You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The New Paranoia

Democrats have always prided themselves on being a voice of political sanity. So why has Trump's election turned the left into a breeding ground for conspiracy theories?

Late on Election Night in 2012, the nation watched as Karl Rove panicked on live television. Fox News, his post–Bush administration sinecure, had just called Ohio—and, by extension, the country—for Barack Obama. While the network broadcast images of jubilant crowds in Chicago, Rove refused to concede. “This is premature,” he insisted, ticking off various precinct figures from Ohio counties and warning that everyone needed to be “very cautious about intruding into this process.” For an embarrassingly long half-hour, Rove argued with the entire network, demanding that Fox retract its call on Ohio, to no avail.

What did Karl Rove know that no one else did? Why was he so certain that the numbers from Ohio were wrong? The left-wing web site Truthout thought it had the answer. A few days after the election, the site published an article asserting that Rove had been working behind the scenes to rig Ohio’s electronic voting machines, monkeying with the software to tilt the count to Mitt Romney, as part of a conspiracy to rob Barack Obama of a second term. He’d done this before, the site charged, back in 2004, to assure Bush’s reelection. That’s why Rove appeared “genuinely shocked” when Obama took Ohio, “because he knew the fix was in, just like in 2004, and there was no way President Obama was going to win reelection.”

So why hadn’t Rove’s ratfucking scheme worked? Because, Truthout claimed, the hacker collective Anonymous had learned of his conspiracy, and had secretly out-ratfucked the ratfucker. Citing a YouTube video released before the election, Truthout described how Anonymous had warned Rove not to act: “We want you to know that we are watching you, waiting for you to make this mistake of thinking you can rig this election to your favor.” Truthout, if correct, suggested an awful truth about our political system: A shadowy organization of superhackers was the only thing standing between us and a stolen election.

For the most part, this kind of conspiracy theory—the idea that sinister forces are secretly engaged in a host of elaborate plots to manipulate virtually every aspect of our lives—has been fairly rare on the American left. Sure, liberal nut jobs have engaged in all kinds of far-fetched theories over the years, wild ideas about the Trilateral Commission and the JFK assassination, that the government created AIDS to destroy the black community, or that George W. Bush had advance warning of the terrorist attacks on September 11. But most of these theories have remained cordoned off from mainstream media; the Truthout story, for example, never circulated much beyond a few fringe web sites. The left has generally presented itself as the sober, rational half of our political discourse, eschewing paranoid fables and histrionic bloviaters in favor of reputable, fact-checked reporting.

The right, on the other hand, has not only incubated conspiracy theories, it has thrived on them, become dependent on them, built entire media ecosystems and political careers around them. Glenn Beck, at his peak, commanded a daily television audience of more than three million viewers by arguing that the Obama administration had secret plans to implement a Second Bill of Rights, that the Arab Spring was the beginning of a worldwide Muslim caliphate, and that Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt orchestrated a 100-year conspiracy to establish a “socialist utopia” in America. Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, has become an influential voice on the right by insisting that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-led false flag operation to implement gun control, that same-sex marriage stems from a “eugenicist-globalist” worldview, and that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta ran a child sex–trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. None of this stopped Donald Trump from calling Jones for advice and appearing on his show. After all, the two men helped promulgate what is perhaps the right’s most influential conspiracy theory—that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, a racist fantasia that launched Trump’s political career and helped land him the presidency.

But since 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 tweet from 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 a Palmer 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 Guardian, Markey’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.

Conventional wisdom has long held that there would never be a left-wing rival to Glenn Beck or Alex Jones, because liberals are just too damn smart to fall for that kind of stuff. “We believe in subtlety,” Mario Cuomo once explained. “We believe in telling the whole truth. We don’t want to exaggerate. Look, they write their message with crayons. We use fine-point quills.”

As it turns out, though, the left wasn’t smarter than the right; it simply wasn’t terrified enough. Waking up to a country run by a man who openly boasts of sexual assault, who has systematically targeted immigrants and Muslims for deportation, whose every utterance seems to bespeak some form of mental instability, liberals suddenly find themselves adrift in a world they never imagined possible. In a landscape this dystopian, conspiracy offers a salve. It promises an order behind the madness, some sort of rational explanation for the seeming chaos. It validates your paranoia, which paradoxically confirms you’re not paranoid. And most dangerous of all, it affirms your sense that things are hopeless, while absolving you from having to do anything about it. Conspiracy theories may temporarily allay our fear, but they ultimately exacerbate the very conditions that created that fear in the first place.

