Welcome to the big tent of conspiracy theories

As all significant political movements do, conspiracy theorists are merging under one big tent.

image: Philadelphia Inquirer

Movements are convenient way of identifying where you fit in on certain issues. If you are a liberal, you can find a set of values consistent with yours. And if you aren’t sure what you should think about a particular issue, just look at what the group’s opinion is. It helps clarify who’s with you and who isn’t.

Big tents are the goal of successful political parties: the more voters you can include, the greater your chances of getting into power. Big tents are appealing to conspiracy theorists because they create communication networks.

For convenience, let’s label the conspiracy theorists movement as “popster” from populism meaning grassroots, and from Apophenia: the condition of seeing or imagining patterns in random occurrences.

Like any big tent movement, the overarching tenets of popsters are few: believe that a handful of sinister individuals control world affairs for their nefarious ends; that the scientific method to be a means of confirming what they know to be true; that freedom means acting contrary to public health such as vaccinations.

While the overthrow of the government often seems to be the goal of popsters, they seldom have a identifiable platform for replacement nor do they run for office.

An exception was the Trump administration which was a disaster. While President Trump echoed the anger and discontent of popsters, he was incoherent. Popsters are against governments of all stripes.

Conservative leader candidate Pierre Poilievre is making a mistake in thinking he can convince popsters to vote Conservative.

He thinks that by supporting “freedom convoys,” normalizing cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, and wild talk about firing Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, that he will win support.

What Poilievre fails to realize is that popsters have a deep seated suspicion of political leaders because governments are just puppets of those really in control; one of those being Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

At a lunchtime rally for Poilievre in Ontario, a woman wanted know how Poilievre could be trusted when a “member” of the WEF was in his party.

She was referring to John Baird, the former foreign affairs minister under Stephen Harper. As foreign minister, he went four times. “I haven’t had any contact with them since 2015,” said Baird.

The same woman believes that Schwab, who founded the World Economic Forum more than 50 years ago, along with billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros are trying to take over the world.

Another attendee at the Poilievre rally believed that COVID-19 vaccines are “experimental drugs.”

Some popsters believe the WEF either created the pandemic or is using it to control people, through microchips in vaccines or stealth socialism.

Popsters have latched onto language used by the WEF – the “Great Reset.” The WEF used the phrase to mean a more greener and equitable post-pandemic world. Now popsters see the Great Reset as a sinister plot for global control.

Sensible Conservatives will realize that popsters will not support conservatives and if they do, it will attempt to undermine the Conservatives party.

Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Frank Caputo is backing Jean Charest as leader of the Conservatives party.

Trump’s big-tent coalition of the deluded

President Trump has assembled a ragtag rabble of misfits into “Trump’s Army”.

Trump’s Army storms the U.S.Capital. Image: Los Angles Times

The disgraced president was able to unite marginalized groups in a way no other president has done. Believers in alien abductions, the Deep State, QAnon, the Proud Boys and the Illuminati all found a home in the White House.

Trump brought those on the fringes of society to prominence. Not only did he elevate these groups, he embodied their alternate reality. He epitomized a deranged mentality.

Political commentators struggled with Trump’s brand of leadership at first, calling it populism –an appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It’s now clear that Trump’s leadership defies historical labels.

I could never figure out whether President Trump was delusional or a liar. Did he really believe the untruths he was telling or was he purposely telling untruths? Now I realize that the truth doesn’t matter. What seems important to me –whether something is true or not- is inconsequential. For Trump’s Army, the truth is a trifling matter of little importance.

It’s a rare moment in American history when an alternate reality has gripped the nation in a big-tent coalition of the deluded.

Trump’s Army is nowhere on the political spectrum of left and right. Sure, Republicans were seduced by visions of power but right-wing issues such as abortion, small government, low taxes were not key to Trump’s win. Delusion was the key to his success.

The alternate reality of Trump’s Army is outside the material world. It consists of far-right conspiracies such as QAnon which alleges a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump. It proposes that Wayfair Furniture (a real company) was involved in a sex-trafficking ring involving children.

Antifa is a convenient straw man. Trump set up Antifa as a dangerous organization with the intention of defeating it. He can revel in the glory of defeating something that never really existed.

Illusions will die hard in the Republican Party.

After Trump’s Army invaded the Washington Capital last Wednesday, some Republicans had trouble processing it. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was convinced that Antifa infiltrated the march. She went on Fox News and said “A lot of it is the Antifa folks.” Palin said she had seen some “pictures” that convinced her.

The big tent of fringe groups is fundamentally unstable. Eventually, real events happen that can only be dealt with people with a grip on reality.

The only way Republicans can gain control of the White House is by returning to their appeal to the right end of the political spectrum. By appealing to Trumps’ Army, Republicans risk losing the White House again.

Trump’s Army still poses a real danger.

