The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Populism is bipartisan. Conspiratorial thinking is the province of the far right.

President Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak to the media at the Hotel du Palais on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit last month in Biarritz, France. (Erin Schaff/AP)

Arthur Brooks writes a compelling column for The Post identifying the prevalence of conspiracy thinking in our politics, in particular “the propagation of conspiracy theories by elites themselves.” Now, while populism exists on the right and left, under President Trump the former has grown far more noxious and more reliant on conspiracies to hold onto its base. And that distinction, I would argue, is essential.

Right-wing populism, or right-wing nationalism, as it exists today is inherently conspiratorial. The entire premise is that immigrants, the “deep state,” elite media, violent cities and anti-religious left-wingers are out to destroy America as white Christians imagine it to be. The ideology is a conspiracy theory. The “Flight 93” election that pseudo-intellectuals promulgated to justify election of an unfit and racist narcissist for president posited that the risk to the United States — to civilization as a whole! — was so great that it justified any tactic (including Trump’s election) to prevent apocalypse.

Unlike other political ideologies — e.g., the government is the best tool for attacking inequality (democratic socialism); free markets are the best means of generating wealth (old-school conservatism); the purpose of government is to maximize freedom (e.g. libertarianism) — today’s right-wing populism has no goal other than propagation of the conspiracy and aggregation of power by a leader to prevent that supposed conspiracy.

Liberals and conservatives share basic common values, but leaders like Donald Trump use fear to exploit their differences for political gain. (Video: The Washington Post)

As we have seen from Trump’s tenure, right-wing populism is not in service of a particular ideological goal but rather serves to keep the base in a constant state of fear and anger so that its leader can retain his grip on power. In fact, from an ideological perspective the movement is incoherent (e.g., supply-side taxes and tariffs, muscular foreign policy and slavish subservience to dictators). Critics of Trump have noted that “cruelty is the point” of his policies, not a disagreeable consequence. Likewise, conspiracies are the point of right-wing populism.

The difference between the dogma of right-wing populism — the deep state undermines the president, climate change is a hoax, we are facing an invasion of foreigners, etc. — and an ordinary political ideology (even one with which you strongly disagree) is that the former requires the suspension of rational thought, the obliteration of objective reality and the refusal to accept neutral sources of fact (or your own experiences, for that matter). It’s a cult, not amenable to factual rebuttal.

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The most common tactic of self-styled “conservatives" who defend Trump is to point to places in which Trump’s incoherent policy spray intersects with their ideological preferences. This is the “But taxes …” or “But judges …” argument. It requires the enabler to ignore or minimize all of the things that undermine his ideological preference (e.g. forget crony capitalism and protectionism to focus on tax cuts; ignore the attacks on the rule of law and the appointment of blatantly unqualified judges to focus on the “good” judicial appointments).

Thus, Trump enablers can posit that Trump is tougher on foreign policy (because of defense spending, for instance) than was Hillary Clinton, even though the latter would not have coddled Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, weakened NATO or abandoned human rights. It’s only by ignoring the insane premises of right-wing populism, the reign of chaos and the conservative values Trump destroys that “conservatives” can manage to defend a morally abhorrent, incompetent and anti-democratic president.

Clarity is important here in a media climate too prone to fall into false moral equivalences. That syndrome allows defenders and apologists to normalize Trump and to present once again the “Flight 93” false choice: Trump or civilizational destruction?

In fact, Trump’s right-wing populism is the most destructive force in contemporary democracies, which if unchecked, will erode the American creed (“All men are created equal …), democratic institutions, anti-totalitarian international alliances and fact-based governance.

Liberals and conservatives share basic common values, but leaders like Donald Trump use fear to exploit their differences for political gain. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Arthur Brooks: Conspiracy theories are a dangerous threat to our democracy

Catherine Rampell: Move over, Illuminati. The conspiracy against Trump’s economy is massive.

Michael Gerson: Trump’s spread of conspiracy theories undermines a belief in truth itself

Jennifer Rubin: This is how to respond to Trump’s conspiratorial lunacy