If there’s an aesthetic hallmark of this brave new world of left-wing conspiracy theorists, it’s the long, connect-the-dots Twitter thread. The purest and most overelaborated example of this new genre of paranoia debuted on December 11, with the publication of an unreadable, 127-tweet thread known as “Time for Some Game Theory.” Written by Eric Garland, a previously obscure figure who describes himself as a “futurist, keynote speaker, author, intelligence analyst, columnist, and bassist,” the thread veers between the sort of groundless conjecture and outright gibberish that form the basis of President Trump’s own late-night Twitter epistles. (“The Russians f**king rule at covert shit,” reads one Garland tweet. “Always have. Ask a cold warrior. Mucho respect for our adversaries. They do clever work!”) Yet “game theory” thread spread through the internet like measles in an undervaccinated population, garnering widespread praise and driving Garland’s following from 5,000 to 30,000 overnight.

Garland’s thread depicts how the Russians, reduced by the end of the Cold War to “Drunk Uncle status,” systematically used everything from George W. Bush’s recklessness in Iraq to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA to undermine confidence in the U.S. intelligence community. “DID YOU KNOW YOUR TOASTER IS SPYING ON YOU?” Garland tweeted, parodying the mind-set of an American duped by the diabolical Russian conspiracy. “THE GUBMINT! IT IS EVERYWHERE! THEY SPY ON (*controls snickering*) ALLIES! ALL BAD!” According to Garland, Russia’s long con led directly to our current political predicament: “Trump says he don’t need no stinkin’ intel agencies. Russia (BWA HAHAHAHAAAA) blames Ukraine! LOLOLOLOLZZZ.” The only way forward, Garland concludes, is to embrace his “game theory” in all its intricate zaniness. “To be American,” he tweets, “is to accept that unflinchingly and to soldier forth for future generations, and DO BETTER, GODDAMN IT.”

Other Twitter-threaders were quick to follow in Garland’s paranoid footsteps. Adam Khan, a Silicon Valley marketing consultant, linked to a report about a Treasury Department probe into real estate deals in Miami and New York, which noted that shell companies making all-cash offers sometimes serve as fronts for corrupt officials or drug smugglers looking to launder money. Khan, however, takes this indisputable fact one step further: Because some Trump properties have been bought by anonymous shell companies, he must therefore be in cahoots with Russian oligarchs. Tweet-annotating the report with conspiratorial red arrows, Khan insists that he has discovered the “mechanism used by foreign money launderers to park ill-gotten gains in Trump properties, funnel money to him.” Such a conclusion is, in fact, quite plausible, and raises legitimate questions that should be investigated. But a shell company does not automatically mean money laundering. This form of internet sleuthing is little more than garden-variety inductive fallacy: While the underlying premise is true, the conclusion could well be false. But like Trump’s leaps of illogic, such left-wing conspiracy thinking is a hit on Twitter: Khan has 154,000 followers.

Then there’s Seth Abramson, a poet at the University of New Hampshire, who has 119,000 followers. In one long-winded and breathless Twitter thread, published in March, Abramson rattled off 40 tweets (plus an additional 10 tweets of “notes”) that began: “The plot to sell America’s foreign policy for foreign oil _and_ steal an election in the bargain began”—wait for it—“at the Mayflower Hotel.” The venue for Trump’s first major foreign policy address, Abramson notes, was switched at the last minute from the National Press Club to the Mayflower. In Abramson’s analysis, it was changed because the hotel has “restricted, VIP-only areas” that enabled Trump to meet in secret with the ambassadors for Russia, Italy, and Singapore, who jointly negotiated the sale of 19 percent of Russia’s state oil company. Here, behind closed doors, is where Trump agreed to do Russia’s bidding in return for a cut of the oil: “The Mayflower Speech,” Abramson concludes, “should get the most attention in Congress.” The entire thesis is founded on the simple fact of a hotel booking; in the conspiracy mind-set, even the most mundane logistical details reveal a deeper, preordained plot.

