Populism and Conspiracy Thinking

Last week Tucker Carlson blew up the right side of the internet when he delivered this 15 minute monologue on his nightly show. It was ostensibly a response to Senator Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post, blasting President Trump for his rhetoric and character. But in reality it was so much more, and represents a sharp divide between “populist” and traditional conservative/libertarian economic thought. It has spurred a number of critical responses as well as defenses. David French had one here, and Ben Shapiro has now written a pair of pieces as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, I find this debate a refreshing change of pace because the focus is on fundamental principles. Most of Carlson’s critics concede the truth of much of what he says, though they are critical both of his solutions (or lack thereof) and the level of blame he places on elites.

There is a lot here to discuss, and indeed it touches on some of the topics I had been hoping to cover. Here I am just going to focus on one very narrow issue, and it’s one David French touched upon. Listening to – or reading – Carlson’s talk, I heard a lot of familiar notes. Whenever I read through populist screeds in various social media settings, a common refrain is that some external force is the reason for all that ails either the individual or society as a whole. By external force I mean some force outside the person himself. Some kind of nefarious group – politicians, Democrats, Republicans, masons, etc. – is pulling the strings and are the cause of our woes.

Carlson’s monologue was full of these indictments. Here’s French quoting Carlson:

And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

As French notes, this just isn’t true.

In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.

The more subjective aspect of this claim is that the rich just don’t care about the plight of poor people or the folks in Appalachia. While it’s easy to pin bad policy choices on a lack of concern, this is not necessarily accurate. Or as French puts it, it’s less about rich Americans not caring as them just making poor policy decisions.

What struck me about all this is that there’s a common subtext with conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy theorists, there’s always some cabal working behind the scenes to destroy everything. The World Trade Center didn’t get taken out by a pair of planes flown by Islamic terrorists – oh no, it was Bush and Cheney and a neocon plot to eventually invade the Middle East and take all their oil. No, those kids in Connecticut weren’t gun down by a madmen, it was a plot by the US government to force gun control upon us.

The thing about conspiracy theorizing is that in some ways it serves as a comfort to those who espouse these ideas. Here’s why. It is unfathomable to think that terrible events could be random. Or, better yet, it’s difficult to accept that these truly events could have happened in the United States without some sort of sign off by the deep state. Because if some random mad man can just shoot up a school, or if 19 well-funded terrorists could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kill thousands, the world becomes a much less ordered place. I mean just look at the paranoid discussion centering around the new world order – and I don’t mean that one, brother. The key word there is “order.” Because if the world isn’t being run by such cabals, then there’s decidedly less order in the world.

In many ways I think this is what motivates populist thinking. If there is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, then the remote cause can’t be the choices those individual living there made. The crisis must have been precipitated by men of evil intent. Because the flip side of conspiracy and populist thinking is that if we get rid of the bad men and replace them with well-intentioned people, then there is a solution to the world’s ills.

The chaos and tragedy of the world is not just that – it’s not the natural state of a fallen world, but a predetermined outcome. It’s unthinkable that bad things could just happen in the United States or the citizens of the country. Ultimately, if we just adjust the gears, then things will be okay.

I recognize that this this is not an entirely fair comparison, and there’s a little bit more complexity to Carlson’s and others thinking. Yet I can’t help but see this underlying connection. It’s an outlook that is both fatalistic and yet naively optimistic, because the subtext is that a fix is just a flick of the light-switch away. It is a shared worldview that is uncomfortable with disorder. Ultimately both modes of thinking are dangerous in their own ways, but more on that to follow.

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