Did Donald Trump fake his battle with coronavirus to boost his standing in the polls? No, obviously not. He spent three nights in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; White House physician Dr Sean Conley confirmed he had the disease at a press conference flanked by a team of 10 doctors — and at least eight other people who attended the Rose Garden event where the President is thought to have been infected also tested positive.
Yet many of Trump’s opponents are convinced the whole COVID drama was a hoax. MSNBC presenter Joy Reid took to Twitter to air her doubts, saying a friend had asked her whether Trump was faking the disease to avoid doing any more debates, while the documentary-maker Michael Moore wrote a long post on Facebook claiming that ‘Trump has a long history of lying about his health’.
This is a conspiracy theory, pure and simple. It’s up there with the claim, popular on the fringes of the Republican party, that Trump was deliberately infected with COVID during the first presidential debate. Social media companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are supposed to be vigilant about removing all conspiracy theories from their platforms, particularly those connected with the virus — and no doubt they permanently banned those wingnuts who blamed Trump’s ill-health on a sinister cabal linked to Joe Biden.
But Reid and Moore were allowed to spread their crackpot notions all over social media without any interference by ‘independent’ fact-checkers.
It is widely accepted as fact in contemporary politics that all the biggest conspiracy theories originate on the far right, whether it’s QAnon, birtherism or the belief that Sandy Hook was staged by actors. The notion was popularized by the political scientist Richard Hofstadter in his famous essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’. Hofstadter saw a golden thread linking the scapegoating of Jews and Catholics by 19th-century populists to the fever dreams of Joseph McCarthy, who believed a fifth column had embedded itself in America’s most powerful institutions. According to Hofstadter, these theories appeal to the white working class because they feel marginalized and dispossessed. ‘America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion,’ he wrote.
It is this piece of conventional wisdom — that conspiracy theories are inextricably bound up with a toxic white nationalism and can, if they’re allowed to run wild, lead to the eruption of racial violence — that has persuaded the custodians of social media that they have a public duty to ban their proponents from spreading them.
But the reality is that conspiracy theories are now more ubiquitous on the left than they are on the right. We saw this after Trump’s victory in 2016, with numerous pundits in the mainstream media blaming it on the insidious influence of Russian bots and troll farms, as well as Steve Bannon’s fiendish use of Facebook to worm his way into the heads of blue-collar voters.
It was now the turn of America’s bicoastal overlords to feel that their country had been taken away from them and, like Hofstadter’s paranoid losers, they convinced themselves that a malignant, invisible group of subversives was responsible and it was their duty to expose them.
A British journalist called Carole Cadwalladr, who saw Trump’s victory as just one facet of a vast right-wing conspiracy that encompassed Boris Johnson, Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, was even shortlisted for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
And what are the claims of the Black Lives Matter activists if not a conspiracy theory? I don’t mean the claim that young black men in America are the victims of racial prejudice. I mean the more specific claim that the US criminal justice system is riddled with systemic, institutional racism. That may have been true 50 years ago, and may have been true in some US states as recently as 25 years ago. But the evidence it is still true today is pretty threadbare.
As the African American social scientist Roland Fryer has pointed out, when it comes to the extreme use of force — officer-involved shootings — blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to be shot than whites in similar circumstances. As for racist white police officers being responsible for the systematic murder of young black men, a 2018 study for the Public Administration Review found that white officers are no more likely to use lethal force on minority suspects than minority officers. In fact, a 2015 Justice Department analysis of the Philadelphia police department found that white police officers were less likely than black or Hispanic officers to shoot unarmed black suspects.
Yet far from banning people who disseminate this conspiracy theory, social media companies have been energetically promoting it. Indeed, merely to challenge it — to express reservations about ‘unconscious bias’ training, for instance — is to risk being fired from Google. And unlike some of the nutty right-wing fantasies, most of which are pretty harmless, the BLM conspiracy theory really is dangerous, as we can see from the ongoing disorder that’s still engulfing some of America’s major cities.
Richard Hofstadter could never have predicted it, but the paranoid style has moved from right to left and infected America’s upper-middle-class professional elite. The focus of the Democratic campaign has been on slaying a dragon — the scourge of white supremacy afflicting the commonwealth — that most people cannot see. That’s one of the reasons Trump may win a second term.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.