For further evidence, conspiracy theorists routinely rely on unnamed and untraceable sources. Everyone, it seems, has an unnamed contact in the intelligence community these days. Andrea Chalupa, the author of a book on the “untold story” of Animal Farm, recently tweeted that an “Active IC agent told me Russia developed Trump for over decade, could have arrested him for sex crimes, instead collected kompromat”—the Russian term for compromising material. Claude Taylor, a former aide to Bill Clinton turned travel photographer, tweeted in March that Trump was on the verge of resigning, and seconded Mensch’s claim that a “Grand Jury under auspices of FISA court” had issued a “sealed indictment … to serve as the basis of Impeachment.” Never mind that FISA courts don’t issue indictments, or that impeachment begins in the House of Representatives, not with a grand jury. This is a former White House aide—he must have some form of inside intelligence.

It should come as no surprise that Twitter is the medium of choice for left-wing conspiracy theories. As Trump himself has demonstrated, Twitter cares about only one thing: whether content is sensational enough to go viral. Twitter enables conspiracy thinkers to unfold their crazy scenarios in incremental, isolated blasts, each “fact” as disconnected from the others as it is from reality. What matters isn’t the background or experience of the theorists, or whether any of their claims are substantiated. Much like adorable cat GIFs or Ellen DeGeneres selfies, conspiracy tweets play not to our desire to understand the world, but to our deep-seated need to share the things we find most comforting.

Not every wild-eyed claim about Trump is born of paranoia. Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN, recently proclaimed that the president is turning “liberals into conspiracy theorists.” As evidence, he cited two examples: a tweet by a VICE News reporter that GOP congressmen were carting in cases of Bud Lite to the Capitol to celebrate the repeal of Obamacare, and the widespread claim that the House-passed replacement will treat rape as a preexisting condition.

The beer, it turned out, was ordered for an unrelated event. And the claim about rape is little more than a remote, worst-case possibility of a bill that is still a long way from being implemented. But neither of these, strictly speaking, are conspiracy theories. Instead, they’re examples of confirmation bias—the tendency, as defined by psychologist Morton Hunt, to “look for and remember those instances that bear out our beliefs, but not those that do not.” It is neither unique to liberals nor new to the Trump era. Both the left and the right have long been guilty of it, partisan web sites have thrived on it for decades, and it will continue to flourish long after Trump’s administration ends.

Sarah Kendzior, a researcher and author with a Ph.D. and 247,000 Twitter followers, is a pure example of confirmation bias: She relies heavily on comparisons that are technically plausible but far from definitive. For Kendzior, virtually every action taken by the Trump administration is evidence that we’re in the early throes of an authoritarian takeover. She has compared Trump to Saparmurat Niyazov, the deceased dictator of Turkmenistan, who renamed months of the year after himself and his family members, instituted a new alphabet, banished dogs from the capital, and outlawed lip-synching. She has suggested that Trump hopes to team up with Vladimir Putin to launch a nuclear war against “as-yet unknown shared enemies.” She has tweeted that the Republican repeal of Obamacare was “ominous” because “you don’t pass something this unpopular thinking there will be free and fair elections.” She even cited Trump’s speech to Congress last February, during which he managed to sound momentarily presidential, as “a technique straight out of the autocrat’s playbook.” Anything that doesn’t fit the narrative of imminent authoritarianism, in Kendzior’s view, is just a head-fake—a sure sign of a deeper conspiracy.

At its most extreme, conspiracy accounts for—and even celebrates—facts that outright contradict one’s premise. Presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump is acting rashly, conspiracists simply treat his erratic behavior as further proof that he’s working the long con, that the seeming chaos is a canny form of misdirection, that the administration is engaged in some form of three- or four- or eleven-dimensional chess. The chess metaphor, initially floated as a reference to the supposedly inscrutable brilliance of Obama’s foreign policy, has been repurposed to suggest that Trump’s apparent incompetence is actually a cover for an extremely complex and sinister plot that’s going completely according to plan. On Medium, one Jake Fuentes, a technology executive at Capital One, recently suggested that the botched roll-out of the first Muslim travel ban was, in fact, a means of testing “the country’s willingness to capitulate to a fascist regime.” Yonatan Zunger, an engineer at Google, concurred, calling Trump’s constant missteps, mistakes, and retractions evidence of “a trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States.”

