of George Soros must be secretly in the pay of the Koch Brothers.
I am not arguing that there is no corruption in government. My point is that the biggest corruption is a lot more prosaic and is conducted out in the open: buying our votes by promising us free stuff, or pandering to voters by flattering their biases and preconceptions. Facing up to that kind of corruption mean asking whether we’re allowing ourselves to be lied to because a politician is telling us what we want to hear. It involves serious examination of the rational basis of our own beliefs.
Conspiratorial thinking is a defense mechanism to help us dodge the difficult and important questions about government’s role and limits. More to the point, it helps us dodge the much harder task of talking to people we disagree with and convincing them of our views (or, gasp, being convinced). It is motivated by a profound anti-intellectualism that can be found on both sides: an unwillingness to engage in a debate over basic ideas. It’s a lot easier to indulge the idea that it’s all corruption or a giant conspiracy and everybody who doesn’t agree with you must be in on it.
Sean Hannity is part of that, to be sure, but he’s only a small part of a larger problem. Before you get all sanctimonious, you might want to ask whether you’ve ever been part of that problem, too.
Then again, there’s this photo.
So maybe our leaders really are lizard people underneath those masks. Wake up, sheeple.