Trimble is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Pop Culture Criticism
In her 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics,” German American philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that “organized lying” had become a feature of modern power. Arendt was referencing the totalitarian governments she’d seen in her lifetime, and reflecting upon the historical revisionism and outright lies that produced “a trembling wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality.” But she also had an eye on political developments in the United States: She noticed that, instead of being lied away, factual truths can also be collapsed into “just another opinion.” As others have observed, Arendt’s insights resonate in this time of “alternative facts” and their sanctioning by a president who, in July, hit the dubious milestone of making 20,000 false or misleading claims during his time in office (so far). Notably, many of these claims are of the conspiracy-theory variety.
Conspiracy theories are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and our place within it. They identify enemies to give shape to our fears and propose courses of action that manifest our values. In this sense, they’re not too different from historical or political discourse in which, Arendt says, humans distill facts from “a chaos of sheer happenings” and fit them “into a story.” We all arrange the facts according to our own perspective and attempt to persuade others of the validity of our point of view. But, brimming with lies and misinformation, conspiracy theories take this a step further by interfering with the facts themselves. And the cost of customized realities is high. Facts are fragile, Arendt says. Unlike theories or axioms, which humans might rediscover if lost, facts are “always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever.” This warps our shared reality—the basic happenings we all form opinions about, argue over, and work on.
Conspiracy theories thrive on the choose-your-own-reality world of alternative facts, but they also seek to mitigate the “trembling wobbling” feeling Arendt diagnosed as an effect of organized lying. They offer a coherent plot that seems to stabilize a world in flux, and they provide the believer with a sense of agency. He or she becomes someone who knows things “They” don’t want you to know. But at the heart of their appeal is a troubling sleight of hand: For a history and a political scene shaped by complex combinations of strategy and happenstance, conspiracy theories substitute a “good guys vs. bad guys” binary in which the adherent is, naturally, one of the good guys. By capturing all the ills of the world in one evil plot—Illuminati, Big Pharma, devil-worshipping Democrats—conspiracy theories provide their followers with a sense of purpose driven by a simplified theory of change. There is a puppet master, this genre tells us: Expose it, cut the strings, and you’ll be free.
It’s a seductive story, which is probably why American culture is awash in conspiracies right now. In 2014, a University of Chicago study concluded that 50 percent of Americans subscribe to at least one conspiracy theory. More recently, a Pew Research Center survey showed that 25 percent believe it’s “probably” or “definitely” true that the coronavirus outbreak was orchestrated by powerful people. These fantastical plots are amplified by algorithms that feed us more of what we want, whether through social media or streaming services. And though all of this has intensified in the Trump era, it isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. When historian Richard Hofstadter published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in a 1964 issue of Harper’s, he argued that patterns of “suspicious discontent” persist throughout U.S. history. But he also noticed his conservative contemporaries were giving the tradition a new twist.
Nineteenth-century conspiracy theorists understood themselves as in possession of their country and defending the American way against Catholics and Masons. But in the 1960s, Hofstadter observed, many on the American right were positioning themselves as a dispossessed group—no longer guaranteed to inherit a nation and legacy that should be rightfully theirs. Half a century before MAGA, he began with the premise that “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” So while conspiratorial thinking crosscuts the political spectrum, my focus here is on a particular swath of angry white men building alt-realities in which they’re an oppressed minority. Teeming with enemies, these inverted worlds both account for their feelings of rage and resentment and, ultimately, transform them into the heroes they think they’re destined to be.
Let’s look at an example from the decade when the Angry White Man first burst into mainstream media: the 1990s. On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) tried to serve a search and arrest warrant at a ranch just outside of Waco, Texas. The inhabitants were the Branch Davidians, a Christian sect awaiting the Second Coming under the guidance of their leader, David Koresh. Suspecting the group of stockpiling illegal weapons, the ATF rolled up with more than 70 armed agents overflown by Blackhawk helicopters. An initial shootout resulting in deaths on both sides led to a 51-day siege and, in the end, a fire that killed 74 residents, including 21 children. The horrors of Waco came less than a year after the disaster at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, when an attempt to enforce an arrest warrant for a man named Randy Weaver devolved into an 11-day siege that resulted in the shooting deaths of his wife and 14-year-old son as well as a United States Marshal.
Ruby Ridge had already emboldened American survivalists who preached the right to defend oneself against an overreaching government. Waco raised the stakes. Comparisons to the Vietnam War abounded: In a stunning reversal, Waco became the new My Lai, a South Vietnamese village razed by U.S. troops in 1968. As Susan Faludi put it in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999), “Waco provided a My Lai in which any American man who wasn’t an ATF or FBI agent could feel like he was not the oppressor.” For years, survivalists and self-described “Patriots” gathered at the site of the Waco siege on its anniversary. The storyline they tapped into, the one that allowed them to pivot from oppressor to oppressed, had emerged in the ‘80s. The backlash against feminism took shape, in part, as a repeated charge that feminists were conspiring with the government to undermine traditional gender roles and make men obsolete.