An internal FBI bulletin warned that more violence is being planned: “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,”

If Republicans condemn Trump’s Army, they risk losing the fringe element. Good riddance, I say. If they continue to feed the Army’s mania, they risk sending America into a civil war that pits the zombie-like Trump’s Army against rational citizens.

The rise of populism in the attention economy

We only have so much attention to give and as such, it’s a valuable resource. Everyone wants our attention: social media, advertisers, politicians, family and friends. Attention is a limited resource and technology gobbles up at lot of it; just look at the number of people glued to their screens on any street or in any cafe.

Herbert Simon image: Wikipedia

Noble Prize winning political scientist Herbert A. Simon described the concept of the attention economy in 1971. The growth of information dilutes our attention. Simon says:

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

More recently, James Williams has researched how technology absorbs our attention. Williams is a doctoral researcher at Oxford University but before that he also spent 10 years working for Google. He believes that the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.

Williams spoke to CBC’s Spark about the misalignment between the goals that we have for ourselves and the goals that our technologies would impose on us. Technology attracts attention that we would really like to apply elsewhere. He told host Nora Young:

“The things that we want to do with our lives, the things that we’ll regret not having done, the things that I think technology exists to help us do aren’t really represented in the system and aren’t really the sort of incentives that are driving the design of most of these technologies of our attention today (June 1, 2018).”

Seen from the goal of attention-getting, U.S. President Trump makes a lot of sense. He does whatever it takes to get our attention because he understands the impact that it has on his ratings. The content of his Tweets may be sheer fabrication but that’s not the point. His years as a TV showman taught him the effect that outrage has on tribalism. What is factually true is irrelevant.

“This is what people didn’t realize about him [Trump] during the election, just the degree to which he just understood the way the media works and orchestrated it,” says Simon. “But I don’t think there is going back, as long as these media dynamics remain as they are. In a way, I think we have to be more concerned about what comes after Trump than what we have with him.”

Trump is not interested in unifying the country –he wants to divide it so the largest tribe is his.

Research published in the February issue of American Sociological Review reveals the way Trump supporters view his acknowledged dishonesty. Participants in a study were told that one of Trump’s tweets about global warming being a hoax had been definitely debunked –that global warming is real. Trump supporters saw the tweet, not as literal, but as a challenge to the elite (Scientific American, September, 2018).

Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, foresaw the impact of technology:

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” and “The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.”

Four decades later, McLuhan might have added: “Populism is the politics of the global village.”

Populism has lost its meaning

Use of the word populism has become more popular says Sylvia Stead, public editor of the Globe and Mail:

      Rodrigo Duterte. Image: Youtube

“There has certainly been a surge in references to ‘populist’ and ‘populism’ in The Globe. Ten years ago, each word had 317 mentions in the paper. Then there was a surge around Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In the past 12 months, the combined number of mentions rose to 1,310. And clearly the increase over the past year reflects a growth in both true populism and the appearance of populism.”

However, its meaning has become less clear. Public historian David Finch says: “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority.”

It used to mean something, such as grass-roots democracy or working class activism. Those movements are fundamental, not of the left or the right. The Reform Party was a grass-roots movement that was swallowed by the Conservative Party. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation had agrarian roots before it evolved into the New Democratic Party.

So-called populist leaders have little in common except for raw ambition,.

There are the populist wannabes like Conservative leader hopeful Kellie Leitch.  She tried to exploit the fear of immigrants in her pitch for Canadian Values. Some Canadians feared that immigrants would take their jobs, or end up being terrorists who would kill them in the streets. Instead of addressing those concerns by pointing out that immigrants actually create jobs and that most home-grown terrorists aren’t immigrants, she reinforced those fears. It was a thinly disguised attempt to emulate the power-grab in the U.S.

There are self-aggrandizing fools. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s supporters represent working-class discontent. These formerly middle-class industrial workers have seen their incomes slip into the rank of the working poor. They awoke from their slumber to find that, while globalism has brought them cheap goods, it has sent their jobs elsewhere. Trump’s vitriol against Mexico and Canada resonates with them. Trump has no appreciation of the working class. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and has clawed his way to fortune by climbing over the backs of his constituents. Calling Trump a populist leader is an insult to the genuine concerns of his base.

There are regressive, reactionary leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Duterte has exploited the concerns of ordinary people over deadly drugs. Duterte encourages vigilante squads to kill drug dealers. Those squads end up killing the very people who worry about drug abuse -innocent Filipinos accused, found guilty, and executed on the spot.

If not populists, what are we to call these autocratic leaders? We can certainly call them xenophobes. The vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in France demonstrates that. Perhaps no one word will do. Instead we will have to use full sentences, even paragraphs to say what we mean.

While the meaning of populism is less clear, the fundamental concerns of the poor and working class are not. Canadians yearn for leaders who are pure of heart, not opportunists who use them as stepping stones to promote their warped ambitions.