When you begin to treat evidence supporting one conclusion (that Trump’s administration is staffed with ideologues and novices who don’t know what they’re doing) as though it supports the exact opposite conclusion (that this apparent incompetence is a masterpiece of misdirection), you have moved away from logical fallacy and into deep-seated paranoia. Whereas confirmation bias simply ignores or downplays contradictory details, conspiracy embraces them as further proof—of false flag operations, of the unreliability of the reporting source. “An infuriating feature of conspiracy theory,” the journal Skeptical Inquirer notes, “is its propensity to take the standard of evidence that skeptics value so highly and turn it on its head: Extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence; rather an extraordinary lack of evidence is thought to validate the extraordinariness of the conspiracy.”

Click, hold, and drag

Confirmation bias lets us overlook inconvenient truths. But when forced to confront reality, most of us, rationally, will accept it. Conspiracy, on the other hand, involves not simply picking and choosing among facts, but doubting the very substance on which they’re based. When someone like Leah McElrath, a senior writer for the liberal web site Shareblue, can describe an unhinged Twitter rant from Trump as “Russian active measures,” it’s clear that the fantastical elements of conspiracy have overtaken any objective consideration of the data before us.

Conspiracy works differently from confirmation bias because, at its root, it’s addressing a different psychological need: to assert authority or control over an increasingly out-of-control situation. According to a 2008 study published in Science, individuals who lack control in a situation are more likely to see images that do not exist, develop superstitions, and perceive conspiracies. “The less control people have over their lives,” one researcher explained, “the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics.” The term for this phenomenon is “illusory pattern perception,” and it goes a long way toward explaining the paranoid mind-set. Conspiracists, fundamentally, believe that malevolent order is preferable to chaos. Those who assert that Trump and Steve Bannon are sinister masterminds who secretly control the world from behind the scenes find the prospect more reassuring than the idea that they are rapacious, half-assed con men who have bumbled their way into more power than they can handle.

That bumbling—the fact that Trump won the presidency even though a sizable majority of Americans voted against him—contributes to the current spike in conspiracy thinking. The repeal of Obamacare was polling at 37 percent when a Congress with an approval rating of 20 percent passed a House bill with the help of a historically unpopular president who had lost the popular vote. Conspiracies about the elections of Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2012 didn’t take hold, in part, because the losers understood and accepted that their side had actually lost. For many Americans, it defies belief that in a democracy, the will of the people could be so brazenly ignored. (People of color, of course, are intimately acquainted with democracy’s shortcomings, which is perhaps why this new wave of conspiracists is overwhelmingly white.)

Conspiracy thrives when authority fails. While we find ourselves swimming in a sea of official bullshit and misinformation, Twitter threaders appear with their grim certainty, proclaiming the inevitability of Reichstag fires, and rearranging coincidence and nonsense into clear, readable patterns. They reduce the big, scary world to a single axis, promising that there exists somewhere the one hidden fact, the one shattering revelation, that will undo everything at a stroke. Such assurances not only soothingly oversimplify life’s messy complexity, they absolve us from having to question our own ideological assumptions: If you buy The Palmer Report’s evidence-free allegation that Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania had to have been rigged, you don’t have to face the difficult work of rebuilding a Democratic ground game in the Rust Belt. The magic bullet theory—a term that itself was coined by conspiracists to belittle the official story of the JFK assassination—is a means by which you get to pick and choose your trauma, discarding any explanation you find unpleasant or inconvenient.

In an oft-cited analysis of conspiracy theories published more than two decades ago, researcher Ted Goertzel found a direct correlation between conspiracy thinking and a trio of beliefs: that things are getting worse for average people, that the world is too screwed up to bring a child into, and that public officials don’t give a shit about their constituents. It used to be apocalyptic-minded Christians who most acutely felt that the world was an inhospitable place in which to raise children; now that feeling is shared by progressives worried about the impact of climate change. Similarly, while it was once rural whites who were most likely to feel ignored by politicians, now it is urban liberals who watch in horror as GOP politicians mock them at every turn. The left is the new silent majority, resentful and powerless and paranoid.

Conspiracy, Goertzel found, also tracks closely with being part of a racial minority; hence the belief among some black Americans in the 1990s that AIDS was created by the government. But minority status can also be a matter of perception, however misplaced: Though conservative white men remain in the majority, their feelings of persecution have left them vulnerable to conspiracy theories because it helps explain such things as a black president, gay marriage, and feminism. Now, under Trump, it is liberals who feel excluded and frightened. The Muslim bans, the cruel and draconian crackdown on immigrants, the war on women’s rights—all have succeeded at terrorizing America’s most marginalized citizens. Even the simple act of following the day’s news has come to feel like an exercise in constant vigilance: sifting through the noise and chaos to distinguish between what is and isn’t a threat, what does and does not call for reaction. Trump makes no effort to win arguments with logic or demographics; he simply sows as much fear and confusion as possible. The administration rules by noise; conspiracy theories seek to silence it.

