Conspiracy Theory Theory

Why are so many people convinced that Donald Trump has a master plan?


Photo illustration by Slate. Image via ilyast/iStock.

Here you are, a left-leaning news consumer in 2017. Desperate, heartsick, casting about for insight into the policy abominations issuing from the White House, you sign onto Twitter or click on a Medium link. A Silicon Valley tech bro or New York motivational speaker beckons you close, smoky conspiracies trickling from his lips. When it comes to Trump, he says, you have two choices. If you take one of the tablets he offers you, the blue one, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (That an incompetent and unethical man is running the country, probably.) The second option is the red pill. Should you swallow that one, the bro continues, “you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The red pill will drop you like Capt. Billy Tyne into the middle of a paranoid liberal tweetstorm or a wild-eyed progressive blog post. It will unravel the “narrative” versus “the real story,” explain the “headfakes” and the “endgames,” and reveal how the opposition “is playing right into Trump’s playbook.” It will shower you in numbered lists that produce the vertiginous sense of a puzzle coming together piece by piece. And yet no matter how far down you spelunk, one question will remain unanswered: Why are so many liberals penning viral gibberish about how we’re all trapped in Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel?

The form’s ne plus ultra is, of course, the feverishly demented Twitter thread by Eric Garland, a man who seems to have been hand-chiseled from phrases like “thought leader,” “strategic level change,” and “competitive analysis” in an indoor treehouse in Palo Alto, California. Shortly after the election, Garland—declaring the moment propitious for some game theory—insisted that Russia had orchestrated Trump’s win by systematically undermining American confidence in the CIA; that the KGB, rather than Washington, had sown dissent and unrest at the fringes of society; that Glenn Greenwald, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden had joined hands in an unholy séance to betray 250 years of Jeffersonian democracy. As Sam Kriss noted on Slate, Garland’s theory unspooled in a breathless inflammatory torrent seemingly diverted from the sewers of the mid-2000s internet.

And it prefigured freakouts to come. After Trump unveiled his hotly contested Muslim ban, Michael Skolnick, a New York–based film producer and activist, took up the Carrie Mathison torch. He claimed on Twitter that the executive order “was a test to see how strong (or weak) the opposition was.” The measure assayed whether Trump’s Cabinet “would go along with his regime or buckle to public pressure.” “So far, obedience,” Skolnick concluded. “Now Trump has his cabinet inline, he can sign ‘royal decrees’ rather than executive orders because no one will challenge him internally.”

Google employee Yonatan Zunger adopted the “Trump the mastermind” line of argument in a pulpy Medium post describing the anti-Muslim order as a “trial balloon for a coup.” And the entrepreneur Jake Fuentes, who started the Level Money app, embroidered the theme in his own post titled “The Immigration Ban is a Headfake, and We’re Falling For It.” This trio of documents alleges that Trump’s attack on Muslim refugees only secondarily represents, well, an attack on Muslim refugees. What the president really wants to do is try the integrity of our government system, ascertain which departments and agencies will roll over and which will fight, and probe the possibility of setting up a shadow bureaucracy accountable only to Trump. In the febrile tellings of Skolnick, Zunger, and Fuentes, the ban’s chaotic implementation was intentionally aimed at distracting the opposition from Trump’s more quietly ruinous moves, all while green card “compromises” shrouded the fact that his team was knocking down institutional checks and balances to pave the way for future power grabs. Crucially, the left’s protests (often spearheaded by women and people of color) were missing the point—and perhaps even helping the diabolical agenda along.

Ben Mathis-Lilley, who tore several holes in these decalescent musings last week, says they “ascribe to 11-dimensional chess that which can be explained by simple incompetence and ideological extremism.” Trump has already proven his managerial ineptitude, Mathis-Lilley points out: He’s gone bankrupt twice and lost money every year that he spent in charge of his company. Meanwhile, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller aren’t exactly coy about their anti-Muslim prejudice. Why credit them with some kind of genius secret plan when the ontology of the executive order seems plainly apparent?

Garland, Skolnick, Zunger, and Fuentes (not to mention the other tweeters connecting red threads on their Trump boards) aren’t just partners in paranoia. They pair an itchy, viscid sentence style with a pitch-black mood. “Conclusive? No,” admits Zunger, after stringing together a bracelet of numbered data points. “But it raises some very interesting questions for journalists to investigate.” Similarly, “I’m saying there might be a much larger picture here,” mutters Fuentes, possibly after knocking back a bourbon shot and blowing cigar smoke at the silhouette of a dishy dame under a rotating ceiling fan. If he’s correct, “if the source of this week’s actions is a play to consolidate power, it’s going really well so far. And that’s because mostly everyone—including those in protests shutting down airports over the weekend—are playing right into the administration’s hand.” (Elsewhere, Fuentes reminds us that the NSC “are the folks that authorize secret assassinations against enemies of the state, including American citizens.”)

Why are certain progressives modeling their political commentary on a hypothetical TED talk by Dashiell Hammett? It’s possible that Twitter’s atomized form lends itself to discursive frenzied dot-connecting, or that the platform’s space restrictions encourage melodrama. Maybe the general social media dynamic of questing for signals amidst noise abets a conspiratorial outlook. But the intrigues dreamed up by these writers might be better understood as the death throes of their meritocratic illusions. It is disturbing to think that an unqualified buffoon could sit in the most powerful chair in the world. It is brain-addling to contemplate the slovenly figure of Steve Bannon at his right hand. As critic Joanne McNeil stipulated on Twitter:

“I live in a tech city,” writes Ijeoma Oluo in her own Medium post, “Fuck This White Dude Game Theory.” “Nowhere else in America will you find a culture more steeped in the supposed brilliance and ingenuity of white men.” What if these guys simply cannot grok the notion that the POTUS and his advisers are not furtive prodigies? We’ve heard a similar refrain many times from Trump supporters: He’s so rich, he’s gotta be smart. That the industry titan is now also the president of the United States only intensifies that logic. But as my co-worker Henry Grabar put it, Trump more closely resembles “a Commie fable designed to demonstrate the false heart of American capitalism” than a success story from Horatio Alger. While few Silicon Valley outfits are steered by such clumsy hands as his, institutional privilege and hereditary wealth still count for a lot in this country.

To that end, perhaps the recent flurry of virtuosic tweetstorms and intricately argued posts attempts to shore up the meritocratic idea in another way. Perhaps, in the face of so much destabilizing stupidity, these texts’ point is to show off the writers’ penetrating insights. That much of our fate is determined by chance and human incompetence is indeed a scary thought. The mirage of meritocracy, even malignant meritocracy, offers some comfort, especially for people deeply invested in the idea of their own talent. But such an understandable psychological reflex doesn’t change the fact that, from the outside, a whole bunch of liberal commentators look like they’re tripping on crazy pills.