Illustration by Erik Carter
Friday prayers at the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, Cairo, September 21, 2001. Two thousand worshippers, some tense, some angry, some oblivious to the grim new reality. The preacher, Ahmed Youssef, vented his anger in two directions: at al-Qaeda (“gangsters,” he called them), and at the United States, which he described as a paragon of hypocrisy.
The founder of the mosque, Mustafa Mahmoud himself, displayed no such complexity. I met him after prayers. He was an old man, a famous physician and philanthropist, and an Islamist of influence. His television show, Science and Faith, was watched by millions.
“I understand you want the answer,” Mahmoud said. His aides had already shared with him some of my questions, which included: Why did al-Qaeda attack America? What is the cause of their rage?
I said, Yes, I want the answer.
“Waco,” he said. I’m sure I looked baffled. Mahmoud went on, “The Branch Davidians attacked the World Trade Center, the McVeigh people. The Mossad gave them help. Did you know that the Israelis who work at the World Trade Center were told to stay home that day?” This, he said, he knew from the internet.
It was only 10 days after the attacks, and the schematic of a convoluted 9/11 conspiracy theory was already being rendered across the web. Mahmoud told me that no Arab could have executed the attacks, because Arabs “aren’t coordinated enough to do this.”
“What does bin Laden know about American air travel, anyway?” he asked. “He lives in Afghanistan.” Mahmoud was strident in his conspiracism, except that his arguments, to him, weren’t conspiracy theories at all, but provable, credible truth, hidden from honest men by perfidious schemers. In a column published before the 9/11 attacks in Al-Ahram, the largest state-directed newspaper in Egypt, Mahmoud had described the nature of the deepest threat to civilization: “What exactly do the Jews want? Read what the Ninth Protocol of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ says: ‘We have limitless ambitions, inexhaustible greed, merciless vengeance and hatred beyond imagination. We are a secret army whose plans are impossible to understand by using honest methods.’”
By the time of the attacks, Egypt had entered a state of civic decomposition. The people loathed their leaders, and the leaders feared their citizens. Ordinary Egyptians were impotent in the face of universal corruption and cynicism, periodic food shortages, political repression, and profound economic insecurity. In this climate, people who were legitimately flummoxed by the complexity of the modern world found in conspiracy thinking a comprehensible explanation for their unhappiness. Anti-Semitism, often manifesting itself in the form of the Protocols, a century-old Russian forgery that posited the existence of a Jewish plan for global domination, was one tool used by the powerful to direct anger away from the governments that failed them. Countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor,” Walter Russell Mead once wrote. They aren’t backward and poor, he argued, because the Elders of Zion have conspired against them; they are backward and poor because they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.”
The Middle East is a cauldron of conspiracy, a place where the most bizarre theories often have real policy consequences. Saul Lieberman once said, “Nonsense is nonsense but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” I would add: The influence of nonsense, when unchecked by science, by direct observation, by a shared epistemological reality, can be profoundly damaging.
Eight years later, in a windowless Austin, Texas, warehouse, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was explaining to me why he, like Mustafa Mahmoud, disbelieved the investigated and proven truth of what happened on 9/11. Jones is a top-tier conspiracist, a professional one, too, and I visited him at his headquarters to find out for myself if he actually believed the idiocy he peddled—that the government controls the weather; that Bill Gates is secretly a genocidal eugenicist. The list of absurdities has no end. It always seemed outlandish to me that otherwise smart people (Mustafa Mahmoud was one of Egypt’s leading physicians) could sincerely believe in theories that stand in opposition to logic, Occam’s razor, and accreted fact. My assumption about people like Jones was that they were nihilistic grifters, exploiting innocent people seeking to satiate the deep human need for coherence.
Jones told me he was busy; I could have 30 minutes. Four hours later he was still talking—we were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant by then—and I was looking for an exit. He was nuts, and therefore exhausting. It was an afternoon filled with statements like this: “We’re living under tyranny. The bankers, the New World Order, they’re using the War Powers Act to grab our guns. This isn’t a republic. Come on, if you say the bankers are forcing fluoride on us, if you call 9/11 an inside job, they’ll destroy your life, that’s how evil they are.”
I had spent years in the Middle East listening to complicated nonsense, and I was familiar with the long and dismal history of Russian conspiracy-mongering. It was always a relief to know that in the United States, conspiracism was usually—not always, but usually—a marginal phenomenon. Men like Jones were more often than not a source of bemusement, not a cause for fear. Healthy societies develop antibodies to protect themselves from fantastical thinking, and America, democratic, free, and transparent, was a healthy society.
I was wrong, of course.
“Your reputation is amazing,” Donald Trump told Jones in late 2015. “I will not let you down.”
And he hasn’t. Trump does not defend our democracy from the ruinous consequences of conspiracy thinking. Instead, he embraces such thinking. A conspiracy theory—birtherism—was his pathway to power, and, in office, he warns of the threat of the “deep state” with the ferocity of a QAnon disciple. He has even begun to question the official coronavirus death toll, which he sees as evidence of a dark plot against him. How is he different from Alex Jones, from the conspiracy manufacturers of Russia and the Middle East?
He lives in the White House. That is one main difference.
This improbable question—how did a person with a weakness for conspiratorial thinking achieve the presidency?—might be among the most consequential of the coming election, which is not merely a political contest, but a referendum on Enlightenment values and on reality itself.
Nonsense is nonsense, except when it kills. And conspiracy thinking, especially when advanced by the president of the United States, is an existential threat.