For the men who memorialized Waco, the ruined communal home was a direct result of this unholy alliance. “No matter how often they started in on black helicopters,” Faludi wrote, “they ended up raging against a certain kind of woman.” These patriots insisted that Attorney General Janet Reno—the first woman to hold the title, and the person who ultimately shouldered responsibility for Waco—was a lesbian, perhaps a man, and definitely in cahoots with Satan. And First Lady Hillary Clinton—also a lesbian, they charged—had been given (or taken) way too much power. For angry white men in the ’90s, these high-profile women were walking, talking proof that the government no longer had their interests at heart. A two-headed monster had appeared: the child-murdering, burn-your-house-down feds, and the feminists who’d conjured them.
Waco was a warrant authorizing white men to get their guns and retake their place as heads of household. It breathed new life into the “protection racket” feminists had exposed decades before—a tacit arrangement between the sexes in which white women are deferential to men in exchange for protection from other men. Obedience for security is the tradeoff that has long aimed to convince women that masculine protection is better than individual rights. In the late ’80s and ’90s, mainstream media was busily reinvesting in this bargain, claiming that feminism had failed women by emphasizing independence—especially economic independence—over family. Pop culture depictions of working women tended to suggest that feminism had driven a wedge between women and men, women and their femininity, women and motherhood. As the movie Fatal Attraction (1987) famously implied, such needless unfulfillment was enough to drive a woman mad.
This was one of the narratives to which the men who gathered at Waco hitched their wagon. The protection racket is an old American tale. It keeps white women in their place within the patriarchal order of things, and it meets the emotional needs of white men. They keep their goodness seemingly intact by projecting rage, resentment, and violence onto threatening others—the real monsters. And any terror they might experience from being surrounded by monsters of their own making can be projected onto women, damsels perpetually in distress. Another example—from the 1790s this time—helps put this fancy psychic footwork in perspective. In 1798, New York was in the grip of an outbreak of yellow fever. As Frederick Kaufman points out in a recent New Yorker article comparing the moment to our present conspiracy-ridden pandemic, “contagions of fear and blame” erupt when medicine fails to conquer the unseen enemy.
There were no 5G towers to blame for yellow fever in 1798, but there were the Illuminati. Links to Beyoncé aside, this was a historically short-lived group founded in Bavaria in 1776 and outlawed within a decade by conservatives who mistrusted their Enlightenment ideals. But rumors that the Illuminati had gone underground, and even played a role in the French Revolution, persisted. So when yellow fever hit New York, the Illuminati were available as an Old World boogeyman to blame for crisis and turmoil. By 1799, Kaufman points out, a Connecticut attorney described the group as composed of “global elites and ‘furious Africans.’” Such a fusion would have made particular sense to New Yorkers. In 1741, a series of fires in the then-British colony prompted a conspiracy theory that centered on the fear of Black rebellion.
As Jill Lepore outlines in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005), the result was a witch hunt that saw 13 Black men burned at the stake, another 17 hanged, and more than 100 Black people imprisoned. For early white Americans, enemies seemed to be coming from all directions. This sense of pervasive threat was encoded in the literature of the time. The writer who defined American gothic, Charles Brockden Brown, lived through the yellow fever/Illuminati panic of 1798. He captured the horror of a city under a plague in Arthur Mervyn (1799), the deviousness of secret societies in Ormond; or, the Secret Witness (1799), and the terrors of “savage” lands and peoples in Wieland (1798).
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 25 percent believe it’s “probably” or “definitely” true that the coronavirus outbreak was orchestrated by powerful people.
The white men in his novels are besieged by shapeshifting enemies because, underneath it all, they’re navigating one of the contradictions at the heart of the new nation: White American dreams of freedom in the New World were underwritten by the massacre and displacement of Indigenous peoples and the brutalities of the slave trade. As Leslie Fiedler puts it in his classic study of American gothic, Love and Death in the American Novel, “How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began?” This is the knot American culture has been working ever since. From the gothic novel to the detective and superhero tales that are its heirs, American storytellers have created a cast of characters and genre conventions that help white men imaginatively work through their bad feelings: Heroes and villains, good women and femme fatales, men who Know Things before everyone else and the forces that plot against them.
Conspiracy theories have always been mixed up in these storylines. They provide orientation in a reality unmoored by alternative facts and fake news. Without them, the believer is at sea in his own fabricated world. Of course, taking one’s bearings from stories of angels and demons is a dangerous game—the kind that, at the extreme, can send you into a pizza shop with an AR-15. Facts will not save us from conspiracy theories and their assault on shared reality. Birtherism didn’t end with the appearance of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The anti-vaxxer movement didn’t lose steam when the study that galvanized it was retracted. These stories flourish when many of us, for many reasons, feel powerless and uncertain about our place in the world. They offer the illusion of agency and the soothing assurance that everything happens for a reason. Facts don’t address these very human needs. Better stories do.