When swirling charges of rigged elections, witch hunts, and a coup plotted by the “deep state” are referred to as “conspiracy theory,” this is not just a misnomer but a misunderstanding, one with consequences. Conspiracy and theory have been decoupled; we face the distinctively malignant phenomenon of conspiracy without the theory. Like all conspiracism, it rests on the certainty that things are not as they seem, but conspiracy without the theory dispenses with the burden of explanation. We see no insistent demand for proof, no exhaustive amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, no close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. Instead, we get innuendo: Some government agency “has an agenda.” Or it takes the form I’m just asking questions. Or, most often, conspiracy without the theory is bare assertion, “rigged!”—a one-word exclamation evokes fantastic schemes and the awesome capacity to mobilize three million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president.
When President Donald Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama had ordered the FBI to tap his phones, his evidence was “A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign.” What substantiates this sort of claim is what happens next: People repeat and retweet, forward and repost and “like.” 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.” Instead of scientific validation—evidence and argument—he tendered social validation: If a lot of people are saying it, it must be true enough.
Conspiracy theory of the sort Richard Hofstadter associated with the paranoid style in American politics has always been with us. Sometimes far-fetched, sometimes accurate, and sometimes a vexing mix of the two, classic conspiracy theory tries to peel away deceptive masks to show how the world really works. It demands a cause proportionate to the dire effect. So-called truthers say that the U.S. government must have been involved in or forewarned of the plan to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001; the terrorist attack could not have been the work of 19 men plotting in a remote corner of Afghanistan. To look at a website such as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth is to encounter putative facts, inferences, and conjectures that mimic the methods of scientific research. Insisting that the truth is not on the surface, conspiracy theorists engage in a sort of detective work. Once all the facts—especially facts omitted from official reports—are scrupulously amassed, a pattern of clandestine machination emerges.
Conspiracy without the theory exists less to explain than to affirm. Tweeting, posting, “liking,” or sharing an excited charge of a covert scheme creates a connection to others who accept this compromised sense of reality. Repetition and assent reinforce and signal group affinity—what we have come to call “tribalism.” If a lot of people—if a lot of the right people—are saying that George Soros is paying for migrants to cross the border to vote illegally, it’s true enough.
Here’s what the logic of “true enough” sounds like: “I’m not saying it’s true. But I’m saying it’s completely plausible.” That’s how Republican Idaho State Representative Bryan Zollinger addressed the wild allegation that the Democratic Party conspired to create a clash between white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville in 2017. “True enough” floats conspiracy without the theory even as it corrodes standards of explanation—of what it means to know, as conspiracists claim to know with certainty that Democrats organized the racist assaults in Charlottesville. It invites innuendo and bare assertion into the public sphere.
Conspiracy without the theory has a fabulist, make-believe quality that assaults common sense. Pizzagate—the notion that Hillary Clinton ran an international child-sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong—is more concoction than theory. Nobody heard or saw children arriving at night, there were no screams, there is no basement. There is nothing in the world that begs for explanation.
Pizzagate has metastasized into QAnon, which blends the Comet nonsense with the notion that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death and sprinkles in suspicion of globalist-slash-Jewish bankers. The core allegation is that the Mueller investigation is actually a ruse designed to distract people from Trump’s secret plan to expose the deep state and thwart a coup by a league of liberals (all of whom are running a child-sex-trafficking ring on the side). QAnon is a bizarre hybrid: Certainly there’s dot-connecting here, but unlike classic conspiracy theory, which aims to make power legible, it seeks to defend power—in the form of Trump. Any true-enough allegation that could, in a roundabout way, help the president is added to the fire. But all the fire illuminates is an indiscriminate pile of disconnected allegations.
Conspiracy without the theory possesses political advantages over conspiracy theory. For one, bare assertion offers instant gratification—no need to wait for information, just lash out—and the more unfathomable the accusation, the greater the disorientation it provokes, the more gratifying it is, like the stomach-turning assertion that the grieving parents of kindergarteners killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre are “crisis actors” hired to promote gun control. Alex Jones simply claimed that the shooting was staged; then his viewers and others motivated to defend firearm ownership obliged by building some theory to go with the conspiracy.
“Rigged!” is easy to communicate, and “just asking questions” is easy to disown. Conspiracy without the theory is elastic. There is nowhere these conspiracists can’t go. If they are leading us somewhere—and we believe they are—it is toward disorientation and delegitimation. They disorient because they directly attack shared modes of understanding the political world. They insult common sense. And they betray a destructive impulse: to delegitimate foundational democratic institutions.
At stake in Trump’s claim that the National Park Service doctored photographs that showed the modest size of his inaugural crowd is the standing of the entire swath of people and institutions that collect, assess, and correct the universe of facts and arguments essential to reasoning about politics and policy (and everything else). Conspiracy without the theory degrades the standing of knowledge-producing institutions. It also disdains party rivalry and political opposition. Conspiracists move from attacking particular opposition leaders (Obama wasn’t born here, or Clinton should be “locked up”) to painting the opposition party as a whole as an enemy within, plotting with treasonous intent to weaken America’s defenses and degrade its stature in the world. “The Democrat Party,” Trump said at a rally in September, “is held hostage by far-left activists, by angry mobs, antifa, by deep-state radicals and their establishment cronies … No, I would never suggest this, but I will tell you, they’re so lucky that we’re peaceful.” Ultimately, the process of conspiratorial delegitimation paints the opposition as itself a conspiracy, and a dangerous one at that.
Today, conspiracy without the theory is mostly a weapon of the right, led by the president. But the qualities that make it attractive and effective mean that it is likely to be picked up by the left as well.
Of course conspiracy without the theory is not a constructive tool for either side in the ideological contest. It is de all the way down: destabilizing, degrading, deconstructing, and finally delegitimating, without a countervailing constructive impulse. We’re witness to an important fact about this perilous time: that it does not take an alternative political ideology—communism, authoritarianism, theism, fascism—to degrade democracy. Angry, sterile conspiracism does the work.
Thomas Paine appealed to Americans’ common sense in the Revolutionary War with England. Common sense is under threat, but it can prevail—if citizens as well as elected officials with connections to their communities speak truth to conspiracism. Our formidable political challenge is to recognize, in the words of the poet Archibald MacLeish, that “it is not enough, in this war of hoaxes and delusions and perpetuated lies, to be merely honest. It is necessary also to be wise.”