Just because you’re paranoid, of course, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. History has had more than its share of false flags, fifth columns, and Reichstag fires. We are not living in Nazi Germany in 1933, but there are enough echoes to be a cause for concern: Trump’s admiration for authoritarian strongmen is matched only by his disdain for democratic processes. As dictators have consolidated power in Russia and Turkey, and with fascist movements gaining strength throughout Europe, these are unquestionably dangerous times, and turning back this wave of nationalist fervor will require a concerted effort and a variety of tactics.

It may yet be the case that conspiratorial thinking will have a place in our arsenal of resistance. Viewing coincidences skeptically and connecting seemingly random dots is precisely what exposed the conspiracies of Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal. And in the wake of Trump’s firing of James Comey, we may well be on the verge of uncovering a similarly vast conspiracy. What once was the stuff of John le Carré novels—Russian dead drops, traitors at the highest levels—may, in time, reveal itself to be the story of the 2016 election.

In other words, it is not the methodology of conspiracy that’s the problem. When paranoid thinking opens up possibilities, it can serve a useful function. The danger comes when conspiracists remain wedded to their theories in the face of conflicting information, when they refuse to do the hard work of confirming and substantiating their own assumptions and beliefs. Woodward and Bernstein did not simply point to a trail of shady campaign contributions and tweet that Nixon was behind it all. They followed the facts, step by painstaking step, all the way to the Oval Office.

Goertzel, helpfully, casts conspiratorial thinking as either “monological” or “dialogical.” The former is invested in a single, preordained understanding of the world; every scrap of evidence, no matter how inconsequential or contradictory, is marshaled on behalf of the monolithic perception. Mensch’s ever-growing list of suspected Russian agents is a textbook example of Goertzel’s monological thinking: There is nothing that can’t be twisted to fit into her preexisting matrix. Dialogical thinking, by contrast, is open to ambiguity and conflict. It looks for unexpected angles, new approaches, and unexplored nuance; hypotheses are tested and conclusions are discarded when they are contradicted by the facts. “The key issue is not the belief in the specific conspiracy,” Goertzel observes, “but the logical processes which led to that belief. As with other belief systems, conspiracy theories can be evaluated according to their productivity.” There’s nothing wrong with conspiracy theories, in other words, if they provide illumination. Looking for hidden clues is essential to bringing secrets to light. But conspiracists like Louise Mensch and The Palmer Report offer us nothing but trash fires, and we need to be wary of giving them any more oxygen.

Conspiracy theories spread like measles: First they infect the weak and vulnerable; then they spread like wildfire among the entire population. Researchers have found that if a person believes in one conspiracy, he or she is more likely to believe in others—even those unrelated to the initial theory. Which is to say, once conspiracy becomes part of our beliefs, it can be harder to see the world as it truly is. Conspiracy depends on a rejection of the world as it appears to be. Once this belief takes root, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate truth from fiction.

This is an important moment for the left. If we give credence to the wild fantasies spreading virally through Twitter, we open ourselves up to further infection by a new generation of liberal birthers and truthers. What’s worse, believing in conspiracy also makes us less likely to take action: In one study, participants who were shown a video claiming that global warming was a hoax were less likely to believe scientific studies about climate change or sign a petition to reduce carbon emissions. “Exposing the public to conspiratorial thoughts about a specific issue”—no matter how briefly, the researchers concluded—“may even decrease general pro-social tendencies.” Conspiracy theories, for all their crazy whiteboards and doomsday mentality, make the world seem simpler—and in doing so, they urge us to reject the hard work of organizing and activism, of knocking on doors and registering voters, of staying informed and showing up to town halls, of participating in local and state government, of reestablishing the basic principles of electoral politics that are so desperately in peril.

The promise of conspiracy—that it will assuage our anxiety—is a false one. Watching Donald Trump from the social media sidelines, expecting at any minute that the Deep State will appear and fire a single magic bullet from the Grassy Knoll and put everything right again, is a dangerous delusion. It offers false assurance that you, as one lone individual, can’t do anything, even though American democracy has never needed you more.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Ted Lieu as a GOP congressman. He is in fact a Democratic congressman.