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Russia and the US: The new politics of conspiracy


Writing for the blog of the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen examines the repeated allegations that Donald Trump has a secret connection to the Russian government and that Russia is attempting to influence the US presidential election. She notes that this conspiracy theory, while grounded in very little evidence, nonetheless plays on post-Cold War anxieties, which explains its persistence. Gessen also offers an invaluable explanation of the dynamics of conspiracy theories—see the excerpt below:

Perhaps more than any previous election in history, this year’s contest has been dominated by charges of lying and mistruths on both sides, from the primaries to the general election. Our allegiance to a fact-based reality has been constantly challenged. But conspiracy theories work on a different level than mere lies. They lodge themselves in the mind by showing that something could be true without proving that it is true. They are therefore impossible to disprove: they cannot be fact-checked because their central tenets are conjectures rather than facts. Debates spawned by conspiracy theories become fruitless arguments about beliefs, and merely by having them, we gradually elevate these theories from assertion to assumption.

Our beliefs about conspiracy theories do not stem from facts. Instead, they demand facts to buttress them. This is how the latest round of Trump-Putin reporting came about: the facts on which the original theory had relied had been debunked, but the belief remained. So new facts were being sought to support it…

What has not emerged in the course of the US presidential campaign is any advance in the discussion of the US’s Russia policy. This omission is tragic and dangerous. Had a substantive conversation on Russia taken place, the former secretary of state would have enjoyed a great advantage because she knows what she is talking about and may indeed have a policy to put forward. Instead, in keeping with the conspiracy world view, she has engaged Trump in a spat about who is and is not a Putin puppet and in one-upmanship about who will be tougher on Russia. (Clinton has called for an escalation of US involvement in Syria, for example, aimed at gaining “leverage” over Russia; though it is far from clear how this might occur in practice.)

The question of whether being tough on Russia is the best way to deal with Putin has not been raised. Nor has the more important question of why the Russia policies of the last two presidents seem to have been woefully ineffective. The answer, if you ask me, lies in proceeding on unquestioned assumptions—a close cousin of conspiracy thinking.

Image of Moscow via NYRB.