Democrats’ New Paranoia

Writing in The New Republic, Colin Dickey has an in-depth piece on “The New Paranoia” that Democrats are increasingly attracted to, the ‘Trump-Russia Collusion’ meme being a prime example:

.. [S]ince the election of the Birther-in-Chief, both the nature and the source of conspiracy theories has shifted dramatically. In recent months, the left has begun to rival Trump himself as an incubator for sinister musings and crackpot accusations. And like Trump, left-wing conspiracists are using Twitter to gestate and market-test their most outlandish forms of political insanity. Leading the charge has been Louise Mensch, a British former MP who seemingly overnight has become the main spokesperson of the paranoid resistance. Mensch has attracted more than 284,000 followers on Twitter, legitimate journalists among them, by posing ever more elaborate and ludicrous theories of the Russian conspiracy to elect Trump. She claims, for example, that Andrew Breitbart was assassinated by Russian agents to allow for the ascendancy of Steve Bannon, who took over the Breitbart web site after its founder’s death in 2012. Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal with a minor was, likewise, the work of Russian intelligence: Mensch claims that they invented a fake profile for a 15-year-old girl to entrap Weiner, planted files containing Hillary Clinton’s emails on his computer, and leaked the existence of those files to the FBI.

Another left-wing node of conspiratorial diffusion can be found at The Palmer Report, a once relatively obscure pro-Hillary blog that has built a large following with its wildly speculative theories about Trump. According to the site, Trump himself had Russian agent Sergei Mikhailov killed in December to prevent the release of the now infamous “pee tape” that purportedly shows the president-elect watching as Russian sex workers urinate on a bed the Obamas slept in. Vladimir Putin, the site maintains, is using the video to blackmail Trump—and the president “may have already acted on it in a manner which would be both treasonous and murderous.” The site’s founder, Bill Palmer, routinely blasts out stories that sound serious but are actually based on a single, unverified source. In May, Palmer reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts had ordered Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch to recuse himself from all Trump-related Russia hearings. His source? A single tweetfrom an anonymous Twitter account under the name “Puesto Loco.”

Long quarantined in the furthest corners of the internet, these left-wing rantings have begun to find their way into mainstream political discourse. In March, Louise Mensch was inexplicably given space on the New York Times op-ed page to trumpet her theories, rattling off a list of Russian operatives she believed should be called to testify before Congress—a list that included Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg. Her tally of agents has since expanded to encompass everyone from Black Lives Matter to Sean Hannity to Bernie Sanders. In April, MSNBC’s Laurence O’Donnell echoed aPalmer Report theory that Syria’s chemical weapon attack had been orchestrated by the Russian government, so that Trump could appear to distance himself from Putin. (Like a true conspiracy theorist, O’Donnell offered no proof for the claim, insisting instead that “you won’t hear … proof that the scenario I’ve just outlined is impossible.”) On Twitter, the Democratic Party’s deputy communications director retweeted Mensch’s unsubstantiated hypothesis that Russia had some form of blackmail on Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has since announced that he would resign. On May 10, Senator Ed Markey told CNN that “a grand jury has been empaneled up in New York” to investigate Russian meddling in the election; pressed by The GuardianMarkey’s staff said he got the information from Mensch and The Palmer Report. (A later press release claimed he’d received it from a “briefing” that was “not substantiated.”) When Ned Price, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, was asked why he retweeted a Palmer Report story, he insisted that a retweet was not an endorsement, but professed an openness to conspiracy theories. “Every once in a blue moon,” he said, “the tin hat can fit.”

Why has Trump’s election driven the left to embrace such transparent nonsense? Part of the reason lies in the public’s loss of faith in the mainstream media, which predicted an all-but-certain victory for Hillary Clinton. Part of the reason also lies in Trump’s willingness to lie in direct contradiction of the known facts, an extension of the right’s long-running assault on the very notion of objective, verifiable truth. But above all, conspiracy thinking has gained traction among liberals for a more prosaic reason: Liberals are human beings, and human beings get rattled when they’re afraid. If the left is succumbing to conspiracy theories, it’s because conspiracy theories are a way to manage anxiety.

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